When I was 16, my father gave me his 1970 Oldsmobile Ninety Eight. It was midnight black with a blood-red pinstripe, power steering, power windows, power seats and 455 cubic inches of power under the hood. I could load that boat with six hockey players, all their gear and two cases of soda pop and it still sailed up Interstate 75 in Michigan at 100 mph.
The Ninety Eight passed to my brother Dave when I went to Notre Dame in 1975. On his first day behind the wheel, he rammed a parked school bus. Dad had the Ninety Eight fixed. A week or two later, Dave crumpled a fender on a parking lot pole. The car went for repairs again. Dave kept hitting things, and finally the guy at the bump shop told Dad, “Hey, tell your kid this isn’t a car wash.”
Parents love their children in countless ways. But my two brothers, three sisters and I have one way to count. Through our Detroit youth, our father bought or loaned us more than a dozen cars. We totaled six and battered others that Dad resold for a fraction of what he had paid for them. He easily spent more than $100,000 on our wheels — just a bit less than what he spent putting us through college.
We hit fence posts, buildings, curbs, utility poles. We turned into oncoming traffic. We veered into ditches. We backed into things we didn’t see, and plunged forward into things in plain sight. Dad was amazed that we could keep striking inanimate objects. “If it’s not moving, how the hell do you run into it?” he asked a hundred times or so.
We were trashing autos even before we were old enough to drive. One evening when I was still in grade school, Dad announced we were going to the sporting goods store. My brothers and I happily piled into our new station wagon. As Dad backed out of the garage, we heard a horrible groaning, the sound of metal being wrenched out of shape. A door I had neglected to shut had snagged on the garage. Dad didn’t say a word. He just pulled back into the garage and walked into the house, his face a mask of agony and disbelief.
In the wake of our wrecks, Dad went scouting for deals on used cars from his buddy Ken and my Uncle Al. After the Ninety Eight, Dad gave me a Chevrolet Impala that he had bought for $700 from a neighbor who had driven it mainly to church and the supermarket. “Runs like a top,” Dad said. Three weeks later, a guy with greasy hair ran a red light and nearly tore the Impala’s front end off. Dad was relieved that I wasn’t hurt, but he couldn’t help but shake his head and say, “One step forward, two steps back.” He uttered this line many times, including the winter day my mother smashed the snowmobile Dad had just bought into the station wagon Dad had just bought.
Each of my sisters drove a Chevy Blazer once owned by our grandfather. The Blazer was a hulking black monster that gulped a gallon of gas about every 10 miles. “My friends loved it because you could fit half of the Catholic Central football team in it,” recalls my youngest sister, Kimi. This vehicle somehow escaped serious damage, but it kept trying to die, and Dad kept having it fixed. I think he wanted to preserve it because it was the last car his father had driven before he died in 1979.
We thanked Dad by griping behind his back about the cars he gave us. He wasn’t cool enough to buy the sporty convertibles we coveted, opting instead for the likes of the boxy Mercury Grand Marquis he gave Kimi. It’s a luxury car, he told her. “Yeah, for someone who is 80,” recalls Kimi, now 29. She totaled it when she pulled in front of a car making a left turn. “My view was blocked, honestly,” she says.
Before Kathleen graduated from college in 1986, Dad surprised her with a Ford LTD. Kathleen, now 37, recalls it as a “blue-hair special, right down to the polyester, cocoa-brown, woven seat covers.” When Dad presented it to her, with a red ribbon on the door handle, she acted happy. Later she cried, because she had imagined herself at the wheel of a Ford Mustang.
“I was being a spoiled, rotten brat,” Kathleen confesses now. “Dad was being a dad, thinking sensibly, realistically, with safety in mind.” The LTD ended up on a junk pile after a friend of my sister, Karen, borrowed it one evening.
Kimi drove the last car Dad bought for his children, a Buick Regal with more than 100,000 miles on the odometer. She wearied of its daily breakdowns and sold it to a co-worker, who pasted a sticker in the rear window that read “Pimp Daddy.” My father’s career as a used-car dealer was over.
I don’t think Dad cared much about the cars themselves. What drove him crazy, I suspect, was the creeping fear that his progeny were unable to learn something as basic as driving. Mom notes that our driving improved after we began buying our own cars.
Dad turned 70 in February. He still grimaces when he remembers that a junkyard paid him just $20 for the old Ninety Eight. But he can laugh about most of these memories. When I ask why he endured all the aggravation and expense, he just shrugs: “That’s what fathers do, right?”
So I’m learning. My 20-year-old, Joel, totaled the first car I bought for him, a 1989 Acura Integra. His sister Kaitlin, 18, has taken better care of her Geo Prizm, although somebody rolled into it in a parking lot and dented the trunk lid. Danielle, 15, says she wants a lime-green Volkswagen Bug. I’d prefer to give her my tomato-red Pontiac Bonneville, which I bought from my father. Danielle thinks it’s hideous. She probably doesn’t realize that it’s a luxury car.
Bryan Gruley is a writer and editor in the Washington bureau of the Wall Street Journal.