John Graham’s First Car was an Art Car

John Graham's Toyota CorollaTo most people, my first car was as mundane as they come: a 1969 Toyota Corolla station wagon. While it was the first Toyota made in America (with 30 million sold worldwide) and the most popular car line in history, my friends—who all owned various incarnations of late Sixties and early Seventies Camaros, Mustangs and pick–up trucks—were certain I was some sort of milquetoast old lady with my choice of automobile.

But it was 1977. I wasn’t even old enough to drive yet. Even then I was looking at my lithe high water booty backside of a first car as an economical choice. Oil prices were on the rise and I just didn’t want to look stupid paying a lot for gas. Also, suffice to say, I was neither a speed nor power freak. At the age of fifteen, I was a cultural man and I had the nearly astute idea that my Corolla was a kind of B–version of a European sports sedan.

I bought the car from Luigi Scanapierco, a curly blond haired Italian waiter, both wiry and wily, whom I had met while working as a busboy at the Italian restaurant in my family’s neighborhood. I paid about 900 dollars for the car and had to wait six months before I was even old enough to drive it. During that time I sat in the driver’s seat and turned the blinkers on and off, preparing for the day I got my license.

My first move to set the little station wagon apart from other cars was to paint the hubcaps white. This gave it a kind of mod flair, like the white leather shoes that Joe Jackson the singer was wearing around that time. Then I turned my sights to the inside. Since my mother had just re–carpeted the family room in a sunset–orange shag, I covered the floors and back hatch area with the extra bits she stored in the garage. Next came the stereo, which was quite modern for the day. Instead of relying on 8–track tapes, I would be modernizing and buying cassettes. The radio was AM/FM, tuned to 94.7 KMET, 95.5 KLOS and a static–ridden KROQ which came out of Orange County.

Eventually, I got my license and set out driving. The car really moved, kind of like an Alpha Romeo, kind of, sort of. But its brakes were so bad that it was dangerous to drive on the very steep hills that made up the coastal community where I lived. Traveling at sixty miles an hour down Crenshaw Boulevard towards Torrance Beach, I had developed the crafty but dangerous habit of rubbing the wheels against the center divider to slow the car down. Occasionally I would lift the hand brake in desperation if the friction of the curb wasn’t enough. After all, I was sixteen years old and fearless, kind of, sort of.

The gas tank slightly leaked. I discovered from an older car owner that you could turn a screw in the hull to prevent too much fuel loss, although the small patch of gas and accompanying stream it created did not preclude the properly tossed cigarette from turning my entire automotive fantasy into a sudden pyre.

I suppose I had a mostly good and enjoyable time in this, my first car. I only crashed it twice. Once, in a in a hailstorm, I hit a patch of ice (which as a native of the Los Angeles area I had never seen in my life) and slid into a cement light post. After multiple tries at fixing it myself over a period of months—and with the help of some numb nut self–proclaimed mechanic I had met—I finally just made a claim on my insurance and got the car fixed, only to have the axle disengage in the first week back from the shop as I made a turn into the high school parking lot. As I remember, I flew into a rage at the injustice of it all only slightly aware that I was learning about the endless and seemingly karmic infractions car ownership could inflict upon a person.

I’m not sure how many months passed where I drove the car unimpeded and smoothly. But eventually, one late Saturday night, rounding a curve on the way home from a class party, I rolled that strangely balanced shoe box of a vehicle end over end. Even the floor mats flew out. The only items left in the car were me, seatbelt–less, I might add—and the stereo, which was still blasting Jethro Tull, “Songs from the woo-OOOD!”

I had really done a number. While I had missed every car parked on the narrow residential street—a miracle worth notifying the Vatican for—the roof and the front window were crushed. Ironically, the little betty still drove. I went back to the party and retrieved my friends to follow me as I drove home with the crumpled windshield divided between the backseat and my front pocket. It wasn’t a day or two before I headed off to the junkyard to get a new windshield. I brought it home, built a frame, like a jeep’s windshield, which fit snuggly up against the wipers.

Then I cut the front half of the flattened roof off using a hacksaw and pliers. I had roll bars installed because the suspension was gone after I cut the roof off. I then painted the whole apparatus flat black.

Since my mom was having the house re–roofed, there was plenty of wooden shingles lying about. They covered a two–by–four frame, which I put together to slip into the exposed channels left from the cut–off roof. Fortunately, we were in the middle of a drought and it didn’t rain for about nine months, so it was some time before I got to formally install my clumsy, pastoral shingle roof set-up. I do remember, though, the roof worked pretty well by the time it finally rained.

As I was set to head off to college in the fall, I sold it to a guy who later became a reverend and started his own church. One day when I was home the first summer after my freshmen year, I got a notice from the State saying they had found my car abandoned in Orange County, along the side of a road. I let them know I hadn’t seen it in ten months and likely the guy—who before getting religion was a major stoner—hadn’t followed through and transferred the pink slip. They accepted my explanation and that was the last I heard of the 1969 Toyota Corolla station wagon I bought from an Italian waiter named Luigi. It was kind of a legend in the neighborhood, and I never gave up on it. It was my first car.

John Graham

John Graham is an artist and writer living in San Francisco. Additional work can be seen at elfornio.com

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