I was born without the Guy Car Gene. Mostly I cannot tell one car make and model from another and do not care. At least half the records the Beach Boys made are incomprehensible gibberish to me. To this day, I haven’t the faintest idea what a little deuce coupe is.
There is one single and very big exception to my indifference. When I was 11 or so, I noticed an ad for the Ford Mustang and thought it was the sleekest, coolest thing I’d ever seen on wheels. I vowed that someday, when I was old enough to buy a new car, it would be a Mustang.
Ten years passed, along with a clunky old Chevy Bel Air and a cute but ancient Dodge Dart. But in July 1975, when I graduated from college and got ready to head to my new job in Mississippi, I bought a new Ford Mustang II, painted the same gleaming white as the one I’d seen in that very first ad.
This decision was, to say the very least, economically imprudent. At $4,700, the Mustang cost more than half my annual salary, and for a long time my monthly car payments were almost double my rent.
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And, as an automotive choice, it may not have been much better. The car’s brave but puny four-cylinder engine perpetually sounded like it was about to go into cardiac arrest. Out on the highway, if I wanted to pass another vehicle, I had to turn off the air-conditioner first.
But I didn’t care. My car was the sexiest thing in my little Mississippi town, cuter even than the hostess with the short skirt at Shoney’s, and strangers stopped me all the time to ask about it. I raced it around every little back road in Mississippi and, as I moved from newspaper to newspaper, Texas and Florida.
In 1979, a mechanic in Fort Lauderdale warned me it would never make it to my new job in San Francisco. He was wrong, though I admit that when I got up to start the final leg of the trip in Flagstaff, Arizona, and discovered the temperature had dropped to 15 degrees, my heart skipped a beat or 22.
The little white car couldn’t last forever, but I was sure my love affair with the Mustang would. Over the next 39 years I bought four more of them, usually with the counsel and bargaining acumen of my friend Terry Jackson, who worked with me at three different newspapers (including the Herald, where among other things he was the auto writer). Terry’s obsession with autos — at one improbable point, he actually owned four of them, which on a newspaper salary is something akin to a regular person owning four 747s — often made me think that he had gotten my misplaced Guy Car Gene along with his own.
The last Mustang he helped me pick out was the grandest of them all, a glowing red eight-cylinder beast that could outrace passing UFOs. It’s a source of wonder to me that, in all the years I owned it, I never once got a speeding ticket. The car looked like it was doing 80 even when it was standing still. I never wanted to let it go.
But lately I’ve realized that the 95 mph segment of my life has passed. It takes 20 minutes with a crane for any of my friends to get into or out of a Mustang backseat, and probably half my work week is spent earning the money for gasoline in a nearly $4-a-gallon world.
Nor was I the only one putting on years. My red Mustang had passed its 13th birthday and rolled over its odometer. It still seemed in good shape, but I knew that couldn’t last.
And it didn’t. On a rainy night two weeks ago, driving along 836 in the uncharted western wastelands of Miami-Dade, I was rear-ended. The car was still running fine, but the passenger-side rear end was cruelly crushed. My insurance company took one look and declared that the end had come.
So last week, feeling sweaty and traitorous and alone — Terry Jackson died a few years ago, much too soon, and this was the first car in half my life he wasn’t along to help me buy — I went to a Chevy dealer. A few hours later I drove home in a new Chevy Cruze.
It, too, is glowing red. But literally everything else is different. Where’s the windshield wiper knob? The headlight switch? The gas tank? And what’s this? A jack for an iPod? When did that happen?
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a lovely car, and though it has only four cylinders, they’re much mightier than the four on my first Mustang. I’ve already inadvertently (touchy new gas pedal) laid rubber a couple of times.
But saying goodbye to Mustangs after almost 40 years feels like a sad goodbye to my younger self. That little kid transfixed by the magazine ad had a lot of dreams. Some of them (watching a game at Yankee Stadium, getting a big-city newspaper job, being a war correspondent) came true. Some didn’t (I never did get to kiss Eva Gabor). But this is the first one I’ve ever lived out and given up. It leaves a hollow place in my chest that I’m afraid isn’t going to disappear.
When the salvage company came for my red Mustang last week, I wasn’t home. I don’t know exactly where it went. I hope it’s someplace where Terry will be waiting, to crank the radio and crush the gas pedal one more time.