I started driver's training in the summer of 1990. I was 15-years old and rode a Honda Spree moped to the local public high school where I got an education on how to pilot an automobile.
We didn't dive immediately into the deep end of driving instruction with the school's fleet of ratted-out Chevrolet Cavaliers. Simulators were our first taste of the freedom of driving. "Stimulators," as we pimple-faced, hormone-enraged teenagers called them, were nothing more than cheap, plastic steering wheels mounted to desks in a dark room with a 16mm movie projector. Various 1960s road scenes were broadcast onto a pull-down white screen. Hardly stimulating.
No matter. I aced driver's ed. Considering this poor level of education, it's amazing that most of the kids didn't die within an hour of graduating from their temporary driver's permit to their full driver's license.
If we survived such poor preparation, the kinds of cars we drove at 16 surely should have done us in. It was March 1991 when I hit the magic age, but we weren't driving cars from the 1990s. Think rusted out, crappy old American and Japanese cars. We have tons of salt in Michigan. Cars rot in Michigan. But I was lucky; I had access to a 1983 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI. The small hot hatchback was tired, had a few quirks and really was a death trap, but it was huge fun.
Later in 1991, I needed to buy my own car and had about $900 to spend. Being a detail freak with OCD, I quickly realized that my budget was not going to get me the car I felt I should have. Time to use all the debate team training that I never received due to the fact that I was on the swim team instead.
I proceeded to talk my middle-class father into chipping in half the funds for a one-owner 1983 Audi 4000 S. It was listed for $1750. The meticulous owner was an engineer and kept track of every fuel fill up since new, including the miles per gallon. He was clearly my kind of guy.
I reminded my dad that my older brother was on his third $500 shitbox and this Audi would surely last longer. My father went for it. The light blue metallic Audi had 144,000 miles on the odometer when I bought it. The 1.7-liter VW motor and long gearing meant it was as slow as molasses but the Audi was smooth, comfortable, and good on fuel. It needed very little work during my ownership other than a clutch, timing belt, and a water pump. I sold it nearly ten years later for $1000 with more than 300,000 miles on the clock. I hadn't disappointed my father with an overstated business case for the Audi's robustness.
But now I'm a dad and some day, I'll need to think about the first car for my kids. Unfortunately, the used car market is far more complicated than it was for my parents. There are far more models offered by each car company than there were two decades ago, and it will only get worse.
The market's not the only issue. I'm the issue. My folks didn't know anything about cars. I know lots about cars. I know that stability control is a must-have option for my kids, especially when considering Michigan weather. Stability control didn't exist in 1991.
There's also tons of crash test data out there. The advice and information found on the Internet can make your head spin.
But should this over-educated dad get involved, making sure my kids have the safest and best car for the money or do I let my kids go at it on their own? It really depends on how much they have saved when they get to that age and what type of car they want to get. Part of me is hoping I'll need to reel them in and stop them from buying a wicked fast, hooligan car but part of me just hopes they are logical and want a good, safe automobile. Either way, the whole process excites me and scares the crap out of me all at once.
Because I still can't believe I survived the early stages of driving after the insanely poor training I received in 1990, there is one thing of which I am sure: My kids will attend a defensive driving and emergency-handling course.