Love in the Fast Lane

One man’s relationships with vehicles that passed through his life.

Steve Smith in 1982 with his new Yamaha XS650 Heritage Special, a lasting love

It’s odd, and perhaps a little frightening, how vividly I can recall the names and faces of lost loves. Of the Ones That Got Away.
Old girlfriends? Oh, my, yes, those too. But I’m thinking of the cars. And trucks. And motorcycles.

Love—purportedly a many splendored thing—sometimes comes with rubber tires. For many men, and likely a few women, deep and abiding affection for a vehicle seems so ingrained and irrevocable that we have to wonder what it replaced a hundred years ago—affection for, and devotion too, a loyal, fast horse, perhaps?

There are those among us who tell time by cars. The first vacation I remember? It must have been in 1959, because we had a black Ford Fairlane. The first car I drove? A 1962 Chevrolet Impala, which my father let me steer on an abandoned World War II-era airbase. I must have gone away to college in 1973, because that’s the model of the Plymouth Road Runner I took, towing a 1972 Suzuki Titan motorcycle in a U-Haul that also held a black-and-white 9-inch TV, a used Marantz stereo and suitably faded, flared jeans.

Vehicles have outnumbered girlfriends, and while the names and faces of many of the women have sadly faded, I can quote troublingly detailed information on the salmon-and-white 1957 Mercury, the 1970 Jeep J-10 with the chrome grille that looked like it was saying “ahhh” for the dentist, the 1966 Chevrolet El Camino, the 1954 Ford pickup with the “Mileage Maker” six-cylinder engine and a three-on-the-tree transmission.

Sometimes the relationships are so fleeting, two ships passing at the used car lot. The green 1967 Jaguar E-Type traded in by an old lady schoolteacher: $3,600. The salesman even let me drive it, though I was just 16. I can still remember, as vividly as my grandmother’s kitchen, the smell of the Jaguar’s tan leather. The red and white 1960 Chevrolet Corvette convertible, a “rough but runs” model with brakes that slowed the car as effectively as dragging a stick on the ground and with a hole in a valve cover where a rocker arm had worn through. But for $1,000, why in the world didn’t I buy it?

Then there are those longer relationships that should have never ended, but did. The grass is not always greener, but I thought it was when I let go of the 1970 Ford Mustang Mach 1 that I bought new. And the 1969 Chevrolet Corvette painted UPS-truck brown. And the half-ton, short-bed Chevy pickup with the factory-installed 454-cubic-inch V-8. The black 1977 Pontiac Trans Am with the T-tops and the full-boat Smokey and the Bandit package, which I bought new two weeks before the movie came out. That Burt Reynolds flick nearly ruined the experience of driving the car. Shouts of “Hey, Burt! Breaker breaker, there, good buddy!” still ring painfully. Sometimes, late at night, I moon and pine and even pout about those lost loves, but at least I was consistent: My philosophy was buy high, sell low, and I was very good at it, unfortunately. The Mach 1 went for $1,200, the Corvette for $3,000.

And finally there are those relationships that endure forever, or at least “forever” as it applies to me. See the black-and-white photo on the facing page? That’s me and my new 1982 Yamaha XS650 Heritage Special, taken midway through a trip from Louisiana to Key West and back. After 30 years, I do not look the same. The Yamaha does. I just rolled it out of the garage. It has aged so much better than I. And it isn’t even my longest-running requited love story: The Yamaha is parked in my garage next to a 1972 BMW R50/5 motorcycle I bought in 1975, a “toaster tank” model so named because the gas tank has huge chrome plates on the sides that make it look like a vintage six-slice Toastmaster. Aside from my mother—87, with Alzheimer’s—this BMW is the longest continuous and comforting relationship in my life.

Sell it? No, I don’t think so, and had it been as easy and as affordable to haul a dozen cars across seven states these past 40 years, I’d still have some of my four-wheeled true loves around, too. After 29 years of marriage, my wife is still beautiful. But the Yamaha and the BMW—well, they’re perfect.

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