These Are The First Cars Of The Jalopnik Staff

These Are The First Cars Of The Jalopnik Staff

Ever wondered how we got our start in the automotive world? Look no further.

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Photo: Toyota (Getty Images)

Everyone has a first car. Whether you loved it or hated it, whether you got something brand new or accepted a family hand-me-down, whether you’re proud or ashamed, we’ve all had one. Today, the staff of Jalopnik is here to share the stories of our first cars — and we want to hear your stories down in the comments.

Some of these cars will have you thinking, “Yeah, that tracks.” Others will have you wondering how our writers could possibly even enjoy cars after having that kind of beast as a first experience. Whatever the case, though, we’re here to share.

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Elizabeth Blackstock: 1989 Pontiac Grand Prix Turbo

Elizabeth Blackstock: 1989 Pontiac Grand Prix Turbo

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Image: General Motors

I know I’ve written about it before here on Jalopnik, but my first car remains kinda-sorta my dream car. The 1989 Pontiac Grand Prix Turbo that I received had been well-loved (read: abused) by multiple members of my family before it finally came into my possession, but I didn’t care. Its leather-and-corduroy seats, its endless panels of buttons, its retro-future-classic digital readouts — it was awful. It was horrible. It was beautiful. It was a dream.

I didn’t have power steering — that had been broken for years by the time I drove it. I didn’t have air conditioning or heat. The stereo worked exactly one time during my time driving the Grand Prix. When I was sitting in a parking lot waiting to drive to a friend’s graduation party as the late-May sun started to set, my stereo granted me the gift of The Doors for just one song before the radio quit working again. The Grand Prix was named “worst car” of my graduating class. It was the place where I first heard bands I consider to be my favorites today. It had perpetually bald tires and couldn’t drive for more than 10 minutes without failing. It was the car that taught me to love cars, and for that, I will be eternally grateful.

I was extremely glad, though, to move onto a lightly-used 2013 Mazda 2 just after graduation after spending three years driving a death trap on wheels.

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Andy Kalmowitz: 2000 Volkswagen Passat V6

Andy Kalmowitz: 2000 Volkswagen Passat V6

The tow truck was the natural habitat of my car.
The tow truck was the natural habitat of my car.
Photo: Andy Kalmowitz

I actually knew my first car long before it became mine. It was originally my aunt and uncle’s from new, but I always wanted it. I’d daydream about this small gray Volkswagen being my very own car. Then, right around when it was my turn to learn how to drive in 2016, they were ready to give it up. I could not have been more excited. It had a V6, a tiptronic transmission, and a switchblade key. What more could I ask for?

As it turns out, what I could have asked for was a car that worked most of the time, which the Passat did not. Everything went wrong. The transmission computer was fried by a leaky passenger footwell, the engine developed three separate misfire incidents during my ownership, and I accidentally backed the car into an F-250, destroying my rear taillight. Okay, I know this isn’t the car’s fault, but I was still mad at it.

Man oh man, do I miss that car. Memories created inside the leather- and crayon-smelling interior are ones that will last a lifetime. The feelings of heartbreak, summer freedom, and happiness comes to mind when I remember my first car. It was where I’d laugh so hard with my friends I would have to pull over, and it was also where someone broke up with me. I also had to pull over that time. But, I digress.

Was it a very good car? No, but it was mine. That’s all you can really ask of a first car, and if I had the chance, I would buy it back tomorrow without hesitation.

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José Rodríguez Jr.: 1994 Plymouth Acclaim

José Rodríguez Jr.: 1994 Plymouth Acclaim

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Photo: Plymouth

I regret to say that my first car was a 1994 Plymouth Acclaim. The regret has eroded over time, though I’m unsure why. It may have to do with me coming to terms with the all cars I’ve had the (mis)fortune of driving, because they all taught me something.

Or forced me to overcome what I wasn’t ready to overcome at the time. At the age of 16, when I got the Acclaim as a hand-me-down for 10th grade, I wasn’t ready to overcome how uncool I was. Or how uncool I felt driving an old K-car instead of a fast German car or gnarly SUV.

