My First Car

by Harry T. Roman

Saturday was car day in Newark, the day you crawled under the old jalopy and did what had to be done, following carefully the instructions handed down by your Dad. It was a different time. You could open the hood of your car and actually understand it, and fix it with common tools.

This standard ritual usually started with a changing of the engine oil, followed by a lubrication of the steering arms and ball joints. You might adjust the carburetor, or clean the air filter. In more serious efforts, it might include new brakes, a tune-up, new points and plugs; or in less serious situations, maybe just a tweaking with perhaps a cleaning and re-gaping of the plugs. I still remember the specs on my old V-8 Chevy: using my handy feeler gages, the points were to be spaced at 0.019 inches, the plugs gaped at 0.035 inches; and timing was set at 4 degrees before top-dead center. That’s technical talk for all you old street mechanics!

If you were stuck on the road and did not have a set of feeler or spacer gauges, you could use a matchbook for setting the points and plugs---tight for the points and loose for the plugs. It worked, I know. I did it many times.

I made some interesting mistakes too, like the time I over-oiled my generator and got oil on the electrical brushes. I was coming home from a date in Bloomfield, taking suburban streets, when my headlights started getting very dim; and then the generator light came on. I shut the headlights down and was running with just my parking lights on.

A police officer stopped me and asked about my lights and where I lived. I told him I had generator problems but could bring my car home safe if he would let me. It was a very cold night with lots of snow on the ground. Well, he led me all the way back to the Newark line to make sure I was OK, and once again on well-lit Bloomfield Avenue. Now that’s my kind of police officer.

This automotive wizardry was all accomplished right there in front of your house, on the street… big deal. If you were lucky to have a driveway or garage you could do it there; and some very lucky folks could pull their cars in their yards and do it under a shade tree. But for the most part you worked your mechanical skills right there in the street where folks could stop by and offer advice.

There were no all-season tires back then. You put snow tires on the rear of your car every winter. Many folks used chains on their regular tires. Weren’t any front wheel drive cars either. You changed your anti-freeze too, usually every two years. And your air filter was a big contraption with a wire mesh liner that had to be cleaned with gasoline or kerosene. Paper filters came later.

Turning 17 was the big rite of passage as hordes of kids prepared for their driving tests. Dad and I would go down to the old Dugan’s plant on 3rd and 4th street on a Sunday where it was very quiet, and for several hours I would practice my parking and K-turns. I remember quite clearly one afternoon when he got in the car and said let’s take a ride through Branch Brook Park…..take Bloomfield Avenue! I almost had a kitten. Bloomfield Avenue! That was like a mob scene.

“Dad, what if I hit something?!” I croaked out.

“Then you’ll pay for it. You want to drive you take responsibility.”

“But who has that kind of money?”

“Well how do you expect to someday have your own car and pay for it, including insurance? You certainly are not going to drive MY car.”


“Bloomfield Avenue Slick!”

I survived the experience and of course he was right. My proudest moment came after I actually got my license and the whole family was going out one Sunday afternoon. We piled into Dad’s car and as I was getting in, I felt him tug on my shirt. When I turned around, he handed me his keys and said, “Isn’t it time you chauffeured the family around for a change? Just remember…same rules apply…you hit it you pay for it.”

It was Spring time then, so I took the family out along Ampere Parkway where all the blossoming trees in the center meridian were in bloom and motored along the aromatic roadway. Still remember that like it was yesterday.

My first car cost me the grand sum of $70, used of course, but it ran well. Of course, I had to get it fixed just right to suit my own style. That summer I spent scraping off the peeling paint and hand-sanded the body down, spraying it with primer paint, and filling in some bad and rusted sections. Took that old car down to Earl Scheib over on Central Avenue and got the $39.95 high gloss make-over—black enamel. After that I was king of the road. Cried like a baby when I sold it three years later. Your first car is something very special.

Gas back then was $0.29 a gallon; and me and that old Chevy went everywhere. A date with your girl might set you back $5 bucks for the night. Can’t even get into a movie for that today. Paid my own insurance with my part-time job. That cost me $200 a year—which today in NJ might not even cover the cost of a quarterly installment on the pay as you go plan.

Things certainly have changed. I am too “mature” now to go crawling under cars, and with all the electronic gizmos under the hood my shade tree mechanic days are over. So I take it to my neighborhood buddies at the local gas station and it gets fixed quite nicely. I enjoy walking around under the car while it’s up on the lift, looking here and there and tugging at appropriate places to make sure things are tight. The guys rib me about being an old-timer, but on more than one occasion I have surprised them about a diagnosis. It’s a guy thing.

Every now and then I have helped a motorist who is totally befuddled when their car stops, and they panic:

“How did you know what to do?” they almost always ask as I get them started.

“I used to fix them all the time when I was a kid.”

“Are you a mechanic?”

“No…..that’s just how it was back then. You did your own work.”

I’d love to have that old Chevy again, maybe jack her up and give her the once over…….just me and Dad and a warm summer day. The smell of engine oil, antifreeze, and the sound of a well-tuned carb crisply sucking in that Newark air. Then hearing Mom’s voice…….”C’mon in you guys…..lunchtime!”


I have Dad’s old jack in the garage. Heck, there are no bumpers made today that will accommodate that old tripod screw jack…….but you never know. I just might buy me an old jalopy and give her the treatment. Could be a nice retirement gift to myself.

The day I got my license, Dad gave me a St. Christopher medal for my key ring and there it remains to this day. That patron saint of travelers is always with me. He has brought me home through some awful weather and some nasty fender benders too.

I still hear Dad’s voice when the road is bad, urging me to be careful and take certain steps, as though he was sitting alongside me, just like when he taught me to drive. It stays with you. Now parents send their kids to driving school. Ugh!!!


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