Episode 10: Best car, worst car

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

It’s only by good luck that I survived driving my first car— an original Volkswagen Beetle. It was a beaten-up, road hazard death trap.

But man I loved it.

Sahara Beige was the color when it left the factory— but it was more primer and bondo by the time I bought it off a front lawn in Niagara Falls for something like 400 or 500 bucks.

It really wasn’t even street legal— back then, a couple of extra bucks could usually get you an inspection sticker whether your car was roadworthy or not.

I loved this car, it was far and away the coolest ride in my high school parking lot.

There was even a scene like from a movie when a cute girl said, “This is a really cool car,” and I felt like looking into the camera like Ferris Bueller and giving the double eyebrow raise.

I learned to drive stick in this car in the Seneca Mall parking lot with my ol’man. In that parking lot, outside the old Penney’s, is where I got pulled over for the first time.

The West Seneca cop saw me driving back and forth and thought I was trying to run over seagulls. Man, my dad was pissed.

Hahaha.

Of course, if we’re being honest, the memory of this broken down Beetle is great— but I’m also glad I don’t have to drive it everyday.

If I think about this car long enough, my stomach turns and my nostrils with the once familiar essence of gas fumes, degrading Naugahyde, and some since- discontinued floral Lysol trying to mask the other two.

There were no working gauges (including speedometer and gas), no working heat, and plenty of character.

I daydream about this first car I ever owned often— but I rarely think about my second car.

Man I hated it— but it was the most underrated vehicle I’ve ever owned.
The 1987 Dodge Colt (manufactured in Japan by Mitsubishi) was an ugly, generic-looking 80s Japanese hatchback hand-me-down from my parents.

My ol’man had been in two accidents with it and didn’t get it fixed— so it was ugly and busted up.

And it was also embarrassing to drive because the fan belt made a loud, high-pitch squeal the first 15 minutes or so it was driven.

That dented and crunched-up little crap box would actually scream LOOK AT ME, when that’s the last thing I’d have wanted anyone do.

Driving it was a continuation of the disappointing feeling I’d always had for the gold Colt from the very beginning, since it replaced our brown 1980 AMC Spirit as a family car.

The poor Colt never really had a chance. It was a sad final drive with my ol’man, smoke belching from the Spirit form the still solid, American-built tank as we dropped it off to trade in for the light, plastic-y, insect-like Colt.
Even the key was a disappointment.

I thought we’d get a cool Dodge/Chrysler key with the iconic 5-point star/pentagon logo on them— but instead this car had giant, odd shaped keys with MITSUBISHI stamped across the top.

So gross.

Ugly, disappointing, and some serious bad mojo, too.

Dad was rear-ended so hard in the Colt that the bucket seats were permanently bent— and he had to have surgery from the resulting whiplash.

The car would almost certainly be totaled today— and who knows, maybe it was then, but we drove it for years.

I also remember from the passenger seat the time when a kid on a bike cut out in front of my dad on Seneca Street.

The bike wound up mangled, and while the kid bounced off and permanently dented the hood— the teenager was fine.

My dad drove him and his crumpled bike home to Duerstein Street.

Once he dropped the kid off at home, my ol’man, a Parliament with too much ash dangling from his lip, told me if he ever saw me riding my bike like that I “wouldn’t have to worry about a car because he’d grab me and rip my goddamn head off.”

(It was his way of saying he cares 🙂 )

The Colt had been passed around the family for a couple of years— a couple of different uncles drove it— before the short time I used it to get to work and school.

I did my best to upgrade the car which, by this point looked like it had been abandoned in the streets of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War.

I went to Kmart— and bought and installed a radio with a cassette deck, making the music coming out of the single speaker in the middle of the dashboard a bit more tolerable.

I also went to a head shop and bought a bunch of stickers, most of which were for bands I had no interest in— but I had to put SOMETHING on this car to make it less ugly.

One of the stickers was a giant Jerry Garcia Desert Face decal— and while I wasn’t a deadhead, I at least knew who he was and I had Touch of Grey on a few of the mix cassettes that were the vehicle’s sound track… so there was that.

It wasn’t long before I passed this car along to some other desperate-for-transportation family member, and I bought myself a well-used 1986 Volkswagen Golf from a driveway on Kenmore Avenue near the Boulevard.

Anyway, something made me think of the ol’ Dodge Colt, which deserves a second look from someone for something other than that screaming fan belt.

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon writes about Buffalo’s pop culture history. His stories of Buffalo's past have appeared more than 1600 times in The Buffalo News. He's a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. Since the earliest days of the internet, Cichon's been creating content celebrating the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The 25-year veteran of Buffalo radio and television has written five books and curates The Buffalo Stories Archives-- hundreds of thousands of books, images, and audio/visual media which tell the stories of who we are in Western New York.