I’ve said it before: that Acclaim was a piece of shit. The headliner sagged; the upholstery was worn through. It had a Jensen stereo and no A/C. The paint was dark gray, an aftermarket tone my folks felt was appropriate because the factory paint under the faded clear coat was a ratty gray. Mom and Dad thought I’d appreciate having new paint in the absence of a new car. They were wrong.

I hated that car, which my friends and I dubbed “Gray,” because it didn’t reflect the real me — the cool me. That is, until the Spring Break of ’05, when my friends couldn’t convince their parents to let them drive themselves to South Padre Island because they mostly had nice, new cars.

But my folks trusted me and weren’t worried of what could happen to the Acclaim at a beach blowout. Gray got us to SPI, and when the older kids asked how we made it, I said I’d driven us in my crappy car. “Cool, man,” they replied. I think, some days, I miss Gray.

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Mercedes Streeter: 2001 Kia Rio

Mercedes Streeter: 2001 Kia Rio

Image date: 8/6/2011. I think I took this pic with an iPod Touch.
Image date: 8/6/2011. I think I took this pic with an iPod Touch.
Photo: Mercedes Streeter

I know this is supposed to be a fun article, but I’m about to pour my heart out a bit, here. Everyone knows me for my devotion to the Smart Fortwo and various Volkswagen products. But my first car wasn’t that blue Smart in the background but that little red sedan. This is deserving of a story itself, so I’ll keep it short in this one.

I’ve alluded to it a few times while working here and a lot when I was formerly a reader, but my name hasn’t always been Mercedes. When I captained that cherry red Rio, I was a distant but still not forgotten version of myself. Yes, I am transgender. Yes, my perfect first name for auto journalism is not one given to me at birth but one I chose based on the parent company of my favorite car. And before the name “Mercedes” even graced my brain, I was driving this car.

That Kia wasn’t just teenage freedom as it was so much more. That car allowed 18-year-old me to be myself and to do what I wanted, free from my then extremely traditional family. In that car, nobody was there to stop me from dressing up, practicing my voice, and dreaming of a different path. That car wasn’t just a form of transportation. It very likely saved my life.

And it never let me down, even when I let it down. I bought it in the cold winter of 2011, literally the day after a major blizzard trapped thousands of drivers on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. Since it was so cold, my test drive never revealed the car’s dark secret. And since I knew little about the mechanical nature of cars back then, I had no idea that the front wheel bearings were already really bad when I bought it. But those creaky, wobbly bearings survived 11,000 miles of torture, including a run from Chicago Union Station to Six Flags Gurnee in just 23 minutes. Locals will know how dumb fast that was in a car with bad bearings.

Then when spring came around, it overheated well past the hot mark. I learned the hard way that it didn’t have functional cooling fans. There’s more, too, like a belt that broke when I was on my way home from a day being myself at the beach, door locks that were incapable of holding themselves up, and horrible paintwork. But the car never failed me. I ended up selling it to CarMax a year later and taking the earnings straight to Smart Center Lincolnwood, where I drove out in a brand new Smart Fortwo.

CarMax put it in an auction, where it failed to sell over and over for several months. Last time I searched the car’s VIN, someone was using it as a beater out in Wisconsin. Hopefully that car is still saving someone from something.

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Lalita Chemello: 1992 Chevrolet Caprice Wagon

Lalita Chemello: 1992 Chevrolet Caprice Wagon

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Photo: Lalita Chemello

Wagons were big in my family. I can’t tell you how many fun trips were taken in some form of a station wagon, always with a rear-facing seat. The wagon was also the car we could eat in, so A&W drive-ins were acceptable.

The wagon, pictured above, wasn’t the first car that was in my name, but it was the car I learned to drive in and drive to all of my after school activities that my father just couldn’t keep up with. I would be the second living thing to add a dent to its side, two days after I earned my pink slip in Michigan after attempting a turn I certainly wasn’t ready for. The first was a deer that decided to run into it.

Because I was tiny — not even a solid 100 pounds and just over five feet tall by the time I was licensed — and the Caprice was so huge, I would have to be parked or stopped to roll down the passenger-side window. The method was to lay across the seat, and awkwardly try to roll down the window without needing to unbuckle. It sometimes worked.

