Words and picture by Alan Benedetti.
So, for a little change of pace while we’re all doing our civic duty nestled up at home in lockdown we’re inviting you to submit an article about your first car for a bit of fun.
We all know each other current cars like my pride and joy, “Lars” the 1990 Volvo 240 (at least beautiful to me) but our first cars don’t always come up in conversation and they may well have played a large role in what we have now.
So, to get thing started I’m going as first cab off the rank with my tale of an excited seventeen year old boy and his first Escort.
It was 1990 and I was still on my P plates and still at home with Mum in Tasmania and so very keen to buy my first car for the independence and freedom they bring. I’d worked my ass off after school and weekends back when it was $6-7/hr at Woolies and finally I had saved up half of my 3k budget – Mum had agreed to finance the other 50% (probably for the independence and freedom it would bring her). As this was long before the internet and my addiction to scrolling through carsales.com.au I was scouring the “cars” section of the local paper when I finally found him. A white 1976 Ford Escort XL.
He was already 14 years old when we met but to me, he was shiny and new. Sure, there were some awful K-Mart white wheel covers but they strangely suited him. It had a luxurious up spec AM radio, 1.6lt engine and towbar that was exceedingly useful for causing bruises on my shins. More than this he had personality; he’d shudder when you would veer left but not when going around corners, he could (with a lot of encouragement and dumb youthful bravado) get down some four wheel drive tracks and you could wrap tinsel down his chrome bumpers to really grab some attention at Christmas. I even got him to 160kph! (100 miles) – even in my younger and stupider days the car scared me doing that – the corners of the bonnet were bouncing and the doors were vibrating!
He made me feel like an adult and that I was adulting the right way (not that there ever has been such a thing). I was first of my friends to own my own car and there was more than a little pride in rocking up to school in him, being able to go away for the weekend and getting up to mischief. I even learnt how to service him and could do basic maintenance. So not only adulting well, but feeling a little manly.
I loved tinkering with that car, I didn’t go crazy like some nowadays with the home decals, LED under lights or stupidly lowered suspension. I improved him;
I bought a stereo and installed it myself! I even installed and wired the front and rear speakers (the AM radio originally had a single speaker in the top of the dash).
Replaced a headlight unit after hitting a bird – I pulled the grill off and the headlight just fell out. After 6mths of owning the car, I had just discovered that the headlight was not even screwed in place. But I bought the light and get it all back together and working properly.
Removed the fuel tank as it had started to rust and leak – I even replaced a starter motor with a little help. A rear leaf spring broke travelling from St Helens to Hobart, so a couple of friends and I replaced both of them. We were young and pretty fearless really as he was quite simple to work on…
It was never modified to the point of coming close to a Ford Sierra that was ruling the touring car scene at the time and ruling my teen daydreams of one day owning. I never managed to get the RS500 2lt motor and gearbox in it that I had wanted so bad though now looking back I realise it would have been totally insane but still an awesome sleeper! Though, he was far from a quiet ride.
The first week I had the car, I blew a tiny hole in the rear edge of the muffler (remember – no catalytic converter or unleaded back then!) – it never grew, but did give the car a kind-of old-school twin cam sound… I liked it, but I’m sure the neighbours didn’t as I was repeatedly told by my mother that she could hear me coming home from around the block… I don’t know if it was the sound or me driving like a typical teen! Mum had the whole exhaust replaced as a birthday present (I think also for her benefit) but she did up-size it slightly at least and it was still a good sound…
The scariest thing to happen in this car – well, it involved a rather large huntsman spider… On a humid summers evening, myself and 3 girlfriends were travelling to an evening affair (we were all Ballroom Dancers) and an uninvited guest decided to make him/herself known… With us laughing and being jammed into a small car, the windows began to fog up (Air Conditioning – as if!), so I cranked up the 4sp fan to clear the windscreen… Out of the centre vent crawled the offending guest! We couldn’t pull over as we were approaching the Tasman Bridge and there were no breakdown lanes, so I grabbed the pack of batteries I’d bought for my Walkman (hands up who remembers them!) and squashed the unwelcome arachnid onto the windscreen. My front seat passenger flicked on the indicators (Euro-style left handed stalks thankfully!) and we took the exit lane (3 lanes to the right away!) to empty the car and clean the screen! I am terrified of spiders and we all took a few minutes to regain our composure before getting back into the car. To this day, there’s a pretty good chance that somewhere close to hand, I will have something flat in my car just in case!
After thrashing the him about for 2yrs, I had the tyres replaced and a wheel alignment done… Low and behold the shudder from when I first bought the car returned. I took it off for an inspection.
As it turned out, there was a crack in the car from where it had been cut and shut from the days before decent safety standards and write-off registers! The crack was not evident when I’d had it inspected before buying it but had been there a while (maybe it had been covered by deadening tar). When I had hit a kerb, I had put everything slightly out of alignment, but corrected the stress point. Correct alignment was the downfall, but it had been good while it lasted and has left me with a lifelong soft spot for Ford and over the years have had a KA and a Focus XR-5. When considering getting a classic car, I searched for an Escort, but they were already scarce, and I could only find examples priced north of $10k and now an Escort from my youth is a $30 to $50k. On carsales.com.au, there is a lovely 1980 Escort Ghia and an awesome RS2000 – if only the bank balance allowed for the splurge…
In the end I traded up my Escort for a subtle orange 1981 KE55 Corolla Wagon (CS with 5sp! Very special in its day!) but that’s a story for another day.