The tale of Firebird Boy and his $200 rust bucket
Sometimes the choices we make in life haunt us for years. They may be small decisions, nexus points whose importance is wholly unclear at the time. This is the story of one such fateful event.
When my eldest son, Ethan, was in high school, he was the kind of kid who knew the exact dates on which he could get his learner’s permit and then take the road test to get his license. That didn’t necessarily mean he was a budding car guy; it just meant that he wanted wheels. Once he had his license, there were ample cars at the house for him to drive. I certainly didn’t give him free reign with my BMW 3.0CSi or Z3 M Coupe or the Porsche 911SC (though the scuffed bumper on the latter did, in fact, indicate that he snuck out with it at least once), but he generally had access to whatever happened to be my daily-driver BMW at that time. If the BMW wasn’t available, my wife’s minivan usually was, though he joked that being seen in it would kill his game.
As prom night approached, Ethan begged me to let him take one of “the cool cars”—as he called them. However, before all the vintage cars were insured with Hagerty, they were on my regular insurance policy, and he was explicitly excluded from driving these cars in order to keep the rates down. On his birthday, I let him drive each of them once around the block with me in the passenger seat, but solo operation on prom night was out of the question, and I told him so. He was not happy with me. Interestingly, when prom night arrived, he went full-on practical, eschewing my BMW sedan and opting for my wife’s minivan, because, well, you know, prom night.
The summer after high school, Ethan asked us about getting his own car. I, his hyper-rational father, explained that, while he was now 18 and I couldn’t legally stop him from buying and insuring a car himself, there were several reasons why it was unlikely to happen. First, while he was still at home, there were cars he could borrow, so having his own car wasn’t necessary. Second, when he went off to college, he might not be allowed to have a car (particularly as a freshman, and if he did, on-campus parking might be scarce). But most important was the issue of cost. I laid out how daunting the money part of it was, detailing how the purchase price is just the tip of the iceberg. Then I explained about one-time registration, taxes, and title fees, and annual insurance and inspection. And that’s not even including gas and maintenance and the inevitable loathsome parking tickets (and probably speeding tickets). I explained that, when added together, these expenses likely put a car out of reach for him. As justification, I told him that both his mother and I initially had cars when we were at college and had to give them up because we simply couldn’t afford them. I thought in terms of rational presentation I had crushed it, and he’d see reason.
Kids are kids, and they hear what they want to hear. I thought I laid out an incontrovertible case for why he couldn’t buy a car, but what he heard was “your mother and I both had cars at college,” and “you’re 18, so I can’t legally stop you.”
A few days later, I came home from work to find a red 1989 Pontiac Firebird in our driveway.
It had no plates. It had no exhaust. It belched oil smoke. I learned that Ethan had driven it home that way because the guy who sold it to him told him that he had seven days after purchase to register a car, a statement that’s analogous to saying the moon is made of molecules (technically true but useless). When I confronted Ethan about it, he said that he was “tired of you rationalizing away my good ideas,” he wanted to “make my own mistakes,” he was going to “fix it up,” and that, for $200, it was a “really good deal because it came with tools to fix the rust.”
I looked inside the car. The rugs had been removed, revealing Fred Flintstone floors. In the trunk I found an inexpensive angle grinder, and a street sign that the previous owner apparently was planning on using for patching material. I did not find the rugs.
My reaction to all of this was something akin to bemused horror. At the car-guy level, I thought a Firebird? How could I, the diehard vintage BMW guy, have fostered an environment where, in this great big automotive world, my first-born bought a Firebird? I guess it was better than my kid craving something sensible and boring and toaster-like like a Toyota Camry, but… this? It was absurd to the point of almost being funny. It was funny to anyone who wasn’t his father.
At an emotional level it irked me that I, the father-who-is-also-a-professional-car-guy, was clearly the person to whom any question regarding purchasing, repairing, and inspecting a car should be directed, but he didn’t seek my guidance and instead believed the seller’s ridiculous statements that the car could be legally driven home without plates and would be easy to fix. I doubt that the car was intentionally purchased as a thumb in my eye, but that’s what it felt like. Perhaps it was revenge for my denying him “a cool car” on prom night.
