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Used Cars

A Drive Down Memory Lane

Kiplinger's readers share their most memorable car stories from their youth.

Recently, Kiplinger's Personal Finance editor Fred Frailey described how he wrecked and repaired his dad's company car, without his father ever knowing about it -- quite a feat when you consider that it all happened during one three-day weekend. (Click here to read Fred's tale, What Makes My Motor Run.) Fred invited readers to tell their own car stories of their youth, and dozens of you responded. Read the best submissions in this five-part series, starting with the most recent installment.

PART 5

In the fifth and final installment of the series, two's a charm, the scene of a wreck is restaged, and lastly, a car with no brakes offers a thrilling ride.

Where's the Third Car?

In 1970, my family lived in Nashville and I was a high school senior. Ours was a two-car family. My parents decided to fly to a convention in Miami for a week. I begged and begged them to let me have the car while they were gone, particularly since I was staying with my grandparents down the street. My parents allowed me to drive one of our cars.

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I took my parents to the airport that Saturday morning. Being a teenager with all this freedom -- no parents and a car -- I immediately went to pick up my two high school buddies. Twelve hours later, I wrecked the car. I had run through a red light and hit another car. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but I had to have the car towed to the repair shop.

My grandparents just laughed about the accident (thank goodness for grandparents). And since no one was hurt, we all agreed not to tell my parents until they got home. Hopefully, the car would have been repaired by then anyway. Meanwhile, I debated all week long about taking my parents' other car. Do I dare? Finally, after riding the bus to school all week, I could not take it any longer. My teenage rebellious soul was overpowering me, and I decided to drive the second car on Friday with my grandparents' permission. How could I wreck another car? So I picked up the same two friends and we headed to school.

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Believe it or not, twelve hours later, I wrecked the second car with the same two friends sitting in their same old spots. As I was backing out of my friend's driveway, I hit a tree that made a football-size dent on the driver's door. I tried opening the door, to no avail. The dent was right on the door's hinges. At that moment, I knew that I had only 24 hours to live, since my parents were going to kill me the next day when they arrived. Incredibly, my grandparents were crying tears of laughter and not pity.

Saturday came around, and my grandparents and I took their car to pick up my parents at the airport. I figured my only way out of this alive was to tell Dad in the middle of the airport. Surely he would not hit me, or, worse, kill me, with all those people walking around. So I told my dad about both cars, with tears flowing. He immediately asked me if anyone was hurt, and I told him no. What he said next, I will never forget: "Well, thank goodness I don't have three cars." He actually chuckled, and as he did, all that weight I was carrying rolled off my shoulder. --Robin Hitner, Powder Springs, Ga.


The Red Stump

My story happened in 1969. I was 16 years old and had saved enough money picking strawberries, mowing lawns and working in my Dad's gravel pit to buy a very stock four-door 1957 Chevy. I desperately wanted a souped-up two-door with a four-speed, but my budget would only handle the sedan.

The whole family was going out of town, and I did not want to go, so I begged off. My dad reluctantly agreed, but said I could only drive my car down to the gravel pit to grease up the trucks and then straight back home. I raced through my job at the pit and promptly went out to cruise up and down Riverside Drive.

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I stopped in at a car wash to visit my friend Bob. As I left, I saw a patch of wet pavement where the cars had left the car wash and knew that I could break the tires loose if I punched it at precisely the right moment. What I didn't see was the large red vacuum cleaner mounted on top of the immovable concrete pedestal, until the front left corner of my "57" Chevy was securely wrapped around it.

Being a fast-thinking 16-year-old that did not want to be grounded into the next millennium, I promptly pulled the bumper away from the tire, nursed the car back down to the gravel pit, ran the front end of the car into a large stump causing additional front-end damage and left it.

When my family returned home, I used the standard "a deer jumped out in front of me and I had to swerve to miss it" excuse, which at the time I thought was an original line. My dad skeptically surveyed the accident scene and told me that I would have to fix the damage myself. This effectively grounded me for the next four months as I scoured junkyards for parts and learned how to repair a car.

I confessed to my dad when I was in my early thirties, and he confessed to me that he knew that the red paint on the front of that car had not come from that brown stump. --Dan Cameron, Mt. Vernon, Wash.

