Tuesday, October 30, 2007

My first (and only) car

I have owned only one car in my life, and unlike Tessie, mine was not a charming junk heap made primarily out of rust like most people imagine when they think of first cars. No, mine was a new car, and not just any new car: it was a Volkswagen New Beetle, obtained a few weeks before my 16th birthday, on March 4, 2000.

Now, lest you think I was a spoiled princess who received a brand new car for her Sweet Sixteen, let me set your mind at ease. The car was not a birthday present. The reason I got it so close to my birthday is because I got my license on my birthday, and with the license came the accompanying car. I paid for precisely one half of the car. In fact, I was in debt until my sophomore year of college because of that car.

But basically, the reason I had a shiny new car was because my mother had an irrational fear of used cars. She always liked to say that used cars aren't reliable because you never know how the last owner treated them, which I suppose is true to an extent. Thus, she did not want her young, freshly-licensed daughter driving on the back roads of North Carolina in a car that could break at any moment.

When you're living in North Carolina, you more or less need a car. Everything is very far from everything else, and there is no public transportation to speak of. My parents fully supported the idea of me having a car, because they were really sick of having to drive me everywhere. This was made worse for them by the fact that my older sister had driven me everywhere for a year when she got her license, then gone away to college, forcing my parents to once again get up early to take me to school (no school bus), drive me to see friends, etc.

God, writing this is reminding me of how much it really sucks not to be able to get places on your own. This is why Torsten and I want to have kids in a city that has a real public transportation system.

Anyway, back on track. My mother did want me to have a car but did not want it to be a used car, which would have been the only option I could afford, so she offered to pay for half of a new car for me and to lend me the rest of the money that I needed to make up my half. And when she said half, she really meant it. Half of the cost of the car, half of the tax, half of the gas, half of the insurance. My mother was all about teaching her children financial responsibility, and she kept very good records.

By the time I turned 16, I had about $5,000 in savings (from babysitting and working as a salesclerk), and it took me four more years to pay off the rest of the car because every time I got close, it would be time to pay car tax or another insurance bill would come or something, and so it was with the biggest feeling of relief ever that I finally paid my mother my last installment and took the car to college with me. (I was not allowed to take the car away until I had paid it off. This was part of the lesson on financial responsibility. On the other hand, I was not charged any interest on the loaned money. This was a reasonable trade-off.)

The decision to get a New Beetle as opposed to any other car was not based on the fact that it's a cute car, but rather on the fact that it was one of the cheapest cars that Consumer Reports gave good reliability ratings to. Still, my mother was worried that I could get stranded somewhere, get out of the car to call her on a pay phone, and get attacked by a man who was loitering near the phone, just waiting for a young girl to stumble innocently upon it. So, she insisted that I get a car phone. This was before cell phones had really caught on. The cost of making a phone call on the car phone was about 60 cents per minute. Of this, I was expected to pay 25 cents, as that was what I would have paid for a call made on a pay phone (I presume you see what I mean about her insistence on lessons of financial responsibility).

Unfortunately, I do not have a picture of that stylish car phone, but suffice it to say that it took up more or less the entire glove compartment of the car and that the only thing the screen showed was the phone number you typed in, in giant orange numbers. It also had a classic blocky look to it. I never used it, even once.

It did have a good engine, but it had tons of electrical problems. The oxygen sensor kept breaking, which caused the car to smell like rotten eggs. The check engine light kept coming on for no reason at all (and no, it was not because I didn't know how to screw the gas cap back on). Sometimes the electric window buttons stopped working (this happened at a toll booth once, forcing me to get out of the car to pay the toll. That sucked). Sometimes the CD player stopped working. I'm pretty sure Consumer Reports doesn't give it top ratings anymore, at least not for wiring.

I did love the car, though. I drove that thing as far south as Orlando and as far north and east as Maine, although I don't think it ever went further west than Toronto. When I got back from my year in France, I was afraid to drive it, but it turned out that driving is pretty much like riding a bike. That car has been up and down I-95 more times than most people I know. That car was my first step toward liberation from my parents.

I sold it when I graduated college and moved to DC, after having had it for just over six years. I made a pretty decent amount of money from selling it, and that money helped me pay my deposits, move-in fees, and rent and support myself for a month until I got my first real paycheck. Now I use the Metro, the bus, and Zipcar. So I don't miss my car. And I definitely don't miss having to take it to get the check engine light turned off at least once a month.

But still. Wasn't it a pretty shade of blue? It looked purple in the sun.


  1. Wow. My parents pretty much had the opposite idea, that I should drive innumerable junk cars so that I would appreciate a brand new car later on in life.

    Actually, come to think of it, with the number of accidents/breakdowns/speeding tickets I got from the ages of 16-25, it was a good thing all my cars were crap.

