My First Car
Seven celebrities – from Jay Leno to Hugh Hefner – fondly recall their earliest 4-wheel crush
Everyone remembers their first car with affection, and even the biggest heap of three-wheeled crap will be viewed through rose-tinted lenses by somebody. The following stories of automobile puppy love come from the fantastic book, My First Car, by Matt Stone. If you’ve ever wanted to know what car Steve McQueen or Guy Fieri first drove, read on…
1934 Ford pickup
“I was 14 years old at the time. I was working at McDonald’s and other summer jobs, and I remember one day when my dad and I drove past a gas station in Redding, Massachusetts. This truck was parked next to the station, and it was for sale. I walked into the station and asked ‘How much?’ The guy said ‘$350.’ Being the shrewd negotiator that I was, I said ‘Okay—I’ll take it.’ I scraped together the money, and my dad drove it back to the house since I was too young to drive it home myself.
“It needed a lot of work. I spent two years sanding, priming, and getting it ready for the day I got my license. [When I finally got it], I painted the Ford burgundy maroon … as a gift, my parents redid the bench seat in black Naugahyde. So it’s all done, it looked great, and I’m driving the car around. One day, my buddy got in, was fooling around, and slammed the driver’s side door. This was before safety glass, so you know what happened: the window shattered into pieces. I had no driver’s door glass. I still had to take it to school, and I remember one day, I was sitting in math class, and I could see the car in the parking lot. Of course, it began to rain. And then it was pouring rain. All I could think about was my new Naugahyde interior being ruined by all this water. Here comes another nightmare.
Leno out in the California Desert with his Blastolene Brothers “tank car,” appropriately named given the Chrysler tank engine it relies on for power.
“After about 20 minutes, I’d lost all hope for my upholstery. Then I looked out the window and saw my dad. He’d left the office, and he and my mom had picked up a huge sheet of plastic. I’ll never forget it. Sitting in math class watching these two ‘old people’—who were probably younger then than I am now—struggling while trying to cover my car with plastic. I started to cry. They were out there in the rain for probably 20 minutes, trying to cover my truck so it wouldn’t be damaged. I’ll never forget that.”
1976 Datsun 280Z
“I knew I wanted to get a car but was never really comfortable with the whole idea of a car payment, so I saved and saved my money until I finally had made enough to buy the car—what I thought was going to be the car. And my buddy Johnny was selling his 280Z, and that was just way beyond the realm of what I thought I would ever get. I figured I’d just end up with an old pickup truck or something.
Fieri’s loved and lost 280Z is long gone, but he seems to really enjoy the Chevelle SS convertible he currently pedals on his TV show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.
“So here I am, going to get this 1976 brown metallic 280Z five-speed, cherry condition, owned by an old man, and my buddy Johnny bought it. Johnny put no miles on it. Johnny only had it for six months. And there I go! This was going to be it, baby! … So I bought the car and it was my pride and joy.
“So I had the car, things are great, couldn’t be happier. Another buddy had a 240Z. Everybody knew my brown 280Z. It was immaculate; didn’t have a scratch, didn’t have a dent. Perfect condition. I was dating Johnny’s sister at the time and I was coming home from their house, driving home at night, it was late, fell asleep at the wheel, drove up onto the sidewalk, and plowed a telephone pole at 50 miles an hour and destroyed my car. I was heartbroken. Devastated.
“I broke my leg and my sternum and ribs, and got pretty banged up from the accident. I had to pay for a new telephone pole, the whole thing … [The car] only had 50,000 miles. It still breaks my heart. I hit the telephone pole dead center: Drove the telephone pole almost up to the windshield … And I wasn’t drinking, it wasn’t even that kind of thing. I just fell asleep at the wheel. Drove up on the sidewalk and lucky I lived, you know.”
At 12, [Steve McQueen] helped an older pal assemble a hot rod. “It had an Edelbrock manifold” on its compact Ford V8-60 flathead V-8 engine, and “could accelerate with a J-2 Allard, which was the going sports car around this time. Our rod didn’t handle for beans, but when the engine stayed together that machine had stark acceleration.” …
At the age of 17, he joined the Marine Corps, and it was there he again exhibited his love of things mechanical. He was assigned to the tank corps. “We had this old tank,” he said, “and I thought it could be souped up. So a couple of guys and me, we really worked it over, porting and milling the heads, fooling around with the timing and carburetion. Well, on the day we finished, we took it out for a timed run. And the laugh was on us; it didn’t go any faster.”
Many enthusiasts caught the sports car bug at the wheel of an MG TC, including McQueen during his early days as a stage actor in New York.
After his three-year stint in the service and an honorable discharge, McQueen moved to New York. It was there that he acquired the first motorized thing he could call his own, an Indian motorcycle with a sidecar. It was the first of hundreds of street and racing motorcycles he would own, but the automobile that Steve McQueen loved first was the sports car that America loved first as well: an MG TC, which he bought in 1952.
Not long after arriving in The Big Apple, he began studying acting. Soon, he was performing in small, off-Broadway plays, with varying levels of success. A traveling production of Time Out for Ginger brought him to Columbus, Ohio, where he found the MG. Between his pay and poker winnings, McQueen saved up $450. But the owner was asking $750. “I put down $450, and I told the owner I’d send more money from each overnight stop we made. Which I did. It was finally delivered to me in Chicago. That’s when I asked for a raise and got booted out of the play. So, I jumped into my MG and drove it all the way back to New York.”
The fun but fragile sports car wasn’t the ideal machine for the mean streets of Manhattan. “I sold it after three axles broke” he said, “and the spokes kept shredding out of those wire wheels. I decided to stick with cycles for a while.”
Continue to Page Two of My First Car for Paul Newman, Hugh Hefner and more!
My First Car, by Matt Stone, is available to buy now.