All of us have our favorite cars–cars we’ve known, cars we’ve owned, cars we’ve loved, cars we wish we could own. But what were the most influential cars in your life, good or bad, and why? What cars shaped your outlook on things automotive? My list is below. What’s yours?
1973 Volkswagen Beetle. Photo by IFCAR.
1973 VW Beetle(s). I grew up in the back seat of a pair of them–both 1973s; one was white with no options save for an AM radio, and one was a red Super Beetle with every option including the air conditioning (with the CCCCOOOOOL sticker in the window) and automatic stickshift. It took ten years to understand why my mom had to shift her automatic, but the neighbor’s 98 Regency had a lever you could plunk and go, with no more crazy hand jive. I cried when the red one was traded in on a used ’79 Granada in ’82, and I carried a legitimate grudge against my parents for decades for dumping the perfectly good 150,000-mile white one in ’85. I fetishized Beetles for decades, until I had the opportunity to drive one. That opened my eyes real quick; the bloom is off the rose. But even that taught me: the proof is in the driving. It’s a lesson that is recalled every time I slip behind the wheel of a stranger’s car.
1971 Plymouth Satellite Sebring. Cropped print ad from author’s collection.
1971 Plymouth Satellite Sebring. Mr. Miele, across the street, had an olive-green 318-cu.in. two-barrel coupe, with hubcaps, bench seat and a column shift. Nothing remotely sporting about it. But its shape was the first one that really had me look at a car and think, man, that’s good looking. The cars in my neighborhood tended to have sharpish edges, and this one didn’t. That fat C-pillar, those zaftig curves, that body-on-top-of-a-body look, the bumper that completely encircled the headlamps and grille … it made me think that cars were cool. Later, when I discovered that there was a Road Runner version, in cool colors and decent wheels and engines that made noise and power, I fell in love all over again. Had I not purchased my Mercury Montego all those years ago, I would have found myself a Satellite or Road Runner for sure (probably a Satellite, ‘cause I’m equal parts poor and cheap). I saw another one just like Mr. Miele’s this weekend at the local Goodguys event here in Scottsdale, except Cragars had replaced the stock wheels. So help me, I almost dropped a business card on the driver’s seat.
1949 Jeepster. Photo by author.
Jeepster. In the spring or summer of 1976, when I was a boy of no more than six or seven, we traveled from suburban New Jersey to distant upstate New York to visit a college friend of my mom’s. And she had a yellow Jeepster. I had never been in a soft- top anything before–my parents were far too practical, and they didn’t really know the sort of people who bought convertibles anyway–and one sunny morning we went into town for a couple of errands, and for ice cream. I was on top of the world. For sheer car-ride-as-good-time machine, this Jeepster was my first.
1976 Chevrolet Impala Custom Coupe. Cropped ad from author’s collection.
1976 Chevrolet Impala Custom Coupe. My grandfather bought it new in the spring of 1976, the last in a long line of full-size Chevys that dated to 1960, because he heard that they were downsizing the big Chevy for ’77 and he didn’t want anything to do with that nonsense. Dark green metallic, with tan interior and some sort of houndstooth- patterend burlap seating areas that, I don’t mind saying, did a number on knees and elbows. His last car, and my first; I got my mitts on it in the spring of ’87. My high school graduation present in 1988 was a set of white-letter Dunlop GT Qualifiers–235/60R15s. During one and a half years of high school and all four years of college, it was my steed, my ticket to freedom. Its two-barrel 350 was rated at just 145 horses–the absolute nadir of 350-cube small-block power. The 26-gallon gas tank didn’t hurt too much when gas was a buck a gallon and minimum wage was $3.35 an hour. College buddies still regale me with tales about what went on with, and within, that car. Five years, 50,000 miles, and more speeding tickets than I can count (at least one of which I got out of because the short tires caused speedometer error!), I moved it along for what I paid for it; the money went toward insurance on my new buggy. I have a sneaking suspicion that mine ended up as RoboSaurus fodder at Englishtown Raceway Park sometime later in the ‘90s. Proof that the fun of a car goes beyond the performance attributes of the car itself, ‘cause man, this Impala didn’t have any. Part of me still wants to shoo my Dart out of the garage in exchange for a ’74 or ’75 Caprice ragtop in equivalent shape.
1996 Subaru WRX STI. Press image from author’s collection.
1996 Subaru WRX sedan. At a press event at Pocono Raceway in 1996, I slipped behind the wheel of all sorts of things I had no business driving, from Land Rovers to extended-cab V10 Dodge pickups (which I accidentally spun coming out of the infield) and all manner of metal in between. Almost as an afterthought, I thought I would try something that Subaru brought along: a WRX sedan. It was silver, with gold wheels, and beyond the big lights and hood scoop, was the most unassuming little chunk ever. Truth be told, I wanted to try it because I’d never driven a right-hand-drive car before. But within 100 yards, I was hooked: as a performance car it was modern, felt tight, and offered power and grip like nothing I’d felt since. I decided there and then that if the WRX ever came to America, I’d buy one. And in 2001, I did. With 190,000 miles on the clock, it remains my wife’s faithful daily driver. I don’t care how many plastic bits fall out of the interior, I will be buried in that car, I love it so.
The Riviera’s influential interior.
1964 Buick Riviera, 1946 Mercury convertible. An odd pairing, on their face, but both were cars I photographed for Hemmings Classic Car once upon a time. And both of them influenced my living space for about half a decade. (My once-Trading-Spaces- addicted wife saw any opportunity to get me excited about interior decorating as a plus, and encouraged me).
Driving the Riviera was an experience all by itself–it felt very Rat Pack, particularly the example I shot on the outskirts of Las Vegas. It was the first old car I’d driven that actually felt together–as if everything worked together for a singular purpose, rather than a mix of components doing what they needed to do. The interior was part of that: I wanted that relaxed feeling of leather and wood, with chrome accents, to help me wind down at the end of the day. It’s not every car I’d feel perfectly comfortable driving 400 miles across the desert and into my garage. My current Dart certainly isn’t one of them. But that Rivvie? Oh yeah. (It took a trip to Vegas, to meet the car owner in question, to express what I wanted to my wife. Once she sat inside, she got it. Happily). And so my living room was given a tannish leather-treatment paint on the walls, black wainscoting and chair rail, and a final, subtle touch: chrome. You know the 20-foot self-adhesive coils of wheeltrim molding you can get at the local Pep Boys? We pressed it into place where the chair rail met the wall; it’s not nearly as tacky as it sounds. Even today, half a decade after moving out of that location, we still call it the Riviera Room.
Right-hand drive 1946 Mercury convertible. Photo by author.
I was less inspired by driving the Merc, but just as influenced by its color combination: creamy yellow with a deep red leather interior, a combination that I never would have dreamed of, yet which looked darned good in person. I decided that this would work for my dining room–yellow walls, maroon carpet. With the existing real wood accents around the place, it worked out well. Someday, when the time for paint is upon me in our place in Phoenix, I hope to try out one theme or the other again.
By: Jeff Koch