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No Top, No Windshield, No Brakes

The year was 1948. I hung out with the likes of Art Reynolds and Vince Bauerlein. Once we turned 16 and got our driver's licenses, we had to have a car. Each of us coughed up $10 and purchased a 1928 Chevy roadster. It had a rumble seat, but no top, no windshield and no brakes! The only way to stop the thing was to downshift into lower gears, then pop it into reverse and let out the clutch for an abrupt stop.

Our first trip in our new set of wheels was to Lake Arrowhead where we would rendezvous with some other boys for an overnight in a cabin belonging to the parents of one of the guys. Oh yes, it was the dead of winter!

As we drove up the mountain, it began to sleet, and the road was icy. With no top or windshield, we were freezing, even with goggles, caps, gloves and heavy jackets. We made it to Lake Arrowhead and drove around for a while. But we couldn't find the cabin where we were to spend the night, and it was getting late. Coming around a downhill curve near Blue Jay at a pretty good clip, Art shifted into a lower gear to slow down and the car went into a spin before sliding over an embankment. A large tree prevented us from plunging into the creek below.

Leaving the car there, we walked with our sleeping bags to the Blue Jay fire station (now a McDonald's) where we spent the night. Fortunately, since it was a volunteer fire department, no one was there and the door was unlocked. Next morning we were able to nudge the car back on the road, but a wheel was bent and, of course, there was no spare. The three of us hitchhiked home.

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Vince and I released our ownership of the car to Art since it was registered in his name, and he volunteered to get another wheel and take it up to retrieve the vehicle from the mountain. I wonder where that car is today. It would be worth plenty. I wouldn't own another car until after college graduation. --Ken Bemis, Placentia, Calif.


PART 4

In the fourth installment, boomers' kids chime in with their car tales of woe. Members of Generation Y describe a less-than-graceful exit, a disastrous trip to the store and a neverending journey in Germany.

The Two-Fer Wreck

Growing up, my dad's business partner had a thing for Jeep Grand Cherokees (fully loaded), and he’d only let one get a few years old before he got a new one. One of the main reasons the Jeeps never aged that much is because one of his boys would wrap one around a tree or roll one on a back road somewhere. Now, my dad was always giving his partner a hard time about the Jeeps because they were paid for by the company they both owned (and because it was fun).

In 1994 my dad got a brand new cherry red, big tire, Dodge Ram 1500. This was the first year the new model came out, and the Dodge Ram would turn heads. Well, it wasn't long before my dad and his partner had to go out of town for a few days on business, and this was one of those rare occasions they took the wives. What to do as a lad of 16 attending a high school of 5,000, half of which are girls that I wanted to impress with the only new Dodge Ram around. Lo and behold, the son of my dad’s partner had the same idea regarding his dad's new Jeep.

There I was in the student parking lot as the last bell of the day rang to let the upperclassmen out to their cars and the lowerclassmen out to scamper for a ride from anyone with wheels, so they could hang out the window with a cigarette, or bob their head to music and hopefully boost their social standings a few points. I was primed.

I needed a central location in the parking lot for maximum exposure. There it was -- one open spot in full view of all the busses lined up, where every student could get an eyeful of who was behind the wheel of that beautiful piece of machinery then known as "the New Ram." And it was right next to a brand new, limited edition, fully loaded, black Jeep Grand Cherokee. I couldn't believe it; there my friend and I were, side by side in sure disobedience, showing off our fathers' new vehicles, pretending they were "our rides." As a small crowd started to gather I shouted out the window, "Stand back, I'm outta here."

Instead of peeling out and riding off into the sunset, making all the cheerleaders swoon, my grand exit consisted of misjudging the amount of space I had to pull forward and fit in between my friend in his father's Jeep and the car in front of him. All I did was cut the wheel all the way to the right and take the entire front end off the Jeep, while completely destroying the right side of "the New Ram." My friend didn't even take the Jeep out of park; he was just sitting there.

After the smoked cleared, all the crowd of teachers and students could do was laugh as I drove off to face my fate. I decided it was a good idea to tell my father over the phone while he still had a few days left to cool down before he got within an arm's reach of me.

I will never forget that phone call. He was in his hotel room with my mother, his partner and his wife; they were just about to go out for dinner when I caught them. I told him straight out what happened. As my story went on I could hear his breathing get heavier and heavier.

