By the time the keys to my first car—a 1989 Pontiac Grand Prix—ended up in my hands, it had passed through just about everyone in the family leading up to me. My mom had first purchased it used, followed by my dad after their divorce. He’d finally retired it in favor of a slightly newer (but still used) Dodge just as my sixteenth birthday rolled around. It was the most economic way a teen in a lower-middle class family in rural Michigan could actually drive a car.
It was 2012—not exactly the midst of a recession, but it may as well have been in a single-parent family still reeling from the economic drain of a divorce and frequent unemployment. The costs of routine maintenance were slightly too egregious to actually be, y’know, maintained.
Heat and air didn’t work, which was fine—except for the fact that the windows didn’t always open, so you were royally fucked if you cracked a window on the way to school, couldn’t get it back up, and it just so happened to rain. If it got too cold or too hot, the engine wouldn’t turn over. The leather seats were pretty much nonexistent by the time I was sitting behind the wheel. Brakes were questionable.
Tires? Bald as hell. Driving in the winter was an exercise in learning how to drift over the back road ice on the way to school. And you can forget about power steering. You couldn’t trust the Grand Prix to make it much farther than ten miles in one go without starting to worry that you’d get stranded somewhere. And if we weren’t upgrading our tires, we sure as hell weren’t giving the kids a phone.
But despite all its faults, the Grand Prix was a hell of a lot of fun to drive. I couldn’t listen to music, couldn’t transport anyone but my younger brother in good conscience, couldn’t even focus on an exciting destination because it was always the same two places, home or school. At that point, I wasn’t keen on driving, but the Grand Prix was a hell of a good car. It was fun. If I wanted to do something other than tear out my own hair, I had to figure out how to enjoy myself. I was shocked, though, at how easy it was.
The Grand Prix handled like an expert tightrope walker. When I progressed past the stage where everything about driving felt robotic and I didn’t have to check all my mirrors three times before I felt comfortable leaving the driveway, I started to push myself.
My dad is a car guy. I grew up in the garage while he worked on his Barracuda and was the passenger in that exact Grand Prix I was given later where my dad pushed his limits and showed his kids what it felt like to hit the very edge of your ability. I knew that cars could be enjoyable. I knew that driving could be fun. But it never occurred to me until I was finally the driver.
I’d time myself. Start my drive as soon as the half-faded clock in the dashboard ticked over to the nearest minute and go go go—and then, when I earned myself my first cell phone, I could get more precise. I grew to love those back roads, long straights with a hard braking zone, a patch of esses, a near-180 curve whose G forces would press me into the door. In the winter, I had no choice but to drift over ice patches like I was a damn Finnish rally driver. I started to feel like I was a test driver running hundreds of laps on a circuit.
So when I got into racing again for the first time in years, I got it. When I saw Niki Lauda and James Hunt duking it out on screen in Rush, I could understand what it felt like, how you could be so intoxicated by the thrill of speeding down a quiet road in Italy.
It was a shit car by the time I got into it, but it make me appreciate cars in general. I realized I didn’t need a ton of luxuries to enjoy driving—hell, I didn’t even need an entirely functioning car. I needed four stable wheels and a halfway decent engine, and I could make the best of it. I won Worst Car as my senior superlative due to how many times I was stuck in the parking lot after school begging for a jump, but I can guarantee that I had more fun driving to school every day than my peers did.
I got it at the best possible time. My younger brother inherited the Grand Prix after I graduated high school and moved to Texas, and his drives to school were plagued with tires wiggling free, steering wheels falling off, and just plain ol’ dead batteries that couldn’t be saved no matter how hard you tried.
When I bought my 2013 Mazda 2—a year old at the time, used but well loved—I couldn’t believe it. I had power steering, new tires, air conditioning, and a stereo. The doors opened when I wanted them to, I never had to worry about being stranded, and I could count on it starting every time I turned over the key. It’s a fun car to drive, but it’s nowhere near as fun as the Grand Prix—probably because now I always have music going or a friend in the passenger seat. I have distractions. I can enjoy about a hundred other immediate ergonomic things before driving.
That Grand Prix is the reason why I’m here at Jalopnik. Had my first car been anything else—anything nicer—I don’t think I’d have learned how to enjoy driving enough to dedicate my life to it.