Not that long ago, American teen-agers were handed the keys to two tons of trouble and loosed upon on the roads. This is one man's story about the fun he had not getting killed despite himself. — Ed.
Wild and rumbly, the car was an impostor, and when we sped together over back-county mountains, I knew it tried damned hard to keep me from killing myself. It was a $1,400 maroon behemoth, a 1978 Mercury Cougar with a cracked windshield that spent it's original years under a tarp in some old codger's barn, taken out only before the occasional Sunday worship. I never wanted to admit that it was a lemon –- it was -– and after the sting it gave my parents' wallet on day one, it spent the next 28 months driving deep and hurtful wounds into the tiny one I sat on. A transmission, an engine, wheels, tires and all manner of mechanical voodoo beset our short courtship –- if only I'd tried to get fresh maybe I'd feel a little better about all that shelling. Big fat tires and unnecessary shocks kicked the car's ass skyward, a street cobra with no venom, ready to pounce and brutalize some poor pedestrian. I tortured it every day with misadventure; one would think auto-abuse was a hobby. No, I was just 15 years old, which means if it wasn't masturbation or a disregard for automotive safety, my underdeveloped brain couldn't get around it.
Hours flittered by as I mothered the thing, bathing the car like a surgeon preparing for a tonsillectomy on bubble boy. I only saw the other kids and their wheels from the end of my nose – terrible abominations of expense and decay -– not near enough knuckle and wax to show that you had copious amounts of free time. Pop had some weird fetish for spotless autos – so along with my third-hand "this is good, and this is shit," knowledge on foreign and domestic car sales – I'd picked up that washing the beast must involve no less than seven bottles of chemicals. You need to start with a double wash -– clean the thing with hose-water and a liberal application of soap -– and get those britches off too, we're going to do this Nebraska style and get filthy. Rinse the car off, then decide if you need to do the soap again — with the special way the birds aim those arcing gray ropes out in the plains, you often do. Next comes the wax. Cherry smelling gunk goes on in deep layers, then left to bake to a yellow crust under the relentless Midwestern sun. Now we buff it all out, first with the machine and then with your elbows -– this stuff goes everywhere. Half a bottle of window cleaner now, get every piece of mirror and glass – inside and out – then wipe it all down, twice. The interior comes at the finish of the ceremony -– vacuum, wipe, vacuum, polish, and wipe again. It all ends with me sitting in the driver's seat, surveying everything, nauseous on the compounds now inside of my skin.
"That's one fine looking auto," the occasional old timer would say, "looks brand new." My chest always swelled a bit more after this, clicking in the seatbelt then slamming the gas while parked just for his benefit. You couldn't beat that ball-rumbling song. The Cougar growled deep perfect threats every time I'd poked a stick in the cage, and when idle, the luh-luh-luh-luh –- the power plant barely keeping conscious –- got nods from those who'd remembered real go-fast cars from their youth. I'd throw around terms like "air shocks" and "351 Windsor" like they had actual meaning to me. The car was a scary old Sean Connery type of thing; it looked terrible and suave and sounded like it could dissolve panties – but when put to the heat, it lisped through braces and struggled to do a pushup. I'd get it to scream though -– it just took some patience. "Highway geared," was the quick explanation for it's sluggish take-off, whatever that meant. I was caught up in this world of muscle car language where I didn't even understand the idioms I was slurring. "Yeah, that's got a hemi charged dual piston crack-stop. You'll probably need a double geared timing chain if you don't want to burn out third in a quarter, and God help you if the crank over-fuels." I could really sling some nonsense in those days.
The easy way to get it screaming was out on the dippy highways – I just kept my foot to the floor and gravity did the rest. On the boiling pavement I played a dicey game with friction, watching the needle limp to the right and praying that everything held fast. You can't do one hundred and ten miles an hour in a beast like that and expect to live –- but I did -– and when I'd got the car home for it's bi-weekly wash down, the brakes hissed clouds of steam up over everything, a reminder that without those, me and some poor bastard's livestock would've been fused to the engine block about six miles back. You give a kid some junk car at 16 not because they're mature enough to drive it properly. You give a kid some junk car at 16 because their stupid pink bodies are still malleable enough to bounce back from minor impact. The cars need to be cheap too, for this very reason, but without those terrifying drivers education videos, things could be much worse. Maybe if we'd spent our teenage weekends looking at more corpses slung over car windows via videotape, things might be a little safer, at least on the roads. Blinkers come on five hundred feet before a stop-sign now because all the little bastard can think about is his bloody eyeball, hung from the mirror by reckless gristle.
The back roads were the most dangerous parts of the fun. Fucking mountains, man, these gravel roads. They dipped and dived in every mile, and were mercilessly straight in most parts — ripe and perfect for some teenage mutiny. I'd take the thing at double whatever limit sign was gun-shot down ages ago, and more than once I saw my passenger's hair touch the top. I got it airborne too, just the once. I summoned Bo Duke and hollered a dixie horn, speeding over a hump while making way to various high-school graduation parties. The guy in the back seat was holding a cup of soda, and everything around him just slowed down, like the projector malfunctioned. All four wheels broke gravity for just a fraction, and from the rear mirror I watched the guy with the soda go astronaut -– brown fluid climbing straight up in front of his face, shirt collars and tight haircuts lifting skyward a few inches. We landed hard, stupid hard. Teeth rattled and thirty white fingers gripped onto armrests while we wore shocked faces, bringing the car to a reasonable speed for once, just before the next party house. The Cougar was largely untouched, dual exhaust pipes (with cheap chrome tips) just an inch or so higher than moments before. While mechanical failure plagued the car, the elements did little to ruffle it's feathers. A Camry hit it from behind once, totaling the import, while the Cougar suffered but two hair-line bumper scratches. "Bring it on," it seemed to say, thumping it's chest in defiant confrontation, "I can do this all day."
I'd sold it to my brother's friend once I'd turned 17 and financed something that didn't eat up three tanks of fuel every week. Watching him drive off in my Cougar was difficult -– I hadn't prepared to come so close to tears, and almost went full-bitch right there in my parent's driveway. It was a real punch in the guts, one of the top ten bummers of my high school years, and I can relive the feeling with startlingly easy recall. I had a thousand dollars in my pocket, but I'd lost a devilishly expensive and untrustworthy cohort in that car. I wish I'd been reading books or spending my folding money on more than car parts back then, but when you're 15 years old with wheels, there's a whole world of backwoods ways to try and kill yourself.
This story originally appeared on The Wayward Irregular on Sept. 19, 2011, and was republished with permission.
Email us with the subject line "Syndication" if you would like to see your own story syndicated here on Jalopnik.