If you asked our daughter Jane in May about her first car she’d probably have smiled and told you about Bruce. Bruce was a modest CUV from Korea with an immodest safety rating, an IIHS Top Safety Pick. Bruce was everything she wanted at 15; new and compact with a scented hula dancer on the dash. Bruce was everything I wanted; a zero-down lease, $300 a month for 36 months, with good safety ratings all the way down the line. Leasing Bruce meant that I could have a nice car and not share it with a new driver.
Bruce wasn’t Jane’s first car. Bruce was the first car we let her treat as her own.
This summer, unlike other summers, Jane isn’t coming home. She’s working in another part of California for a few months and needed a car. Fair appears to have gone offline and with rental cars charging a $35 a day premium for drivers under 25 I had three decent options:
I could rent a car for myself and let her take my car to Northern California to live and work
I could buy a used car for her and sell it at the end of summer
I could help her buy a used car and help her sell it at the end of summer
As much as I love driving a well worn compact sedan with the smell of grandpa’s hair pomade wafting from stained fabric seats in the heat of July, I decided that I would help our daughter buy her very own first vehicle. This would also provide a nice opportunity for her to build her credit history.
Buying a moderately priced used car in 2021 is exhausting.
We did all the usual things, checking eBay Motors, Craigslist (OMG why?), local dealerships, TrueCar, and even one of the rental agencies, and we were not impressed.
A visit to CarMax with a salesman who couldn’t decide who he hated more, me or my daughter, left us with a 2014 Nissan Sentra as a backup plan, but the promise of 2 hours with him made us leave in search of… anything really.
Watching a geriatric salesman tell our 22-year-old daughter why recalled brakes aren’t an issue is ire-inducing. The already perilous relationship devolved when she explained that she’d been the brakes and rotors lead on her university’s Motorsports Team for the past year. Middle school teaches young women to say I hate you with their eyes, she dusted that skill off and executed it in style.
Searching for cars under $10,000 is complicated in 2021. As many already know, Covid 19 affected the supply chain as well as the factories themselves leaving both new and used cars hard to find. So as we left CarMax I searched local dealers and figured I’d kick in some cash and help make up the extra fund. I wanted to try to get her into a Jetta. That’s when we hit the jackpot.
We saw a 2013 Jetta advertised at a VW dealership for just $9,500. After calling to confirm availability we headed over there tout suite. We could barely contain our excitement, and I was waiting to find out what was wrong.
After confirming that there were no outstanding recalls, Jane gave the salesman a copy of her license. I emailed the dealership a copy of our insurance, and our guy went to go grab the car from a nearby lot. It was in fabulous shape and everything was perfect except for one thing. It had a manual transmission. A stick shift. Jane doesn’t know how to drive a stick.
“I’ve been wanting to learn to drive a stick shift!” Jane practically jumped up and down.
I just stood there. I was tired, bone-tired, and she needed to leave the next morning. If we didn’t buy a car soon I was going to spend a summer in the Hertz special. Jane had been nagging me for years to teach her to drive stick, but in a city like Los Angeles they’re not practical, and anyone who has one is probably in a sports car or a collectible, nothing you can borrow for teaching purposes.
Worn out, dejected, and ready to admit defeat, I handed a confused salesman my driver’s license and buckled myself into the driver’s seat of the 2013 Jetta. Jane hopped in the passenger seat and I figured since we’d come this far, we might as well take the thing around the block.
Because of Covid salespeople no longer accompany drivers on test drives. Our guy waved goodbye and off we went. I took some right turns, some left turns, a few hills, and then hopped on and off the driveway. I shifted gears at 2,500rpm and then I redlined the thing in second. I’d almost forgotten how fun driving a well-tuned car could be. There are a million reasons to love a Japanese import, but there will always be a million and one reasons to love a German car. I was having fun. Finally.
As it was Sunday I ended my portion of the test drive at the DMV parking lot. This is where I hopped out from behind the wheel and then back into the passenger seat where I proceeded to teach Jane how to work a clutch.
Our test drive became an impromptu driving lesson.
I figured if the driving lesson was a disaster we’d ruin someone else’s car, end the test drive, and find a halfway decent rental car for the summer. I’d send her to work in my car and I’d suck it up, sometimes that’s just how it is when you’re the mom. If this experiment was anything less than a disaster we’d figure out a way to get Jane and her Jetta to Northern California while hoping for the best.
I’d forgotten about the hideous sound of grinding gears. Lurching forward as Jane perfected the upshift was jarring at best, concussive at worst, fortunately for everyone, she had first and second gears mastered in about 20 minutes. I assured her that second to third would be much easier, and just as we were working on reverse my phone rang. We’d been gone nearly an hour.
It was the dealership calling. They wanted to confirm that we were safe. I believe that safe might be code for not a car thief. We were indeed safe, and we were not theives. Well, one of us wasn’t.
“We’re great!” I chirped into the phone, “She’s just figuring out reverse and we’ll be right back.”
Silence was followed by only more silence.
“Hello?” I said.
“You…. you’re teaching her to drive?” He stammered.
“Yeah, she’s doing great! Don’t worry, we’re at the DMV. We’ll be back really soon.” I saved him the embarrassment of trying to find the right words and immediately hung up.
After Jane mostly figured out reverse I returned to the driver’s seat. As we made our switch, one of the dads who had been supervising the skateboarding 10 year olds at the other end of the lot gave Jane a standing ovation for her work behind the wheel. We all had a good laugh.
Everyone I talk to smiles when they reminisce about learning to drive a stick. We were just out there spreading joy and not stealing cars.
She bought the Jetta with her own money.
My mechanic checked the car out and offered to buy it at the end of summer for the same price Jane paid for it. I suspect that won’t happen because I’m kind of in love with the car now. If anyone’s buying her out of that car, it’s going to be me.
Now came the tricky part. A few evenings after Jane was safely moved into her summer housing I’m sitting on the sofa with my husband and explaining to him what happened at the dealership.
“So the guy brings the car from the lot and we look in and realize it’s a stick shift….” I started.
“Oh no, so when did you find her car?” He interrupted.
“That is her car,” I announced.
I guess that until that moment we’d not mentioned to him that it’s a stick shift. Must have slipped my mind. Then I told him about the driving lesson.
There’s a look on Mr. G’s face that I’m very familiar with. Some may think it’s a look of exasperation, I like to believe it’s his face reflecting the joy he feels at having a resourceful wife. I got that look from him the other night. It was just before he called our daughter to confirm that she knows how to drive her car.
She knows. My kids get lots of lessons from me.