You never forget your first love or your first car. Sometimes your first car is your first love.
Whether it was a dream machine or a bucket of bolts, that introductory vehicle took you places. You were on the road to freedom with independence just around the corner.
You didn’t have to borrow your parents’ station wagon. You didn’t have to beg your older sibling for a ride. You didn’t have to walk to school.
If you wanted to go somewhere, you went. And if you wanted to roll down the windows and turn up the radio, it was OK.
We asked Beacon Journal readers to share memories of their first car. Here are some of those nostalgic tales. Buckle up.
Thousands of miles away
Denny Bowsher bought his first car in 1968 while home on leave from the U.S. Air Force during his “one-year obligatory stint in an all-expense-paid tour of Southeast Asia.”
The Field High School graduate bought the 1966 Ford Mustang convertible, a red beauty with a white ragtop, and enjoyed it for barely a month before volunteering to return to duty in place of a buddy whose wife was pregnant.
Thousands of miles from his Mustang, Bowsher continued to make car payments. The staff sergeant worked as an electronic warfare repairman at Takhli Air Base in southern Thailand during the Vietnam War, and the hazardous pay duty helped him pay off the $1,800 purchase loan on the Mustang.
Bowsher loved the car so much that he carried a photo of it in his wallet.
His mother, Mildred, wrote a letter to him and assured him the car was getting “good exercise” back home by his sister Kathy and brother Terry.
Bowsher’s military tour ended in 1970.
“When I finally got home, the shifter handle was loose and the rear end had some problems — so it must have gotten plenty of ‘good exercise,’ ” he recalled.
Bowsher, 74, a Tallmadge resident and Goodyear Aerospace retiree, still owns the Mustang and belongs to the Mustang Club of America. His wife, Barbara, a retired Akron teacher, still owns her first car: a 1972 Cougar XR-7.
Incidentally, Bowsher has a bit role in the 2015 documentary “A Faster Horse,” about the Ford Mustang. A 10-second clip shows him working on a Soap Box Derby car as a teen. The filmmakers used Bowsher’s family footage to illustrate a scene about Mustang chief engineer Dave Pericak’s childhood.
The movie’s tagline is “Everyone has a Mustang story.”
Denny Bowsher certainly does.
FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING
Stow resident Christopher E. Kinsella, an assistant professor of history at Cuyahoga Community College, has a strange-but-true story about his first car.
It was his 16th birthday Feb. 8, 1989, in his hometown of Evergreen Park, Illinois. After school, he rode with his mother to the Department of Motor Vehicles, where he passed the driver’s test and got his license.
Unlike most new drivers, Kinsella already owned a car, having purchased it five months earlier. He had saved money from his job as a soda jerk at White’s pharmacy to buy a 1978 cream-colored Lincoln Town Car with almost 100,000 miles on it.
For his first solo trip, he carefully backed out of his driveway and drove two blocks before turning onto 91st Street, which had a speed limit of 25 mph.
“I didn’t drive my beautiful Lincoln one whole mile before I found out what my bile tastes like when I looked in the rearview mirror and saw a fully lit up police car speeding up right behind me,” Kinsella recalled.
His body shook as he pulled over. A police officer ordered him to roll down his window, but Kinsella couldn’t find the handle, not realizing it was electronic.
“Out of the car, nice and slow,” the officer said.
The officer called for backup and two more cruisers arrived. The lead cop ordered the boy to turn around, put his hands on the car and spread his feet apart.
“With your left hand, get your wallet out and give me your DL,” the officer ordered.
The new driver didn’t know that was an abbreviation for driver’s license.
“Uh, officer, I don’t have a DL,” Kinsella replied.
A tow truck driver arrived. Things looked bleak.
But Kinsella recognized one of the cops as a former soda jerk at the pharmacy, and the tension subsided. The boy finally figured out what a DL was and produced his new ID. His license and registration checked out.
Police huddled around a cruiser and laughed. The boy thought he had been traveling 25 mph, but the radar had clocked him at 55.
“What?!?!?” Kinsella cried in horror.
An officer explained that the kid had a 5,000-pound car on a luxury suspension system with a V-8 engine. It was a monster machine for a new driver.
“You need to closely watch that speedometer,” the officer said.
The police let him off with a warning. Kinsella sold the car two months later.
“Someone offered me $700 more than I paid for it,” he said. “I have forever regretted the decision. But $700 to a 16-year-old kid was like getting a small windfall.”
He wonders if his first car is still out there. If anyone happens to be driving it, please watch that speedometer.
A NICE SURPRISE
Maryann Sinar Wisberger can still picture it. New on the showroom floor, the 1969 Ford Fairlane was bright yellow with a black landau roof.
“It was beautiful and I really wanted it,” she said.
