From President Ronald Reagan to Betty White to Cal Worthington: Memories of their very first car and why they remember it so fondly and so well
We remember them as we remember our first loves, the disappointments and the blemishes largely erased by time, their beauty and grace as vivid as the moment we first laid eyes on them. They grip our memories as momentous events often do, freighted with detail: where we were, what we were doing, who was with us.
Ronald Reagan cut a dashing figure around Depression-era Des Moines with his. Lee Iacocca remembers his didn’t have much pep. Tom Selleck’s needed a paint job after some fence-sitters used it for a trampoline.
The love objects here, of course, are automobiles of more or less ordinary people who later got lucky, rich, famous or all three. We asked these celebrities to reflect on those early vehicles and tell what they recall best. Were they dogs or cream puffs? How much did they cost? Where did they end up?
Most of the cars were bought used and ended badly: wrecked, junked or sold in disgust. They were mechanically uneven; some ran like Swiss watches, others like Swiss cheese. Yet, despite the problems, each is remembered fondly, as a source of pride, power and freedom at a formative period of its owner’s life.
“For most of us, our first car is our first chance to make a statement about who we are,” says Dr. R. W. Burgoyne, a psychiatrist and medical director of the Los Angeles County Mental Health Department. “As such, it occupies a very special place in our lives, and that explains a lot about why we remember it so fondly and so well.”
Mayor Tom Bradley was an undergraduate at UCLA in 1937 when he got his first wheels, a cream-colored 1930 Model A Ford Cabriolet that served as a pool car for several of his friends commuting to the Westwood campus from the central Los Angeles area. He recalls fondly its rakish rumble seat that attracted girls, and its reliability, which got him his education.
“I guess that car made me one of the earliest exponents of ride sharing,” Bradley says. “But what I remember most about that car was the positive effect it had on the girls.”
Appeal to the opposite sex was a fairly standard option with many of the first cars.
Actress Barbara (“I Dream of Jeannie”) Eden--who undoubtedly didn’t need a car to attract men--remembers how her boyfriend and another neighborhood lad agreed to paint and re-upholster a 1941 Buick, her first car, converting it, she says, into a “metallic- green jewel.” Unfortunately, the boyfriend totaled the car a few weeks later, and not even one of Jeannie’s patented magic tricks could put it back together.
Police Chief Daryl F. Gates says that his new 1937 baby-blue Ford convertible, bought while he was attending Franklin High School, was the best-looking car in Highland Park at the time and that it didn’t hurt his social life.
“I loved that car,” Gates says, “but the best thing was that the girls loved it, too.” The convertible was parked outside school one day, Gates recalls, when it was struck by a passing car and decommissioned. “Fortunately, my mom believed in auto insurance,” says the chief, “so the car and I were back in business pretty fast.” One assumes those are just the facts, ma’am.
Ronald Reagan, then an avid New Dealer, bought his first car, a brand-new 1933 Nash convertible, shortly after taking a job as sports announcer for radio station WHO in Des Moines. A lady friend of the time recalls the future President as quite a “dashing young blade,” tooling around town with the top down even in cold weather. He paid for the car out of savings (all cash; the deficit spending came later), and kept it until 1937, when he left for Hollywood and began his march toward immortality.
Although several celebrities said they started out with cars that are no longer produced (in addition to Reagan’s Nash there was a Packard, a Hudson and a Studebaker), Fords seemed to predominate as the brand of choice among those surveyed. Interestingly, the current heads of Detroit’s Big Three all cut their teeth on 1930s-vintage Ford V-8s.
Lee Iacocca, chairman of Chrysler but for years an executive with Ford, says his used 1938 Ford--a high school graduation gift from his father--inspired him to go to work for that auto maker.
The car was “definitely not suited” to handle the hills of eastern Pennsylvania around Lehigh University, where Iacocca was an undergraduate. “Some faceless executive at Ford had apparently decided they’d get better fuel economy by taking a V-8 engine down to only 60 horsepower,” he recalls in his autobiography. “I used to tell my friends, ‘Those guys need me. Anybody who builds a car this bad can use some help.’ ”
Despite the car’s problems, Iacocca sold it right after World War II for $450, turning a net $200 profit and setting the stage for other financial coups he would engineer in years to come.
Roger B. Smith, head man at General Motors, bought his 1936 Ford convertible for $300 shortly after World War II to use for going back and forth to college in Ann Arbor, Mich. The car was in such poor shape, Smith says, that he and his brother decided to rebuild it practically from scratch. “We got a real surprise when we took one of the heads off and found one cylinder full of water.”
The car had other problems--a slippery clutch and brakes that went lifeless in Michigan’s cold winters--but it saw Smith through college, after which he bought his first new car. Not surprisingly, it was a Chevy.
Donald E. Petersen, the chairman of Ford, established his loyalties early with his first car, a used green 1935 Ford he bought for $350 and kept for only a year. Like Smith, he found the brakes the worst thing about the car, the snappy V-8 engine the best. His next car was a 1950 Ford, bought new when he was an officer in the Marine Corps during the Korean conflict; it was the first of six convertibles he and his wife owned over the next several years as he worked his way up through the Ford hierarchy.
Probably the most impressive first automobile was owned by publishing mogul Walter Annenberg, former U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. It was a new Packard convertible, late 1920s vintage, which he owned as a young man in Pennsylvania. “The only trouble with it,” Annenberg says, “was its susceptibility to accidents. It seems to have had several of them, not largely the car’s fault. I finally traded it for another car. I loved the Packard, but I must admit I treated it rather shabbily.”
