Paperwork: Let me tell you what ‘used car’ meant when I was a teen

Buying cars is not as scary as it used to be.

Especially new cars. There are horror stories out there, but I think the quality of new cars has advanced a great deal. (Of course, the cost now can be frightening.)

I’m old enough to remember when the process was a lot scarier. Buying a used car in the 1960s taught me a couple things.

First, I knew nothing about cars. I could tell if tires were bald and if fenders were falling off, but all that stuff under the hood was a mystery.

Which rolled right into this lesson: buyer beware.

Hovering over any used car you looked at was a huge question mark with the word “lemon?” Your life would be cursed if you bought a “lemon.” But ... I probably did.

I was a teen when I bought my first used car. Looking back, I recall there were three key reasons I bought the little baby.

First, it was a car. My car. That was exciting. Second, it was a convertible. (That’s another word for fun.) And third, it had a stick shift. (That’s another word for cool, bordering on sexy.)

That’s all I needed to see for my teenage heart to start pounding.

Oh, I should mention it was a Triumph. No, no, not the sporty little Triumph you’re picturing. Although when the owner said the word “Triumph,” I perked up.

What I bought was a Triumph Herald, first made in 1959. Less sporty. Mine likely was four or five years old when I bought it for $300.

I found the car in the classifieds. I was a student at NIU, boarding with my uncle. (This is another Unca Bob story.) I asked him to go with me to check it out.

The first clue should have been the color. It was yellow. Kind of a lemon yellow.

“What d’ya think?” I asked Unca Bob. More than once.

“Hey, it’s up to you,” he kept repeating. (He should have said, “When I give the signal, run.”)

I bought the car. Hey, it was a convertible! With a stick. (OK, when I topped 50 mph the stick would chatter like hundreds of teeth – unless I gripped it. But shifting was fun. Then.)

I won’t get into greasy details. Let’s just say Unca Bob was an auto mechanic in the Army. He knew his stuff. I got to watch a lot of it in his garage … with my car. Keyword there is “watch.”

I drove the Herald a couple years. Then I suspect there was a phone chat with my parents and Unca Bob said, “Hey, your kid needs a real car.”

For my generation buying at least one lemon was a rite of passage. I paid my dues. (Well, Unca Bob paid my dues.)

My parents did help me find me another car. It also was used, but I wish I still had it, even though it was not a convertible.

And that 1965 Mustang … well, that’s another story.

• Lonny Cain, retired managing editor of The Times in Ottawa, also was a reporter for The Herald-News in Joliet in the 1970s. Email or mail The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.