A Love Letter to My First Car
Everyone remembers their first time. The anticipation, excitement and nervousness. The thoughts spinning around their head. Am I really ready for this? What if I’m making a huge mistake? Is this really the one?
Yup, owning a first car is a big deal.
For me, the path to vehicular ownership is a bit different than most. Unlike a lot of people, I didn’t get a hand me down crapbox or a beater off of a fly-by-night used car lot. I didn’t experience car ownership until I was 23 years old.
I had been living away at University from the age of 19 and had neither the need nor financial means to own a car. Fresh after graduating, it appeared I was on the cusp of guaranteed, meaningful employment, so a vehicle was now a must (spoiler, I didn’t get that job).
A few years earlier, I had worked at a local Chevrolet Oldsmobile dealer and I still had friends there. My intent was either getting a used car or a basic new car with a cheap lease. I was sitting down with my friend and former colleague, discussing my options. A lease quickly became the most attractive means financially, so I asked how cheap I could get a lower-tier Chevrolet Cavalier Coupe for.
He ran some numbers, got the final tally, and then said something I can never thank him enough for. “Hey, at this price, with all the discounts on Oldsmobile’s since they’re being discontinued, you can get an Alero GX coupe. It’s still a two-door, has the same engine, a manual transmission, more options and is a better overall car.”
A few days later, I picked up my shiny new 2003 Oldsmobile Alero GX Coupe. Power came from a 140 hp 2.2-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine attached to a 5-speed manual transmission. I can’t remember what I ate for dinner last night, but I still remember many of that car’s specifications, like its curb weight (2,888 lbs.)
It was finished in silver and featured the trademark Alero two-tone interior. Since I got the coupe, the base model included alloy wheels, and leather wrapped steering wheel and shifter. On my way home from the dealership, I stopped at an auto parts store and bought some Sylvania Silverstar bulbs. It was the fall of 2003 after all and the world was gripped by the Tuner scene.
My next order of business of course was to join a few online car forums. I decided in all my 23-year-old wisdom my username would be a mix of my name, Mike, and the word Alero. So, I went with M-Alero. But since I spelt it Malero and most pronounced it all as one word, it sounded like I had some exotic disease.
One car community became my
first second home for the next few years. Called GrandsOntario, it catered to N-Body and W-Body Pontiacs – the Grand Am and Grand Prix. It also let in bastard stepchildren like the N-body Oldsmobile Alero.
We spent every Wednesday and Friday night together outside a specific coffee shop parking lot. We’d meet around 8 PM and sometimes still be there at 3 AM. I made some great life-long friends in this group who I still get together with on occasion today.
Bitten by the Mod Bug
As great as this group was, they were also a horrible influence. Actually, we were all an unholy conglomeration of enablers. Most of our twice weekly meets were just us talking each other into buying more modifications for our cars.
Despite having student loans greater than the down-payment on a house, every available cent I made went into that car. In the end, it had performance struts, lowering springs, a set of 17-inch wheels (which didn’t fit), a custom cat-back exhaust, a custom cold air intake, custom headlights, tint and various other shitty Ebay items.
The customer exhaust I had installed on my car was obnoxious and I loved it. Starting from the catalytic converter it ran to a Magnaflow that was anything but a muffler. It was a single entry that ran straight though and split into a double exit. There was the appearance of baffles in the muffler, but it did little to quiet much of anything.
At the time, the Ecotec engine was new and not many were as loud as mine. It made a distinct sound, and everyone knew when I was coming. I had a job that required me to hit the road at 6:45 am every morning and my neighbor commented more than once that my car starting in the morning was her wake-up alarm clock.
I had a custom vanity license plate made for the car that was FNL OLDS. It stood for Final Oldsmobile in my mind since the Alero was to be Oldsmobile’s last model line. But it quickly developed new meanings, like F’n Loud Olds to my uncle, or F’n Low Olds to my cousin, since a set of knock off Ebay springs had it scraping the ground.
Not Fast, But a Freak
Besides loitering in parking lots and sipping burnt coffee, another past-time of our car club was heading out to local drag strips weekend evenings for test n’ tune and run what ya brung events. Many of us went for fun while others had legitimately fast cars featuring turbocharged 3800 V6 engines. I swear, the convoy out to the strip and back was half the fun.
