1981 TOYOTA TERCEL: THE QUEEN IS DEAD
Amelia Dalgaard

If my sister was a car, the last one she’d be is a 1981 Toyota Tercel.  Yet for some reason, in the spring of 1987, our Dad decided that this ubiquitous, fuel efficient ride should be her first car. His decision was a pretty clear indicator that, try as he might, Dad had truly failed to understand his middle child. Even as a teen, my sister was strong, sophisticated and elegant. A diesel Mercedes, lightly used Jag or even a sturdy Volvo would’ve suited her perfectly, but gifting her this bright blue, metallic compact Japanese sedan was like giving Madonna a mini-van—an undeniably poor match. However, because it was her first car, it was free and because our house had recently descended into hellhole status, that crappy tin can quickly became our beloved teenage oasis.

The pinnacle of our adventures was our annual drive to our grandparents’ house on Long Island where my sister and I would spend our summer racing sail boats. (If you’d like to pause to appreciate the ridiculousness of this privileged scenario, feel free. Okay. We’re done.) Now that she had her own wheels, my sister could assume the responsibility of driving us there in lieu of our mom. This was an exciting development because, despite her 30 years of practice, Mom somehow never failed to take the wrong exit off of I-95 and land us smack dab in the South Bronx as she squealed “Lock Your Doors!” in a panicked refrain. My sister, on the other hand, was almost incapable of getting lost—her careful preparation and skilled navigation just wouldn’t allow it. Instead, our trip was punctuated by the rotation of cassettes tapes from our favorite British Indie rock bands. 

Although it wasn’t fast, attractive or safe, my sister’s Tercel did have a badass premium sound system that nearly compensated for its flaws. This high performance Blaupunkt AM/FM cassette combination allowed us to crank the music so high that the rusty steel floor would vibrate incessantly and the rear speakers shook so hard that every chorus threatened a rear window explosion. Even the Iroc Zs were envious.  Never anyone’s fool, my sister knew that the street value of her Blaupunkt would always outpace the Tercel, making it ripe for a break in.  So she took a bottle of Revlon’s Millionaire Red and defaced her stereo rendering it valueless on the open market.  And thus the car and its stereo remained gleefully intact for our enjoyment. We would pile into the Toyota in our parents’ driveway and by the time we’d hit the onramp for the Merrit Parkway, we’d have our musical selections lined up in anticipation of our forthcoming escapade. 

Earlier that year, the Smiths had released The Queen Is Dead, an album that merited not just one, but multiple rotations on our summer road trip playlist. Thanks to its liner notes and my sharp farsightedness, we could digest each and every word on that record. Magical names like Keats, Yeats and Wilde danced off our tongues effortlessly as though we were already Ivy League intellectuals, instead of confused Connecticut tweens. We would read and recite these words until we adopted them into our own mythology. We weren’t scared kids from a hotbed of dysfunction escaping to our grandparents’ care, but were instead brave, powerful goddesses exploring the complexities of life, love and death with a couple of adoring, sexually ambiguous Brits.  

My sister piloted us across the Throg's Neck Bridge with an expertise no 16-year-old should easily have.  Clearly her years acting as mom's levelheaded co-pilot had really served her well. She'd shift her way through traffic, while I dispensed the lemon Snapple Iced Tea and Cape Cod potato chips that fueled our ninety-minute joyride. Once we exited the Long Island Expressway, we'd follow Route 25A until the Oyster Bay turn off where, right on cue, we'd each grab the cheap plastic crank and exuberantly roll down our windows to soak it all in. As Morrissey belted out Oscar Wilde quotes, the smell of honeysuckle, black locust trees and salt water marked the beginning of another exciting summer away from home.

Within a few days, the Smiths would be put away for the season. Soon we'd be listening to the Grateful Dead with our yacht club buddies and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with our grandparents. We didn’t really like either one, but it was either blend in or go back to our parents. We chose the former. Our drive to Long Island was one of our rare opportunities to chose our own play list and to dream about who we would eventually become.

My sister’s identity turned out to be very close to that summer’s soundtrack. The Tercel would be the first and last Japanese car I ever saw my sister drive. A few years later, she'd give up cars altogether to study at Harvard where she’d meet the love of her life. She'd marry him and move overseas. She’d live in a place where lush floral fragrances permeated everything and it was summer all year round. She'd drive on the other side of the road and raise kids with accents so deep I could barely understand them. She would drive upscale cars, Volvos and Mercedes. She would eventually get exactly what she deserved.

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AMELIA DALGAARD (aka Motorhead Mama) has been writing about car culture since a good friend told her to stop sending car photos with smart assed comments and 'write a blog already'! She is also known for her work making videos "pop", making design "within reach" and upon occasion, getting knocked up. 

www.motorheadmama.com

www.ameliadalgaard.com