My First Car

Moment of Zenlea

The great thing about first cars is that almost everyone’s had one. Mario Andretti and Bruce Springsteen both started with 1957 Chevrolets. Bob Lutz had a 1948 Volkswagen Beetle. “If you’ve driven an early Beetle on wet cobblestones, there’s no amount of sudden oversteer you can’t handle,” he once told me.

Around here, design editor Robert Cumberford had a 1953 VW Deluxe with a 24 hp engine. “Maximum speed on the Willow Run Expressway was 59 to 60 mph.” Editor-in-chief Jean Jennings had a ’57 Chevy, just like Bruce and Mario, but hers ran on only three cylinders (five, after a tune-up) and had a hole in the floor. Copy editor Rusty Blackwell destroyed his 1993 Plymouth Sundance Duster for a feature story and still has the shift knob on his desk.

Of course, this is my column, so I’m going to tell you all about my first car. It was a 2000 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP, originally my mother’s car. She’d sent my dad and me to the dealer for something beige with leather seats and a sunroof. The GTP was red, had cloth seats, and no sunroof, but it did have 280 lb-ft of torque. It was, a few years later, the first car I ever drove, my dad in the passenger seat gritting his teeth through my no-signal lane changes. Not nearly long enough thereafter, it was the first car I took to V-max—a buzzy, electronically limited 126 mph (side note: how is it possible that teenage boys are permitted to drive?). It was eventually the first car I ever owned, insured, and gassed. It was the first car I crashed—pulling out of my high school parking lot and listening to The Beatles’ “Things We Said Today” when the wind caught a gate and swung it through my windshield. It was the first car I wrenched on. And it was the first car I had to say goodbye to.

Wherever I went, the Pontiac followed. During high school, my family moved from a middle-class town in Massachusetts, where a newish Pontiac was pretty hot stuff, to a posh town in South Florida. Pontiac’s market share there hovered somewhere in the statistical margin of error, so driving my car around was like wearing a bright red, plastic-cladded invisibility coat. I could not have minded less. Every morning, I carefully backed it into the spot farthest from my high school, where I knew no one would park next to me and ding my doors. On weekends, in lieu of developing a social life, I washed, clayed, waxed, and buffed my car, which eventually got me jobs detailing Porsches and Mercedes all over my neighborhood.

After and occasionally during class, I’d peruse every magazine road test and, later, every Internet musing about the Grand Prix. Michael Jordan, then as now our senior editor on the West Coast, sampled it in Los Angeles in 1996. He praised its performance and style but concluded that it wasn’t as fun to drive as a Taurus SHO. (Indeed, this was before General Motors discovered steering feel or Nürburgring suspension tuning.)

I rang Jordan up earlier this week to talk to him about this momentous event in his three-decade career (his first car, by the way, wasn’t a car at all, but rather, a Yamaha DT1-B motorcycle). Does he remember, perhaps, what he was wearing or what thoughts raced through his mind when he first took in the GTP’s flared fenders? At first he blanks, allowing only that he “probably” did, in fact, drive the car. But then he does recall the “zippy supercharged one.” My zippy supercharged one!

“You’re right—no one would have noticed you in that car,” he says.

The Grand Prix picked up a University of Maryland window sticker around 2005 (not a bumper sticker—that would have ruined the paint). My parents allowed me to take it to campus at the end of my sophomore year. Pretty soon, I was upgrading the brakes and suspension in the parking lot with money I made working in the university cafeteria. I really didn’t know at that point what anti-roll bars did, but I got bigger ones. I learned what brake lines did by improperly bleeding them the night before my girlfriend was supposed to drive the car. (Relax, she’s fine.)

The car even followed me here, to my dream job at Automobile Magazine. At lunch on my first day, I asked then associate editor Sam Smith what I could do to make my Grand Prix handle like a BMW 3-Series. Nothing, was the answer. Indeed, I quickly learned that a 2000 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP isn’t a very good-to-drive car, although it is, as Jordan charitably puts it, one of the best General Motors cars of its era. That somehow didn’t prevent me from continuing to pour money into it. I installed adjustable dampers with lowered springs, better brakes with stainless steel brake lines, and several chassis braces. I was growing, and I wanted my first car to grow with me.

Then: tragedy. I was loading the car for another drive to Michigan from Maryland, where I’d loaned it to my sister, when I spotted ominous bubbles on the rear strut towers. A flashlight confirmed my worst suspicions: rust. I rode off with my dad to the nearest body shop.

“You talk,” I told him. “I’m too emotional.”

The body man speculated we’d be able to drive the car back to Michigan but would need at least $1000 in repairs that, most likely, would only arrest the problem. For the next six months, I sought a solution, forcing industry experts to look at bad cell-phone photos of a rusty ten-year-old Pontiac. Al Oppenheiser, chief engineer for the Chevrolet Camaro, speculated that I could cut and weld a sheetmetal cap for the towers. Another GM veteran believed that this issue was fixed on later W-body cars, which is comforting if I ever decide to buy a 2012 Chevrolet Impala. I flirted with racing it in LeMons.

Ultimately, I did what I should have done a long time earlier: I bought a 1993 Mazda Miata with no rust and put the Grand Prix on Craigslist. It sold in one day, for $1200 to a young Hispanic man who promised he would repair the rear strut towers and congratulated me on my “handsome new convertible.” I cleaned out twelve years of post cards and knick-knacks in about 10 minutes, and then the car was gone. Yes, I did listen to “Long May You Run.”

A little while after our phone conversation, Jordan followed up via e-mail: “I can actually remember driving that car. Swooping out of the tunnel that connects the northbound Harbor Freeway to the northbound San Diego Freeway and slipping forward through traffic into the fast lane, all the gauges glowing in the dusk with just a band of red on the horizon ahead from the setting sun.”

The unfortunate thing about first cars is that you can never have another one. Rest assured, I have no desire to buy another 2000 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP. But I do miss mine.

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