She also had a cassette player, and by the time I got my license in 2004, CDs were the rage. You better bet I had the cassette adapter so I could use my Sony Walkman, and eventually an iPod, to play all of my favorite tunes.

The boat was a hit with my friends. She was great for tailgating, bringing your friends places, and hauling all of our band equipment to jazz band festival. We happened to top out the speedometer on that trip and passed a Corvette.

She was a great car, even with my dad’s training regiment of having me slalom cones forward and in reverse while practicing various parking maneuvers, because this wagon isn’t your tiny Jetta wagon. No, she was like D-car sized.

Her legacy ended the weekend before Christmas, as I was running errands for our Christmas party happening later in the afternoon. A Chrysler Cirrus was in a Jeep’s blindspot, and as the Jeep passed, I pulled out, and that was the end of the Caprice. However, we had another Caprice, same year, but red in color with the automatic windows, that would gain some of her parts before we parted.

I think of her often. RIP Big Blue.

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Raphael Orlove: 1992 Toyota Camry

Raphael Orlove: 1992 Toyota Camry

Just like this, but refrigerator white. Unsurprisingly, I never really took any photos of the Camry.
Just like this, but refrigerator white. Unsurprisingly, I never really took any photos of the Camry.
Photo: Toyota

I suppose my first car was my 1973 VW Baja Bug, my dream car, the first car I ever owned, the one I bought with a handful of $50 bills, the one I took to my first track day, the one that cured me from my car freedom of NYC, the one I quickly rolled over on a cold and icy morning not far from the city.

I suppose, maybe, that my parents’ 1989 Volvo 240 station wagon was my real first car. I learned to drive stick on it, a somewhat fateful drive that involved me crashing literally immediately into a fence because my dad neglected to mention it was in first gear, that he then drove me to a parking lot not realizing he had the handbrake on the whole way. That was the one I’d drive when I came home on summer break, the one I tried to max out on highway 113 south of Dixon, CA. (I took my foot off the gas at 88 mph. It felt like the car was going to fall apart. It probably was.) That was the one I crashed for the first time, finding out the hard way how fast is too fast to take the turn around the corner from my house in Davis and meeting a parked Corolla inconveniently in my way.

I should, rather, pay some kind of honor to my first first very first car, the car I learned to drive in at all. The one I drove through my learner’s permit, my older brother begrudgingly tagging along in the passenger seat in the foggy winter of 2007, making excuses to find good orange trees on the other side of town so we’d have somewhere to go. (In your hometown, there is nowhere to go. There is never anywhere to go.) I didn’t crash that car, not badly at least, and it was always there for me. It was always there for me, its little four-cylinder never missing a beat, even as I repeatedly pressed the mysterious POWER button beside the automatic transmission lever. I like to think it is still out there, now, putting on another few hundred thousand miles, unfazed.

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8 / 11

Lawrence Hodge: 2003 Acura TL

Lawrence Hodge: 2003 Acura TL

Mine was exactly like this one but blue.
Mine was exactly like this one but blue.
Image: Acura

Like a few of my fellow coworkers, I actually didn’t purchase my first car (that would come later with the ill-fated Jaguar S Type R that I owned for a whole week.) My first car was a gift. Back in 2011, my girlfriend and I welcomed our son into the world. I was a young, broke college student. Our families agreed that we couldn’t be taking a newborn baby around on public transit, especially in a city like Long Beach, which is where we were living at the time. So her father got in contact with a man he knew, and one day he knocked on the door, said “I got you a car. It’s downstairs,” and that was that.

For it to be an eight-year-old car (at the time), it was in great condition when we got it. I think that mostly has to do with the fact that the guy that owned it was this older gentleman who just worked and used it to haul his golf bags to the golf course. That Acura/Honda reliability was a big help on my pockets as they weren’t deep enough to be simultaneously buying formula and worrying about some car issue.

As the years went on, though, things started to happen to it. Almost as if it was signaling me that it was time to get rid of it: one night as it was parked on the street, someone for some reason decided it was a good idea to kick in the rear quarter panel of the car on the passenger side. I woke up to find the huge dent and the boot print of the person on the car. I never got it fixed because it was too pricey, and it started to rust as the years went on; the headlights were HIDs but failed overtime and were pricey to fix; the transmission started shifting with hard thumps; the thermostat failed about three times. The final straw was when both engine mounts decided to fail. That was when I got rid of it.

