My Story: The best car on the block

We'll miss the last of our real family cars, handed down with love.

The driver's window wouldn't close. It couldn't make it up hills. And in a month, it was going to need four new tires and a new battery. But saying a painful adieu to our 1990 Peugeot, a.k.a. 13-604-04, last month wasn't easy. Because even though they don't talk, laugh, smile or hold our hand, our cars are part of our family and always have been in mine.

As a little boy, I fondly balanced myself on the running board of the '48 Plymouth my dad drove into the early '60s. "There it is - the best car on the block," he'd say with a wink as we approached it, as it was also always the oldest car on the block. Then he'd nudge its gears into play, me tucked in the back seat after a family outing, asleep as we plied the Grand Central Parkway or Long Island Expressway.

Through its seemingly vast windows, I watched Brooklyn or New Jersey or upper New York state roll by, as WQXR's classical music played on the radio. One summer's day, Dad gunned the old girl up to 90 on a winding country road to make it to a local shul in time to say Kaddish. The wind whistled through the back seat as we watched him skillfully maneuver every curve. We just made it for Minha.

Our family never owned a new car in the States. Dad got his from our aunts, his two sisters who lived in the city and stored their winter/summer tires in our creepy basement. Picking up their tires was a family event. We'd walk down the long set of steps to the basement to help haul the tires up in what seemed like some kind of religious rite. That was always followed by the latest updates on Manhattan apartment life from my aunts, who talked of city things: elevators, the law office where one of them worked, rent control - stuff we didn't have much to do with in suburban Bayside, Queens. It was the cars that brought us together.

The '48 Plymouth was replaced by a '51, still "the best car on the block," according to Dad, but which already had begun eliciting groans from his growing boys as they eyed souped-up Mustangs and fastidious Buick Rivieras in the adjoining lanes or in neighbors' driveways.

On Erev Yom Kippur, Dad would pat the hood as we headed out to shul, we boys already used to the mocking stares of fellow congregants who caught a glimpse of Dad parking Trusty (that was the car's name) as we headed to shul to do penance - but certainly not for haughtiness.

The green '51 seemed to hang around forever, soon joined by a blue '52 the aunts gave us as well. There was an accident once, with my mom and brother thrown out of the car, but a mysterious mechanic named "Red" seemed to keep the two cars running. His expertise allowed for more family memories: of Hol Hamoed Pessah trips to Massachusetts, Mom stuffing us with macaroons as we made the long ride in the car that was easiest to pick out at the Hot Shoppe along the New York Thruway and Mass Turnpike.

MOST SUMMERS, Dad worked as a counselor at Castle Hill Day Camp in the Bronx, in his 50s as opposed to the college kids who worked there, and told us to tell his curious campers "that I'm 99." The old Plymouth lent credence to Dad's story, the campers staring open-mouthed at the old man and his car as he drove off after another day, his two young sons in the back. We watched out the window as camp turned into a small dot across the spans of the Whitestone Bridge.

Then, one day, it happened. The Manhattan aunts turned up with a '62 Rambler with a push-button transmission. I was 18, home from Israel, and finally ready to learn how to drive. Out we drove Sunday mornings to the local Catholic high school to practice, Dad putting me through my paces. "Hand over hand," he'd caution me about steering, as I drove the green-gray beauty around the parking lot.

What sweet memories I still have of that car: the glorious, incredible high of my first date with Amy Rosenblum, cruising down the Belt Parkway absolutely in the stars, as a favorite Beatles song came over the radio. And then, months later, driving home in the rain, having broken up with Amy, the car's windshield wipers barely keeping pace with my racing pulse the night it all ended badly. It was as if the Rambler knew how hard a night it had been.

The Ford Galaxy that poked its nose into our driveway one day never really belonged - it was an impostor, a used car Dad had picked up after the sisters, one of whom had moved to Phoenix, stopped shipping us their castoffs. We drove it when we had to, but it got what it deserved - a kick to the midsection of the rear door from some kid Dad, an assistant school principal, had stopped without a hall pass or for some other infraction. It wasn't family.

FAST-FORWARD 10 years and I was shopping for my own first new car. It was 1980, and the choice had come down to a Ford Escort or a Volkswagen Golf. I called my mom, who had been forced to leave Germany at 19. "Those damn Germans, they make such good things," she said, after I explained the VW Golf (or Rabbit) was the better deal.

The light-blue beauty lost its virginity to a local kid with a screwdriver who removed its VW insignia and a front headlight one night. But it was still the car I wooed my wife in, driving from Tel Aviv to Arad on weekends, returning back to work in seventh heaven, barely aware of the tortuous traffic as a Stevie Wonder tape played . I was in love, and Bugs, my VW rabbit, could feel the vibes.

Five years later, and a tiny bundle of joy was being delicately placed in the backseat for the ride from hospital to our house. Our firstborn daughter could almost fit into the glove compartment, and cried far louder than any horn on any car we ever owned.

A little less hair later, we were screaming down the highway from Megiddo toward home, released from reserve duty early. We drove fast, Bugs beating a quick retreat home as thoughts of being reunited with the family on Pessah eve made me truly appreciate the feeling of freedom.

Eventually, Bugs was gone, sold to a local couple who kept it chugging around for a few years, and we took over Dad's Peugeot 305, a big white machine with steel that could stand up against a rhinoceros. It was his own first new car, which he earned by virtue of making aliya, along with the joys of encountering Israeli motorists who made him feel welcome on our highways. Not.

After a while, he passed it on to us. With three kids now piled in the back of the 305, we drove on a seemingly nonexistent road one day from Kibbutz Ketura to Mitzpe Ramon. The temperature outside hovered near 40, and the non-original air conditioner wheezed, while the gas gauge nudged to what looked like below empty. We prayed a lot and somehow made it up the hill to the gas station which appeared as if it were a mirage, and where the car took almost a full tank of 32 liters.

But even the heavy metal 305 had its day, and gave way to the 309, also a hand-me-down from my parents, who had stopped driving. It too proved useful, however, as we drove it to the hospital to visit Dad when he slipped away one morning. He never liked the 309 - too much plastic, he said. We agreed, also putting up with a gasping carburetor on rainy days, recurrent repairs and dodgy acceleration, not to mention that first ride with our daughter after she got her license. Brrrrr.

Still, we kept the 309. It was, after all, still registered in Mom's name, and as her health failed, strangely so did the car's. In the end, as Mom neared 90 and the car closed in on 90,000 kilometers but faced innumerable repairs, we did it. We found a junk man and turned over the keys.

We took with us memories of that old gray mare of a car unexpectedly making it to Acre and back for our daughter's bat mitzva outing, and to Mitzpe Ramon and back for another, despite our trepidations. It was no '51 Plymouth, but it was still, after all, family.

We'll miss you, 13-604-04, and hope to see you one day miraculously restored. We'll miss fitting into small parking spaces, your bucket seats, and compact steering wheel. Most of all, however, we'll miss the last of our real family cars, handed down with love, always "the best car on the block."