My First Car: 1990 Jetta


When I got my learner’s permit, I was hoping the 1969 Corvette Stingray in my parent’s garage would become my new ride to school. Instead, they handed me the keys to the sweet light metallic blue 1990 Jetta in the driveway.

Seven speeding tickets and a decade later, I have come to fully appreciate why they kept me, an inexperienced driver with no real sense of the laws of physics, away from my father’s beloved Corvette. (If you’re reading this mom: You were right.) I grew to love the Jetta’s boxy hull, it’s hand-cranked moon roof, even the back lights that went out at-will due to faulty wiring and the custom muffler so loud my friends could hear me coming from the edge of town. But long before I found myself so attached I refused to trade the old girl in when it was time to buy a reliable set of wheels, I systematically tried to destroy her.

My parents had purchased the dusty blue beast for $3,000. It was 10 years old, but only had 27,000 miles, the result of elderly owners who reserved the car for Sunday drives to church.
Her days of being pampered and pristine were over once I was behind the wheel.

In my first attempt to park inside our four-car garage, I went skidding into a set of wooden planks I mistakenly thought would help me stop. What happened next was like a life-sized version of Mouse Trap. The perimeter of the garage was stocked with tools and castoffs that my father swore he would need someday. By knocking into the beams I set off a chain reaction that pushed a nearby filing cabinet back several inches, causing the mirrored medicine chest resting on top of it to quake and tumble onto the hood of the car leaving a surprisingly small dent.

Even after passing the driving test, my ability to judge distance was questionable at best. In a friend’s yard I attempted to park on a grassy hill only to tear off half the bumper, leaving Jetta with a grimace. My father bolted the bumper back on and later replaced the seats when a spring on the driver’s side busted, a literal pain in the rear every time I drove over a bump too quickly.

That happened a lot, since I regarded speed limits as suggestions. The windshield had to be replaced after I blew past an accident scene too quickly and a piece of debris flew up and cracked the original glass. Jetta became a Frankensteined collection of new and used parts, a piecemeal form of upgrading.

The headliner peeled off and draped itself across the back seat in protest, which would have been a minor cosmetic inconvenience if it hadn’t been blocking my entire rear window. One failed spray-glue fix later, the interior ceiling was replaced with a professionally mismatched vanilla vinyl that showed the industrial-strength fixative, like a seeping brown water stain, keeping it in place.

The heating core blew, spewing a sickeningly sweet and acidic smelling fog through the dash vents. There were no cup holders, so when I left an unopened can of soda on the front seat to bake in the summer sun, it exploded onto the upholstery, the cracked vinyl dash and the windshield in a caramel-colored spritz. Years later, as I cleaned the car to put her up for sale, I was still finding telltale droplets of Dr. Pepper.

Somehow, I grew attached to the old girl. Jetta was a tank and she easily outlasted my first serious relationship and a move to my first newspaper job. But a year later, at 18, she started to need serious repairs under the hood. When one estimated $500 fix turned into a $1,500 bill, it was clear that living without car payments was no longer paying off. Instead of trading her in, I held on for six months of hefty insurance payments before tearfully hanging a “For Sale” sign in the window. I wanted to find her a home with another new driver who might grow to love her completely. I sold Jetta off for $800 to a family with a teenager looking for his first car.

Their relationship was short, I’m told. She got a pimped out stereo upgrade and bounced back the first time he plowed into a utility pole. But she met her end during a second go-round with a post off the side of a rural road.