TERRE HAUTE —
Brilliant sunshine beams down on Danny Weir and his “first love” in that photograph from the summer of ’63.
He’s 18, looking country cool in rolled up sleeves, jeans, loafers and a straw hat with the southern Indiana countryside stretched out in the background. Weir’s companion in the picture gleams, sublime. It’s his 1952 Oldsmobile Super 88 convertible. Under its hood sat a 303.6 cubic-inch engine with a four-barrel carb and 160 horsepower. NASCAR racers won big in the ’50s driving similar models.
“It was the hot car of the day,” said Weir, one of dozens of readers responding to the Tribune-Star’s callout for “Remember Your First Car” stories.
Working as a powerline maintenance man back in 1963, Weir saved his paychecks to replace the torn convertible roof with a new, white ragtop, purchased from a J.C. Whitney catalog for $50.
As the photo shows, Weir and his Oldsmobile made a sharp pair.
This wasn’t just an eye-catching vehicle, though. This was his first car. With help from his mom, he bought it in 1960 as a 15-year-old from an ad in the Terre Haute Tribune. He drove it in his driver’s license test, through high school and on his first date with his future wife (they’ve now been married 49 years). Weir was behind its wheel when he heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination crackle from its Deluxe push-button radio.
“I always loved that car, and I always felt like it was a little special,” said Weir, now 68 and living in Hymera.
In April 1964, he was “hot-roddin’” and its transmission went out. Weir kept the Olds 88 in storage, carefully, in various locations for, yes, 45 years. He’d hoped to restore it, but kids, college and life happened. After retiring from Eli Lilly, Weir decided to sell the car to someone committed to refurbishing it. A classic car buff and factory owner from Tennessee did exactly that, and last year, its shining image appeared on the cover of the “Journey with Olds” collector magazine. It won a Best in Show award.
The knowledge that his first car remains on the road pleases Weir.
A couple respondents to “Remember Your First Car” still drive their breakthrough vehicle. Jerry Kinney grew up in Terre Haute and now lives in Lebanon, Ind., accompanied by his 1967 Chevelle SS now “worth 50 times more than I paid for it back then.” Several other folks lamented of their first cars: “I wish I still had it,” even though it was “a tank,” had to be push-started on a hill, or burned up seven different transmissions.
Next Sunday, May 18, the Wabash Valley Rodders will welcome cars of all makes, shapes, sizes and vintage for the club’s 13th annual Rod & Machine Roundup at Terre Haute’s riverside Fairbanks Park. They’ll range from “pure stock” to muscle cars, Corvettes, “rat rods” and even brand new 2014s, explained Rodders club member Charles Pender. In good weather, more than a hundred drivers will park their classic and current vehicles, pop the hood, and enjoy a day filled with awards judging, story swapping, music by a DJ, and lots of “oohs and ahhs.”
For many, Pender said, the inspiration to revive an antique set of wheels stems from their own first-car memories.
“As they get later on in life, they go back and try to get a car like their first car,” Pender said.
Count him among that legion.
Pender is restoring a 1963 Chevy Impala SS, almost identical to his first car, the original purchased with his mom’s financial assistance from a Chevrolet dealership in downtown Terre Haute. Pender needed a car to get back and forth to classes at Indiana State University. His Impala “beat walking.”
To re-create it, Pender bought a similar ’63 Impala SS on eBay from a guy in Muncie almost two years ago. Pender’s original bore a burgundy red paint job with a white vinyl top; his eBay find was silver with a black vinyl top. No matter. He’s stripped this car down to the chassis in his southern Vigo County garage, gradually repairing rusted metal, aging joints and weathered seals.
Pender knows what he’s doing. The 66-year-old retired Terre Haute federal prison employee has already restored a sweet, rare, silver-blue 1965 Corvair Corsa — blending its look with a ’66 Corsa, which was his second car — and a 1940 Chevy. The Impala SS will likely take another year to complete.
“I’m thankful I was able to find it,” Pender said, standing beside a platform holding the Impala’s 327 cubic-inch V8 motor. “I’ve got other cars, but this one will be my favorite, because it’s like my first car.”
Of course, not all “first cars” are classics or cultural icons. “A lot of times, it may not be the greatest thing in the world. It could be just four tires and a seat,” Pender said, “but it was yours.”
The bond transcends cubic inches, wheel rims and white-wall tires.
“There’s just a lot of memories, not just with the car, but the fun you had with it, the fond memories, the dates,” Pender said. “Your first car, your first love — it’s almost like the same thing.”
The attachment is the subject of academic studies. Janelle Wilson, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth with expertise in nostalgia, had her students gather stories from former owners of the iconic ’60s car — the Volkswagen Beetle. In many cases, the VW “Bug” was the first car for the people surveyed, according to Wilson’s summary on PsychologyToday.com. Lots of their memories involved breakdowns, getting stranded on a roadside, backing up hills (because Beetle engines were in the car’s rear end) and heaters failing. Yet, their recollections were fond and linked to the newfound freedom the quirky car provided, Wilson reported.
In 2012, the Subaru corporation devised an animated online platform that allowed users to “Rebuild Your First Car” by plugging in its model, color and condition. It was part of a promotion for Subaru’s then-new Imprezza. The first car stories gave the campaign an emotional hook. “Everyone loved their first car, no matter how bad, beat up or borrowed,” the company statement read. “That first car became a new chapter in life or a ticket to freedom and first-car stories are often the most memorable we have.”
Indeed, some were hand-me-downs. Trib-Star reader Tom Sappington, a former Terre Haute resident now living in Ohio, got his 2-door, olive-green ’68 Chevy Impala from his dad. He drove it for two years before being handed down “the next Impala.”
Some were beat up. Former Terre Hautean Jim Clayton, now living in LaHarpe, Ill., kept a friend’s old jacket in his 1968 AMC Javelin to smother flames shooting from the carburetor, which chronically caught fire at stoplights.
And some were brand new. Lynette (Wible) Inbody rode from her home in Sullivan to a dealership in Franklin with two friends. She was 19 years old, with a job in Terre Haute, but no driver’s license … yet. She trekked to Franklin because her brother-in-law had purchased a Ford Fairlane there, and thought she would get a “good deal.”
Inbody picked out a mint green 1963 Ford Falcon with a “Ford-o-matic” transmission, a padded dashboard and visors and all-vinyl trim. The pricetag: $2,555. She financed it for three years with monthly payments of $62.66. “I thought, at that age, I was smart enough to know what I wanted to do,” Inbody recalled this month. Nonetheless, she had to wait six months to pass her driver’s test, before she could motor in it alone. Once she got licensed, she could fill up its gasoline tank for $4.
Inbody still has the buyer’s order and the “new car” window sticker.
She drove the Falcon for five years. “And then I bought the car I really liked,” she said. “A ’68 Mustang.” It, too, is just a memory now. But a good one.
“What I really wish is that I had my Mustang back,” Inbody said, chuckling.
Apparently, second cars — especially Mustangs — can be special, too.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.