“Is that your car?” my friend Shane asked, over text message, complete with a link to a used car listing.
Which car, exactly? I’ve owned only two—my first, a 1990 Volvo 740 Turbo that’s in a dusty barn waiting patiently for my chequebook to catch up with my plans for it, and a 1985 Citroen 2CV that I had driven that very day. Either being for sale on the internet was fairly impossible.
Then I clicked the link.
Stillness crept over my body as I stared at the screen. My heart and mind sank deep, focusing themselves on a cluster of very old, personal, special memories. I know this car.
A 1973 Porsche 914 2.0-litre. Sky blue. Silver Fuchs. Black, non-914 mirrors, a full-length “Porsche” reflector strip from a 911 between the rear lights, and a four tip exhaust tucked under the bumper.
The front bumper rubber was missing from all but the last three inches on the right side. There was a crack, there, in the rubber for as long as I can remember. I guess the rest had fallen off.
Its clutch was only a bare pedal, like it’s always been, smoothed by years of a single left foot.
Dash crack. Driver’s seat split. Loosening vinyl on the glove box cover. I bet the defroster still doesn’t work.
This particular 914 is the first big purchase my parents made together, in 1979. It went with them through moves, was around before I was conceived, and as a child they took me for rides around town…sitting safely between my parents, on the padded console cover.
My first word was car.
Through my formative years, I remember it tucked safely to the side of the garage, under a sky blue car cover. It was always backed in; the sun shone through an old window and set of ragged curtains just enough to cast a ray across the hood. I didn’t dare go near it—or the tools and things deftly placed as a barrier between the 914 and where my toys were kept.
Apart from playing Top Gear on Super Nintendo for hours, I had stamina for little else. Generally, I was forced outside into the back yard, tackle box of toy cars in hand—and headed toward the sandbox. I started to notice that a side door to the garage was a few feet from my sandbox. With my mother inside and occupied with my younger sister, I’d quietly open it, dip my toe into the darkness, enter, and wait for my eyes to adjust.
It was always clear that the 914 was my dad’s car. Admonishments, caution, discipline to the tune of, “This is my car, don’t touch!” were never needed. I just knew.
They didn’t say anything about the cover, mind you. After I was used to the relative darkness, I’d gently peel back the soft car cover and expose a lick of metallic blue paint…orange reflector…chrome bumper…
It was years before I worked up the courage to expose the entire front of the car. I remember the Fuchs being a big deal. I sat on the cold concrete and, for the first time, noticed the contrast between the unpolished and polished silver alloy.
I didn’t understand then that because of starting a business, having a house, and kids meant my parents were saving as much as possible. Putting gas into and having insurance on a third, fun car wasn’t always possible. I have as many memories of it under a cover as I do without one.
Sometimes, when my dad had time, he’d start it up and take it out. I was always there for it, and wanted to help. Maybe I’d help peel back the cover. Maybe I’d move detritus out of the way. Maybe I’d help guide him out of the garage.
It was always a good week when the trickle charger was placed, on a blanket, on the rear trunk and connected to the dead battery.
I remember there was always tinkering before the 914 sputtered into life; his grey tool box would be open and overflowing with silver metal wrenches, and he’d be peering into the near-black engine compartment with an old D-cell flashlight. When I was old enough I’d stand on the other side and shine it on some snaky, black wire.
“No, the other one.”
All the time spent peeling back the cover cemented the car’s shape in my mind, like a big Matchbox car. I knew it as mostly inert, stationary.
But when it roared into life, man, it scared me. It scared me throughout my childhood. The exhaust pointed directly at the cinder block wall, and fired out a piercing metallic din. Smoke. Rev. Rev. Rev. Smoke. Old high test filled my nostrils. It was very much alive, again.
One year, as the spectacle unfolded, my dad gestured me to the driver’s seat and asked me to keep the throttle steady as he adjusted something. I may have been a young teenager. Pushing my sole onto the floor-hinged pedal, the revs rose, noise, noise, revs…”Too much!” I heard in my ear. I backed off; it sputtered and died.
