***When I was 17, it was a very good year.***
One Spring afternoon, my stepfather handed over the keys to my very first car to call my own … on loan.
It was a 1983 Mercury Zephyr. It was also two-toned. The top was brown. The bottom was browner. In between, it had a double-orange pinstripe separating the pigments.
Granted, this color scheme was probably all the rage in 1983. I had no idea. It was 1993 by the time I got my first look at this beauty.
The Zephyr, complete with a silver logo on the side indicating it was a “Z7,” had belonged to my stepdad’s mother. After 10 years on the road, it had roughly 30,000 miles and the original white-walled tires. It also had a thick layer of tar on the inside, the product of chain smoking with the windows up. I spent my first day with the “Z7” scrubbing down the surfaces with an entire roll of paper towels and a bottle of Windex.
By the time I could see out of the front, it was time to roll.
***My first car was a boat***
In the early 1990s, I attended Riverview Community High School. The parking lot had a tendency to contain high-end, brand new vehicles. Just about every family had a connection to the auto industry, which added up to a family discount. Not me. I had a ten year old boat.
Not only was it physically big and tough for a new driver to maneuver, the Zephyr was the opposite of cool – inside and out.
It had an 8-track player.
What choice did I have? I started buying 8-tracks at garage sales during the heyday of the compact disc. Disco was so bad, it was good. I was starting to feel the same way about my wheels. As long as the “Z7” could get the job done, I was on board.
***“Dude, where’s my keys?”***
It’s amazing how many memories you can mine from a first car. One of the more notable evenings, my friends and I piled into the “Z7” for a trip to the shores of Lake Erie. We spent the evening jumping off a bridge into a tributary. We figured the fairly risky activity was illegal, but hey, everyone else was jumping off a bridge …
By the time we packed it in, I spotted the keys still on the front seat.
And the doors were locked.
We couldn’t call the cops. A group of wet teens in bathing suits and towels was automatically suspicious. Somehow, we managed to pry open the trunk and push apart the backseat upholstery. We then taped together a wire coat hanger and an ice scraper, forming a rudimentary hook.
After several hours (no kidding), we snagged the keys and sang the “Beavis and Butthead” version of “Iron Man” to celebrate. That song seemed appropriate because, after all, the entire evening was full of butthead decisions.
***Paint Your Wagon***
Boredom led to another poor decision one fateful afternoon. My friends and I decided to paint the “Z7” multi-colored. The idea was undoubtedly inspired by the scene in The Muppet Movie when Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem paint Fozzie’s Studebaker so Doc Hopper won’t recognize Kermit.
Yes, I love the Muppets.
As you might imagine, the paint job didn’t turn out like it did in the movies. We had colors and swirls, patterns and designs, drawings and dribbles. We had also used acrylic paint, which didn’t wash off.
The paint job started at the fender, then extended over the hood to the windshield. It also encompassed both quarter panels and part of either door … plus the white-walled tires. We were out of control.
After a week or two, those magnificent colors faded in the sun. They were pale and stuck. I was left mourning the loss of that vintage two-tone color scheme.
***End of An Era***
Less than one month after the Muppets color-bombed my ride, I was off to college at Western Michigan University. I didn’t take the Zephyr, but I thought she would be waiting for me downriver.
Alas, when I took the train home from Kalamazoo for Thanksgiving, my mom broke the news. My stepfather sold the “Z7.” Apparently, he was not amused by our artwork.
It was a fitting end to a car that never really belonged to me.
The Zephyr was my first set of wheels, and my first big lesson about respecting other people’s property … even when that property is two-toned and includes an 8-track.