I stood there on the edge of the dealership lot, on the sidewalk, but just barely. My eye had been caught by a 1969 Buick Skylark convertible. It was the GS 400 trim level and was white with red interior. It sat there and beckoned me as I walked by and I was drawn to it. It looked something like this:
However, that picture doesn’t really capture the moment as it was back then. It was a bright, sunny and warm California day, the car was fully detailed and every surface gleamed. We were in that dead period for US made convertibles, so this car, with a powerful motor and an open top on a perfect day for such things, was an object of desire. I wanted it.
As I sat there, likely drooling on the body work as I ran my hand lightly over the synthetic leather-ish seat material, a salesman wandered over and began to engage me in conversation. He must have been good because I didn’t run away immediately or make the sign of the cross and shout, “Just looking! Back! Back! I am JUST LOOKING!” as I tend to in such situations.
As I recall, he was quite willing to talk about the object of my desire for a little while, and so we went for a bit. It was a weekday afternoon, so things were slow I imagine. I certainly do not recall anybody else on the lot clamoring for his attention.
Eventually we started talking about other cars and he said he had another one that he wanted me to see. I had nothing else to do, so I followed him, wondering what other treasures the lot might hold.
However, he wasn’t really interested in looking at cool cars and shooting the breeze. He wanted to sell me a car and, having sized me up from our conversation, brought me over to the used end of the lot where he showed me a 1976 Plymouth Arrow GS.
This was, I must admit, a lot closer to my potential price range. It was a popular car for a bit, being heavily advertised with the Me and My Arrow track from the Harry Nilsson’s album The Point! back in the day. The salesman was quite keen to demonstrate the vehicle to me, insisting that we go for a test drive. Being somewhat shy, I let him lead on and got in the passenger seat. He started it up and drove off the lot and up the street a ways, then pulled over, undid his seat belt, and said we should switch seats.
Slowly I got out of the car and walked around to the driver’s side, slid in, adjusted the seat a bit, and buckled up. The salesman was busy telling me how he had to drive the car off the lot for “insurance reasons” but I could take it from here.
This is the point in the story where I need to stop and tell you I was 13 years old at the time. It was the summer between 7th and 8th grade and I was standing in front of the Century Chrysler Plymouth dealership there on Stevens Creek Blvd. because that is where the old 23/24 line bus stop was located.
But rather than getting on the bus and heading to… I don’t recall… probably to the San Antonio Hobby Show up in Mountain View… where ever I was going, I was now sitting in the driver’s seat of an automobile on Kiely Blvd. with the engine running and an adult in the seat next to me waiting for me to put it in gear.
What the hell! Let’s go!
Actually, the whole scenario wasn’t all that bad. If I put my daughter in the same situation today, as she is the same age I was back then, she would be lost enough for it to be obvious she shouldn’t be driving.
But I had spent many a summer on my grandfather’s farm out in the central valley of California. I had been driving farm equipment of one type or another since I was six. The thing about being tall when you are a kid, and I was tall as a kid, is that adults frequently… and mistakenly… estimate age, maturity, ability, and general assumed knowledge of the world based solely on your height.
In hindsight, my grandfather, who didn’t stand all that much taller than me by the time I was 13, just had me do things that he estimated were appropriate for my height as much as anything. I was the first grandchild, so everything to do with me was pretty much experimental anyway. Boundaries that corralled my cousins later on had not yet be drawn. Plus, when you’re out on the farm and you have to drive out to help repair a piece of broken equipment or top up the tank of a pickup that ran out gas, and there is just the two of you, both of you have to drive back. Practicality dictates.
So, technically, I could drive. I had certainly driven vehicles more complicated than this Plymouth. It was even automatic transmission, so why not?
I don’t recall if I put my signal on or looked over my shoulder before I pulled out onto the road, but I got there. As we reached Saratoga Avenue the salesman told me to turn right. I went through the channelized right and onto Saratoga where he again indicated I should take a right, only this next right was the on ramp to Interstate 280. I was a little rough making that corner, not having bothered to slow down, causing the salesman to grab the overhead handle. There was no real danger, I just hadn’t gauged the corner quite right.
We went down the on ramp and onto the freeway and I brought the car up to and then past the speed limit, the engine roaring to the extent that the little four cylinder could. He then indicated I should take the next off ramp, which would put us along Lawrence Expressway and then to turn back towards the dealership up Stevens Creek Blvd. again.
I took the corner onto Stevens Creek a bit too fast, but otherwise kept it between the lines and managed to pull up into the dealership lot and park the car with some degree of accuracy. I am sure the salesman had seen worse. The route was something like this, with the X marking where I took over driving and the red pin where the dealership lay. Oak Tree Mazda is right next door and only on the map because I used it as the start point and then made the route go via Interstate 280.
Google puts the whole route at just shy of three miles. Great fun and likely the highlight of my summer on reflection. I have actually driven that same test drive route on several occasions when shopping for a car on that stretch of Stevens Creek, and I think about this day every single time.