“Turn it over,” he said, forgetting I was young and had no idea of how a car worked. Well, I knew in theory. “Do I…what gear…push the clutch in…I can’t reach…” He restarted it.
When a car is burned into your memory, and you grow up with it from a young age, I think it leaves a different sort of impression. I know that car from every angle; from when I was two feet tall all the way to six feet tall today. I’ve seen the 914 through the eyes of a child, and with old invoices, as an adult does. I know how it looks under yellowish, late summer, curtain-filtered garage light. I know how it looks in the dark. I know how it idles, how it sounds when it revs, how the flat four sends a particular pulse off roadside trees that makes its way back into the cabin.
My mom never learned how to drive a manual transmission’d car, and so the only person I’ve ever seen in the driver’s seat was my dad. It was his car, always, without question. When he wasn’t around, it didn’t move—nobody else could drive it. Since it seemed he was almost always busy with work, it sat most of the time. In my mind, the two have always been linked; maybe that’s why I’d peel back the car cover and look at the 914 when he wasn’t around.
I think he knew early on how much I liked his car, and when I was old enough—and had learned to drive a manual through trial and error on other vehicles—he let me drive it, all by myself. One summer, I drove it at least once per week. I think he was happy it was getting used, even if I was still a little too overconfident behind the wheel. By the time I got to drive it, the drivetrain had mostly been sorted. It’d been repainted. The Blaupunkt that was once filled with an English Beat cassette (“Mirror in the Bathroom, please talk free; the door is locked, just you and me…”) had been replaced by a CD player. I took it to an indicated 90 mph once, and held it there for a few seconds. Fast enough.
In 2003, I moved away from home for school and apart from a summer or two I haven’t been back. My parents moved, my dad semi-retired (those years of my parents working their asses off for us was not in vain), and the car began to sit again. In 2010, he had it sent to a specialist to have a few items fixed—transmission, brakes, carpet, etc.
It never came home.
He sold it before even driving it in (likely) the best state it’d ever been in—I’m not sure why, apart from vague ideas to get something “nicer, like an old 911.” I was too poor to buy it, and, honestly—even though I was upset—I’m not sure it crossed my mind to even offer. It was his car, I was staggering into adulthood and one of the few things I understood was that it was his decision.
The gentleman who bought it put money into the car. He fixed a few more things, and thankfully—unlike seemingly every other 914 owner—didn’t fit GT flares, a slantnose conversion, or paint it orange.
The Friday evening I found out it was for sale I immediately contacted my dad. He texted back a while later, saying he talked it over with my mom, and said they weren’t sure if it’d end up in storage or be driven much.
“You should look at it and buy it if you want, but don’t unless it makes sense for you,” he texted back.
Early in the morning, I called the number in the ad frantically, leaving offers to buy it. Then from my other phone. My girlfriend and friend Shane called, too.
The seller called back late on Saturday morning. I explained who I was, that he bought the car from my dad, that I grew up with it, and…
“Are you serious about buying it?”
“Yes. I have the money and can get a deposit to you today.”
“I’m sorry, but I sold it this morning.”
“Can you tell me who bought it?” I asked. “I can…maybe I can offer more if they’re willing to give it up.”
My girlfriend suggested going for a walk and brunch, to take my mind off of it. I couldn’t.
In the meantime, it turns out that the seller called the father who bought it and, even though it was going to be part of a father-and-son learning experience—his is 15—the buyer agreed to let me have the car.
Thanks, stranger. More than you know.
The seller, too. Not only for agreeing to sell it back to me, but for hearing the five year old in my voice as I told him who I was.
When I showed up with the deposit and tried to explain what the car means to me, he said, “It’s a sentimental thing, I understand.”
I bought the 914.
Then I texted my dad, “I think someone bought it.”
“Maybe it wasn’t meant to be…” he replied.
As it happens, I only have one parking spot—for the 2CV—and serendipitously sold that car the very next day to a wonderful family.
It was meant to be.
This weekend, I drove three hours, in the 914, to see my parents—unannounced—and say, “Happy Father’s Day” in person.
I think I’ll let my dad drive it.