"D@&#-IT," he shouted. I could hear my dad's partner in the background, "What happened?" To which my father replied, "Sheff wrecked my new truck." The next thing I heard was my dad say to his partner, "What the hell are you laughing at? He hit your new Jeep!" Later, the only thing I could think of was how my dad was going to explain to the insurance company how two vehicles with the same owner got in a fender bender. --Sheffield Brodene

Mom, Backseat Driver

No doubt, everyone has experienced the enjoyment of learning to drive. However, it is those nerve-wracking moments where you learn the most. Awhile back, when I was still a young driver, I gained a great deal of experience on a loaner Mercury Sable that my parents were using while their 1997 Mountaineer was in the shop. I loved driving that midsize sedan, and over the span of two or so weeks I got real comfortable with the "rules of the road."

The day came to pick up the Mountaineer, and I drove that Sable all the way to the shop. Impressed with my confidence, my mom suggested that I drive the "newly repaired and serviced" SUV. Of course, before going home, we had to stop at the adjacent Staples to pick up a few items. So I gracefully drove the SUV across the parking lot and, as most young drivers do, I went directly for the back of the Staples lot where there was an abundance of vacant parking spaces -- parking was still my weak area.

But no . . . my mom wanted me to park right up front, right up front. To make a long story short, with my mom hounding me to park in that tight spot right near the entrance, my foot hit the gas (not the brake), and if not for the brick wall, I would have ended up in Aisle 6 -- which would have put my mom just about as close to those supplies as she could get.

Oh, by the way, I still only had my permit. In the end it all worked out -- no one was hurt, we had to get a new Mountaineer (which was better than the first one), and six months later than I was supposed to, I got my license. Today I can park a tank with my eyes closed. --Alessandro Colantonio, Miami

150-Kilometer Traffic Jam

Being a youth myself (14, ninth grade) and living near Frankfurt, Germany, I have had the opportunity to witness some pretty strange things, such as heavy tractors with fodder wagons stuck on railway tracks. My misadventure in this country happened in the middle of last November during the "Schneechaos" (snow chaos), in which it snowed so much at times that if you stood still whilst photographing tractors too long, you would endure the risk of getting hit by another BMW thinking you are a real snowman.

My dad, an army officer then stationed near Würzburg, had won an eBay auction for a 1995 VW Passat GLX wagon that was near Emden. Being as we had just arrived in Germany, we rented a German spec Ford Focus diesel wagon, a most wonderful car that could really sell well if Ford would bring it across the pond. We threw in some stuff hoping to make it to the North Sea and back in one day.

We started driving, and before long, we ran into heavy snowfall and traffic jams. We took the next exit, and we were soon lost in the middle of Osnabrück. We went to all the hotels we could find -- they were all full. We were wandering aimlessly around the town when my parents saw a covered parking garage by a large shopping center that was closed. We parked for the night. We put on our heavy coats and got out some blankets. We kept turning the engine on every 20 minutes to keep the car heated. I soon fell asleep.

I woke up some hours later in the early morning and found that we were moving, finally we are making some progress, I thought. We came to an entrance for the autobahn: We saw a long line of fire trucks and relief vehicles going onto the autobahn, and we asked some firefighters as to whether it was open. It was closed. We drove back to the parking garage, and my mom blurted out: "Hey kids, we’re home!" We soon plotted a route to our destination by secondary roads. Some hours later we arrived, we looked at the Passat, and we had breakfast with the car’s owner. He was amazed we came this far.

Fortunately, he had a very nice holiday house with incredibly cheap rates, so we decided to stay overnight as we were very tired. As I was watching the evening news, I learned the traffic jam we had run into in Osnabrück was 150 kilometers long and some people were out there for the third day. Relief workers were taking out some people for frostbite and were also distributing hot food and drink to the unfortunate motorists. There were also military trucks giving out petrol and diesel as some vehicles had run out while keeping their heaters on.