So there we stood, the salesman and I, his hand on the hood of the car. We were now into what I recall as the difficult bit.
As you might have guessed, he wasn’t just taking people out for joy rides for the fun of it. He wanted me to buy the car. He was just three years early on that front. When I was 16 and had spent two summers working at the family business to save up money and had a fast food job during the school year to keep an automobile in tires, gasoline, and repair… and actually had a driver’s license… this would have been a very good car for me.
I even thought about this very car when it came time to buy one of my own. Unsurprisingly, it was long gone from the dealer’s lot by then. Trust me, I checked. The optimism of youth.
But at that point in time, with no job, a weekly allowance of $2, and lacking any official state sanction to operate a motor vehicle on the public roads, the whole idea… no matter how much I might have wanted the car… was pretty much off the table.
But how to communicate that?
I was already keenly aware of the unlawfulness of what I had just done. I was not about to blurt out my actual age and lack of a driver’s license. I figured trouble lay that direction and could see them calling my parents at a minimum and maybe the police if they were well and truly enraged.
But I couldn’t just up and run away, though the temptation struck me. While I lacked any sort of polished manners, not an uncommon situation for 13 year old boys, I had a sense of what being completely rude was, and turning on my heel and walking off after being offered a test drive seemed to fall into that territory.
So I adopted an attitude of non-committal interest in all the salesman had to say. Yes, the car seemed to be a good deal, if not explicitly for me. I appreciated that he had some room to work with on the price if I was a serious buyer. I acknowledged that the detailing they offered to do on the vehicle and the extended warranty were generous, as far as it went. I just never said, “I ain’t buying the car” and I never hit a point where I felt I could exit the scene gracefully.
This went on for a while as the salesman pointed out that I clearly liked the vehicle, that the price was one of great reasonableness for a car of such value and efficiency, and offering to sweeten the deal in this way or that as time dragged on.
As an adult I have never been able to hold this much sway over a car salesman as I did as a scared and embarrassed 13 year old boy. I could have set my price, had I been in the market and all those other details.
Eventually he decided that he needed help to pull me over the threshold and get me to buy the car. I was clearly interested, as I was still standing there on the lot with him next to the car.
So he went to get his manager.
In hindsight the couple of minutes I was standing there alone next to the car was my opportunity to escape. I could have bolted around the back of the lot and come up around behind the Meridian Quad to hide in the Time Zone arcade where I would later see Space Invaders for the first time. I would have been free.
Instead I waited, not wanting to be rude. And so I was standing there as the sales manager came out.
He was a salesman of the old school. He was loud and brash and literally used the phrase, “What do I have to do to get you to drive off the lot in this car today?”
He wasn’t going to put up with my non-committal nonsense. He wanted an answer… the right answer… and he wanted it now. And when I kept veering away from the direction he wanted to go, he got angry… or decided that playing angry was the right move.
That was actually a liberating moment.
I have much more trouble saying no to people who are being reasonable than people who are not. And somebody who starts yelling at me… well my Catalan heritage has a tendency to surge to the forefront and I will go from very inoffensive and deferential to yelling back twice as loud in a flash. It can be very much a light switch mood change.
I didn’t quite go there, but my temper flashed and it gave me the courage to storm out of there like I was offended and wasn’t going to take that shit from anyone. And so I was free. To this day I hope that the salesman felt that his manager came out and screwed up his sale.
I don’t recall what I did for the rest of the afternoon. I am pretty sure I didn’t go back to the bus stop around front.
I was also unsure who I could tell about this. Who could I trust to not tell, because I still feared that some trouble might follow, and more importantly, who would even believe me. So I kept it to myself for quite a while, but every once in a while I drag out this anecdote when sitting around swapping tales of misspent youth.
Meanwhile, time has moved forward, as it tends to do.
Century Chrysler Plymouth on the corner of Stevens Creek and Kiely has long since folded up shop. The location is now the home of Stevens Creek Toyota. The VTA 23/24 bus line has since been re-routed . When it came time for me to buy a car three years later, I did end up with a Plymouth. However it was a 1974 Plymouth Duster, with the 225 Slant Six motor and a three speed shifter on the floor, a ride probably better suited the abuses a young driver can inflict on a car. It came into contact with a number of large objects over the years I drove it… a tree, some garbage cans, a mountain, the side of a house, a concrete bridge abutment, Barbara Avenue, and two considerably less solid Japanese cars… though one of the latter hit me first. It was also the vehicle I used back when we played U-Boat, a topic I wrote about previously.
And in late 1986, when the old Duster finally stopped running and could not be revived… it literally quit on me as I was driving to work and the mechanic could not get the motor running again… I bought my first new car, a 1987 model year Mazda 626 Coupe, the last year for that generation, and a great car that I might still be driving today if some guy in a Honda Civic hadn’t plowed into it as it sat at a red light. A tale for another time. I purchased it from Oak Tree Mazda, which is right next door to where the events of this story began. I even went on the same route when I test drove the 626, though the salesman at Oak Tree Mazda wanted to see my driver’s license first.
Probably a wise plan, all things considered.