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Rite of Passage: How I Got to be Cool With My First Car

by Carolyn Zsoldost

An automotive phenomenon happens in the mid-teen years. Often, this phenomenon is thought to be a rite of passage reserved only for males in the throes of puberty. Not so. Perhaps the precise reasons differ, but crossing the threshold is an experience to be remembered, regardless of one's level of testosterone. The memories come tumbling back every time I see an old car driven by a kid. You see, everybody wants to be cool...

When I turned 16, I needed to be cool. My parents gave me a '72 Chevrolet Nova so I could pursue my quest. (If you don't remember what a Nova looks likes, Eddie Murphy drove one in "Beverly Hills Cop.") This car (mine, not Eddie's) had personality plus.

When I got my Nova, it already had 110,000 miles on the odometer and was in its third color incarnation. A true veteran of road wars and an empirically obvious testament to Chevy's incredible durability in those days, let's just say that this vehicle had been handled with less than kid gloves in its past. In this latest incarnation, my Nova was a beige/tan color. A Maaco special, I'm certain. But what was inside made it special. No, not what was under the hood, but what was inside the passenger cabin.

To sit in the driver's seat was a lesson in piecemeal construction, strength and endurance. Years of hard use and probably more than one bashing (and who knows how many pounds of Bondo) had caused the heavy door to sag on its hinges. When you closed the drooping metal door, it was necessary to pull up and in--hard! This is no mean feat to do while sitting, I can assure you, but it eventually became second nature.

The "climate controls" were mounted vertically on the cracked and faded dashboard. At some point, the knob that controlled the heat/cool had snapped off, which presented a small engineering challenge at first. However, changing the temperature within the car was still a simple matter, really. All I had to do was apply the flat-head screwdriver that I carried into the slot and push either up or down. Eventually, the screwdriver stayed there, and stuck out as a reminder that ingenuity can save the day.

However, the heat stayed on most of the year due to the car's hot-blooded nature. Without running the heat in the summer, she had an unfortunate propensity to overheat. This was easily avoided, however, by rolling down all the windows and running the heat full blast.

Moving along the dash, avoiding the dusty, well-used speedometer, attention needed to be focused on the steering column. Here was the crux of the car. The gear shift was on the column. One of the last "three on the tree" cars made, my Nova had actually "grown" some of its own improvements over the years.

For instance, there was the amazing anti-theft device (one no auto engineer ever conceived, for sure). In order to get the key released from the ignition, the car needed to be held firmly in reverse and then reach over the steering wheel with the left hand, hold the shift back and up and slide the key out. Hard to imagine a thief trying to make off with this car.

And I must touch on my own improvements, modestly. As I drove the car, I noticed that the turn signal indicator lever was becoming loose and didn't want to signal right-hand turns. In a moment of desperation, I slipped a ponytail holder out of my hair and around the indicator lever. I then secured it around the column and onto the hazard light button. I never had a moment's trouble after that. I got creative, and changed the colors of the ponytail holders to match the seasons: red for Christmas, green for summer, yellow for spring and brown for fall. It was quite festive!

My Nova developed a sense of humor, as well. After many trips and three windshields later, she decided she was tired of the "car doctor." On rainy mornings, the Nova began to display another quirky feature: she developed a water reservoir under her roof. Obviously feeling like none of the many teenaged passengers in my car were properly groomed, she developed a "teen-cleaner" option neither designed nor considered by the factory. It worked like this: the Nova would dump a wash basin quantity of water into the passenger's lap with the first sharp left turn taken. Usually, the most frequent passenger was my best friend, who learned to cope with this quirk by having a towel ready at all times to catch any offerings that my car might choose to bestow upon her. But occasionally I would forget to tell a novice passenger, and the unsuspecting would end up with the inevitable lap-full of water.

In my car's defense, she was a tank. Steel and iron. Even when I asked her to roll into that light post, she complied, and wore her hood dent proudly like a war wound. The rear door (de rigeuer pea green in color) was welded shut. Between the welded rear door and sagging front door, Ringling Brothers would have paid good money to watch the clown act getting in and out of my car. However, in her defense, I must say the window in the welded door worked well!

The only truly annoying fault with my Nova was that the interior had vinyl seats. And to complicate matters, they were designed with a raised checkered pattern. It made for some interesting reptilian-like skin patterns during the summertime, especially when shorts were worn. I considered it a conversation piece, this "branding."

Moving from the interior to under the hood, there was a peculiarity there.

When switching from second to third gear, occasionally the linkages would stick. She made a horrible grinding noise, and needed to be encouraged and coaxed. All that required was to pop the hood and manipulate the linkages back to the proper spot. But she was ticklish and this linkage-unsticking operation had to be performed with a certain delicate touch.

And lest I forget the "Jane Fonda Clutch." If you were unwise enough to try and hold this clutch pedal in for a protracted period, you found your leg trembling like Jell-O and fatigued from the high-tension spring. Work-out tapes? Exercise regimens? Who needed 'em when I had this clutch pedal? Neutral was a good place to be.

My friends complained about the one-speaker, AM-only radio, but we found ways around that with the advent of the "boom box." It was the piece de resistance. A mere adjustment of volume tuned out rattles, road noise, a well-worn exhaust system and anything else that might remind us too rudely of my Nova's actual age and condition. I could hold my head high as we cruised to the beat.

At last, and without a doubt, I had undergone this rite of passage. I was, in fact, cool thanks to my Nova.

What happened to my car? Well, after numerous teen journeys, repairs and adventures, I sold the Nova. The new owner was a 16-year-old kid who lovingly restored her from tip to tail--but he never did figure out how to solve the water trick!*

Carolyn Zsoldos is definitely "cool" today and has moved on from repairing turn signals to saving lives as a critical care nurse for a major medical center. Although she no longer has her old car, Carolyn does relish the comfort of her modern automobile, a Honda Accord LX.