My First Word

It wasn’t “ma,” or “da,” but “ka.”

1965 Ford Mustang, one of the most iconic vehicles in history. (Source: Pixabay)

My mother says that my first word was “car.” In the days before seat belt requirements and, apparently, parental understanding of Newton’s First Law of Motion, I would stand up in the back seat, point out the windows, and name the different cars surrounding our own.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by cars. As a child, I amassed quite a collection of Hot Wheels and Matchbox vehicles, and when I bored of whatever Matchbox City play set I owned, I would flatten cardboard boxes, create networks of roads and parking lots of my own using markers and crayons, and spend entire afternoons in my room, orchestrating the comings and goings of my bustling metropolis’s residents.

When I became a teenager, I continued collecting Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, but stopped opening the packaging. To this day I occasionally buy them, tucking them away in boxes in my garage. Recently, my mother shipped my old collection to me, adding to the hoard, and my wife occasionally picks them up for me when she makes Target runs. Often, they’re duplicates, but her thoughtfulness and acceptance of my car geekery are so sweet that I smile, pretend I’ve never seen that paint color or stripe treatment before, and tuck them away in the garage.

I’ve been reading Car and Driver magazine since elementary school. Somewhere along the line, someone bought me a subscription and I’ve had one since. From the days when the inimitable David E. Davis ran the publication to today, as it thrives under the talented stewardship of Eddie Alterman, C/D has been the best ongoing education I’ve ever paid for.

I religiously read Car and Driver magazine, wear glasses, favor plaid shirts, and occasionally drink McDonald’s coffee, but this dude isn’t me. (Source: Pixabay)

Written with humor and sarcasm, and bucking the trend toward basic language and uncomplicated structure, C/D brilliantly simplifies complex subjects and never takes itself too seriously.

Furthermore, while it is clearly a publication aimed at car enthusiasts, it remembers that its audience faces certain financial realities and family situations. So while there is always coverage of Bugattis and Ferraris and Lamborghinis, as shown in the photo above, C/D will also perform multi-car comparison tests of family sedans and compact crossovers because real people buying real vehicles in the real world still want to know if a Honda CR-V is more fun to drive than a Toyota RAV4 (the answer, by the way, is yes).

Perhaps, one day, I’ll land a gig there. But that’s a story for another day.

Shortly after I turned 16, my dad generously offered to buy me a car. At the time, I was planning to attend college far away from Michigan, so I needed something dependable, fuel-efficient, and practical. Given the budget he gave me, a used 1979–81 Honda Accord Sedan would be perfect.

Instead, a couple of months later, Dad pulled into the driveway with an 8-year-old 1976 Mercury Grand Monarch Ghia with a 351 Windsor V8 engine and a whole bunch of electronics just waiting to go haywire. He’d bought it from a friend whose wife rarely drove it, and the car had just 29,000 miles on the odometer. But those were 29,000 indifferently maintained miles, and while my dad paid big bucks to cosmetically restore the car so that it looked like new, underneath the fresh white paint was a rotting piece of mid-1970s Detroit crap.

This brochure page exactly depicts my first car. Same colors, same wheels, same whitewall tires, same thick padded vinyl roof, same everything. It guzzled gas, always broke down, and was, generally speaking, a giant steaming pile of garbage. (Source: Comment thread on Curbside Classic)

I hate to sound ungrateful, and I know that my father certainly meant well, but I was crestfallen. Getting about 10 mpg, that Mercury literally burned through all of my money. Additionally, after a couple of years of trying to fix its various mechanical maladies, it finally required a complete engine rebuild. We finally sold it for $1,000 during my freshman year in college, after it had racked up more than $12,000 in purchase, restoration and repair receipts between 1983 and 1986.

After the not-so-grand Monarch, I bought a used 1984 Ford Escort, which I had for a short time before needing to pull some cash out of it to pay for tuition.

Then I bought a car that David E. Davis had always loved: a 1978 Ford Fiesta. Tiny, German, and fun, it cost me less than $2,000. It had a stick but an inoperative parking brake, and one day it rolled away, down a hill and into a parked car. I replaced it with another Fiesta, but a $500 repair estimate to replace the entire, rusted-out braking system was too much. At this point, I was done with used cars.

My first new car was a 1990 Ford Festiva. It was tiny, but it was not German and fun. Still, it was based on Mazda design and engineering, it was bulletproof, it was efficient, and it was cheap enough that I could afford the monthly payment while still in school. It also did not have air conditioning, so when I moved from Michigan to Arizona, I had to get rid of it.

A new 1994 Ford Escort GT replaced it, equipped with a Mazda-sourced 4-cylinder engine, a stick, a sport suspension, and a compelling blend of performance, utility, and affordability.

Shortly thereafter, I drove a Mazda Miata for the first time, and I’ve never been the same. My first one was a dark blue 1997 STO Edition with tan leather seats and appealing Enkei 5-spoke aluminum wheels, one of the final first-generation Miatas to come to the U.S. After that, I owned a succession of new and used Miatas, the last one a 2004 MX-5 Mazdaspeed that I bought new and still own.

My 2004 Mazda MX-5 Mazdaspeed Miata, which I absolutely adore.

The Mazdaspeed has just over 34,000 miles on it. It spends plenty of time in the garage, getting out every couple of weeks for a warm up run and to keep the battery in fighting shape.

When I haven’t driven it for awhile, I start thinking that perhaps the time has come to let it go, spend the money on a kitchen remodel, or dump it into my retirement account. But then I dust it off, fire it up, put down the top, release the clutch, and head out for an extended drive on my favorite roads in the local Santa Monica Mountains.

And when I get home, I tell Liz that I’m never selling it.

Cars are central to who I am. “Car” was my first word. Cars dominated my childhood play. A car magazine was instrumental in teaching me how to write, and specifically how to write about cars. I’ve been lucky enough to earn a living writing about cars and the industry that creates them, and fortunate enough to drive thousands of them ranging from a Yugo GV to a Lamborghini Murcielago LP-640 Roadster, and on roads and racetracks from The Road to Hana to the Nurburgring Nordschleife.

To say that I love my job is an understatement. But that’s a story for another day.

Christian Wardlaw is married, a dad, a California transplant, and a car geek who turned a love of automobiles and travel into a career. Currently, he is the editor for Daily News Autos, is a contributor to Car Gurus and J.D. Power Cars, and is wishing he was sitting on a beach on any of the Hawaiian islands.



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