As with first love, owning your first car is a rite of passage most of us remember fondly. And, this is even more so if you’re a fleet manager. It’s no surprise that a fleet manager’s first car elicits about the same nostalgia as a high-school crush.
Note: You can click the top photo to see all the vehicles mentioned in this article.
Over the past several years, I have collected reminiscences about fleet managers’ first cars for the Automotive Fleet & Leasing Association (AFLA)’s Spec Sheet newsletter (visit the archives here). Some of the highlights are shown here:
National Oilwell Varco Fleet Manager Kimberly Fisher’s first car was a gunmetal gray 1981 Pontiac Phoenix coupe that featured a bench seat and “had the best air conditioner ever,” she said.
“I drove that car like it was the greatest sports car ever made,” Fisher recalled. “I was just so pleased that I had my own car that I did not like to complain about any minor little maintenance issues. I drove it until I had to use both feet to drive it — it was an automatic. The problem was, if I pressed the brake pedal the car would die, so I just learned to brake and give it gas at the same time; a little tricky in Atlanta traffic!”
Boehringer Ingelheim Senior Manager of Fleet Services Lee Miller’s first car was a 1977 Mercury Bobcat purchased from a Swiss intern that had been working for her dad.
“After Chris [the Intern] returned to Switzerland, my dad offered me the car. The deal was he would ‘chip in’ $1,500 — a tradition in my family for the first car only! I think it cost me $3,500 at the time,” she recalled.
The “Black Beauty,” as Miller nicknamed it, was, unsurprisingly, black with gold pin-striping and a dark tan interior. And, it was a well-loved set of wheels. “I kept it meticulous, washing it every weekend. My mom used to say, ‘you’re going to wash the paint right off it!’ To me, it was the sportiest thing out there with its sleek taillights and all-glass hatchback,” Miller said.
Miller eventually traded in the car in 1981 for a brand-new Toyota Corolla.
It’s any car enthusiast’s dream: A classic car in mint condition found gathering dust in a little old grandma’s garage. For Lisa Kneggs, a fleet manager in Dallas, that was the story of her first car: a fire-engine red 1967 Mustang with a 289 hp V-8 and automatic transmission. “This was in 1975; I absolutely loved that car,” she said. “It had signal indicators in the hood and even had a ‘pony’ hood ornament. I’ve never ever seen one on another Mustang.”
However, when Kneggs graduated from high school, she wanted a more “grown-up” car, opting for a Cutlass Supreme. In the years since, she has owned three more Mustangs, but “none compare to my first ’67,” she said.
It was 1969, and Jim McCarthy, fleet manager for Siemens Shared Services LLC, was fresh out of boot camp and on his way to NAS Glynco, a military base in Southeast Georgia, and had $350 in his pocket that was supposed to be earmarked for his transportation south from Maryland.
Instead of using the government cash to buy a bus ticket, McCarthy used it and $150 of his own money to purchase a moss green 1962 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Coupe with 65,000 miles from a neighbor.
“The car was worth every penny and more,” he said. “During the two-plus years that I was stationed in Georgia, I drove that car silly — back and forth to New Jersey six or seven times, round-trip to Chicago three or four times, and countless round-trips to the newly opened Disney World in Orlando. All told I put an additional 50,000 miles on that car, and did nothing more than change the fan belt six times and had the dual carbs tuned four times. Sure, it had an occasional oil leak or two (or three or four), but that was to be expected with the mechanics associated with the air-cooled engine.”
While McCarthy moved on to other vehicles — a 1965 Mustang and 1969½ Mach 1 among them — to this day he is still on the lookout for another Corvair, preferably a “nicely kept convertible or Monza Spyder,” he said.
Forest Pharmaceuticals Senior Manager of Fleet Services Theresa Belding’s first car was a no-frills 1984 Chevrolet Citation, for which she paid her life savings — $1,600.
“It was a lovely tan color with chocolate interior and four doors. This tan was just a flat tan: no metallic, just flat,” she recalled. “The most unique feature about this car was the radio; it was vertical, which was bizarre to me. This audio system really rocked — not. I had to turn the volume up all the way when playing a cassette tape. But, beware when ejecting said cassette tape because the radio would then blast you out of the car.”
Still, Belding has fond memories of the car that wasn’t the prettiest, but “got us where we needed to go.” It was a bittersweet day when she traded the little car in for her first new car. “I took a whole roll of pictures of the car so I could remember it,” she said.
For retired Farmers Insurance Fleet Manager Larry French, his first car and young love went hand-in-hand.
French was 15 ½ and had just gotten his learner’s permit and his first car, a 1948 Chrysler Windsor. And, to celebrate he took his date, Jeannie Spain, to a suitably high-priced eatery in Sunset Beach, Calif. Of course, because he only had a learner’s permit, his mom and stepdad had to round out their dinner party.
According to French, dinner was a success, and, emboldened with an unwavering feeling of being a “man of the world,” he drove the happy group down to Corona Del Mar to stare at the moonlit Pacific Ocean. It was a perfect moment, at least at first.
“We had been parked in paradise for about 45 minutes or so, listening to the radio very low around 11:30 p.m., with a curfew then being 11:00 p.m., with the folks being almost asleep in the rear seat,” French recalled. “Just as I had gotten brave enough to put my arm around Jeannie, I looked into the sideview mirror, to see a Newport Beach police officer sneaking up on the driver’s side of the car.”
The inevitable turn of events, a stern warning from one of Newport’s finest, began with the police officer bellowing for French’s license and asking what he was doing out after curfew. French’s explanation and the fact that his parents were with him didn’t sit well with the officer.
“About that time, my stepfather, Howard, who was about 6 feet 4 inches opened the left rear door, got out, stood up behind the officer, with the officer’s back to him, and asked if there was anything that he could do to help in the situation. There was another officer that had been standing to the right rear of the car, and he just started to laugh like mad, which didn’t help the situation at all. After the first officer got ahold of himself, he almost tripped not knowing to back up or spin around toward Howard,” French said.
The officers beat a hasty retreat, and French noted glumly, “Needless to say, that was the end of my being the man of the evening without even a peck on the cheek!”
Rite Aid Fleet Manager Debbie Struna’s first car was a bright orange 1972 Volkswagen Beetle. While an iconic first car for many, unfortunately, it wasn’t the best choice for cold, Pennsylvania winters.
“If you’ve driven one of these earlier models in the wintertime, you would know that the heater boxes are not the best at producing actual heat!” Struna said. “It takes a while to get the system warmed up. When I drove in the winter, I kept a credit card in one hand so I could scrape the inside of the windshield; otherwise, my view of the road was definitely frosty.”
However, Struna noted that the little car handled very well in the Northeast winters and “never left me stranded.” Unfortunately, Struna wasn’t good at keeping up with the car’s maintenance schedule. “I forgot, one too many times, to check the oil and eventually the engine blew. I’d like to think that it was rescued from the salvage yard, and it’s still being driven somewhere today,” she said.
About the Author
Rick Nicoletti, general manager at Napleton Fleet Group, Westmont, Ill., can be reached at email@example.com