The first time I ever went to the dragstrip I asked what I needed to do. The only advice I was given was ‘when the light goes green, drive fast’. I believe the first run in my car I turned the ¼-mile in 15.55 seconds. Not bad for a nearly 3,000 lbs car with just 140 hp.
After a few trips to the strip, I eventually got down to 15.21. Today that is painfully slow, but over 15-years ago that wasn’t too bad at all and much faster than any other Ecotec Grand Am or Alero at the time. In fact, many online didn’t believe it ran that fast and those who witnessed it called the car a factory freak. Ah, the days when a 15+ second quarter mile was something to brag about…
Mail Truck Mash-Up
In January of 2005 our car club decided to head down to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. We were based in Toronto, so the drive down wasn’t too long. The day we were planning to drive down a major snowstorm was forecast. On a whim, a bunch of us decided to head down the night before to beat the storm. We made it into Windsor, just across the river from Detroit, as the snow began to hit. Crisis averted – or so we thought.
The next morning, we woke to a massive dumping of snow. Probably 40 cm or so and it was still snowing hard. We piled into our cars and headed for the border. At the crossing my two passengers only had their drivers’ licenses on hand – no passports or birth certificates. In post 9/11 America, this was strictly forbidden. But the border guard for some reason let us through anyway after admonishing a stern warning to my friends.
If only he had forced us back home…
Shortly after crossing the border, we were stuck in a long line of cars waiting to park at Cobo Hall. The roads were treacherous as Detroit isn’t exactly the pillar of snow removal. As we waited stationary in line, a three axle USPS mail truck directly behind me decides now is the time to pull out and pass us all. He mashes the gas, swung to the left and immediately hooked his rear wheels on a curb hidden beneath the snow. The big truck lurched sideways and started a slow-motion slide.
I still remember looking in my sideview mirror at this massive truck performing the worlds slowest drift right at my car, with nowhere for me to escape. It slammed into the back corner of my car with surprising force. Luckily my passenger in back seat was leaning forward at the time talking to us as the rear window exploded on impact. Thankfully, since I had hella-illegal tint on that rear window, instead of shattering into a thousand small projectiles, it just slumped down on a sheet of limp vinyl.
Because the truck hit my sideways, it cleared my bumper and demolished my trunk, buckled my roof and crushed the rear quarter panel.
I never made it to the auto show that day. Instead, I spent 8 hours sitting at the side of the road waiting for a tow truck. They seemed to be extra busy during the snopocalypse that day. When one finally did arrive, it only towed me one mile to the border and dropped me there, refusing to cross the border as things were too busy. Unsure what to do, I wandered into the border station, with my phone still up to my ear, looking for direction. Apparently, I went into the employee section where I was not well received. Six guards immediately put their hands on their holstered guns and demanded I hang up the phone.
After changing my underwear, I was back out outside, next to my car, unsure what the hell I was going to do. Lucky for me, a guard manning the closest checkpoint called me over. He was an aboriginal that lived in Windsor and sympathized with this lonely lost Canadian. He was able to work both the Canadian and American border because of his status and made me a deal. If I could get the trunk closed on my car, he would let me drive it, in all its smashed glory, across the tunnel into Canada.
I borrowed a pair of scissors and hacked up my cargo net, MacGyvering enough string to tie the trunk shut. After eyeing my handy work, he let me go. I’ll never forget the look on the Canadian agent’s face when I rolled up to his booth with my Oldsmo-wreck. He took one look at me, didn’t say a word, and waved me through. I’m not sure if it was the look on my face or my new friend back at the USA border had called ahead with my situation. But I was finally back in Canada.
Goodbye Sweet Prince
The snow had yet to relent and I felt like a wintry Mad Max driving down abandoned snow-covered streets in my smashed car. It was after midnight when I finally arrived at the hotel. My friends were equal parts surprised I was just getting back to Canada now and that my car was still road worthy.
The next morning, we went to our local hardware store and bought a plastic trap to cover my back window. We affixed it to the car and taped some left taillight pieces back in place. Now it was time to begin the four-hour drive home. My car behaved surprisingly well on the highway at speed despite the damage. Our only issue was we had to drive with the windows open a crack to relieve the pressure of the flapping tarp over the rear window. Not a big deal if it were not for the negative 10-degree weather.
The Alero eventually made it to the body shop where an insurance adjuster deemed it a write-off due to the structural damaged incurred to the roof. I only had it 16 months total, but I’ll never forget this
mundane amazing machine.