[Editor’s note: This “Reminiscing” story, edited by Richard Lentinello, comes to us from Hemmings Classic Car reader Roger Schlobin of Greenville, North Carolina.]
When I bought my first car in 1960, neither my father nor I knew anything about them. That might explain why I chose not to buy a Porsche 356 after the accelerator cable broke during a test drive. To this day, I don’t trust Porsches, but I do wonder where it might have taken me. Instead, I bought an early three-speed, four-door Renault Dauphine from the late 1950s. Ignorance is bliss, and it was certainly the case here after I spent the $600 I earned during sweaty summers at Long Island’s Jones Beach. I was very proud that I had bought it with my own money and made us a two-car family.
In those days, the usual choice at my high school was between a muscle car and a sports car. With the Dauphine, I wound up somewhere repugnantly in between. It was flesh colored and, no matter how many coats of Simoniz I put on it, I was always able to put thumbprints on the paint. It certainly was something of a joke at school. Lifting the front end was common.
I remember it not starting one day. I discovered someone had put bubble gum in the distributor. I immediately went to the J.C. Whitney catalog and bought a locking handle for the rear hatch to prevent more tomfoolery. I further immersed myself in the Whitney catalog. Soon, the Dauphine’s front fenders were plastered with large moon eyes, and there were small bare feet tracking their way down the rear bonnet. I had a gearshift extension and chrome knobs on the radio. About the only mechanical thing I did was to disconnect the muffler at the manifold and enjoy driving around, while the valves burned, as if I really had a lot of engine under my foot. I used to make up stories that I’d run into a passel of VW bugs, race them all, and was always victorious. Considering the Dauphine had a grand total of 27 horsepower and a 0 to 60 time of 37 seconds, this was obviously a very grand delusion.
I can’t quite remember all of the unusual events that required my long-suffering father to tow me home too many times to remember. I had my first accident in that car, but it was for a good cause. I was ogling a particularly attractive young lady sashaying by, and I rear ended a pickup truck. The other driver wiped my paint off her bumper, and I stared at the crease across the front of the hood.
Then, there was the time when it was my turn to drive four members of my high school basketball team to the beach to hustle cash at the beach clubs’ courts. The Dauphine carried the 800 or 900 hundred pounds of young galoots without incident, although we stayed in the slow lane and stopping was problematic. We parked at Jones Beach and wandered down the shoreline seeking an unguarded club. Getting in was usually an adventure. Somehow, we had to hide our basketball shoes and gear in various bags, go into the ocean, and try to come in looking like we had exited and gone swimming. This trip was on a particularly hot day. I watched the Renault’s temperature gauge climb higher and higher with some trepidation. Then, I was relieved to watch it drop down from its most extreme setting. Oddly, when I shut the engine off, it continued to run. I lifted the rear bonnet to discover that the block was red-hot. I guess it was somewhat fortunate that the Dauphine had an easily repaired wet-sleeve engine, since I had probably blown every seal and mixed all its fluids. It was fixed at some shop and back on the road looking for more ill-fated adventures.
One interesting idiosyncrasy that the Dauphine developed was that when I speed shifted from first to second gear, the stick moved but the transmission didn’t. A kind mechanic showed me how to take the inspection plate off the transmission, stick a screwdriver in, and flip first-gear back to where it was supposed to be. Of course, this involved removing somewhere between 12 and 16 bolts. At least once, I forgot to drain the transmission first and wound up with a face full of fluid. All of this was done without the benefit of a jack and on my back on the grass next to my parents’ driveway. All too often this happened when I was on a date. I then had to drive the utterly unimpressed lass home in first gear. If I didn’t know what embarrassment was at that point, I did very quickly. After 50 years, it still remains one of my great faux pas.
I don’t remember what happened to that Renault Dauphine. It was either traded, junked, or sold. From it, I went to a blue MGA in which I took my undergraduate mentor’s nephew for a ride. Trying to take a corner, I lost control, drove into the woods, and took down more than a few trees. We both walked away without a scratch. Much later, I discovered that the MGAs had hydraulic shocks with a large nut on the top. They had to be refilled periodically. I went onto another MGA, this one red with a white tonneau cover, which served me all the way through undergraduate school and my Masters.
A blue MGB-GT was my first new car, but in 1972 I discovered the Datsun 240Z; its frame rails rusted away in Indiana’s winters. I now have a turbocharged 1977 280Z with over 300 hp at the rear wheels. It’s my dream car, and it’s the last car I’ll ever own.
Throughout it all, I bonded with my cars and lamented their passing. Finally, I did, after the Dauphine, make the real choice between a muscle car and a sports car, which led me to the founding of the Emerald City Z Club here in Greenville, North Carolina.