Photograph by James Braund
Here, in full, is everything I know about cars. 1) The coolest car in the world is, and always will be, Michael Knight’s artificially intelligent and virtually indestructible Pontiac Trans Am, KITT, from the 1980s TV series, Knight Rider. 2) Cars cost you a lot of money. The exception to this was my first car, quite possibly my first love.
My heart was captured by the price tag (suitors take note): $300 drive-away. I drove it away from Wellington Airport, having hardballed a nice, young family who were moving overseas and who – in a moment of disorganisation and scatter-brainedness that upstaged anything even I’m capable of – forgot to sell their car until the morning they left.
I loved that stupid car. A white, Mazda 323 station wagon with a perfectly good cassette player and a semi-working handbrake. It served me well. I drove it all around New Zealand and it didn’t miss a beat. The only issue was the doors. They were so eaten away with rust at the bottom that in winter I would need to plug them with those snake draught-stoppers to keep my legs from freezing.
If the car wasn’t my first love, then it was definitely my first child. But I wasn’t going to win any parent-of-the-year competition. I abandoned it when I moved to Australia; left it in untrustworthy hands, and we quickly lost contact.
My next car was a 1977 green Ford Cortina station wagon. She was quite something. Fat, heavy to the point of being practically immovable, she was from an age predating unleaded petrol, if you’ll believe it. In fact, she didn’t even have an iPod port. I named her Cindy, after a girl from high school who couldn’t stand me (I had a curiously accurate premonition this relationship was doomed from the outset). I drove her – along with all my belongings in the world – from Dad’s place in Kiama, NSW, to Melbourne, to start a new life with an old car.
Cindy didn’t adapt well to big city life. Bemused by trams and hook turns, squeezed out of Brunswick Street parking spots, she began drinking excessively. She always had a fondness for the bowser, but in Melbourne she hit the juice big time. Then I started smelling petrol as I drove. Then she caught fire. If you’ve never had flames start whipping up from under your bonnet and quickly engulf your car as you inch along Punt Road at 5pm, I can attest to it being one of life’s more notable experiences. I wasn’t entirely sure what to do, but I thought getting out of the burning car might be a good start. Cindy’s forward momentum, never anything much to get excited about, had now completely and permanently ceased, owing I expect to the fact her engine was being melted into black butter. I jumped out and made a dash for the kerb, then realised a very expensive vintage Ludwig snare drum* was on the back seat, so I rushed back, head down like I was approaching a helicopter, and performed a heroic rescue mission that I still think deserved some kind of formal recognition.
That was 10 years ago. I was briefly carless, as I would sheepishly admit to friends who casually asked, “Hey, did you ever get that fuel leak in the Cortina looked at?” But eventually I caved in and bought a very boring, normal car. I decided a boring car was exactly what I needed. Because although there are many things I can think of that would improve the experience of sitting in traffic, flames are not one.
A few years after abandoning my Mazda I found myself back in Wellington, where I glanced down a laneway and saw it. Same rego, same bumper stickers. I walked over, stroked the hood, patted the battered panels and said a few words. I really did love that stupid car.
*Actually a cheap PowerBeat, but this is my column.
» Ricky French (@frenchricky) is a writer and musician who’s going to drive you home, tonight.