The next day we carefully planned our way home, avoiding the autobahn, and we made it home alive about midnight to find hungry kitties and meter-deep snow. We soon wished that we hadn't bought the car. It has a major breakdown about every two months. Among its problems, we have had to rebuild the transmission, change out various coolant hoses, and replace a dead fuel pump. Plus, we have had to deal with no torque, a driver's door that doesn't open, leather that is so cheap it must be from a fake cow and the terrible smell of dog as the previous owners often transported their dogs with this car. We are now selling it and have bought a Ford Focus wagon that, except for its lack of a manual transmission, is an infinitely better car. --Fritz Webster, Frankfurt, Germany


PART 3

In the third installment, a teen sneaks out for a late-night spin, a foggy window causes trouble, and a drag race gets stalled out of the starting gate.

Those Dratted Weights

I was 14 years old in 1960, living in Memphis. During this period in my life, all the boys I ran around with in school would sneak the family car out after their parents had gone to sleep. A friend who lived two houses down and I spent the night in a tent in the backyard one summer night in 1960. I took the spare car key before I left with the idea of taking the car out for a spin. The bad thing—I had never been behind the wheel of a car in my life. Somehow, my friend (nicknamed Toad because of his size) and I were able to get the car out of a one-car garage and down an eight-foot driveway to the street at about 2 a.m.

We had a grand time driving the four blocks around my house. After a period that felt like an hour, I headed that 1957 Buick Special home. On the way back we passed a police car, and did the policeman give us a funny look. I was so afraid that I kept looking back to see what he was going to do. At the time, I didn't know Toad was doing the same thing.

All of a sudden when I turned back around I sideswiped a car parked on the street. I didn't stop, and the policeman must not have seen it because he continued going the other way. Somehow, I got the car home and back in the garage. The next day my father was gone to work before I could see how bad the car looked.

When my dad came home that afternoon, I was called in for a talk. I didn't have the nerve to look at the car. Dad started the conversation with how he had told me those weights I used to work out with in the garage would someday be a problem. He said that the bar must have scratched the door when I removed it from the holder that he had made to store it.

From that time on, I was not allowed to use the weights when the car was in the garage. I am now 60 years young, both parents have died, and the story has never been told until now. --Donald Hamric, Arlington, Tenn.

All Fogged Up

In 1959, I was a freshman at college and had come home for Thanksgiving. On Friday night, I borrowed my Dad's '55 Chevy two-door Bel-Air hardtop to go out with some buddies. I left the car parked in a drive-in restaurant parking lot for five or six hours. When I returned to drive home, the windshield was fogged over. I started the car and headed for the street hoping that the windshield would defrost before I got out of the parking lot.

No such luck. I slammed into something on my way to the street. I got out of the car and saw that I have encountered the concrete base for a parking lot light pole. It was just high enough to hit the front bumper but not high enough to be visible through the fogged-over window. I got back into the car and noticed that I was dripping blood from my lip. My face had slammed into the steering wheel horn rim, which had broken my lip.

Dad needed the car to go to work on Saturday and would surely notice the broken horn rim. So, I got up early and drove him to work, requesting to use the car for the day. I replaced the broken horn rim and closely inspected the front bumper where it hit the concrete light-pole base. The concrete hit directly on the chrome bolt heads that attached the bumper to the right side of the car frame. On the backside of the bumper, the frame member was curled back and no longer attached properly to the car bumper. But, from the front of the car, there was no visible damage. I was home free!

At Christmas, I came home again. The first thing I noticed was a brand new Chevy station wagon in the driveway. After a warm welcome, I asked my Dad, “Where's the '55 Bel-Air?” Dad replies that about two weeks earlier, he took Mom out to dinner on a Sunday night. On the way to the restaurant, the right front tire went flat. Dad pulled over, took out the bumper jack and proceeded to start jacking up the car to change the tire. However, there was a problem. The car could not be jacked up. The bumper went up, but the car stayed on the ground! They took a cab to dinner, and the following day Dad bought a new car. Did I know anything about this? I had to confess. --Richard M. Davis

All Revved Up, But Going Nowhere

During a summer in the mid 1960s, in which I had just turned 17 and had received my regular license, my father's regular dull work car was in the shop for major repairs. While it was in the shop, he was able to borrow a vehicle from one of his partners. In my opinion, this was the ultimate cruising vehicle: a 1959 Lincoln Continental convertible, black with red leather interior and power everything, including the side vent windows. This car was so heavy and such a gas guzzler that you could drive it up a steep hill, hit the passing gear and actually watch the gas gauge very slowly move down.

