I've loved driving ever since I was tall enough to do some hot laps at Disneyland's Autopia. I grew up in Los Angeles where driving makes you a person. A person who can go places and do things. Driving unlocks a world of possibilities. I got my learner's permit when I was 15, and my license on my 16th birthday.
Over the last 30 years, I've owned a series of practical, reliable cars that were suited to my current commuting and lifestyle needs. Point A to Point B. High performance cars were for people with a lot of money. Old cars were for people who could wrench and had extra space. I've always had sensible, boring cars.
Since 2005, I've photographed extensively in desert junkyards. I spent a lot of time looking at cars. I developed a new level of appreciation for automotive design and aesthetics. I started reading car sites like Jalopnik, Bring a Trailer, and Hemmings. I watched Top Gear. I started to become a bit of a car guy.
Fasten your seatbelts, and read on for my complete automotive history. It starts with a Pinto:
Car #1: 1972 Ford Pinto Wagon (1985)
86 hp, RWD, 4-speed manual, 2282 lbs., 0-60 mph in 11.9 seconds
My mom taught me to drive in the family station wagon, a brown 1972 Pinto Squire with fake wood side panels. This was the family beater car that primarily got used for trips to the beach. The four speed manual was easy to drive. I rubbed gallons of Armor All into those wood panels. The Pinto was slow, reliable, and had plenty of room for our Boogie Boards.
Car #2: 1982 Datsun/Nissan Maxima Sedan (1986-1991)
118 hp, RWD, 3-speed AT, 2793 lbs., 0-60mph in 13.1 seconds, 21/28 mpg
By the time I got my license, the Pinto was gone, my Mom got a new car, and I got to drive her 1982 Maxima. This was right around the time that Datsun was transitioning to the Nissan name. My friends and I referred to this car as "the gray, box-like vehicle". I drove this car for 5 years and it was very reliable. The most notable feature was the voice warning system that uttered classics like "the door...is a jar".
Car #3: 1976 Volvo 245 DL Wagon (1992-1993)
Specs from the sedan version: 89 hp, RWD, 3-speed AT, 3924 lbs., 0-60mph in 14.6 seconds
During my college years in Santa Cruz, I sold the Maxima to save money and rode my mountain bike everywhere (a 1987 Fisher Hoo Koo E Koo). I started playing upright bass around this time, and needed a car to get to gigs. I bought a beat up Volvo wagon for $450. The struts for the rear lift gate were broken, so I carried a big stick in the back to prop it open. At almost 4000 lbs. and 89 hp, the Volvo was extremely slow, but very reliable.
Car #4: 1986 Toyota Corolla LE Sedan (1993)
74 hp, FWD, 4-speed AT, 24/32 mpg
Around the time I finished college, my grandmother stopped driving and I got her Corolla. I took the back seats apart so I could fit my upright bass inside. I really wanted a truck, so I sold the Corolla after a few months.
Car #5: 1987 Toyota Truck (1993-1998)
103 hp, RWD, 5-speed manual, 21/26 mpg
I bought a used, standard, bare-bones, regular cab 1987 Toyota truck with a camper shell in 1993, and racked up about 100K miles in 5 years. This truck had the venerable 22R engine and a crappy Earl Scheib paint job. I built a wood platform for the back that hid my musical equipment. I also used the platform for camping by putting a futon on top. The bench seat was uncomfortable for long trips, and the mileage wasn't very good. The truck was slow but very reliable. Who knows, it may still be going strong.
Car #6: 1997 Honda Civic HX Coupe (1998-2000)
115 hp, FWD, 5-speed manual, 2324 lbs., 36/44 mpg
Eventually I was commuting and wanted something that got better mileage, and had bucket seats. The Civic was the first car that I ever bought new. The HX was the fuel efficient variant that got great mileage, but had no guts. The HX got 38 mpg in mixed driving conditions, which was pretty amazing.
