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Car guy

I’m not sure exactly when I became a “car guy,” but I think it I think it was probably just shy of my 14th birthday. That summer, two events changed my life — I got my learner’s permit which meant I could finally drive, and I talked my dad into purchasing a 1964 1/2 Mustang convertible.

After church on Sunday, we’d pore over the Sunday paper, dividing it into sections. Mom always went for the business and lifestyle sections, my brother for the sports pages, but Dad and I’d look through the classifieds. Those ads represented a cross-section of humanity, everything was for sale, each one with a minuscule three-line description and a phone number to call.

Reading through the ads taught you to be a detective pretty quick. The first step was learning to decipher all of the space-saving acronyms sellers would employ. A car equipped with power windows and power door locks would be listed as pw/pl, each letter combination was a code that spelled out the car’s story.

Of course, no ad would be complete without the price, including cryptic clues on how eager the owner was to sell. Most started with FIRM in bold type, before sliding down into OBO, for “or best offer.” When a seller got really desperate they’d abandon the acronym system completely, ending with a definitive MUST SELL.

MUST SELL’s were my favorite. If you held the classifieds up to your nose you could almost catch a whiff of the seller’s desperation. Finding the right deal was critically important since, like most 14-year-olds, I had almost no money. A part-time busboy and dishwasher, my head might’ve been full of ideas, but my wallet was mostly empty.

The money hardly seemed like a deterrent. My mom drove me to the bookstore regularly so I could spend hours browsing their transportation section, reading the books for free I couldn’t afford to buy and every weekend, my Dad and I would go look at the stuff we found in the paper. Getting ready to leave the house, ads clutched in our hands, my mom always shouted the same warning.

“Don’t buy anything.”

On Sunday afternoons, Dad and I would go to pick up my grandparents in West Des Moines at their retirement home. Neither of them drove, but they refused to part with their beloved Crown Victoria, so we drove it every Sunday as we ran their errands. Since my grandparents liked to drive, Dad would usually let me go look at the few of the cars I’d found in the classifieds.

No one had a cell phone back then, which meant you’d have to call ahead of time to get the directions, the classifieds took us all across central Iowa. We saw everything, from top to bottom. One Mustang we looked at had even been transformed into a dog house, complete with a mean looking Doberman that snarled at me when I tried to open the hood.

The 64 1/2 was in Ankeny, and I drug Dad up there to look at it one Friday night. We even took my brother along, and as soon as we saw the car, Dad was smitten. It wasn’t perfect, but in less than 30 minutes Dad had his checkbook out and the car was ours. We left our car at the seller’s house and drove home in the Mustang with the top down. Two miles from home, we passed my Mom going the other way. We must have been quite a sight. The three of us, grinning like idiots with the wind in our hair.

That summer Dad taught me to drive in the Mustang. With my learner’s permit in my wallet, we drove everywhere that summer. As soon as Dad got home from work, we’d put the top down on the Mustang and head out into the warm summer night, just driving around.

My fate was sealed, I was officially a “car guy.”

Contact David Dolmage at

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