I was eighteen and a senior in high school. After much nagging and begging, my parents agreed to help me finance a first vehicle I could really call my own and so I wanted to pick something that spoke to me. Many of my friends had acquired or were getting cars of their own as well and they were kind of all over the map.
Some of them were practical and had been saving money from part-time jobs to purchase a responsible, reliable car to take to college. One of my best friends had decided to purchase a Honda Accord, which he most likely still has to this day. (Hondas are hard to kill.) Another girl I dated for a little while had bought a Toyota Corolla. Gas-efficient, reliable, and the epitome of boring. (No. You can't argue that a Corolla is anything but boring. It just is.)
My best friend inherited an old Chevy pickup truck that came with two full size gas tanks. Why two? Because otherwise the big engine would only get you across town and back on a single tank.
But for me, a lifetime of watching The Dukes of Hazzard taught me that a car the size of a yacht with an engine that burned leaded gasoline at a rate of single-digit miles per gallon was the way to go for me. It needed to be loud, it needed to be fast, and it needed to be cool. With those parameters in mind, I set out to find my first automobile.
Back before Craigslist or the internet existed, there were two standard ways to find a used car. You could grab a newspaper and flip to the "classified ads" and systematically peruse and circle ads for cars. You'd then call the number, go over to look at the car, and then either make an offer or keep on looking. The other option, and the one I used, was a big black and white, pulpy, weekly magazine called The Auto Trader. It still exists today but for most people it's strictly an online affair. For me it was scouring the paper Auto Trader to find that perfect ride.
One Tuesday morning (The Auto Trader mags were always delivered on Tuesdays) I grabbed my copy and turned straight to the Dodge and Plymouth sections. Because as anybody worth their 10W40 knows, that's where the muscle lived.
This day my eyes were drawn to a beauty. The picture was in black and white, but I could have sworn I saw the bright red paint of the Fury anyway. A Plymouth Fury III with a bright white power convertible top and all white interior accented with shiny chrome. As shapely as a brick and wide enough to seat three across each bench seat, it would need all of its 318ci V-8 to push the heavy Detroit steel up to highway speeds.
The seller was asking $2500 for the brawny beauty. My allotted budget was firm and non-negotiable at $2000. I know this because I tried to negotiate with my dad for more to no success. Even still, my little muscle-car-lovin' heart wanted to see it anyway. After more than a few attempts by my dad to dissuade me from the car, he agreed to take me to give it a test drive.
We called the seller, and the car was still available, so we set up a time to see the car the following Saturday morning before I went to work.
It was just as glorious as I imagined. Some of the chrome was missing and the paint was chipped in places. The dash was cracked from years of Arizona sun and it did not come with an air conditioner, only a heater, but I didn't care. If it meant being able to drive this beautiful piece of automotive history, my clothing and the white vinyl would pay the sweaty price.
After the test drive, I reluctantly gave the key back to the owner and told him that while I did want to buy it, my max budget was $2000 and so I'm sorry I wasted their time. The man and his wife looked at me as I looked to my dad with my big sad eyes and said, "$2000 will be just fine."
I was ecstatic. I drove the car the few miles to work as proud as I could possibly be. I felt impossibly cool with the top down and my butt suctioned to the vinyl in the hot Arizona weather. No one could do or say anything to ruin this perfect day.
After work, I was eager to show off my new ride to my girlfriend, Alison. I dropped the power top on the car and went directly to her house after work rather than home. After extolling the virtues of the Fury III to her as well as getting a smile and nod from her father, I offered to give her a ride in my red and chrome chariot, which she accepted.
We rumbled through the neighborhood, on to a main street, and eventually toward the freeway. Assuming my significant other would rather not have a mad tangle of blonde locks smacking her in the face for the duration of the freeway ride; I pulled the car over and raised the white vinyl top before hitting the on-ramp. The strong V-8 muscled the Plymouth's fuselage gracefully up to sixty-five miles per hour and we slipped into evening traffic.
It was less than a mile before a family sedan pulled up beside me and waved for me to open my window. I figured the car would score me some points for the car being so awesome, and by extension, make me even cooler than I had any right to be. So when I rolled down my window, I smiled and waited for the inevitable thumbs up from the sedan's driver.
He did not give me the thumbs up (nor the middle finger, thankfully) but began pointing at the bottom of the car. Being eighteen and still in a state of euphoria, I hadn't noticed that the interior of the car had become hazy. Smoky would also be an accurate way to describe it. I wrote the initial smoke off as just being "normal" as it was an old car and well... old cars smoking isn't really out of the norm. I waved the man off as if to say, "Yes, I know my awesome car is smoking a bit. So what? Jealous?"
He was not jealous. Within seconds, the cabin filled with more thick black smoke. Before I could slow the vehicle to pull over, hot yellow flames burst from underneath the dashboard on the driver's side, licking at my shoes and ankles. Alison appeared to be in shock, so I shouted at her to get out as I attempted to wrestle the steel behemoth to the side of the road.
The tires hit gravel. Alison opened the door and hit the ground running at a near ninety-degree angle from the now flaming car even before I could bring it to a stop. The old drum brakes finally brought the car to a halt. I pushed the gearshift into park and flung the door open, running faster than I ever had before away from the Plymouth and toward where I last saw Alison.
Within less than 90 seconds, the entire car was engulfed in flames. From the engine bay to the back of the passenger area, it was a literal fireball.
I found Alison roughly fifty yards from the flaming car. I ran toward her and called her name but she did not respond. "Alison! Are you alright?!" I shouted, but still she stood with her arms folded in, covering her chest, her hands clenched underneath her chin. I stretched my arms out to hug her but she immediately pushed me away. Bewildered at her response, I tried again to pull her into my arms and tell her she was safe now, but she pushed me away again and told me not to touch her. I didn't try again.
The fire department appeared within five minutes, but by then the car was gone. They doused my dream car until the flames were out and gave both of us a ride home and red plastic fireman hats.
When I arrived home, I was still in shock. I held the red fireman's hat in my hands as I walked down the hall to my parent's bedroom. My mom hadn't seen the car yet. With a smile, she asked if she could go for a ride in my new car. I told her she couldn't because it wasn't here, but on the side of the freeway in ashes.
They laughed at first, because that would have been an excellent joke; tell them I totaled the car dad had seen me buy and drive off only hours before. But I retold what parts of the story I could before heading to bed. They had no idea how close I came to losing my life (and possibly Alison's) until I showed them the pictures I took when I went to the junkyard to release the wreckage.