First cars: Sweet memories

Published 9:41 am Monday, December 1, 2008

There aren’t many who don’t remember their first cars — that first taste of true independence — that first thrill of being in total control. Those memories reside in that area of the male brain, along with first loves. Whether that first was a big mistake, a sweetheart remembered with fondness, or somewhere in between, that first car was an experience that brings a little gleam to some eyes and in other a sad shaking of the head.

Demopolis has plenty of guys who didn’t mind sharing some of those memories.

Thomas Bell, for example, like many young men in 1963, was very proud of his first car. It was a ’63 Olds Super 88 — Wedgwood blue in color and he paid $4,200 for it, brand new, when he started his college career at the University of Alabama. “I loved it,” he said. “It was my first car and it was special. I washed it every week.”

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Bell said he even remembers the salesman’s name, Bill Powell at Loyd Jones Chevrolet in Demopolis, and the sales manager, who was C.C. Smith. “I remember I was looking at the Pontiac and the Oldsmobile and I picked the Oldsmobile because the Pontiac had come out with a wide track and I didn’t like that.”

The Olds Super 88, according to Bell, is the only car he ever had that he liked so well. “I wish I had it back,” Bell said. After six years, Bell traded that Olds at the same dealership where he bought it and he remembers Buddy Bly’s daughter ended up buying it used. “I’ve often wondered what became of that car,” he said.

John Moore of Wetumpka, who is often working in Demopolis for MW Productions, said his first car was a five-year-old baby blue Ford Fairlane. “I was a real sharp dude in that car,” he said. He was 22-years-old and he paid $800 for it, just after he graduated from college. “I could tune it up and put brakes on it,” he said. “That was back in the day you could work on your own car.”

One of Moore’s memories of that first car was a cold day in Montgomery when the roadway had icy patches in places. “I was coming along the road and came to a shaded area and I hit a patch of ice and slid into the bank,” he said. Moore got his car repaired afterwards, and he had a few carburetor problems, but he said he really liked it. “I’d love to have it back.”

One Demopolis resident who said he was relieved to finally get rid of his first car is Drew Johnson. At 25, Johnson had returned from service in the Philippines after World War II. He had a young wife and baby and in his second year of college in Arkansas. He paid $400 for a maroon 1940 Pontiac, “that stayed in the shop” about as much as it did on the road.

In 1948, not many students had a car. “If you wanted to buy a new car you paid list price and $200 under the table,” Johnson said. Since the car was eight years old, it did have a few problems that would crop up regularly. The first problem involved the fuel tank. “I jacked it up and when it fell I spent two days in the hospital,” he said. “That ended my attempts at repairing cars myself. And it seems like it was in the shop about every other month. I remember paying $70 for a front end job and in those days I was only bringing home about $90.”

For Johnson, parting with his first car was pure joy, when he and his wife, Genida, found a car he truly loved, a 1950 Plymouth two-door, that was painted bright green. That is the car Johnson describes as a “sweetheart” of a vehicle that he paid $1,700 for when it was new.

Tom Jones’ first car, at the age of 18 and working his first newspaper job in Forest, Miss., was a 23-year-old Model A that he owned for less than one day. “I was making $35 a week at the Scott County Times,” Jones said. “I bought that 1928 Model A for $35. I drove out of town and got a ticket for no headlights. It was a rusty bucket and it rattled like hell. The lights didn’t even work.”

When Jones returned from that brief out of town stint, he told his publisher about the citation, who hastily called the mayor. The mayor waived the ticket, but Jones promptly sold the Model A back to the same used car dealer for $15, since it appeared it would be causing more trouble than it was worth.

T.M. Culpepper said his first car back in 1948 was a red Chevrolet convertible, only a few years old when he was a sophomore at the University of Alabama. “We had a lot of fun with that car,” he said, with a chuckle. “I got it from a classmate for somewhere between $300 and $500. We’d use it in parades and I assure you it didn’t help my grades.

That sharp little Chevy Culpepper was so fond of back then ended up as scrap metal after about two years.

It happened one night after he had a date with a Uniontown girl. As he drove back toward Demopolis, he discovered the bridge near Faunsdale was blocked. As he applied his brakes another vehicle rammed him from behind. While Culpepper wasn’t hurt, the woman responsible for totaling his sweetheart of a car was injured; so, he drove the injured woman and her companions to Demopolis, took her to the doctor’s office, bought them a bus ticket to get them back to Uniontown — and quietly grieved his beloved little rag top.

John Northcutt said his first car was a 1968 Caprice handed down from his parents. That car was one he used to woo his present day wife, Nancy, back when $5 worth of gas really took passengers on a long trip and a $10 fill-up lasted quite a while. He said a Caprice, brand new, would have sold for around $2,500 in those days.

Northcutt said he has fond memories of that old car and when he sees one, even now on occasion, it brings back pleasant memories of his youth, a time of discovery, his own wedding and starting an adult life with his sweetheart.

“It was the car I had when I graduated high school,” Northcutt said. “It was the car I used when I went off to college and it was the car we drove when we went on our honeymoon.”