Blue Fur Seats

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

When you reflect back on your life, there are always those stand-out memories that hold a soft spot in your heart and mind.  For me, there was a time period known as the Peugeot years – more specifically, my first car: the Peugeot 404.  The innocuous beginning, unbeknownst to us at the time, forged a strong bond between our family and a consumer brand.

Late summer 1969, our family had just moved to Southern California.  We found ourselves at a car dealership in Long Beach; it was right next to an airport.  I don’t think any of us had ever heard of this car company before, but the salesperson kept saying that it was the second safest car in the world, next to Mercedes.  It was called Peugeot. 

I remember the day that my parents bought the car.  They were doing the sales/negotiating thing somewhere, while my brother, sister and I were playing around in the back of one of the station wagons in the showroom.  My parents chose the test drive model.  Back then, there was a little discount for the tester - unlike today, where all models on the lot can be test driven.  The car was a light blue, four door sedan with “leatherette” upholstery.  “Leatherette” is a soft material that looks a little like leather but feels a little like plastic. 

The car boasted such luxury features as seat belts with front shoulder belts, a retractable sunroof and child safety rear door locks.  There was no air conditioning, the windows were hand cranked and the front seats reclined fully into little beds.  The novelty of the car was that there were a couple of controls that were ‘backwards’ in comparison to all other cars:  the turn signal lever was on the right, and the door locks locked in the up position and un-locked in the down position.  Did I mention that it had a brand new AM radio?

This was my Mom’s car, and she used it to drive us everywhere.  She took us shopping, to parties, miniature golfing and even to drive-in movies.  One day, on the way back from a dentist appointment, the streets were flooded from heavy rains.  As we crossed an intersection to get on the freeway, the engine got wet and stalled.  We were stranded there for a while until the spark plugs dried out enough for the car to start again. 

When I got older, I learned to drive in this car.  It finally got handed down to me, and became my pride and joy.  As a ‘tech leaning guy’, I upgraded the AM radio to a real stereo – an AM/FM radio with cassette player.  That stereo ate my cassette tapes so many times that I got very good at digging out the neatly accordion folded audio tape out of the unit with pens, pencils and paperclips.  Over time, I made more audio upgrades.  I also learned about the engine and all of the mechanical parts.  I knew the car backwards and forwards.  The parts managers at all the local Peugeot dealerships knew me by name.

I changed the brakes, the battery, the radiator and the tires.  I rebuilt the engine by myself.  I converted the ignition system to electronic ignition from the standard points and condenser variety.  I even tried to paint the car once; yeah, that one didn’t go too well.  I ended up taking the car to a professional body shop to undo the mess that I made.  Yes, I sure had some good times with that car. 

I always carried my tools with me in the trunk, along with a gallon of coolant, some oil and some spare spark plugs.  To this day, I can point out various points of interest where the car broke down and needed some TLC to get it running again.  There was that trip to Las Vegas, where my accelerator cable snapped off at the Kenwood exit on the 15.  There was the time when it overheated on the way to one of my Dad’s hydroponic tomato greenhouses in Perris, CA.  And how can I forget the time that I was driving a business associate to LAX on the 405, when it just died on the side of the freeway.  That one was a little embarrassing.  How convenient it would have been if Uber had been around back then.  Oh well, I can laugh about all those memories now. 

For junior prom, I wanted to do something special for my evening out.  My mother and I came up with a plan to put some seat covers on the front seats.  It’s not that I had anything against the leatherette upholstery; I just thought that we might be able to do a little better.  We scoured a fabric store until we came across a nice blue material.  It was royal blue fur that contrasted the car’s light blue perfectly.  My mother measured and sewed together the seat covers, and we installed them together.  They were beautiful.  I was so proud of the new look that I could hardly contain myself.

It was my daily driving car, my cruising car and my date car.  I’ll probably never really know what the few girls I dated actually thought of the car.  I suppose there might have been some light amusement when I had to jump start the car under the hood with a small cable attached to the starter.  We’ll never know for sure, but I like to think that it added to the charm of the Peugeot experience. 

I had high hopes for the car, as any young enthusiast might.  Someday, I thought, I would convert the brakes to four-wheel disc brakes.  I also fantasized about putting in a new engine to give it more power.  Yes, electric windows and door locks would be nice too. And a better paint job with some better body work, to bring it back to the classic condition that it deserved. 

Dreams die hard, but I held on for a long time.  My car moved with our family three times.  It sat in our garages and even at my in-law’s garage for a time.  I stored many of the old parts, various tools and old electronic gizmos in the back seat and trunk.  Occasionally I would roll the car out into the driveway to give it a wash.  On fewer occasions, I would charge the battery and try to start the engine with sporadic success.   Near the end, as I began to see through the cloud of uncertain restoration, I hesitantly admitted to myself that the future was grim for my blue Peugeot 404. 

I spent some time preparing to get the engine started again.  The brakes were frozen, and the transmission didn’t seem to be much in the mood to engage in any gear.  I persisted and tinkered for a while, and finally coaxed a little life out of my old friend.  Seizing the moment, I had my two young daughters get into the front seat and I drove them in a quick circle around our little cul-de-sac. After all of the years seeing this broken-down car in our various garages, It meant so much to me to be able to take them for a spin (albeit a short spin) and share a little of the nostalgia that I had for my car with them. 

Still, I had to take care of some unfinished business.  I searched for a salvage yard that would be the final resting place for my family’s car.  After a considerable time looking, I ran across a place that had a picture of a Peugeot 404 on their website.  That photo was the sign of permission that I needed.  I made an appointment for them to pick up the car.  I lovingly cleaned it inside and out, and put all of the spare parts in the trunk.  I parked the car in our driveway and took some last pictures for posterity. 

The next day after leaving for work, I knew that when I returned home, my car would be gone forever.  Later, the empty garage would be eerily vacant. There was a small oil stain on the floor, above where the engine used to rest.  Your could see four light spots where the varying stages of flat tires had wearily held up the car's body.  My first automotive love had left the building.  

To some, it may have just been an old car.  But to me, it provided a strong emotional reference point to my parents and the fond memories I had as a growing teenage dreamer.  As an adult, I had to confront the bittersweet conclusion that some things weren't meant to be.  We had great times together.  Now the only physical evidence of the car is saved a small box, somewhere in our garage.  It's a little piece of the blue fur from the car.  It's not much, but for now it's enough. 


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