In 1973, when I was 18, I got my first car: a white 1964 four-door Ford Galaxie 500 sedan that weighed in at nearly 4000 pounds. My then-girlfriend’s uncle gave it to me for nothing, and expressed great regret at having to part with such a fine vehicle. Unca Cholly, as he was affectionately known, was moving up to something better – probably a Pontiac – but he wanted the Galaxie to have a good home.
I was your stereotypical rambunctious 18 year old, determined to define myself as boldly independent of my parents. However, as a college student living at home with only a part-time summer job, I wasn’t going to turn into James Bond overnight. So the Galaxie was my key to the world – given enough gas and time, that car could take me virtually anywhere, and in my feverish imaginings, it did. But the reality was somewhat different.
First, it rode like a monstrous marshmallow. After a couple of cushy trips around the block, my brother christened it The Great White Boat. But make no mistake – it had lots of positive features too:
Real chrome bumpers you could use to open a beer bottle (so I heard).
A back seat as big as a small sofa. Out of deference to her Unca Cholly my girlfriend refused to explore its potential with me, but it did serve the purpose with some of my friends, and their less restrained dates, as I played the discreetly aloof chauffeur.
Triangular side vent windows in front that were perfect for flicking the ash off the end of your cigarette without having to open the whole window and risk sending unwelcome sparks into the back seat.
A steering wheel the size of a hula hoop, and power steering so light you could make turns with one finger.
A cavernous trunk Goodfellas (or their acquaintances delinquent in payments on the vig) would die for.
Then there were the negatives:
Primitive sound – AM radio with one oval dashboard speaker. The “latest”- an eight track tape player – had not been installed in this vehicle.
Pointy chrome gear selector and turn signal stems that were puncture
wounds waiting to happen. (By 1973, the automakers had wised up, and started putting blunt plastic knobs at the ends so if you rammed into the windshield wiper control in an accident you’d get a nasty bruise but no perforation.)
Rudimentary lap belts (front seat only) that would tear your torso in half in any collision over 40 mph, but might spare you from being skewered by the turn signal.
Miles per gallon in the high single digits on the highway going downhill with a tailwind. Plus the seals were bad, so it took a quart of oil every week and trailed a bilious white cloud everywhere it went.
The transmission was starting to slip, and the brakes were so low you floored the pedal and prayed at every stop sign.
And the insurance on that nine-year-old tank was more than any part-time job could support.
I think it took me five months – one glorious summer and into the fall – before I realized I couldn’t afford the gas, oil, seals, brakes, transmission, or insurance needed to keep the boat afloat. It sat for a month on my parents’ front lawn, a monument to my hopes of freedom, while I scraped around trying to figure out a way to save it. No one wanted to buy it, not even Unca Cholly, despite his misty-eyed reminiscences about its former glory.
Actually I suspect he was glad to have unloaded it on me to spare him the pain of having to finally put the car to rest. Which I did, one chilly October day when I paid fifty bucks to have it towed away to be cannibalized for parts. My next car was a used Japanese econobox that was a lot easier on my wallet, but woefully short on dreams.