By Basab Dasgupta
I vividly remember my very first impression of the United States of America. As my TWA flight was landing at JFK airport in 1971, I looked out the window through the clouds with the hope of seeing the famous Manhattan skyline. I learned later that one must land at LaGuardia airport to get that view.
However, I was overwhelmed by what I saw on the ground before landing; huge airport parking lots jam packed with cars. The cars were of every size, shape, style and color. This was a new experience for me coming from India where the only car I knew was Hindustan Ambassador. It was a reincarnation for me in a new country with a new life.
My friend who came to pick me up had a recent Ford Maverick. The car ride was like floating on the clouds; no jerking, bumping, potholes, sudden turns – just smooth sailing. He did not even have to press on the clutch to shift gears. The car had automatic transmission – something I never knew before. At the curving of roads, the roads were banked so that the car turned almost by itself with little effort required from the driver.
I had to wait two years before I purchased my own car mainly because of financial reasons. The first need before driving any car was a driver’s license. This was a “chicken and egg” problem. Do you first get a license (practicing with someone else’s car) and then buy a car or is it the other way around?
On the scheduled day, my driving instructor arrived in a car that had dual brakes both on the driver’s side and passenger’s side. The instructor was a woman! I am not an antifeminist and had no problem with that. My driving lessons went well and I got my license. I remember one incident during my lessons.
I was driving at a moderate speed within the speed limit when another car suddenly and abruptly changed lanes and came right in front of me without any turn signal or any other warning. Both my instructor and I slammed on our respective brakes just narrowly avoiding a collision. The driver of the other car was a woman. My instructor commented, “Never trust a woman driver”. I was not sure after that comment if I should trust what I learned from my instructor.
My car had many problems including a weak battery, balding tires and a “tie rod” which could snap any day; the car mechanic deemed it to be unsafe for driving on the interstate. Frequent help from AAA kept me going on city streets. My first task was to sell it and buy another car: a 1973 Chevrolet Vega. It was a good car with low mileage. I drove that car all over the eastern part of the country.
My first brand new car was a 1976 four-door Ford Granada. Driving and riding in that car felt like sitting on a living room couch on wheels. Smell of a new car is one of the most addictive smells in the world. The most memorable trip with that car was a cross-country trip to Colorado and Wyoming.
My happiest period with car ownership was when my wife started working for GM. As part of her fringe benefits, she got a whopping 18% discount off the sticker price of any new GM car. As a result, we changed cars every three or four years; I drove a Buick Park Avenue, an Olds 98, a Buick Riviera and an Olds Aurora during her tenure at GM.
I am, however, not a car person. I seldom pay any attention to engine specifications, technical details or even its looks. A car was simply a means to go from the proverbial “point A to point B”. A friend of mine dragged me to an auto show in the San Diego convention center in 1999. After wandering through a bunch of concept car prototypes and super-turbo muscle cars, I spotted a Mercedes-Benz (MB) – a CLK 320 Cabriolet. It was sitting under a bright spotlight with the top down. This was the very first time I fell in love at first sight WITH A CAR! I had to have that car. But I ended up buying that model in the same color combination as the demo model at the car show: metallic lilac color with gray leather interior and dark purple top.
Initially, I was not too impressed with the car. Sure, it took off like a racehorse and merged with the traffic flow like a breeze but this was not too different from what I experienced in my Olds Aurora. A few days later, it sunk in why everyone is gaga about MB. It was not how quickly it could accelerate from zero to 60 mph but how quickly and smoothly it could go from 80 to 120 mph. I started to use the stretch of Interstate 5 along the ocean from Oceanside to San Clemente where I lived as my speedway. All American cars I had driven before typically developed some type of vibration at a speed above 90.
I thoroughly enjoyed ownership of my MB whether I was driving along the winding Route one along the Pacific Ocean or speeding at 110 mph along a straight stretch of freeway through the Nevada desert. Driving at night with the top down and Bose speakers cranked way up with some song like Carlos Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” was like sitting in an open-air concert.
I wanted to keep the car forever, but it was useless for purposes like long-distance vacation with lots of luggage or big grocery shopping because of limited trunk space. Besides, the maintenance cost became a burden for a person on fixed income. After driving for ten years and after only one hundred thousand miles I traded it for a Cadillac CTS.
I told a friend, “It is time for a change. When I was a dashing executive, a convertible MB was the right car. Now that I am an old fart, a Cadillac conveys the right image”.
I still drive a Cadillac – a newer CT5 model. I considered buying an electric car to make my small contribution in saving humanity from climate change. Frankly, I am not ready for it. The routine of charging the car battery every night, worry about availability of charging stations on a long trip, what to do in case of a prolonged power outage and absence of that engine noise which gives a feeling of speed were all deterrents for me. I will wait for my next incarnation into a world of electric cars.
Basab Dasgupta has a doctorate in physics from University of Wisconsin and worked with Sony as Vice President of an operating division. Retired, he now lives in San Clemente, CA.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times