By Hillarie Williams
Written as a 20-year-old college sophomore
I adore my car. I can tell you honestly, without a doubt, that I love my car more than any other possession I own. I don’t love my car merely for its looks (sleek and red), for how it drives (very fast, especially around those freeway clover leafs), or even for what it is (a 1971 Alfa Romeo Spider). I love my car, because my Dad built it for me.
My dad has always owned Alfas. He knows how to fix almost any problem with them. He also knows how to put them together. When I was about 12 he bought two Spiders to use as parts cars for still another Alfa, some kind of rare convertible, a GTC I think. Then he began to talk about using the Spiders to make a convertible for me.
I was a little young to think seriously about driving, but after a while I began to picture myself at 16, driving to high school in my hot red car, with the top down and the breeze blowing through my hair — attracting the eyes of every adolescent guy worthy of my attention. I didn’t think ahead to the hours and hours of hard work putting together a car would entail, or to the six long years it would take to pay it off. Yup, my car was headed to the junk yard until I magnanimously saved it from an untimely demise.
Dad started working on it and I started working to pay for it when I was in the seventh grade. All dad asked for was $2500, although he spent thousands more.
As he tirelessly built my car, I tried to help him as best I could, though I’m afraid I wasn’t always as helpful as I should have been. I can remember Saturday mornings sitting on the cement driveway, looking through buckets and buckets and buckets of bolts, searching for that precise one to fit the frame for the convertible top. As my friends spent their adolescent weekend hours at the mall shopping for trendy ESPIRIT outfits, I attempted to play the grease monkey at home.
Those were the days of holding the slotted screwdriver for my Dad as he peered into the engine compartment, trying to maneuver around the transmission to screw in some rebellious screw. Or my dad, asking me for the 13 mm socket for the socket wrench. Where is it Dad? And what exactly is a socket again? He must have been so frustrated with me, but he never gave in despite the occasional argument about whether I should go to the beach on Sunday or hold the screwdrivers and wrenches as he installed the steering wheel and console. Dad usually won.
Finally, in October of my junior year in high school, my car was finished; a racing red Alfa Romeo, tan interior, tan top, fat tires, aggressive sounding Ansa exhaust. I must admit that I look pretty good in my car, and I’ve gotten more than my fair share of whistles and comments — though none from those adolescent high school boys I had dreamed about.
It’s amazing the number of people who think they can talk to you about anything if the convertible top is down and you’re stopped at a red light. One old guy asked me for directions to the nearest Longs Drug Store. Some other gentleman wanted to know the life history of my car. Others just chat about the weather or traffic conditions.
I like the friendly waves from other Alfa drivers. It seemed a little odd at first, waving at strangers, but now it makes me feel like I’m part of their big, happy Alfa family. And I enjoy the attention.
It’s been five years since I first drove my car, five years of powering through corners, cruising top down around town, visiting the sunny California beaches from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz. It’s also been five years of oil changes, minor glitches, and major repairs — all performed by my faithful dad and a couple of his Alfa friends. In fact, no one except them is allowed to fiddle with the engine or make other repairs.
As with all Italian cars, the road to vehicular perfection is a long one indeed. There is always some sly hose or belt that breaks at the most inopportune moment. Like the time I was trying to go to a movie with a friend and the fuel line split open. I had just picked up Rebecca. We were in the car, ready to go. I turned the key and … nothing. No powerful 1750 engine roaring to life, just silence and a brief moment of panic. Becca got out to look under the car as I prayed that it would start, prayed so hard I thought blood would ooze from my skin instead of sweat. Still nothing. We called my dad. When he arrived, the first thing he pointed out was a huge puddle of clear liquid flowing down the gutter — the gasoline from my precious car. How did we miss this? The fuel line had broken under the car, right next to the hot exhaust pipe and it nearly blew us to Tahiti.
My car manifests yet another problem when it rains — it leaks, badly. For this reason, I have two car covers; a faded green one for assuredly clear weather and a blue plastic tarp for rainy weather. Unfortunately, the forecaster occasionally misjudges the chances of rain, and I am forced to quickly blue-cover my car, or suffer the consequences, seats squishy with water. I also have a cream-colored plastic bucket I must place under the floor pedals to catch the rainwater that leaks from who knows where under the dash I also have stacks of towels ready at all times for those surprise spring showers.
Take last Thursday for example. (It wasn’t the first time we were caught unaware, only the most recent.) My college roommate, Karen, leaned over from the top bunk and croaked those dreaded words, “Hill, it’s raining.” I rolled out of my warm bed like a log down a grassy knoll, put on my tan Keds, grabbed my purple rain coat from the hall closet, and put it over my green nightshirt (hoping no one would be awake to see me at 4:30 am). Then I ran to the kitchen for a flashlight, raced to the car, and tossed the bucket under the floor pedals, where it could catch the gallons of rain water I knew would find their way into my car to create havoc, rust and general messiness. (Father’s note: On a subsequent visit home from school, we found the leak, a broken hose on a cowl drain that runs under the dash).
You may wonder why I keep such a mishap-prone car. The answer is easy on a sunny Northern California day or when I’m taking a fast corner. Alfas are great fun. Even so, the time has come for me to sell my beloved vehicle. It makes me sad to think of parting with it, but what I really want in my next car is weather proofing and automatic door locks. It takes me forever to get out of my Alfa — put on the CLUB, lock the CLUB, take off the removable face of my anti-theft car stereo, put it in its box, put the box in my purse, take off my seat belt, get out of the car, shut the door and check that no valuables are left in view. It’s like Tammy Faye taking off her makeup — chisel off the blush, scrape off the eye shadow, gingerly remove the ten-inch fake eyelashes …the process just keeps getting longer and longer.
It’s time now for me to move into a new phase of car ownership, one with fewer near explosions and leaks, and most definitely one with power door locks. I’m ready to trade fun for convenience. Perhaps I will buy a gold BMW 325 or a metallic blue Geo Prism. Something less demanding than an aging Alfa; something more fitting for a school-teacher-to-be than a bright red convertible.
(Hillarie sold the Spider after graduating from college and taking her first teaching job all the way across the country in Atlanta, Georgia. Her next car, which Dad helped to choose, was a used Audi 4000S, which combined a bit of sportiness with the other features she was looking for. She next moved to a new Saturn. Now that she is a mom, with husband, house and two young children … she drives a minivan. We’ve never seen the Alfa since the new owner drove it away, which is sad. It came to us as a completely stripped rolling chassis, was a fun father-daughter project, and turned into a beauty of a 1750 Spider. )