To an old school 1986 Suzuki Samurai on the occasion of meeting your new teenage driver
Dear Super Rad ’86 Samurai,
You’re 29 this summer, looking down the highway at the big three-o. I’ve also heard that you have been spending some extra time on the road with Catherine, my cousin’s daughter, practicing for her driver’s license test. It got me thinking back to our time together. I know you’re not anybody’s everyday car any longer—and certainly won’t be Catherine’s—but back when you were mine, you weren’t just every day for me. You were everything.
In 1986, few cars had more joie de vivre than you did, Suzuki Samurai. That is, at least in the price range for a starter car for a high school kid in Fort Lauderdale like me. Those Porsche 911 Carreras with the matching sunglasses were indeed bitchin’, and Don Johnson’s white Ferrari on Miami Vice held some powerful cultural cache, but the Samurai’s like you? You guys were all about fun. Television ads were everywhere: When a happy couple in their jolly little jeep would pass another happy couple in a jolly little jeep, they would toot the horn twice and wave hello. Before meme was even a thing, that honk-honk-hi caught on like wildfire. Soon Samurai drivers in the real world were doing the same thing. It was a not-so-secret club joyfully flirting with the threat of tipping over on a sharp turn.
Somehow I convinced my parents, those smart, reasonable people, that not only did I need a Samurai, but I needed it before my 16th birthday so that I could learn to drive on its manual transmission, guaranteeing that I could drive away from the DMV confident and secure the instant I had my license. Mom’s van, a sturdy GMC conversion model only half converted with shag carpet but no pull-out sofa, was an automatic and I made the case that learning to drive a stick shift was important. You know, for safety reasons, because nothing projects safety and sensibility like a Samurai. I would never be the girl stranded at a party because I couldn’t drive home.
Remember when we met on that warm night on U.S. 1 in Fort Lauderdale? My parents were always been big believers in buying “demonstrators:” cars that weren’t technically used but had a few miles on them from being driven by dealership employees. You fit the bill, my little Samurai — light blue with a white and silver side stripe — with just 1,500 miles when Mom drove you off the lot.
You had a backstory worthy of a John Hughes movie. Your demonstrator miles came with a cautionary tale about the owner of the dealership’s teenage son. That son apparently raised hell for 1,500 hard-earned miles all over Broward and Dade Counties before his father took you away and put you back up for sale on the lot.
Original Suzuki advertising photo
Just like Catherine is doing now, we practiced and practiced. I stalled you out in the deserted Publix parking lot with Dad. Mom winced every time I ground the gears trying to shift into second on my own street. Do you remember my driver’s test? I forgot to signal when we parallel parked. Even so, we celebrated with Mom and Dad and onion rings at Tony Roma’s then you and I were alone, really alone, for the first time. I was elated and terrified the entire way, which was just over two miles.
My best friend got a Samurai of her own for her 16th birthday. It was white with a silver stripe, like yours but different. I enjoyed it every time we would both drive ourselves, separately, to places just so we could park our Samurai’s together. Sometimes — OK, all the time — we would honk and say “Hi.”
There’s has always been some mischief baked into your DNA. The honking at strangers. The rollover danger. The unspoken threat of seizure if I got too carried away with you. You are a jolly little jeep and really do have a personality of your own.
You, ‘86 Samurai — the one I filled with sand at Fort Lauderdale beach, drove to see Bon Jovi at the Sportatorium in Hollywood, and had a fender bender with in the parking lot at Plantation High School (It totally wasn’t my fault. Just ask my friend Greg.) have a new engine and a new paint job. You were was my aunt’s reliable little workhorse that handled her 40-mile commute for twenty years before she passed you down to my cousin and her husband. But you still have that spark of spontaneity and sassy wink of the eye. You can still go to the beach and carry coolers and surf boards. It won’t be your fault if Catherine stays out after curfew, but you will get her home if she does.
Here are a few pro tips from your (almost) original owner for making the most of the months to come:
1. Catherine will want to take the top down even though you and I both know it is a full-time job getting it back up. But her dad will help, just like mine did. It will make him feel useful even as you and Catherine leave him standing alone in the driveway.
2. She doesn’t realize that in the summer heat, soft serve ice cream cones will melt fast and make your interior look like Jackson Pollack went to the Dairy Queen. Don’t worry, she can just pull the plug (literally) in the floor and hose you down.
3. I hear you still stick getting into fifth gear. You will both really notice it on the highways. Let’s hope she doesn’t bother going on the highways. I’ll tell her to pretend you’re just a speedy golf cart and stay on the regular roads on the way to the beach or to her friends’ houses. I hope she gives her parents a break. They will be worried enough. Also, that tipping over thing probably isn’t real but there’s no need to test it out.
4. No one has used your cassette player in a long, long time. Catherine should ask her mom about the time we got Def Leppard’s Hysteria stuck in there for a whole week. And no one even cared. We just turned it up and sang along.
5. Enjoy the sunshine and the freedom and the saltwater and Catherine’s friends and her music (or Def Leppard – you both could do worse.) You’re still that jolly little blue jeep and she will love you as much as I do. It’s her turn. Get out on the road again and have some fun.
Not everyone gets to drive in a car that is (almost) 30 years old that has the soul of a teenager. There aren’t many of you left on the road and even fewer that have been cherished like you. You and Catherine won’t be driving together all the time, but when you are, make the most of it. You are an improbable 4x4 survivor with a glove box stuffed with old maps, expired insurance cards, and lots of nostalgia. I know she will show you the respect you deserve, the respect you’ve earned.
Lots of people in our family love you, ’86 Samurai. We can’t wait to see what you do next.