I was 16. I was newly licensed and eager to own my very own car. I remember looking through the classified sections of every newspaper regularly to see what the deals were on used cars.
Maybe it was me exercising my independence, or it could have been just plain stubbornness as a know-it-all teen, but I knew I wanted to buy a car, and I was going to do it all on my own.
I spent the majority of my teenage years growing up in Malvern, an area in Toronto’s Scarborough neighbourhood. I have an older brother, and a younger sister – I’m a middle child. We all had a great relationship. We grew up with a core group of friends that have remained good friends to this day.
I did a lot of things other teenagers did (at least I think they did). I loved music. I had a group consisting of six of us. Confession – my brother Kevin was the best by far, so he was the unsaid ‘lead’, but he never rubbed it in our faces – that just wasn’t his style. We rapped until we got bored of it. We then made the transition to singing. Our boy band was inspired by the group Boyz II Men. We couldn’t sing like them (not even close), but we sure tried.
When we decided to retire from rapping and singing, we moved on to DJ-ing. We went downtown Toronto to Sam The Record Man sifting through vinyl records to add to our collection. This hobby was very short lived. Besides music, I was really into sports. I played a lot of basketball whenever I could. I was always busy. Always on the move, which is why I really wanted a car to help me get around.
“To a teen, a car is the equivalent of an adult’s quest for home ownership. It’s a milestone, a way of saying you had arrived.”
When I was 14, I started working a part-time job at a fast-food restaurant. I began saving for my car from the day I got my first pay cheque. I still remember the VHS training videos I watched at the back of the restaurant to learn how to make those burgers. White. Red. Green. White. Red. Green. The colours of the condiments were strung together as lyrics in a training song (obviously very catchy and memorable) that was rapped by the trainer “Grill Master MC” who flipped burgers with a gold spatula – no joke, that’s a true story.
To a teen, a car is the equivalent of an adult’s quest for homeownership. It’s a milestone, a way of saying you had ‘arrived’. Sure, I liked the practical side of having a car, which meant I could drive myself to my part-time job as well as to my extra-curricular activities. But to be completely honest there was another side too. I wanted that proud-peacock moment where I could show my ride off to my friends, acquaintances, and if I’m honest, even people I’ve never even met before.
In the 90’s it was possible to buy a pretty reliable used car for a couple thousand dollars. Alternatively, if that price point didn’t work for you, you could buy yourself a pretty (not literally) unreliable used car for hundreds. And yes, I went the unreliable route and became the proud owner of a far from brand new, unintentionally loud, used car. it was a 1984 Honda Accord, gold-ish in colour that some of us called ‘champagne’. It certainly was anything but shiny. There was some rust, but not enough to matter to me. The cost of my new ride was a whopping $795. I must have negotiated the five bucks.
“I had been expecting them to hand me the keys so I could drive home with the radio on and sunroof open after making a few stops at some friends houses to show off my new ride.”
Honestly, I bought that car because it had a sunroof. In fact, that sunroof meant so much to me that had I been willing to do without it, I could have saved a couple hundred dollars by taking a different model car. I never ‘loved’ the car for itself as much as I was excited about the idea of owning one.
I bought my Honda from a used car lot in the West end of Toronto. The dealer said they would only accept cash or certified cheque, so I visited my bank to get a money order. I remember being so proud when I returned to the dealership with my payment. I had been expecting them to hand me the keys so I could drive home with the radio on and sunroof open after making a few stops at some friends houses to show off my new ride. But of course, things didn’t go like that.
The sales representative asked me for my car insurance details in order for the vehicle to be registered and for me to get my license plates. Insurance was the one no-so-minor detail that I had completely overlooked throughout all of my planning. Perhaps the sales rep didn’t think I was serious when I told him I’d be back with a money order because none of this was mentioned in advance.
I barely knew what car insurance was, how it worked, and I certainly had no clue as to what it was going to cost me. So, still committed to doing it all on my own, I opened the Yellow Pages and went to work to find myself some car insurance. I called a few different companies and brokers for some ‘quotes’. On the first call I was asking for a price, and soon learned that I should referring to them as ‘quotes’. I didn’t really know that there was a difference between calling a company vs calling a broker, but for some reason my interactions with brokers felt different. I remember after hearing quite a few different rates, I decided to make one final call to a broker that was literally down the road – I was exhausted at this point. That broker gave me a quote, but went a step further and started a conversation about ‘coverages’.
“My broker explained everything to me and gave me a good understanding about what I was actually paying for. I actually understood what it meant to be covered, or not covered.”
I remember the entire insurance experience quite clearly. It started out intimidating, largely due to the fact that I had no idea what to expect. Lucky for me, my broker explained everything to me and gave me a good understanding about what I was actually paying for. I actually understood what it meant to covered, or not covered. It’s funny, I remember struggling to decide on some of my options. I’m talking about insurance details that actually mattered, and could impact my life should something had happened. I was debating the cost of coverages that costed an additional $8 monthly. Yet I was so quick to say I couldn’t live without that sunroof which was hundreds.
My broker was great. I’m sure she recognized that I was a newbie. When I finalized my insurance, I went back to the dealership, and finally picked up my car. I remember driving home so slowly. Not because I wanted to take my time, but for some reason when I attempted to accelerate, the car would only go so fast. In that moment I understood the importance of a test drive – which I didn’t do.
“Looking back, owning my first car was certainly a rich learning experience.”
The lot where I bought the car went out of business about two or three months after I purchased it. I know this because my mom told me to bring it back to them to show it the piece of junk that it was. I remember when it stalled in the middle of the road during rush hour. I was honked at as I sat in the car for over an hour waiting for roadside assistance to come and give me a tow.
I ended up upgrading the car within a year or so, but until that time I drove that car everywhere it could have taken me. To school. To work. To the community centre. Looking back, buying and owning my first car was certainly a rich learning experience. I had a lot of great times and some not so great times (mechanically speaking), but at the end of the day I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I got my car, and it had a sunroof.