I can say with confidence that your first car wasn’t as ugly as mine. Even if it came close, I still have you slam-dunk-beat for sheer ridiculousness.
My first car was not an Audi. No, I was about $200 short for the Audi, and wound up settling for the cheapest thing on the lot. I should have thought twice when the dealer, who looked like he had crawled out of a cardboard box, was unable to start it. But I am an impatient fellow, more so in those days, and I was determined not to walk back to the fraternity house, but to drive back in my very own cruise-mobile.
Readers under the age of 30 may never have heard of the American Motors Corporation. Oh, you will have heard of other great American automakers of the past — Hudson, Duesenberg, DeLorean — but you may never have heard of Kenosha, Wisconsin’s contribution to the legend that is the American auto industry.
Yes, AMC was headquartered in Kenosha, Wisconsin. And I am here to tell you, that any top-ten list of America’s ugliest cars is bound to feature at least five AMC’s. Of all the ridiculous, bizarre things to come out of Kenosha — the Gremlin, the Matador, the Hornet– none was more peculiar than the AMC Pacer. Nicknamed the Fishbowl for obvious reasons, it was almost as wide as it was long, and featured more glass than metal.
But my first car wasn’t a Pacer. There was one car that just might have been uglier than the AMC Pacer, and that was my first car.
An AMC Pacer…. wagon.
It was 1984. I was in school in Terre Haute, Indiana. As high-school graduation gift, my father had given me a Krugerrand — a one-ounce gold coin — which at the time was worth about $500. I was tired of riding out to campus crammed into the back of Sundheimer’s Olds Delta 88 with six other guys, and there was a girl in Wisconsin I wanted to be able to go visit regularly. So I cashed in the coin and hitched a ride up to Schmerk’s Auto Sales on North 3rd. The Audi sedan was $700. For $500, I left with a ’76 Pacer wagon that took about eight minutes to start.
I learned a lot from my first car, as I am sure you did from yours. First I learned how to replace a starter. Then I learned how to rebuild a carburetor; how to do a brake job; how to replace a power steering pump, fuel pump, fuel filter, oil filter, steering wheel, rear wheel… and how to patch a leaky gas tank while it’s still leaking gas on you, and you’re in Wisconsin in winter and it’s 20 below.
I performed the brake job out in the street, on Park at Sixth, unaware that Terre Haute had an ordinance against such activity. One afternoon, my kind fraternity brothers alerted me a tow truck was hooking up to my poor unwheeled vehicle. While I argued with the tow driver, my friends swarmed the Pacer, picked it up and ran it into our driveway. The tow driver made me pay him anyway.
Oh, I paid for a brand-new Audi with what I put into that thing. It stalled out on my way to see Springsteen in Indianapolis. It stalled out on Halsted in downtown Chicago in the middle of the night on my way to go visit that girl. I stalled out on a lonely stretch of Highway 41 south of Hammond and awoke in a snowy ditch — not the last time I’d skid off an Indiana highway.
I wish I could say there were good times too, but none come to mind. My best experience with that car was trading it in. I attended a swanky engineering school, and as graduation neared, special offers started showing up in my mailbox: credit cards, instant loans — and car deals. GM gave me a brand new Pontiac secured by nothing but my transcript. When I was ready to close the deal, I jumped the Pacer wagon for the last time, drove it around the block exactly six times and brought it to the dealership. By my calculations, it would be precisely the right temperature to start up for the dealer when he test-drove it. It did, and they gave me $1000 in trade. When I drove back to the fraternity house in my brand-new blue cruise-mobile, with Rush cranked to epic proportions on the Delco stereo, I was much more excited about the trade they’d given me on the Pacer than I was about the new Sunbird.
“They did not give you a thousand bucks for that thing,” my friend Jeff asserted. “They gave you a grand off list, and nothing for that piece of trash.”
I’m sure he was right.