  2. Ooh, I love the color! And my parents were big on the Buy the Kids Used Cars; They're Going to Wreck Them Anyway train. Ugh.

  3. Wow, your mom really taught you financial responsibility. I think that's fantastic. I wish my parents had encouraged/made me to save more money. I always wanted a bug - you look so cute in it! And I really miss my first car since I moved to the city. How is ZipCar anyway? I've always wanted to try it.

  4. My first car was also a Volkswagon Beetle, but not one of the new ones. No, mine was created the same year I was. It was yellow. My parents did make sure they got new tires for it. I made sure it got a decent stereo. With a cassette deck. Car CD players either didn't exist yet, or were WAY out of my price range.

    I had to put a quart of oil in pretty much weekly. It had no A/C (I lived in Charleston, SC), which sucked majorly during the summer, as I had to keep the windows down, the car was pretty noisy, and so I couldn't hear my lovely stereo. It did have heat, though. Scalding, have to roll down the windows in the dead of winter, heat.

    I put my favorite surf shop's sticker in the back window. My parents sold it when I moved out. I don't miss the car, though there is that bit of nostalgia attached, especially when I see it driving around Charleston once in a while when I'm down there. I can tell it's the same car, because the surf shop sticker is still there.

  5. That's a great first car! So cute and sporty.

    My first car was a piece of junk that never started in the winter unless I had the block heater plugged in AND parked the car in the garage. Then, in June, the first month I could unplug the block heater, the air conditioning stopped working.

    My current car's power windows have stopped working at least 3 different times. The first time was right after I paid to go into an automatic car wash. The second time was in the winter when I put my window down to eliminate some frost. The third time was right before a road trip to Boston (where toll booths were frequent - that sucked).

  6. Stephanie--We like Zipcar a lot, and since gas and insurance are included, it's actually fairly reasonably priced. And incredibly convenient, since there are two Zipcars within a block of our apartment. And they have a variety so you can rent a convertible for an afternoon and just drive around if you want. We thought rental cars would be cheaper for more than just a few hours, but since we don't have a car ourselves, we don't have any insurance, and the cost of insurance plus paying your own gas makes them about the same price. So yeah, pretty much it's great, at least for us.

  7. wow. i got a car for my birthday, but it was used. my parents figured i'd get into an accident so they didn't get anything fancy. (although I've never been in an accident to this day) so- lucky you and the new car!

    and I feel extremely dumb, because earlier this summer i had my friend hook his car scanner (searches for whats wrong with the car) and I was one of those people who "apparently" didn't screw on the cap tight enough because he got out of my car, screwed the cap on tighter got back in and laughed at me. the check engine light then went off. :)

  8. You need a car in California too. I had a bunch of crap cars that all broke down before I got my shiny new car. Now I'm facing the prospect of having to store my car when we move, but the idea of having to make it work is kind of exciting. Like an adventure? Well. It's entirely possible I'm just delusional.

    I love the blue of your beetle. :)

  9. I love your mom's lessons of financial responsibility. I really, really wish my parents had done the same. They attempted in their own way, but I think real life examples of what it's like to pay a bill every month is something every high school student should be familiar with.

  10. Cute car and a great post!

    We bought used cars for the girls to drive. They can buy new ones when they have their first grown up job.

  11. Your parents sound like mine, financially speaking: good rules with built-in mercy, designed to teach.

  12. It is very cute! I really, really miss the Metro and vehemently HATE owning a car. A. goes on and on about the independence of it, but I hate the payments, maintenance, bleh. Hate it.

    But your car was cute. Your mom? Is right to be paranoid; my first car was used and I was stranded more times than I are to think about. Hence why I bought a new car when I moved back to the State That Shuns Public Transportation.

    I still hate it, though.

  13. I love a first car story! Fun, fun, fun.

    Clearly you are the type of person that can be trusted with a new car. Whereas I...am not.

  14. hahahaha i totally had a beetle too -- mine was BRIGHT blue! but it was a royal pain in the ass, kept breaking, needing check-ups, etc and after a good 3 year run, was traded in for a brand new mazda 3 - god i love my car!

  15. my current car is my first car! and i LOVE IT. I AM IN LOVE WITH IT. i spent almost 2 years here in nova after college with no car (and not on the metro... in alexandria...) and HOT DAMN do i like having a car now :-)

  16. That was a super good deal with your mom. I didn't get a car until I was 19 and I bought it myself. Two years later it was officially a piece of crap (made 3 years after I was born) so I sold it for half of what I paid for it (which was actually only $2,000 so I guess I made out okay. Now I have a nice new(er- 2003) car and I LOVE IT. Though I am in major debt to my credit union... it's worth it. :)