Funny how certain cars from your past just stay with you. Where do I even begin with my first car, my 1989 Pontiac Grand Prix, a perfect cheery red? My love affair with that car began right off the lot. My parents purchased the car brand new in Gladwin, MI in 1989. It was the first proper car my mom had since my parents married in 1977. After my parents married, they sold my mom’s car to help purchase buses, and the full-sized vans that replaced it doubled as a canoe livery vehicles in the summer. She definitely earned that brand new car! I think I was just as excited as she was – almost. If anything, I inherited my love of cars from Mom. I even went to the dealership with my parents, an exciting new experience at age 8.
By 1995, a friend of my parents, who owned the GM dealership in town, happened to drive over the latest Grand Prix model – again, bright red. The Grand Prix had just been redesigned, and few people in Arenac County, if any, had it at that point. Soon, Mom had another new car and the old one, later mine, went into the pole barn, waiting for me to turn 16 and earn my license.
During the fall of 1996, I spent hours detailing it, getting ready for when I earned my license in December. I carefully drove it through the campground, practicing backing up and avoiding things like fire rings and electrical posts, carefully storing it back in the pole barn, waiting not so patiently. My mom had taken great care of it, and now, it was up to me.
A few features of that Grand Prix still stand out. 1989, frankly, was the end of an era when it came to cars. My Grand Prix was probably one of the last models that didn’t include air bags and CD players. Instead, it had a futuristic 80s electronic dash and a retro tape deck. Later, we had a five CD changer installed in the trunk. I could not have asked for a more perfect first car.
After much heartache, stress, and tears – another story entirely – my dad took me to the Secretary of State on my birthday to get my license. He even let me pick out a new license plate for my car. I ended up with a centennial plate commemorating the 100th anniversary of the automobile industry. Somehow, some of my best memories with Dad always seem to involve vehicles, whether cars, SUVs, minibusses, or big ole school buses.
Car and license in hand, I now drove myself and my younger sister Erica to school and around town. The biggest issue, of course, became control of the radio for the entire 10 minute drive to school. We didn’t fight much, but we did argue over music and sharing a bathroom on the daily. That first winter driving, Erica and I experienced our first accident. A fender bender that could have happened to anyone, we both freaked out as only young teenage girls can. Fortunately, no one was hurt and the damage was easily repaired.
I kept that Grand Prix well into college. In 2001, I drove it to and from my internship with IBM out in Rochester, Minnesota. Alone, I will never forget driving home along US 2 across the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan in late August with incredible views of Lake Michigan along the way. It is still one of my favorite road trips. That trip finally helped me to become completely comfortable behind the wheel.
The following year, after a year studying abroad in Ecuador and Spain, I spent six months living and working in Austin, Texas. I had landed the co-op with Applied Materials at the same time I landed the gig with IBM. As I already knew that I would be studying abroad the following academic year, I convinced Applied Materials to bring me aboard the following summer, June 2002. By this point, it was time to replace the Grand Prix.
The original plan was to sell my car in Texas, fly home in December for my birthday and Christmas, purchase a new vehicle, and return to Michigan State for winter semester 2003. Well, best laid plans rarely work out. On July 24th, 2001, on my way to work at Applied, a moving truck turned in front of me. I had had the green light, and he hadn’t seen me. I slammed on the brakes so hard that I broke my big toe and the metatarsal on my right foot. I ended up in a splint and, later, a walking cast, up to my knee.
The entire front end of the Grand Prix slid under the truck, stopping just in time. If I had had a passenger in the front seat, he or she probably would not have made it. All I could think of was how many times I had had my brother or sister with me, usually shotgun. I walked away relatively unscathed. My only other injury, other than a badly scraped left knee from the dash, was a deep cut behind my ear from the window molding. Somehow, the safety glass held.
Thank God that car didn’t have air bags. First generation air bags later gained a reputation for killing shorter drivers. At 5’0, I may have ended up a statistic. That Grand Prix that I’d loved for so long had saved my life. It was the end of an era.
I ended up with another Grand Prix, of course – a 2002. Yet, nothing I’ve owned since could ever top my first car, not even purchasing a brand new car on my own. So many childhood, teenage, and even young adult memories – way too many to share here – wrapped up in one vehicle. I’ve even dreamed about it. I dreamed that, somehow, it was still stored in my parents’ pole barn, waiting for me to drive it again.