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Buying Your Kid’s First Car

I always love getting into those “first car” conversations with people.

“I had a 67 blah-blah-blah with a 289 and three-on-the-tree…”


“It was a little red convertible with daisy floor mats and a Roxy sticker on the window…”

And then they usually follow that with:

  • the year they got it
  • how much they paid for it (or how long they saved for it)
  • some anecdote about a fender bender or the time Aunt Myrtle got sick in the passenger seat

So you’ve all heard those stories, right?

What about…

“It was a practical little number that had sensible gas mileage, good shocks and side-curtain airbags.”

Said no one ever.

That’s because you’re never talking to a parent about their kid’s first car.

So that’s where I’m at right now. My oldest boy is quickly approaching driving age and I’m thinking a car is in his near future.

What are the priorities when buying your first car?

I’m all over the place.

  • anti-lock brakes
  • airbags
  • stability control systems
  • tires
  • shocks
  • dependability
  • cost and ease of maintenance

Yeah. So maybe I’m not all over the place.

I’m 95% concerned with safety and 5% concerned with having to come pick him up on the side of the road somewhere at 3 a.m.

And if you’re out until 3 a.m. then that car is getting taken away young man.

Here’s how I see the conversation (or preaching) about his first car going down.

A Used Car

It’s going to be a used car. Let’s get that out of the way.

ABS, Airbags and Electronic Stability Control

I’ve driven old cars—I’m talking pre-ABS, something with four-wheel drum brakes—when “drive by wire” meant there was a real wire cable connected to the pedal. Why not let technology help correct your poor judgement and pure human stupidi…


…help correct common human oversights that could have undesirable results.

ABS prevents the brakes from locking up and losing control of the vehicle, so let’s forget about the ‘71 Volkswagen bus. Plus, I know what goes on in a bus and you’re not getting one.

I’m no expert, but I’d think having some pillow-like objects surrounding you in the event of an accident might be good. Airbags 1, El Camino 0.

As for ESC, the NHSTA requires 2012 and up models to have stability control—an electronic monitoring system that senses loss of control and can apply brakes to individual wheels to help regain control. While I share your appreciation for some good sideways burnout action, it was obvious the Bandit did not have any form of ESC so there’s no way you’re getting a Trans Am.

So we’ll take a look online and do some research to make sure we only consider vehicles with ABS, Airbags and ESC.


I remember the time I really learned what the term hydroplaning means. It’s like the southern equivalent of not having snow tires in the winter. The tread on a tire helps to channel water away so the tire can maintain a good grip on the road. Or dig into snow. Or stop. And to help maintain that tire tread, we’ll be looking into all forms of vehicles 3 cylinders or less, or anything otherwise incapable of performing the previously mentioned Bandit burnout.

We’ll be checking the tires using the highly-sophisticated Lincoln penny technique—put penny in the groove of the tire tread with Lincoln’s head upside down. If you can see all of his head, the tread is worn too much and you’ll be scrounging up about 50,000 more pennies to buy a new set.


What good is all of the stuff I’ve mentioned so far without having good shocks? Shocks affect steering, stopping and stability. They reduce vehicle bounce, roll and sway and help maintain consistent handling and braking. Replacing worn shocks will preserve your wheel alignment and reduce premature wear on tires.

So shocks are kinda like the missing link that connects many of your vehicle’s systems together.

Like Bigfoot. The mysterious connection between man and ape. And no…not this bigfoot. We don’t have enough room in the driveway.

So what are we gonna do?

Inspect the car before we buy it:

  • Is there fluid leaking from the shocks or struts?
  • Are bushings damaged or missing?
  • Is the shock rod bent, rusted, loose or scratched?

Test drive the car before we buy it:

  • Does the suspension bottom out?
  • Does the car bounce or float excessively?
  • Is it hard to control at highway speeds or when it’s windy?
  • Does it dive, squat or roll during steering?

Use some deductive reasoning before we buy it:

  • Does the car have 50,000 miles or more?
  • Does it need the brakes, tires or other suspension components replaced?
  • Has it been used for towing, off-roading or driven on unpaved roads?

If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, we’ll probably need to consider new shocks.

Cost and Ease of Maintenance

My theory here is to find you one of many. Something that we won’t have to call the junkyard to find a part. We just show up and it’s there.

Because they made 5 billion of these cars.

Parts are easy to find and the cars are relatively cheap.

It’s the base model with the average engine and the practical interior.

The color is the same color as every other one of these cars or trucks, because when…Ahem…when you back into that something-or-other we can go pick up another bumper or door or mirror and just bolt it on.

It doesn’t have turbos, power windows or sunroofs.

Because those are expensive, they break and they leak.

You have an arm to crank up the window anyway.

With that, you can just forget the Packard Panther right now, son. But I’m proud of your knowledge of the beautiful mid-century classics, as well as wanting such an obscure vehicle for a first car.

What did I miss?

Those are my thoughts. Safety, tires, shocks, maintenance.

What am I not thinking of? I know you want to tell me.

If you think I got most of it covered, then tell us about your first car.



This blog post was sponsored by Monroe Shocks and Struts, for more information on shocks and car safety, check out their website, as well as their Facebook page.




  • Dude

    You forgot the most important safety consideration of all – weight. If your kid does end up in an accident, the stronger, heavier vehicle wins. Trucks, vans (not mini) and Wranglers are all solid choices for a first vehicle. Easy to work on, they have a FRAME, and are much safer than the little two-door plastic Honda that disintegrates when it hits a deer. If you are stuck on a sedan, then at least find something from the eighties that still has a frame and is built out of steel. The vehicles’ mass can protect you far better than an air bag.


  • Cat

    I agree with Dude. I bought my kids (years ago) a beater Volvo. the turbo charger was broken but it still said turbocharged (cool!) when it finally died, from 2nd son not realizing you really do have to check the oil…i’m pretty sure it saved some injuries. And there was that interesting indent of an oak tree on one side… I couldnt afford a car with all the new safety features so they got a tank.


  • skip

    I had a ’76 Chevette for my first car. It took everything I was able to give it. It had previously been rolled onto its side (by my sister, who also had it as her first car) and the frame was slightly tweaked so that when you went over a hill it pulled to the right. you had to time your correction, and it would go straight.

    and hill hopping was *truly* exciting.

    Modern cars are pretty damn safe. Hell, even a dinky-assed Smart car is safe.

    Kids are going to do stupid things. If you wrap them in bubble wrap, they won’t believe they can get hurt, and then they’ll do even stupider things.

    tell them “If you crash this, there’s a good chance you’ll die. Please drive safely.”

    I mean, it worked for me… Well, aside from the hill hopping.



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