I remember my first car, an Austin-Healey Sprite. It wasn’t new. In fact, it was so used, it wasn’t even running. The car was stored in my grandparent’s barn. It had belonged to my uncle. He said I could have it if we towed it away and did all the repair. I imagined that he had raced it across emerald corn fields and yellow crops of wheat.
My grandparents and uncle lived in a rural area near East Berlin, Pennsylvania. When we moved from the South in 1966, we stayed with my grandparents for a time. I slept in a room with my sister. There was a door leading up to the attic and sometimes we heard bats scraping around the eaves up there.
The Sprite was tomato red, a 1962 or 1963, I can’t remember for sure, and had a black roll bar, 4-on-the-floor, was a soft-top convertible. That Summer and Fall would be one of the bonding moments between me and my step-dad. He worked his butt off repairing the engine, well, even getting that car to run was a miracle.
I didn’t do much of the hands-on. But looking back, I wish I had. My brothers were all good at fixing their cars, taking care of them, changing the wheels out, replacing spark plugs (do cars even have spark plugs anymore?), fixing the brakes. Even my mother had helped tear down and put back together an engine once in her twenties. It seemed like there was nothing my family could not do in taking car of their cars.
I learned by osmosis. I stood in the cool garage, watching my step-dad work on the engine, helping him out when he needed an extra set of hands, learning about metric tools. I thought it was my first year of college. But my sister remembers it as being my junior or senior year of high school. I must have been 17. Time becomes fuzzy. It’s good to document with photographs or write things down. I only have one or two photos of the Austin-Healey, and I haven’t been able to locate them. Yet. I wish I had taken more photos. It was once-in-a-lifetime kind of car.
I learned to drive a stick. I’ll never forget the day we took the Sprite out for its first spin. My step-dad was tall, over 6 feet. He hunkered down and slid into the driver’s seat. I am much shorter. I hopped into the passenger side, excited, a little scared. Off we went on the two-lane rural road down to the post office, flying about 80 mph. Did the thing even have seatbelts? I can’t remember. Just the roll bar.
I remember the convertible top was up that day; I think it had metal snaps. But what I remember most about the first time we took the Sprite out is my step-dad teaching me to slip the clutch. He told me racers used that technique to gain speed, and there we were, racing down a slow moving Pennsylvania road, rrrrrummmm, rrrrrrummm, rrrrummmm, every time he changed gears.
My mother got involved, too. She helped to fix up the interior of the car, added carpet where there was exposed glue and rough edges. By the time we were all done, it looked like a million bucks. I can’t say it ran like a dream. It had serious wear and tear from use and abuse by my uncle. But I was so proud to be driving that Austin-Healey. Me and Mary, my girlfriend at the time (she had purple suede boots, flaming red hair, and red tinted glasses to match), would show up at softball games with the top down, hop out with our cleats, gloves, and bat bags, and head over to the dugout. There is something about leaving a convertible parked with the top down. What is it?
I don’t know if I would do that today. There is an overall lack of respect for other people’s property that seems to permeate the greater public. I don’t know if I trust people the way I used to. We live in different times. But my mother wasn’t very trusting of the public back in the early 70’s when I was driving the Sprite either. I remember one thing about that car – the muffler kept falling down in unexpected places at uncommon hours. Once on Interstate 83, it happened again – the muffler fell to the road. Mary and I often would tie it up with a wire coat hanger. This time it wasn’t working.
We got out in the roaring traffic, stared under the car, looked at each other, and decided to hitchhike the 5 or 6 miles home. My mother was furious with us. How could we be so trusting, hitchhiking along a major freeway? Who knows who might have picked us up! Back then, we were coming off the tail end of the 1960’s. It was common for women and men to hitchhike wherever they needed to go. I cringe at the thought in the year 2008. I have to tell you, I’d never hitchhike anywhere today.
Mary and I took one long trip in the Austin-Healey, down to the Washington D.C. area to see a concert. We were going to see the Allman Brothers. It turned out, the Grateful Dead were also playing in that outdoor concert. We weren’t Dead Heads. But now I can say I saw the Grateful Dead play. And don’t tell my mother, but I remember we slept with a blanket on the ground in this open green field with a bunch of other concert goers that night, went to McDonalds for breakfast in the morning, and drove back home on backroads. Wanna-be hippie that I was (even though at the time, I was a jock and as straight-laced as they come), I had the time of my life. I felt like a rebel; a female James Dean.
I did love that car. Doesn’t everyone love their first car? But my parents made it special for me, a labor of love, a gift. I think I only drove it a year, maybe two. It was already almost 10 years old. And needed too much maintenance and upkeep for me to take it away to college. But the smell of the engine, the chrome, the sporty headlights, the way the knobs were simple flip switches on a carved wooden dashboard, the feel of hopping in under the roll bar, the way it felt to run down the road with long 70’s hair flying in the wind — I never felt so free.
-posted on red Ravine, Monday, October 20th, 2008
-related to Topic post: WRITING TOPIC — MEMORIES OF CARS
Post Script: I was excited to see if I could actually find a photo that looked similar to the Austin-Healey I owned. No exact matches. The closest I could find was this 1963 Austin Healey Sprite MK II (HAN7 37761). It’s a cool link because you can see the steps he went through to rebuild and refurbish the car. The Mark II’s were second generation; they made them from 1961 to 1964. You can also read more about Sprite history at Austin-Healey Sprite.