Jeff Wallace

Jeff Wallace

She was taking me to work in Augusta when the end came suddenly and quietly.

We were on the Aiken-Augusta Highway nearing Clearwater Lake when I knew something was wrong. Her peaceful chattering was noticeably missing. We pulled off the road, and she was gone.

She was dressed in her powder blue coat, and I sat with her, not knowing what to do.

There had been no sign of a problem when we backed out of the driveway at 6:30 that morning. Everything seemed normal as we rode along, but now my baby was gone – my first car dead at the side of the highway.

The 1970 VW Beetle’s engine had blown, and my first car was history.

Following my return from Navy Boot Camp, Dad took me to the local dealership to help make the purchase that this recent college grad needed. It’s hard to be a newspaper reporter without transportation.

There she stood on the dealer’s car lot, shoulder to shoulder with brothers and sisters of various hues. It was brand new and I detected a wink as we passed by. Since garnet and black were not available that year, I opted for light blue. The $2,100 price tag meant a $200 down payment and $89 a month for the next two years – pricey but manageable.

Within the hour, Dad was taking the family car home, and I was in the front seat of my new baby with its air-cooled engine generating a whopping 57 horsepower. It had four-in-the-floor and dual bucket seats in the front. The AM radio searched through the static to find nearby stations that came in somewhat clearly. It got 27 miles per gallon, a gas efficiency nearly double most sedans in that era.

That was the car that died on the side of the road that morning. But more than being my first car, it was the one which contained many memories. Not only was I leaving behind a mode of transportation, I was leaving a scrapbook of nostalgia from the previous four years.

That car took me to my first job after college. It took me to a camp in the mountains where I met the woman who became Mrs. Wallace. The Bug took me to Rock Hill for weekend dates with that lovely lady. And it brought us to my parents’ home the weekend we became engaged.

It carried me through two years of active duty in the Navy and saw my new wife through our first year of marriage, most of which I was away at sea. For the year before the wedding, it made a path to Spartanburg every weekend possible so I could spend time with her. That meant 200 miles and a three-hour drive up on Friday evenings and the same back in the wee hours of Monday morning.

The little blue car helped move us to our first home, a garage apartment on James Island where the car stood proudly with its license plate – HRU 172. We often joked about “harooo one-seven-two.” It’s our favorite tag number ever.

It brought us back to Aiken after Naval service and into the first house we purchased. Less than a year later, it carefully maneuvered us home from Aiken County Hospital with a baby in her mother’s arms. That was before car seats were in wide use.

This car – my first – had 104,000 miles when I coasted off the highway and into a convenient pullout. Perhaps it could have been repaired. Maybe the engine could have been rebuilt or a new one installed.

At that point, however, the family had outgrown a two-door car with little luggage room. We got another VW, but this one was a four-door sedan with a more powerful engine, plenty of room for people and things, an engine in the front and a proper trunk that could hold the belongings of two adults, one child and a dog.

As I got out of my first car that morning in 1974, a truck pulled off the highway and stopped behind the forlorn vehicle. I told the driver what happened, and he offered me a ride to work. As he pulled back onto the highway, I took one glance back and saw my car for the last time.

We shouldn’t get sentimental about things. They are merely possessions that we have for a time and use them as they were meant to be used. When they are outdated or no longer serve their purpose, we move on.

But that car was different. She wasn’t the fastest, nor the prettiest, nor the roomiest, nor the one with the most features. But she was the first.

Jeff Wallace is a retired editor of the Aiken Standard.