Sports franchise magnate Jack Kent Cooke got rolling in more modest fashion, though no less lovingly. “It was a 1931 Ford roadster; rumble seat, black body, red wire wheels, with one of the wire wheels mounted on the port side fender,” the Washington Redskins owner remembers. “It was a little beauty and I guess I loved it as much as any car I’ve owned since. Perhaps more.” Cooke and his first wife honeymooned across western Canada in the spiffy roadster, while he did some business selling encyclopedias door to door. “That was how we kept body and soul together in those Depression days,” Cooke commented recently.
In addition to having sex appeal, many of the first cars cited by the survey group played important roles in launching careers. Gov. George Deukmejian’s black 1941 Hudson, certainly no head turner on the highway, nevertheless helped him hold down a part-time job as a traveling salesman while he attended Siena College in Upstate New York. He paid $800 for the car in 1947 and discovered to his dismay that it was an insatiable oil burner. He sold it after he graduated from college.
Lyn St. James, a top female auto race driver, made her speedway debut in a new 1974 blue Ford Pinto for which she paid $3,000. The ’74 Pintos were the ones with gas tanks that were inclined to explode in rear-end collisions, which may explain St. James’ success in staying ahead of the pack. Actually, the only mishap she had with her Pinto was a spin-out that left the car submerged in a lake in the middle of a track.
“We pulled it out, dried it off and it ran fine for another couple of years,” St. James recalls. “I finally sold it to a guy in Fort Lauderdale who’s still racing it.”
Like everybody else, celebrities-to-be sometimes get stung when they buy cars. Actor Gene (“La Cage aux Folles”) Barry recalls his disastrous maiden outing with the first car he owned, an old Studebaker with wooden-spoke wheels (". . . something out of a Cagney movie,” he says) that he bought off a used-car lot in New York for $20 just after World War II. With his mother, grandmother, grandfather, sister and brother aboard, Barry set gamely off one Sunday for mid-town Manhattan.
“Of course, it conked out at the corner of 42nd and Broadway, the heart of Times Square,” Barry says. “I had to have the car towed home, where it sat untended in a vacant lot through the next fall and winter. Finally, a cop came around and told me to get rid of it. I found a junk dealer who was willing to buy it for $20, which I figured was a pretty good deal, considering that was what I had paid for it originally.”
L.A. City Schools Supt. Leonard M. Britton didn’t do quite as well with the first car he owned, a black 1939 Dodge coupe he bought for $350 in 1951. About a year later, driving along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the car burned out a bearing and died. Britton rounded up a junk dealer who was willing to give him $50 for the carcass and completed his journey by bus.
Audiences today associate actor Tom Selleck with the $60,000 Ferrari he drove in his “Magnum, P.I.” television series. But it was not ever thus. His first transportation was more plebeian, a red Volkswagen bug bought for $1,900 in 1964 when he was an undergraduate at USC. The car got him successfully through college, though not without incident.
“We had the usual mishaps--sophomores getting sick in the back seat, that sort of thing,” Selleck says. “One day I had it parked beside a high fence, and some kids jumped down and landed on my hood. They could never get the replacement hood to match the color of the original, so when I sold the car after graduation the new owner got a two-tone car at no extra cost.”
The first wheels in auto dealer Cal Worthington’s life belonged to a big 1924 Dodge touring car that his daddy bought for $200 and drove around the Osage Indian Reservation in Oklahoma during the Depression. One of nine children, Worthington remembers a harrowing trip the family made across the Dust Bowl to visit his grandparents. on the other side of the reservation.
“My dad, who was scared of driving, got up his courage and took the wheel about halfway there,” he recalls. “After a few miles he got overconfident and turned to brag to the folks in the back seat. As he did, he twisted the wheel and the car spun off the road, turning over twice and scattering kids all over Oklahoma. We were scratched up, but nobody was hurt badly. We righted the car and drove home, where we sawed the body in half and turned it into a pickup truck, on which I learned to drive.”
Finding the car of one’s dreams was sometimes easier than paying for it. Pat Morita, star of television’s “Ohara,” bought his first car, a burgundy 1954 Chevy, from his uncle for $300, arranging for affordable monthly payments that somehow seemed less affordable with each passing month. Morita got further and further behind, until one day his uncle threatened repossession.
“That motivated me,” Morita says, “and I finally managed to get caught up and pay it off. I loved it because it gave me my first taste of real independence--as well as my first lesson in consumer economics.”
“Golden Girl” Betty White managed her finances a little more skillfully when she bought her first car--a new Palladium-gray 1949 Ford two-door--with $1,200 borrowed from her father. “I’d already started working by that time,” she recalls, “but money was still tight. Fortunately, the work was steady and I managed to pay Dad off on schedule.”
Like the other first cars, White’s plain-wrap sedan eventually surrendered its spot in its owner’s garage to newer, spiffier and more expensive wheels--in this case, a two-tone convertible.
Author Danielle Steel’s father also played banker when she decided to buy her first car, a white Ford Cortina purchased in 1973. The price--$425--was the main attraction and her favorite feature was the fact that it ran. Its least desirable feature? “It collapsed. When it finally died, I bought a 5-year-old Austin Morris for $650--which I paid for myself.”
As pedestrian as they were, and as exalted as their replacements became (e.g., Air Force One), these first automobiles, these first loves, never surrendered that special place in their owners’ hearts.