I circled warily around the Firebird for several weeks while I waited for Ethan to ask for my help. It was an awkward situation. To keep the car at arm’s length felt wrong, but to embrace it felt like I was enabling bad behavior. Eventually I began looking at exhaust and rug prices and reading the details of state inspection laws so that, when he asked me for my help, I could begin assisting him in dragging the car across the line into functionality and, hopefully, legality. Because that’s what fathers do. I wasn’t going to rub his nose in it, but I wasn’t going to fix it for him either.
Surprisingly, he neither asked for my help nor worked on the car himself. At one point I tried to force the issue. I told him, as non-judgmentally as possible, that it would take about 500 bucks, plus some time, to replace the exhaust, patch the floor in a cursory fashion, get a cheap rug kit, and deal with some other inspection issues, but because of the burning oil, it still might not pass. I thus recommended that he bail out of the car and sell it for whatever someone would pay for it, as apparently the last guy did. He gave me the kind of stare an 18-year-old kid gives his father when he knows he’s right but can’t form the words to say so.
The car sat all summer. Ethan never lifted a finger to “fix it up.” As Labor Day approached, I told him that if it was still in the driveway with no plan or progress when he went off to college, I’d make it go away by donating it to the local public television station. It wasn’t a threat; it was a simple statement of fact. And in the end, that was what happened.
For years after, if my wife or I became annoyed with Ethan for something done impetuously without adequate think-through, we’d refer to him as “Firebird Boy.” I wrote about the Firebird incident in my column for Roundel magazine, as well as in my first book. Folks who’d never met Ethan would sometimes ask me, “How’s Firebird Boy?”
Later that year (2008), fuel prices spiked at $4.50 a gallon. I didn’t have a long fuel-guzzling commute, but I was professionally curious whether you needed a Prius to get 50 mpg or whether you could buy one of those ’80s or ’90s econoboxes. As an odd automotive journalistic experiment, I bought a three-cylinder 55-hp Chevy-badged Geo Metro. My middle son was going on college visits and interviews, so I had the chance to put some miles on it and do some hypothesis testing. I found that, if you held it at 55 mph, the Metro honest to god did get more than 50 mpg and was in the mid-40s if you hewed closer to 70 mph. It was, however, a buzzy little tuna can of a car, with seats that had all the back support of a dissolving block of Styrofoam.
As fuel prices eased a bit and I tired of my little experiment, I loaned the Metro to Ethan, who was still at college. Initially he thought this was some sort of a cosmic joke, payback for the Firebird incident (he literally accused me of preventing the conception of any potential grandchildren), but as a broke college student, he soon grew to appreciate the Metro’s astonishing fuel economy. “Dad!” he said when he called me one weekend, “I drove the Metro from Amherst to New York to Boston and back to Amherst this weekend, and I think it cost me 20 bucks in fuel!”
When Ethan was jumping around a bit between living arrangements, it was easiest to just loan him my 1999 BMW E39 528iT sport wagon. It was a tacit admission on my part that he had perhaps finally outrun the Firebird Boy label and could be trusted with something that wasn’t a disposable tuna can. He loved the general vibe of the 528i wagon, the slightly hunkered-down stance, the power and handling, and the cargo-carrying ability, but after filling the tank a few times, he almost pined for the fuel-sipping characteristics of the Metro.
Fast-forward nearly a decade. A few years ago, Ethan came with me on a trip to “The Vintage,” a gathering of classic BMWs held every year in Asheville, North Carolina. We drove my ’72 Bavaria. I walked him around the parking lot, more young man than kid, more peer than progeny, proudly introducing him to my car friends. When I introduced him to one person I see annually at this event, without dropping a beat, the fellow said, “Oh! Firebird Boy!” BOOM! I doubled over with laughter. Ethan took it well. It was a beautiful moment.
One of the odd things about life is that we all have a legacy—sometimes good, sometimes not so much. Ethan is Firebird Boy, and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it. At least he’s not still driving that Metro.
Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 30 years. His most recent book, Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack Mechanic™ Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, is available on Amazon (as are his previous books). You can also order personally inscribed copies here.