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A Boy's First Sinkhole

Noise, Vibration & Harshness

Jamie KitmanwriterTim Marrsillustrator

Back when I went away to college, my folks said something to the effect of, "Bye! See ya!" And that was that. But now that my eldest son and first child, Ike Clemente Kitman, is going away to school, I find myself feeling sad and not a little bit old. He doesn't leave for a week as I write, and yet I miss him already. Fortunately, he's not going far. And at least his car will be here at home to remember him by.

I'm really proud of my son, an all-around nice guy who at the last moment corralled an academic career that was swerving out of control. Short story: things went swimmingly through the eighth grade and then, boom, on account of a uniquely teenaged blend of organized sports, disorganized mind, and a variety of nonspecific authority issues -- chaos.

The straight As became Cs as a blizzard of missed homework descended, including many assignments that actually turned out to have been finished but not turned in. Spaciness. The sport issue was Ike's making the high school's freshman basketball team. In Kitman family terms, this development was on the level of a biblical miracle, but basketball drained huge amounts of his time.

Ike's mother always said, "If only he could channel his competitive instinct into getting good grades." A compulsive list-maker since childhood, his inevitable realization that one might keep statistics about his own grades would surely lead the lad to greatness... or at least get him into college. And so it was; the boy -- whose grade-point trajectory had once convinced me that I ought to be preparing to endow a new gymnasium at the local community college to ensure his enrollment at any school -- rebounded academically and rung all the bells. And, well, he right got himself into Columbia University in New York City.

I was marveling at Ike's great comeback one day shortly after his admittance when my daughter Ellie told me that her brother had reminded her of a bet I'd made with him three years earlier -- that is, I'd accepted the bet he proposed -- that I would give him $5000 if he got into an Ivy League school. "I did?" I said. I couldn't remember it. But I could have. I mean, what were the odds of him doing that? So, being a good father, I graciously conceded the point and told Ike, "I don't have five thousand dollars."

"Well, then give me this," he said, pointing to the 1986 Alfa Romeo GTV6 that I was fortunate enough to have been stupid enough to have bought earlier this year for $2500. That seemed cheap for a rust-free California example of a criminally underrated Alfa sports car with a lively chassis, great '70s Giugiaro design, and one of history's most sonorous V-6 engines -- all in a package that weighs 2800 pounds. Then living in Georgia, it had been out of service for a year or two but was said to run well.

Only after I'd paid to have it trucked to New York did I learn that what they meant to say was that it idled well -- it just needed a transmission and a clutch to make it go well. Oh, and the brakes were shot, plus electrical, exhaust, and interior repairs were needed, including a new headliner. Also, somewhere along the way, a small asteroid's worth of white cat hair would have to be professionally removed from the charcoal velour interior. On top of that, for some reason, this formerly black car was covered in black primer, so it needed paint.

Violating several of my own hard-learned rules of smart old-car buying, I started having the work done instead of walking away from a good Alfa that needed more work than it was presently worth. When I looked up, I had $8000 in the freakin' thing. I had to stop.

On the other hand, were I to give it to Ike, with zero basis in a now fine-running Alfa, the remaining paint and interior repairs could make financial sense to him. So, in satisfaction of our bet, he took on a mechanically sound example of the last year's production of the last sport coupe that Alfa Romeo imported to America.

The funny part of the story is that for most of Ike's eighteen years, he didn't give two figs about cars. When he was fifteen, we'd pass the most anonymous Mitsubishi sedans on New York City streets, and he'd say, "One of those would do just fine for me."

Writing in these pages not that long ago, back in June 2010, I mentioned that Ike had waited months after reaching his sixteenth birthday to get his driver's license. The Marketplace radio program even picked up the story and interviewed him as a representative of a generation that seems to care less about cars than previous generations. No shame there. Don't think I don't idealize a world without cars, but as a guy with thirty of them, well, it's different for me. I can see the inevitability of a kid turning away from the obvious folly of a car-guy father. I don't want my kid to be a car slave like I am. Honest.

But what the Marketplace reporter couldn't have known -- and what shocked me -- is that once Ike had gotten his license, a glimmer of interest in cars, particularly fast ones and older ones, manifested. Like many serious illnesses, it crept up suddenly and spread rapidly. Before long, Ike had become a car nut, convinced that he had to lose the old BMW 325xi wagon he'd gotten from his granddad because it had an automatic transmission. I'm still getting woken up by texts inquiring whether I think smart money goes for an MGA 1600 coupe or a Borgward Isabella. E28-chassis BMW M5 versus twin-plenum Rover 3500 Vitesse? Lancia Thema or pre-"high efficiency" Jaguar XJ-S? (The correct answer in every case: neither.)

I'd wonder where he got these crazy ideas. But then I'd think about it and remember -- Ike is my kid. He likes the Pittsburgh Pirates, too, battling for their first winning season since 1992.

I'd like to say we share a taste for Proust and ancient Greek, but the truth is that in his last months at home we've both been obsessed by cars, everything from bugeye Sprites to Riley Kestrel Sprites and back again. "Right about now," Ike might say in what's becoming a classic catchphrase, "I could go for a Cayman R. That would go really well with a GTV6. And with a 190E Cosworth Mercedes 16V with the dogleg box."

Maybe I've taught my children too well.