The St. Thomas Hospital nursing graduate took her father, Michael J. Sinar, a Goodyear employee and World War II veteran, to the dealership to help negotiate a sale. She soon regretted taking him, though, when he locked horns with a salesman over the price.
Unable to reach a deal, father and daughter left for home. She was so angry that she didn’t speak in the car.
“Several days later, I came home from my first job and my dad asked me to go to the garage to fetch something for him,” Wisberger said. “When I opened the garage door, there was my new, beautiful yellow Ford Fairlane. I couldn’t believe he went back to the dealer and bought it for me.”
The gleaming car attracted the gaze of many admirers, but not everyone liked it.
“I noticed a bird had feasted on blueberries and left his opinion of my car on the hood,” she said. “The purple stain wouldn’t wash off and I had to have it repainted.”
Not long after that, she said, a maintenance worker from the hospital ran his wheelbarrow into the door panel, leaving a dent.
“I still loved my new car and my dad’s wonderful surprise,” Wisberger said. “A memory I cherish and will never forget.”
A LABOR OF LOVE
Maryann’s husband has a story, too. Retired high school counselor Mark Wisberger was 16 when he bought his first car in July 1969, using the $200 that he had earned as a Beacon Journal paperboy.
The 1941 Plymouth Special Deluxe four-door sedan was a labor of love for Wisberger and his father, Albert, a Babcock & Wilcox employee and World War II veteran.
“It was as big as a tank and drove like one,” Wisberger recalled. “That was a feature my dad liked the most. It was slow and if I wrecked, I would be protected by tons of steel.”
The first accessory the teen bought was a window decal that read: “Keep America Beautiful, Restore an Old Car.”
In the dark ages before the internet, Wisberger and his dad spent countless hours at swap meets, looking at parts spread across the ground, trying to find an elusive taillight, hubcap or other accessory.
Wisberger bought a grille from a Georgia man through Hemmings Motor News and had it mailed to Akron. He blew out the engine while driving home from the Rubber Bowl, found a replacement through the Sears catalog and had it installed at Chapel Hill.
Between repairs, he enjoyed cruising in the Plymouth with his buddies.
“The memories generated by that car of my three friends, Dave, Jay and Larry, and of the great times I had with my dad are abundant and priceless,” Wisberger said.
THRILLED TO OWN A CAR
Three-on-the-tree along with a clutch pedal. Dimmer switch on the floorboard. Manual choke.
Rick Brown, who came of age during the car culture of the 1960s, believes such auto-related phrases would confuse younger generations.
Baby boomers yearned for the freedom and independence that a car would provide. Any car would do — especially since most couldn’t afford to buy a new one.
A 1965 Springfield graduate, Brown worked his senior year in the stockroom of a five-and-dime store until he had saved $125. Then he bought his grandfather’s 1954 Chevrolet two-door sedan with a six-cylinder engine and a stick shift.
The car was pretty rusty and rather temperamental. The gas gauge offered only a vague estimate of how much fuel was left and, on more than one occasion, Brown had to hitchhike home to drain the lawn mower’s gas can. But he was thrilled to have a car.
He and his high school girlfriend, Becky, with whom he’s been married for 52 years, went to drive-in movies at the Gala, Starlight and East. They spread a blanket on the hood, leaned back on the windshield and enjoyed the films until mosquitoes forced them inside.
“The point is two people could sit on the hood and leave nary a dent,” Brown said. “Try that on your present car’s hood.”
He enrolled at the University of Akron and landed a job with the Springfield road crew, socking away money to upgrade his car with a Chevy V-8 engine, new pedals, a rebuilt transmission and a floor shift.
Brown imagined that all heads would turn when he arrived with his Chevy at drive-in restaurants like The Pogo, The Flame, Flagpole and Lujan’s. Heads did turn, he said, because of the loud noise from the muffler and the bluish cloud from the exhaust.
Sadly, Brown’s car met its demise during a side-by-side competition “with another like-minded individual” on the “Quarter Mile” of Krumroy Road. The race ended too soon.
“The engine self-destructed and a friend and I towed it to an auto salvage yard where I received the princely sum of $10 for it,” Brown recalled. “An inglorious ending to my car’s checkered life, but a life I will never forget. God, I loved that car.”
OIL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
Tom Vince, archivist and historian at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, has fond memories of his 1952 four-door Plymouth sedan.
He has a September 1958 picture of himself standing next to the recently purchased car on his first day of commuting to John Carroll University from his Euclid Beach home in Cleveland. In the picture, he’s wearing a freshman beanie.
One of the things he remembers about the Plymouth is its chronic problem with oil. The dipstick was broken in half, so he had it repaired. The metal rod was still wrapped in paper on the back seat when he and a carload of friends stopped at a service station.