One night as I was returning home I stopped at a red light. A sporty vehicle pulled up next to me and the young driver revved up his engine, indicating that he would like to race with me. Losing sight of the takeoff capability of my "hot rod" Lincoln, which was about zero to 60 in two minutes, I responded by putting it into neutral and revving my engine up in response. When the light went to green, I dropped it into "drive" and (you know where this is going, don't you?) the drive shaft immediately disconnected from the rear end. I still hear that other driver laughing! --Jay Glass


PART 2

In the second installment, a little Motor Honey does the trick, the semi-coma of teenaged true love causes an accident and a school bus provides an escape route.

Motor Honey Car

It was 1959, I was a 17-year-old Florida boy and ready to buy my first car. I had spotted a black 1952 Ford convertible on a used-car lot and was determined to have it. I talked my dad into taking me down to Easy Pay Motors for a test drive.

We barely made it around the block. The automatic transmission slipped so much that if I tried to accelerate too quickly, the engine would just race and coast to a stop. "But I could fix that," I told my dad. "I'll just convert it to a manual four-on-the-floor stick shift." Besides, it was only $200 -- what a deal. We got it home, and I immediately went down to the local junkyard and got a manual transmission that was guaranteed to fit. We tried for four or five hours trying to line up and slide in the junkyard tranny. We finally realized that the shaft was too long and would have to be machined.

After that came the fun part. I cleaned, waxed, replaced plugs and changed the oil. It would not start. The compression gauge showed very little compression in each cylinder. We finally figured that the thick oil sludge we drained out of the engine was supplying most of the compression. So we drained out the new oil and returned the sludge along with a quart of Motor Honey. After a few minutes of cranking it finally started. After that, every time I needed oil I just added a quart of Motor Honey. I drove it for three years and sold it for $200. --Gerry Vinson, Wagoner, Okla.

A Fateful Stop

I was 17, just returning from a week's vacation with my family and (sigh) the girl who was the first real love of my life (my mom said she could come along to keep me happy). After that week of bliss, and little meaningful sleep (but no hanky-panky, this was 1964 after all), I was driving Old Blue, my 1957 DeSoto convertible (white with light blue interior), still in that state of semi-coma that teenagers call true love when I came to an intersection and stopped (even though there was no stop sign). I then proceeded to enter the intersection when out of my rearview mirror popped a brand new Plymouth station wagon and, bang, we collided.

After my initial shock, I noticed there was something unusual about the car I hit. It had this emergency light on the roof and the paint on the side identified it as a City of Manitowoc police car. Later in court, a sympathetic judge said, "I'm sorry young man, but we must suspend your driving privileges for a month." My father, who accompanied me for support, said "Your honor, he'll be lucky if he drives anytime in the next year." I think I got that punishment for the razzing my dad got at his monthly police and fire commission meetings (he was the president of the group). My dad relented after two months.

Three years ago, my wife (not the same girl as described above) and I saw the exact replica of this same car down to the paint and the big back seat. That car that I had paid $1,200 for was now restored down to a like-new baby blue and white interior and push-button transmission and selling for $85,000. Now that would have been a good investment. --Tom Golding, Wisconsin

A Hot Time Was Had

It was 1940, and the world was getting ready for war. Europe was already at war. Jobs were easy to find. Mother and Dad were both employed. This lack of supervision and my lack of interest in school made it easy for me to play hooky.

One day when playing hooky, one of my friends had to go back to school to catch the school bus home. The La Salle was in the garage at home laid up for the winter. I volunteered to drive my friend back to catch the school bus. I didn't remember that Dad had drained the radiator for the winter. But the car ran fine until we got to town. Then it started steaming and smoking, and then the engine stopped. I knew I was in deep trouble. I couldn't think of anything else to do so I got on a school bus and went home.

Then I thought, If I could get someone to tow the car home and get the car back in the garage, I could deal with this problem later. I went over to see a neighbor who had a truck. He and his brother were just leaving for town and agreed to tow the La Salle with their truck on the way back home. They did. I got the car back in the garage, shut the door and put the key back in the house were I had found it. Nothing happened until next spring when Dad put water in the radiator, and he tried to start the car but it wouldn't start. He sold it shortly after that as a nonfunctioning car. I never had the nerve to tell them what had happened. --Robert W. Glein, Marysville, Wash.