Even with all of that though, as first cars though, I could’ve done way worse. And the important thing was that it got me, my son, and my girlfriend where we need to go. And because of that, I’ll always look back and be grateful for that.

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9 / 11

Adam Ismail: 1997 Dodge Ram 1500

Adam Ismail: 1997 Dodge Ram 1500

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Image: Stellantis

I wish I had a picture of my first car: A single-cab, 1997 Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Laramie that I believe had the 5.2-liter Magnum V8, as opposed to the 5.9-liter. I’ll admit that I never cared to find out. The thing is, I didn’t want to drive a pickup, unlike all my pickup-driving friends. But I lucked into one because it was a hand-me-down from my brother. And even though I never was and still am not a truck guy, the Ram grew on me, as anyone’s first vehicle does.

It was black and looked almost exactly like the one in the press shot up there, except the rims were a satin silver rather than chrome. But it was a single cab, and that’s one of the things I loved most about it. Short cab, standard bed is the best truck profile, one that even I can get behind. And the bench seat meant that I was never the one roped into taking all my friends anywhere, which I was thankful for.

The Ram never felt like my truck, because it was really my brother’s. And I was OK with that. He drove it all through college about a decade earlier before he moved to Manhattan for work, and every time I got in it, I was awash in déjà vu of all the trips we took together and the music we listened to. Like the time he picked me up from kindergarten in a torrential downpour and we spun on the way home (we were fine). Or the mix CD in the six-disc changer behind the passenger seat that contained all his favorites. “Shimmer” by Fuel. Half of the Garden State soundtrack. A few Counting Crows songs. “Blurry” by Puddle Of Mudd which, I hate to say, still holds up really well.

I had zero need for a pickup truck at 17 and still don’t, but it was freeing to be behind the wheel of one — especially with the windows down — so I can understand the romance. I drove the Ram until one day, when I returned to my freshman dorm at Rutgers after a weekend back home and went to park it. Once I did, I noticed the brake pedal fell limp to the floor. A line ruptured at some point — I hadn’t noticed any strange behavior on I-287 minutes earlier — and my parents were too mortified to ever let me drive it again. I didn’t mind at the time, but I miss it now.

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10 / 11

Erik Shilling: 1986 Volvo 240

Erik Shilling: 1986 Volvo 240

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Photo: Volvo

I don’t remember which shitty old Volvo came first, as my family cycled through a revolving cast of crappy 1980s Volvos when I was a teen in the early aughts, due to a dysfunctional relationship my parents had with an independent Volvo mechanic, who was always happy to sell a new crappy ‘80s Volvo to them as soon as the other one they bought broke down.

This resulted in at least half-a-dozen crappy 1980s Volvos getting cycled through while I was in high school, and probably more. The best was a 1989 240 that even had a sunroof, and ran well and also wasn’t that rusty, which was the biggest surprise, given that not only were these cars from the 1980s, they had also spent all or most of that time in Ohio, where it snows in the winter. We had that 240 for a few weeks before, one night, a lightning storm came through and struck a tree next to our driveway, which promptly fell on and destroyed the best Volvo we’d ever owned.

I’m not saying our relationship with old Volvos was cursed, but at that moment it felt like it. Anyway, the old 240 I had the longest and was my first car for all intents and purposes was a blue 1986 model that was a sad rust bucket but that nonetheless was able to regularly transport me to a couple towns over, where a girl I was seeing lived. She never remarked about how my car was an absolute piece of shit, which in hindsight was very nice of her. One time, I drove to her house and, when I got there, noticed that the rear bumper was missing.

That car also got me to school and back, though, in retrospect, it probably would’ve been safer to walk. At some point, it died, and before I left for college I bought a 1991 Chevy S10 that, practically speaking, is the perfect car for a 17-year-old, since it can carry things and didn’t go too fast and only fit three people, meaning that usually someone else had to do the driving for group outings. Compared to the Volvo, it was a dream.

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