Not many residents of the Lower East Side of Manhattan owned cars in the 1960s and 1970s. A metal subway token, and a dose of courage, would get you to almost any corner in New York City your heart desired. The East Broadway subway station of the F train and the bus stop (for my daily trips to and from high school) were a mere nine-minute stroll from our walk-up.
(Welcome to Jalopnik Father’s Day, where we are celebrating the wonderful dads of the Jalopnik staff. This is a story from Chester Lee, dad of Jalopnik staff writer, Kristen Lee.)
I grew up distant (geographically and culturally) from the car-crazed culture of Southern California. As an immigrant from Hong Kong, I came to this country in the late 1960s. First to Seattle in 1966 and then my mother, my four siblings and I settled down in Manhattan in 1967.
As a child in Hong Kong, I had no interest in car culture. Cars were never in my orbit because only the really rich people had cars. And besides that, there were taxis.
No one else in my group of friends or family cared about cars. Just plain old me. For some inexplicable reason, the automobile (at least, the idea of the automobile) occupied an unfair portion of my leisure time. I devoured each new monthly issue of Road & Track, Car and Driver and Motor Trend in the library because I couldn’t afford to buy them.
I waited with anticipation for each new television car commercial, even the Ricardo Montalban spot touting the virtue of fictional “Corinthian” leather in the Chrysler Cordoba. But, I had no real need—nor money—for a car. In school, NYC’s MTA or Boston’s MBTA served me well. Even after I was married and moved to the suburbs, commutes to work were a task for NJ Transit and my wife graciously chauffeured me around during our weekend sojourns.
But this passive love for the automobile ended when my wife and I decided to start a family. A second driver was needed for the added activities that a growing family would require.
At the ripe age of 31, I finally became a licensed driver. Needless to say, I drew inquisitive stares from teenagers taking their road tests at the same time. Not wanting to trust a new car to a rookie, I became the primary driver of our 1983 Toyota Celica GT.
The Celica looked sporty with its angular grille and steeply raked rear hatch. But it lacked the engine and handling of a satisfying car. I was finally able to shop for a new car in 1991 when we learned that Kristen would be arriving in 1992. We looked for a four-door sedan for the child seats, toys and typical things that come with a first child.
Shopping for my first car at 34 posed some interesting challenges. When approaching a car in the showrooms, I instinctively climbed into the front passenger seat, a place I had become accustomed to.
After months of research, I narrowed my choices to three cars: A Saab 9000 Turbo hatchback, a Mitsubishi Galant VR-4 and an Alfa Romeo 164. All had four doors for passengers, were imported and sold in relatively small volume.
Ultimately, in the fall of 1991, I drove home in a shiny, red Saab 9000 Turbo, with the 2.3-liter turbocharged engine and 200 horsepower. I chose the Saab because it had the most reputation of being quirky and unusual. As this was to be my first car and I had some actual income to spend on it, I wanted it to be a little different from the cars everyone else drove. Plus, my wife grew up with Saabs. My mother-in-law had a Saab 900 with a five-speed manual.
My 9000 Turbo was loaded with the latest and greatest tech and conveniences that I could afford. It was fitted with anti-lock brakes, a driver’s side airbag and some new technology of the time: Traction control.
Although the ignition was not between the front seats, as in the Saab 900, it shared the aviation-inspired layout of all Saabs, even after the partial sale to GM. The A/C vents were manipulated with a toggle, much like on an airliner. The front wheel drive layout created a relatively flat floor for rear passengers and the hatchback and fold-down rear seats created a cavernous space for something as large as a refrigerator.
It was surprisingly quick, although by no means fast. Its 200 horsepower gave it good highway passing speed, but the front-wheel drive was a drag at stoplight take-offs. I tried to race a Corvette in it once, from a stoplight. He beat me so badly that I never even caught up to him.
The car was fitted with “viking shield” wheels and wore VR rates tires. Somehow, I believed that VR tires on a front-wheel-drive car would offer relatively decent winter driving. I was wrong. Our drive to the hospital for Kristen’s arrival occurred during a snowy Friday and it was a white-knuckle trip the whole way.
Perhaps the best part of the Saab, for the kids at least, was that the back seat, which was so wide that the two could fit back there and just be out of arm’s reach of each other.
Eventually, I donated the Saab in 2002. It’s gone, but it’s not forgotten.