Car #7: 2000 Subaru Outback Wagon (2000-2008)
165 hp, AWD, 4-speed automatic, 21/28 mpg
I was doing more road trips and bike racing, and wanted a vehicle that could do light offroad driving and haul more stuff. The Outback was another practical choice. Despite the cult-like following, I didn't find it to be a very good car. Poor mileage, slow acceleration, ponderous handling, emissions and suspension problems, and a leaking head gasket at 65K did not add up to a great ownership experience. Despite the flaws, I drove this thing for 8 years and it never left me stranded.
Car #8: 2006 Honda Element EX-P (2009-2012)
156 hp, AWD, 4-speed automatic, 19/24 mpg
Not willing to dump a couple more grand into repairs on the Outback, I bought a used Element. Yes, I drove a toaster. It held a lot of stuff. You could stuff bikes in the back without taking off the wheels. The seats folded down into something that resembled a bed. It was funny to watch rear seat passengers try to strangle front seat passengers with the seatbelts when exiting the vehicle. There was also a ridiculous manually operated sunroof over the back seat and cargo area. Despite flipping the bird to aerodynamics, being the king of body roll, and having questionable aesthetics, this was a practical, reliable vehicle. I even took it off-roading in the Mojave Preserve. But yeah, the driving dynamics left a lot to be desired.
Car #9: 2012 Mazda 3 iTouring Hatchback (2012-2015)
155 hp, FWD, 6-speed automatic, 28/39 mpg
I started commuting 30 miles each way to work, and part of the drive was on twisty roads. The Element really sucked for this task. I was getting 19-20mpg and gas prices were going through the roof. The Mazda 3 was a reliable, practical replacement that got 35-40 mpg. The 3 had about the same horsepower as my previous 2 cars, but weighed under 3000 lbs. It wasn't fast, but it did OK. For an economy car, the chassis was reasonably lively. The smooth-shifting 6-speed automatic transmission was light years ahead of my previous Honda and Subaru 4-speeds.
The road noise was pretty bad at freeway speeds, the build quality was so-so, and the stereo sucked. The design of the interior was silly, with so many buttons that I felt like a fighter pilot. But the car got great mileage and there were glimmers of fun handling on the twisty roads.
Car #10: 2013 Scion FR-S 10 Series (2015-present)
200 hp, RWD, 6-speed AT, 25/34 mpg
Back in 2012, I saw a photo of a 1971 Datsun 240Z next to a new car called the Scion FR-S. The FR-S looked like a cross between a 240Z, 80's Celica GT, and an Italian exotic. I was smitten. And when I saw that pricing started at $25K, I was interested. Very interested.
Growing up, my dad had a series of Z cars, and the FR-S looked like a modern equivalent. A simple, stylish, lightweight RWD sports car with great handling. And it was still somewhat practical. But mostly it looked fun.
Over the next 3 years I followed the reviews, videos, and development of aftermarket parts. I told myself once they hit 20 grand that I'd buy one. Last year I rented a Subaru BRZ for a weekend through RelayRides. The BRZ and FR-S have the same Subaru boxer engine, and are essentially the same car except for some interior options, suspension setup, and minor exterior details. Anyways, a weekend in this car sealed the deal. I started searching AutoTrader for an FR-S.
A couple of months ago I traded in the Mazda 3 for a used special edition FR-S with 8K miles. The car is really fun to drive, but still gets 30 mpg. Like many 2+2 sports cars, the back seat isn't really usable. Other than that, the FR-S is amazing. I dream about twisty roads.
I've added a few custom parts including an arm rest, shift knob, and a hidden hitch for a bike rack. I dumped the intake sound tube and installed a Perrin catback exhaust, and now it sounds like a proper sports car. The special edition FR-S has the upgraded features of the BRZ including a nicer stereo, climate control, push button start, and HID headlights.
Most importantly, every time I get into my car, even if it's just for a quick errand, I'm smiling. Life is too short to drive boring cars. I made this mistake for decades, but now I know - if you love driving, drive something you love.