Let's talk cars.

But not the cars we use to get to work, or the supermarket, or dentist appointments. Instead, let’s talk about the greatest cars ever made – the one you drove when you just got your license. That turn-up-the-radio and arm-out-the-window beauty that drove almost all your teenage memories…now THAT was a car.

But first, there’s something important we need to make clear. We can all agree that there were two kinds of kids in the world: Those who had a car and those who didn’t. 

I did not.

My dad had a simple rule about using the family car: Don’t ask.

In all fairness to Dad, I was the last of five drivers in the family. The road to rejection was paved by the dings and dents of my older siblings.

Fortunately, I was surrounded by friends with easy car access to a mixed bag of junkers and respectable runners, all better than walking.

Ford Econoline Van

Here's a fun fact: Vans were once cool. And yes, the '70s were a strange time.

On one end of the car spectrum was my friend Donny’s van, a sweet ride at a time when vans were neither “mini” nor carried baby-on-board stickers. Vans in the ’70s were cool, a potential party on wheels, thanks, in Donny’s case, to the thumpin’ wonder of a Quadrophonic 8-Track Tape Stereo System. Yes, such a thing existed. And it was spectacular.

Another buddy, Richie, also had a van. It was not sweet. The van had more rattle than hum. It was held together by rust, Bondo Body Filler and prayers – mostly mine. In our senior yearbook, under ambition, Richie wrote: “To truck out West and mellow out.” Kids wrote stuff like that in the ’70s. Of course, Richie never would have made it out West in that van, but I admired his optimism.

My friend Chris had an assortment of cars at his disposal, including a retired U.S. mail delivery truck. Beats me where it came from, but neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night kept him from giving me a ride.

The only thing his vehicles had in common was a gas gauge needle that hovered dangerously above empty. I’d chip in a dollar and we’d ride as far as our scraped-together gas money would allow. We lived in a small town and gas was cheap. It worked.

Another kid in my class, Ken, had a 1957 Chevy with flames painted on the sides. He wore his red hair slicked back like John Travolta’s crew in Grease. He also smoked and kept his cigarettes rolled up in his T-shirt sleeve like James Dean. I didn’t want to be a greaser and I didn’t want to smoke, but I secretly admired the swagger of a kid marching to the beat of his own drummer. Besides, his car had flames painted on the sides. Flames!

1957 Chevy Bel Air

Talk about your hot car, a 1957 Chevy Bel Air custom beauty.

But the best car of my teen years belonged to my buddy Tim. It was a copper and black, 1968 Cougar XR7 two-door with bucket seats and those headlight covers that open and close when you turned on the lights.

The car really belonged to his mom, but she let him customize it so it would be “age appropriate.” That meant wide tires with chrome mag rims, loud exhaust pipes and air shocks to lift the back end. Why it needed a back-end lift I had no idea, but it was cool and Tim, being a pal, let me ride shotgun all the time.

If you're going to cruise aimlessly through youth, you might as well ride in a 1968 Mercury Cougar XR7.

If you're going to cruise aimlessly through youth, you might as well ride in a 1968 Mercury Cougar XR7.

The Cougar also had a Craig cassette tape player, what with music being key to cruising aimlessly through youth. Invariably, the tape we played was an album by Santana called Abraxas, a mix of rock and jazz and salsa and blues, radically different than the two major musical influences of our town: Top 40 radio and Polkas.

Santana was our first expression of nonconformity. Where that cassette came from, I had no clue. But I do know where it is now.

With nowhere to go and all the time in the world to get there, we popped in Santana's Abraxas to keep us company.  

With nowhere to go and all the time in the world to get there, we popped in Santana's Abraxas to keep us company.  

Not long ago, but many decades after our last ride together, a small package arrived in the mail. Inside was the cassette, an artifact of my youth as profound as the Rosetta Stone, but with a better beat.

“Yes, it is the original, your fingerprints are probably all over it,” Tim wrote in a note with the cassette. “See if it works, take it for a ride.”

So I do. Often. If only in my memories.

It’s a funny thing about a car. Even if you’re driving with no particular place to go, your head filled with music and the night air rushing in through a rolled-down window, that long-ago car, with your best friend behind the wheel, can take you for a ride that lasts a lifetime – even if you only have a dollar for gas.

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