Me in my mid-eighties glory beside my little blue beauty

Everyone remembers their first car. The car that was all theirs; no borrowing mom’s keys, no begging an older brother or sister to take them here or there. Mine came in an odd and unexpected way. It was given to me by what was pretty much a total stranger.

It was 1986 and I had just graduated college. I was walking to work at a local newspaper, and then, when I got a better job a bit further away from my house, was taking the bus. This sucked. I was taking the bus and I wasn’t even heading into New York City – I was commuting to Teaneck, New Jersey. What a burn.

My brother in law was involved in a softball league at the time. I used to go and watch him play with my sister, mainly because after the game we would all go out and have a few beers. I was single, and it was a fun way to spend a spring/summer weeknight. While bs-ing with one of his team mates, my lack of personal transportation came up, as did my utter loathing at having to use the NJ transit system to get me to and from my 9 to 5.

a reasonable facsimile of my car

Turned out this guy had a car he was trying to get rid of. It was an old convertible (huh? what? did you say CONVERTIBLE?) and his dad was sick of it sitting in the driveway. Apparently there were so many things wrong with the car, he was having trouble selling it. It was pretty much mine for the taking if I was interested. Interested? I was practically frothing at the mouth and eagerly made an appointment to come see it the next day after work.

It was a Karmann Ghia, which I had never heard of before. It was described to me as looking like a squashed beetle, the more popular Volkswagon, but to me it was a thing of sheer and utter beauty. This car had personality to spare. It didn’t run. It needed brakes. It had no heat. It had no radio. It had no seat belts. But the body was beautiful, and it was abso-fucking-lutely free. The seats did not adjust – they had been bolted into the floor, so it was critical that I fit behind the wheel. As I slid into those leather seats and gripped the tortoise shell wheel, my feet hit the pedals like cinderella’s glass slipper.

The title was signed over to me and I had my friend John tow the car with a rope to a garage. I don’t recall how much it cost to fix, but I only had done what was needed for it to pass inspection and for it to run. As I drove that sputtering, stalling beauty with the top down the 7 blocks to my house I felt like a queen. Not only did I have my own car, but she was a real show-stopper. I parked her in my driveway and washed and polished and buffed every square inch of that car. The guy who gave it to me stopped by to see it a few days later and was amazed at how good it looked. At that point I think he was sort of pissed he gave it away.

Although it was a gem, it was a tough car to drive if you didn’t know how. It was prone to stalling at lights – I learned how to put it in neutral and rev the engine until the light changed. It did not like going up steep hills, especially when I had one or more of my girlfriends in the car with me. Once it passed inspection, the emergency brake broke, so I had to get creative when I parked using trees, curbs and lamp posts to keep the car from rolling away. I never did get the radio, but I used a boom box and made sure the glove box was crammed with an array of mixed tapes.

When winter came, the car got sightly less likeable. The convertible top, when driving down the highway, would bow upwards, letting in a gush of freezing cold air, and if mother nature felt so inclined, snow or rain. It got so cold during long trips I  went out and purchased a pair of hunting socks that would heat up with the use of a few D batteries. Otherwise my feet would actually go numb. I would also dress in several layers of clothing…sweaters, gloves, scarves, and even a big fedora hat. I was bundled from head to toe. This was not so bad when I was travelling at night, but to drive on the highway during the day in this get up was kind of embarrassing. Folks would be riding in relative comfort up the NJ Turnpike in cars with the heat on and coats off – yet here I was outfitted like I was ready to take part in the iditerod.

Summers were priceless though. Cruising around in that blue baby with the top down was a dream come true, especially when I went to the shore on the weekends. My hair was always a mess, but it was a small price to pay – that’s what pony tails are for.

After a few years more and more things began to go wrong with the car. I was needing to put too much money into it, and I could tell tons of other things were on the verge of breaking…expensive things. So I put an ad in the paper and sold her for $600. It only took a few days – she was snatched up pretty fast. I went out and bought a Dodge Colt hatchback with an AM/FM radio/cassette, heat, air conditioning, and a working emergency brake.

I immediately missed my Karmann Ghia.

And I still do. When I see one on the street or puttering down the road, it makes me melancholy and a little envious. I think back to those years where I cruised the streets of New Jersey in my blue little beauty and it makes me wish I’d never let her go. Especially when I am behind the wheel of my 1999 Mercury Sable Wagon with close to 200,000 miles on it. Not a fun car. Not by a long shot.