“We needed gas, and then the service guy asked if we’d like to have the oil checked,” Vince recalled. “Nonchalantly, I just reached into the back seat, unwrapped the newly repaired dipstick and handed it to the befuddled service guy. No wonder he was confused. All of us got a good laugh about this episode, not the service station attendant, but ourselves for having the dipstick in an unlikely place.”
The attendant asked Vince if he wanted the dipstick back. No, thanks, the driver replied, it was fine to leave it in the engine. More laughter ensued.
“That was several decades ago, and this generation has never heard of a dipstick, let alone checked the oil gauge that it measured,” Vince noted.
DEAL OF THE CENTURY
Friday the 13th turned out to be a lucky day for Len Miller.
The Cuyahoga Falls man recalls July 12, 1956, like it was yesterday. He was 16 years old and visiting his friend Dick’s house when his buddy showed him a newspaper ad.
Southwest Ford in Cleveland had a Friday the 13th sale with incredible deals: It was selling two cars for 13 cents each and two cars for $13.13. Talk about sticker shock.
The boys went to the Pearl Road dealership about 4 p.m. Thursday to check it out. Sure enough, a 1947 Plymouth coupe and a 1937 Plymouth would go on sale the next day for 13 cents. A 1947 Plymouth sedan and another car — Miller can’t remember what kind — would sell for $13.13.
A salesman told them that the first people in line at 9 a.m. Friday would get first choice, and Miller would be No. 1 if he remained on the lot.
“My friend left to ask my mother to come to the lot in the morning to sign papers,” Miller said. “He then came back to the lot with a tent and sleeping bags for us. We camped out all night.”
When other customers arrived the next day, the boys were already there. Newcomers offered to buy Miller’s place in line, but he refused. This would be his first car!
“I ended up buying the ’47 Plymouth coupe for 13 cents,” Miller said. “My buddy purchased the sedan for $13.13.”
Dick sold his car for a profit after installing a new clutch plate. Meanwhile, Miller learned a lot about mechanics. The coupe’s universal joint kept snapping and he kept replacing it for $5. Suddenly, that 13-cent deal didn’t seem like such a bargain.
“After about a year, I junked the car, lost money but I still considered this a positive experience,” Miller said.
It was the first and last car he ever bought for 13 cents.
• Tony Bisesi’s first car was a 1973 Dart Sport, a twin cousin of the Plymouth Duster. He bought it new when he was 19. It had a Dodge 318 engine with four on the floor, and frequently was parked at Automotive Electric or Sohio for repairs. Bisesi said the best thing about it was the Pioneer radio/cassette player and Jensen speakers. “It had about 70,000 miles on it when rust finally claimed it,” he said.
• Susan Heltsley’s first car was a new 1969 Volkswagen Beetle that used to fly up Interstate 77 when the speed limit was 70 mph. One problem was the heater, though: It operated only when the car was moving. Heltsley recalls taking her father to winter appointments at the Cleveland Clinic and freezing during traffic tie-ups. They took a blanket to keep warm. Otherwise, the Bug was a beaut. “Boy, I loved that car!” she said.
• Larry Zvara’s original set of wheels was a used 1957 two-door Pontiac. The white-and-blue vehicle had a heater under the front seat, which was pretty much worthless in the winter, he said. “It had two speeds: slow and slower (low and lower),” Zvara noted. “Brrr!” He owned it only a year or two before upgrading to a Buick four-door hardtop.
• The AMC Gremlin, a two-door subcompact, was a gas-guzzling beast. More than 670,000 were produced from 1970 to 1978, and Ellet’s David Weyrick owned one. His favorite thing about it was its stereo and eight-track player. The rust-prone vehicles often tooled around Akron with mismatched doors because the originals had deteriorated. Weyrick salvaged his with putty. “Bondo and more Bondo,” he said.
• James Verde mowed a lot of lawns and shoveled many driveways to earn enough money to buy a cinnamon-colored 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air. He bought it in 1962 and it was darn near mint. He enjoyed showing off the Bel Air at drive-ins such as the Waterloo in Akron and Hungry I in Cuyahoga Falls. “Miss that car!” he said.
• Novelist Bob Adamov, a 1972 graduate of Kent State University, recalls commuting to campus from Norton in his past-its-prime 1957 Chevrolet 210 and hoping the rusted-out trunk would make it. His father had taken him to Greenwald Chevrolet in Barberton and wanted him to buy a 1957 Ford sedan, but Adamov insisted on the 210 black beauty that needed a left fender. Both cars cost $100. “I ended up giving it to my brother to drive to high school,” Adamov said. “Fond memories.”
Mark J. Price can be reached at [email protected]