Teenage Triumph

 Photo by John Pittman,  remixed by me, both images subject to this creative commons license


When I turned sixteen, and able to get my driver’s license, my parents owned nothing but VW Beetles. Actually, my father had a pale blue Karmann  Ghia, a stylish car with a pretty Italian body and Beetle innards. In that age of muscle cars (1964) a VW was definitely not a cool car. Mostly I drove the older of the two Bugs, a car so spartan it didn’t even have a gas gauge.

One night not too long after I got my license my parents let me take their better Beetle out at night. Feeling free at last, I drove straight to Shoney’s,  a drive-in restaurant in the western outskirts of Knoxville that was a hang out spot for teenagers (which the restaurant did its best to discourage by running off anyone who didn’t order food). After I had pulled into one of the few empty spaces and ordered some food I noticed an attractive girl parked across from me in a shiny new Ford. She was looking at me! Me! A guy in an uncool Beetle! After a minute or so she opened her door and leaned out, still looking at me. She had large, perky breasts which increased both my nervousness and excitement. “Oh boy,” I thought, my teenage libido beginning to swell, “I’ve hit paydirt!” My sexual fantasies were running wild.

“Your lights are on,” she said loudly in a dismissive tone which implied she thought me a hopeless imbecile. She closed her door and didn’t look at me again. The kids in the cars on either side of me turned to stare at me. They obviously shared the pretty girl’s opinion. I slumped down and inhaled my Big Boy burger, greasy fries and chocolate shake as fast as I could, then fled back to the safety of my parents’ home to repair my fractured ego.

By the time I was seventeen, I had managed to persuade my doting grandfather, who lived in southwestern Virginia and owned and managed a lucrative coal mine, to give me fifteen hundred dollars to buy a car.  In a sign that I was destined to become a leftist, America hating, latte sipping, elitist  lib’rul, I eschewed an American car and desperately searched for a British sports  car in my limited price range.

My first choice was a gorgeous powder blue MGA. Unfortunately, when I had a mechanic check the car out the news wasn’t good; it was burning lots of oil. Brokenhearted, I moved on. Then, responding to a newspaper ad, I found a  mint condition, fire engine red 1960 Triumph TR3. The owner’s wife had given birth to his first child  and he was forced by this reality to abandon childhood and get a real car. Delighted, I bought the little red car with its grinning grill and bug eyed headlights and drove it home in a state of  dreamy, adolescent euphoria.

The Triumph didn’t have side windows, just plastic ones on “side curtains” which fitted rather loosely into slots in the small, downward curving doors. The front edge of the white canvass top fastened to a metal strip at the upper edge of  the straight windshield with six or seven snaps. Whenever I drove faster than sixty or so the middle snaps would give way and the top would bow up letting the wind pour into the car. The side panels would also bow out, leaving a six inch gap between the top of the plastic windows and the edge of the top allowing even more wind to flood the interior. The combined effect was bracing, particularly in cold or rainy weather. I’m pretty sure the car didn’t have a heater, but if it did it would have done no good at all. When I drove it in clear weather in the winter, with the top down, I’d bundle up in a heavy coat, scarf, gloves and a knitted toboggan. I drew lots of amused looks from people driving hardtop cars with their wonderful heaters.

As anyone who has ever owned a TR3 from the 1950’s knows, the Triumph’s electrical system came with a marvelous sense of humor. Every now and again  turning on the lights would start the puny windshield wipers (or vice versa). Sometimes the tiny tail lights would go out for no apparent reason. Worst of all, the battery would suddenly decide to stop charging and I’d have a marvelous adventure trying to make it to a gas station before it died and left me stranded.

But I didn’t mind the car’s myriad faults. I loved my TR3. I drove it until halfway through my sophomore year in college when it finally succumbed to the abuse I had inflicted on it over the years. With genuine sadness, I sold it for a few hundred dollars.

To be honest, the Triumph wasn’t much better as a Babe Magnet than my dad’s Karmann Ghia. Most of the really hot girls in high school were drawn to the popular guys with cars like the Chevy Super Sport or the hemi-headed Plymouth Satellite. Things were a little better college; their were at least some women who shared my snooty pretensions.

After my TR3, I foolishly bought an elegant old Jaguar sedan which quickly drained my meagre bank account with frequent visits to the repair shop. With another one of my grandfather’s generous monetary gifts, I bought my first new car, a 1969 Saab Sonett, a limited production, two seat Swedish sports car with a roll bar, a medium blue fiberglass body and front wheel drive. It only had ninety horsepower, but it weighed just  sixteen hundred pounds  and handled like a spunky rodeo horse. I participated in auto crosses in that car and even raced it once. Because it went so well in the snow, I used it to make service calls on snowy winter days when I worked at a large Exxon gas station.

Then I got married. I put away my childhood.

With a shudder, I purchased a puke yellow 1972 Ford Pinto. At least it had a gas gauge and a heater.

TR3’s from the group Triumph Cars

Sonett’s from the group Saab

Group Ford Pinto

Read all of VISIONS

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