PART 1

In the first installment, the oil disappears in "The Batmobile," a Fiat meets its match in a Roman street, and a first car serves as the perfect mode of transport for a football team.

The Batmobile

My story is that of a 1960 Chrysler Windsor. I got my driver's license in 1966 just before my 15th birthday. The Chrysler was a tank, being very long and heavy. It required every bit of power from the 383 cubic inch motor to get it down the road. The transmission was accessed through a line of push buttons on the left side of the steering wheel. The gauges were behind a bubble of Plexiglas-like material that extended out from the dashboard to near the base of the steering wheel. It was very futuristic looking.

I drove this car throughout my high school years, and the car and I were almost one with each other. The styling of the car was a classic in the days of fins. More than one of my girlfriends called the car "The Batmobile."

One afternoon in late 1969, on my way to work at the movie theater, under the gauge's protective bubble, I noticed that the temperature gauge momentarily went up, the oil pressure gauge went to low and the motor started clanking, but as fast as it started, it ended with everything back to normal. After the last movie was over, a couple of friends hitched a ride with me. Just as we arrived at the home of one of my friends, the car did the same thing it had done earlier and then stalled . . . forever.

Somewhere, I had hit a bump that caused damage to the oil pan. The damage extended to the oil pump. No oil pressure meant no lubrication for the motor and the engine welded shut.

My dad was not very pleased with me because that was something that could have been fixed before such a fatal event happened. In your story, your dad’s DeSoto survived. I very effectively killed my dad's car! --Phil Sartin Jr., Yantis, Tex.

"Mi Scusi, Signore"

Spending my impressionable teen years in Rome, I had my first real brush with the challenges of driving as a novice in a foreign land in a less-than-familiar set of wheels.

During my senior year of high school, the last year of my dad's assignment as a member of the diplomatic corps, I enjoyed playing racquetball on the weekends. On one such Saturday morning, I headed over to the school to meet some buddies and borrowed my mom's early '70s model Fiat to make the trip.

During my drive through the notorious Roman traffic, I found myself in a fender bender with a truck toting vegetables. After impact (I rear-ended the truck), both the other driver and I hopped out to inspect the damage. This accident was clearly my fault, and I remember saying "Scusi signore, il colpo mio" (excuse me sir, my fault). As there was no damage to the truck, the driver shrugged, got back in his truck and drove away.

My mom's car, however, did not fare so well. The entire front grill, undoubtedly constructed of Italy's finest plastics, was torn to pieces. With horns blaring about me, I picked up the pieces and tossed them in the trunk.

Before heading home that day, I stopped to purchase some glue, hoping I could patch the grill up before my parents noticed my handiwork. Well, the glue did its job and I thought I was off the hook . . . until Dad happened to notice my egregious error. In my haste to cover up the crime, I had not bothered to check my spelling of the busted grill logo and had proudly, but inadvertently, reconstructed the grill of Mom’s “Fait.” --Jim Jeweler, Alexandria, Va.

Sliding and Spinning

As a teenager, I loved cars and cut out four-color ads from magazines, pasting those photos on my wall. Living in Michigan, I dreamed of working for a car company. It seems like only yesterday.

As soon as I could afford it, I bought my first car. It was a 1932 Chevy, black, with tires that I painted to have white sidewalls. It had style, with four chromed cowl vents on each side of the hood, a suitcase-size trunk mounted on the rear bumper and spare tires mounted in the front wheel wells. No matter that the car was a bit older than I was. At $200, it was affordable, and I could easily cover the $20 annual insurance.

Owning your own car in those days was rare for a guy in high school. I quickly got used to driving my friends around, and they cheerfully referred to me as James, the chauffeur. Some months later I quit my job so I could pursue another love, playing high school football. In the small town where I lived, the football team used a locker room at least a mile from the game field, and it would take a few cars to transport the team to the games.

So we'd pile in--and on--my car, a dozen or more guys in full football gear. Then the old Chevy slowly rocked and rolled down the road. Now I wish I had a photo of that. In fact, I wish I owned the car, which provided these memories for us:

Sliding and spinning off icy roads into snow banks.

Cranking it by hand when the battery was weak.

Taking a collection to gather enough money for gas.

Changing two flat tires on one trip into Detroit.

Listening to the rain bounce off the cloth roof.

--Glenn Marshall, Greenback, Tenn.