I was halfway through the four-mile ride to work, late as usual, when the rain began in earnest, soaking me from head to foot and causing the narrow tires of my Cannondale road bike to splash filthy road water on my shirt and face. The year was 1989 and I was working nine to six every day as a junior bagboy at the Big Bear grocery store off the freeway. I earned $4.25 an hour, equivalent to about nine bucks an hour today. It was solid money, but the senior baggers cleared two or three dollars an hour more than I did, and they squandered that bounty on unimaginably luxurious things like 12-packs of beer and compact-disc rack stereo systems and…
…right there, in the very first white-lined spot next to the store, in clear violation of Big Bear’s rules that all bag-boys, senior no less than junior, must park at the very end of the lot, I saw it. A brand-new 1990 Mazda 323 hatchback. Basic black. Steel wheels. Five-speed transmission. Temporary tags. Son of a bitch. He’d actually done it.
Chip, one of the senior bag-boys, permitted the luxury of a 7-4 shift and first choice of days off, had bought a new car. And though the rain was falling hard enough to make me squint, I couldn’t help but stop my bike next to that new Mazda and just stare at it. No pretender to a throne ever clutched his ambition with the kind of raw, nauseating envy I felt at that moment. You are free to laugh, dear reader, and I can’t help but chuckle at the memory myself. But the truth is that all of my friends felt the same way. My generation didn’t have VJ-Day or the Summer of Love or even Lilith Fair. What we had was just this: a golden age of cheap cars, an array of entry-level wheels such as was never seen before or since.
Somewhere, somehow, there were kids getting new BMWs for their sixteenth birthday. Not among my grocery-store peer group. And somewhere, too, there were kids who would never touch a new car from their birth to their death. We were in the middle, with parents who didn’t coddle us in California style but who would also silently cover things like food and insurance so we could stretch for the best car we could get and enough $1.09-a-gallon fuel to cruise past the university on Friday nights and look at the girls. And you wanted a new car, because back then a ten-year-old car was ready for the scrap heap and a five-year-old car would have enough problems to keep you from getting to work on time. So you bought the cheapest new car you could get.
For those of us who were enthusiasts, it was frustrating how little attention the magazines paid to the cars we could actually buy. Car and Driver might test a Mazda Protégé ES sedan but they’d never test the cheapo hatchback which could be had for forty percent less. Road&Track did not concern itself with the differences between the Toyota Tercel coupe, a sleek five-speed affair with aerodynamic headlamps, and the Tercel EZ, a base model with recessed poverty-spec headlamps and just four gears in the “H” pattern. Nor were dealerships eager to let young people drive the cars without their parents in attendance. So it was kind of like buying a new Ferrari is today: no test drives, not much leverage on the price, and a sort of amused contempt from the salespeople until the deal was done.
Our older siblings had been confronted, upon their ascension to full-time employment, by a dismal showroom selection of Cavalier Type 10s and Ford Escorts and gutless Twin Stick Colts. But we were different. The model year 1990 had a veritable cornucopia of great cheap cars. The sharply-angled doorstop of the Mazda 323. Honda’s sleek Civic DX. A full lineup of Tercels. From Brazil with love, the VW Fox. There was even a half-decent re-styling of the Escort. These cars were available with color-coordinated bumpers and power windows and upscale badging but at under ten bucks an hour those options were no more attainable than a Sonderwunsch steel flatnose. We chose black bumpers and rolled our own windows and searched dealer lots for window stickers with no lines besides the destination charge.
In the evening, there would be impromptu parking-lot drag races between seventy-horsepower cars. We all knew about side-stepping the clutch. Nobody had an automatic transmission; it was an $895 option. When the flag waved, the 155-width tires screamed off the launch. Across the short asphalt expanses, the winning car might reach fifty miles per hour before it was time to hit the non-ABS brakes. Some people had four-speed Toyota short-beds and those were fearsome competitors, easily capable of beating a Plymouth Colt down a freeway on-ramp. Everybody knew what every car cost and everybody could do your math to see if your parents were helping you make the payments. If you were lucky enough to have something outrageous like a Civic Si, you barely existed in our world. You were a rich kid, and you could go to hell.
In the spring of 1990, after the local Toyota dealership refused to even consider using an allocation slot to get a Tercel E-Z in black with no floormats, my father agreed to get me the cheap car of which I’d been dreaming: a VW Fox. There was just one Fox with no options at the local dealer. It was white with a beige interior. I begged to have it. My father, however, was feeling generous. He sprung for the silver one with air conditioning and four-speaker radio prep, complete with a blank trim panel for future DIN-unit installation. It was slightly over ten thousand dollars, a king’s ransom . For a week after I drove it home, I couldn’t sleep. I would sit outside and just look at it.
A time it was, as Paul and Art sang, and what a time it was. There are still cheap cars available today, you know, but they’re not really that cheap, even when you adjust for inflation. Tall, top-heavy affairs that mostly shift for themselves and offer everything from power windows to Bluetooth integration standard. You can’t learn to drive fast in them. They have stability control and ponderous inertia. They look ridiculous, like blobs formed by children from modeling clay. And our economy has changed; today’s teenagers don’t bag groceries or work at McDonald’s. They’re either driving new CUVs, courtesy of their status-seeking parents, or they’re catching the bus to start their careers at Wal-Mart.
Used cars, too, are much better than they used to be. A decade-old American car isn’t scrapyard bait anymore and a decade-old Toyota is worth almost half what you paid for it new. Still, I wonder if perhaps some enlightened manufacturer can’t figure out a way to put an enthusiast-friendly car on sale for fifteen grand or so. They’d probably lose money on every one they made, the same way VW was tormented by fluctuations in the Brazilian economy and currency as they tried to sell to Fox in the United States. Yet that Fox I bought, which probably didn’t make a dime for VW of America, made me a loyal customer for nearly two decades. I bought a turbo Golf, a Passat, and two Phaetons, a total MSRP of maybe $225,000 or more. Had my Toyota dealer been willing to get me a Tercel EZ, those might have been a Celica GT-S, an Avalon, and a pair of Lexus LS460s. Beginnings, the Bene Gesserit said, are such delicate times.
When you hear manufacturers talking about reaching out to young drivers nowadays, they’re usually talking about the Scion FR-S or the Ecoboost Mustang or other youth-focused product that is simply unattainable for the kids working at entry-level wages. Those kids, however, often form lifelong attachments based on their first cars. So it’s worth reaching out to them. With cars that are light, simple, easy to understand, easy to afford, and easy to fix. What’s the worst that could happen? Would it be that the old people would buy them too?