My First Car–Julianne Johnson


I was so excited to get a car of my own that I wasn’t even embarrassed by how awful it looked.

I was in high school and at 16, I’d become the housekeeper for my dad and little sister. So, he bought me a car late in my junior year in 1959 to do the grocery shopping.

You know the cars kids thought were cool in the late 1950s? This was not that. Not at all. My beloved car was a 1952 Plymouth Station Wagon with most of the dark blue paint worn so thin that the man I asked to wax it, to shine it up for me, said, “Honey, if I wax this car for you, there will be no paint left on it.” So, I drove a mottled blue (where the paint was faded and still there) and gray (where the metal of the car body showed through) old Plymouth wagon.

I knew its ancestry! It had been the family car of my best friend when brand new when we were 10 years old. When her much older brothers matriculated to the University of Oregon, the car went with them. From there, it became the hunting car of my dad’s lawyer. It had a funky smell to prove it. The lawyer said one time that they tied a deer over the hood of the car and on the way back the car overheated. Um-hmm. Roasted venison. Funky smell origins.

The interior? A shiny, bright blue dashboard. The perfectly upholstered seats front and back showed absolutely no wear. Anybody getting into the car, always said, with a little surprised tone, “Oh, this car is really nice inside” or alternately, “Oh, this car is not bad.”

In 1961, with another University of Oregon co-ed, I drove it from Coos Bay to San Francisco and across the country to Washington, DC. One of the retread tires I had on the car peeled off in Ohio. Some guys, cigarettes rolled in t-shirt sleeves, stopped to help. They unloaded that car which was packed to the ceiling, changed the tire, and waved us off. Good Samaritans, indeed.

In DC, I commuted to work in that car. It wore a license plate that I have on the wall in my office today, “US Congress Staff” because as a Senate staffer, I had a spot in a special parking lot.  Never locked the car in DC, never locked the house in those days.  One night after working late in the Senate office, I came out to the car to go home. When I opened the car door, I startled the poor fellow who’d crawled into the back seat for a nap. Startled me, too. He scrambled out, I scrambled in.  We each went our own ways.

My roommate in DC was a colleague in the Senator’s office and she rode with me to work. Free commute for her. She was a good roommate, a good friend, and an ungrateful passenger; I was often late and that was not up to her standards. Furthermore, my faithful car had the heater left in the on-position one summer so I had the wire cut which meant no heat in winter. She mentioned that nearly every day!

When I was in my 50s, I once again drove a paint-worn-off car—a Volvo this time. I drove to Coos Bay to visit with my father. He quickly found a place where I could get a cheap paint job. I guess it was one thing for him to have a teen daughter driving a car badly in need of paint—but the same daughter in her 50s driving a sorry-ass car?

When I was in my 40s, he went on a car campaign for me. He declared that it was about time I had a Cadillac since a Cadillac was a mark of success!! Yikes, a Cadillac? Clearly, we had different value systems. I didn’t care what my friends thought of the Plymouth when I was in high school and later had an upscale job in the U.S. Senate, but I’d have been embarrassed to drive a Cadillac and park it in front of my Portland home 25 years later.

I’ve never been one to pay much attention to a car. I’ve been heard to say, “if it’s got four wheels, it’s good enough for me.” Maybe that utilitarian Plymouth station wagon carved that attitude into stone for me.


Julianne Johnson has lived in Manzanita for more than 30 years. As a sunseeker, she would happily replace the chilly, wet weather of Manzanita. However, the community is irreplaceable. Hence, she stays. And gallivants to sunnier climes from time to time.