Remembering the Cars Our Dads Drove

A look back at the cars our fathers drove that defined our childhoods—and bring us happy memories to this day.


Good dads pass down good things — a strong jawline, a penchant for saving, a well-dimpled half-windsor and, perhaps, an appreciation for automobiles. Some of our dads were gearheads, others were working men who needed good transportation. Regardless, the cars our dads drove remain vivid in our minds, from the sound of the rumbling big-block V8 engine to the stickiness of the hot vinyl seats in the dead of summer.

Our crew took a look back at the cars our dads drove, the wheels that took us just about everywhere and sometimes — for better or worse — were handed down to us. Some cars were loved, others were necessities, but all of them are part of our history and our attachment to motoring. – Amos Kwon

1982 BMW 528e

In the mid-1980s we lived in Milwaukee, and my dad accepted a job south of the border in suburban Chicago, which meant a new 90-minute commute. At first he suffered through it twice a day in a tiny Renault Encore, but it didn’t take long before he couldn’t take the Encore anymore and wanted something more comfortable for the long drive.

I was in high school at the time and, like most boys my age, had posters of Lambos and Ferraris on my bedroom wall — but our garage, in addition to the Encore, merely housed a very bland Ford Fairmont. When my dad said he was going car shopping one summer night, I tagged along, not knowing that it would change my life.

After some fruitless visits to used car lots around town, we ended up standing in front of a gleaming black 1982 BMW 528e. It was the most beautiful car I had ever been close to. The salesman tossed my dad the keys, and we shared 20 of the most memorable minutes together — driving up and down Highway 100 with the sunroof open and the orange dash lights glowing, smelling the leather seats and listening to that powerful engine.

I had never seen my stoic father light up with glee like he did that night, whooping it up and goosing the gas pedal like a man I didn’t know. We drove the Bimmer home that night, leaving the Renault to some other hapless commuter. Nothing was the same afterwards.

I learned to drive in that car, washed it for my dad in exchange for Friday nights with the keys, got in over my head with DIY repair attempts, and managed to crash it. Twice. But it went on and on, like an old family dog, ragged but lovable. Finally, Midwestern road salt had its way with the undercarriage and rusted through the floor pan and fuel lines, so my dad sold it with 230,000 miles on the odometer.

I went on to own a BMW of my own — not to mention a string of other European sports sedans — in adulthood, but I think all of them were attempts to recapture the feeling I got on that warm night test driving that 528e with my dad. And none could ever live up to that. – Jason Heaton

2000 Cadillac DeVille

My dad is a Cadillac man, has been since the ’80s (except for a brief Ford stint). The cars themselves blur together over the years — always classic, the interiors always leather. My brother and I were given the privilege of choosing paint color, for which we had a rotation system.

My dad is also a baseball man, and this is why the 2000 DeVille stands out among the rest. Tricked into agreeing to go play catch, my brother and I clambered into the Caddy with our mitts in tow. But my dad missed the exit he was supposed to take. And the next one. And after 30 minutes of enduring our laments, he drove into Shea Stadium, and pulled out tickets to game five of the World Series.

The game itself eludes memory, besides the fact that the Yankees won. But I do remember my dad driving that car — the one he’d driven to countless little league games — packed with snacks, blankets and extra mitts (in case of a lucky fly ball).  I replay the day in my head and wondered if my dad smirked behind the wheel when we complained about missing the exit, how he must have wanted to reveal the surprise but held fast. And I remember nodding asleep with my head against the glass window, listening to the gentle hum of the engine, wondering what paint color I’d pick when the next lease came up. – Caitlyn Girardi

1969 Ford Mustang Fastback

My dad loved cars. The kind of love that entailed him tinkering with a 1969 Mustang Fastback nearly every weeknight, and made every weekend involve a visit to the local track. These were summer nights ran by country boys in eastern North Carolina, where a raucous quarter-mile could make memories of a long week in the field fade with impressive quickness.

My dad was born into a family of brothers and sisters that all appreciated the fun in going fast, but he was something special. His cars were faster, stickier and badder than the rest. He routinely toasted his competition at the track, but never let it go to his head. He was a gentleman and a friend, and to this day he loves to grab a wrench and slide beneath a car.

A few decades ago, my dad lost most of his sight in a freak work accident. While it didn’t claim his life, it did rob him of the ability to ever drive again. It’s proof that life isn’t always fair, and I’ve longed to somehow give my pop the ability to run just one more quarter-mile. Some of the fondest memories I’ve made with him involve us inside the cab of a car. He taught me to drive a manual in a limited-edition 1992.5 Ford Mustang. We’ve been glued to our seats together accelerating in a BMW 535i. We’ve climbed over some pretty insane stuff in a Land Rover. All of it, together. Even when he wasn’t driving, I know he was thrilled just the same. – Darren Murph

2004 Mercedes-Benz SL500

When I was a kid, my dad never showed much interest in cars. Having been raised in the Midwest and grown up on a dairy farm, he had a stronger interest in tractors than in speed machines — his unused Allis-Chalmers is a testament to that. I have to give him credit, though — he was always willing to help me indulge in my automotive passion in any way he could.

One such occasion was when I was only 15 years old, with just a couple months of driving experience under my belt. After finishing a round of 18 holes while on vacation in Florida, we passed one of those used exotic car dealerships that seem to litter that state. Seeing the excitement on my face, he pulled into the dealership to let me skulk around. The place was filled with Ferraris, Porsches and Aston Martins, but my dad took an interest in perhaps the most pedestrian car in the joint: a silver 2004 Mercedes-Benz SL500. Though admittedly I egged him on, Dad didn’t seem the least bit against asking for a test drive.

The SL500 was a modest performer for its time; this was no AMG. Still, as I saw my dad’s face light up as he mashed the accelerator, I realized that I had never seen him as enthused about a car before. We pulled into a parking lot where he let me take the driver’s seat and I too felt the same childish glee he felt as I stepped on the pedal and listened to the 5.0-liter V8 sing.

Eight years later, my dad will still occasionally say to me, “Remember that Mercedes we drove in Florida? I think I’d like one of those.” How could I forget? That was the first day I saw my dad as a gearhead. – Andrew Connor

1987 Porsche 924s

My dad had just received his first bonus, and he went directly to the Porsche dealer in San Francisco and bought a brand-new Grand Prix White 1987 924s off the floor. It was the first new car he ever bought, replacing a brown Toyota Corolla that had no reverse gear. (On my parents’ first date, he famously parallel parked the Corolla by opening the door and using his foot, Fred Flintstone style.)

Shortly after purchasing the Porsche, my dad got a new job in New York, and the car came with him. I have fond memories from childhood: sitting in the rear seat, hearing the purr of the engine and feeling the shift shock because my head was too big for my body.

My dad drove that car into the ground. He drove it in and out of the city every day for 10 years. Endless oil changes and a few clutches later, he eventually donated the car. I can only hope that it lives on — and maybe one day, our paths will cross again. At least then I’ll be old enough to drive it. – AJ Powell


1985 Audi 5000S

The timing was perfect. I was 15, and literally counting down the days until I could get my driver’s permit. My father — whose love for cars was expressed through his racing photography, boxes of Road & Track magazines and supercar posters lining his office walls — finally translated his passion for great cars into a tangible good: an Alpine White 1985 Audi 5000S, with navy cloth interior and a five-speed transmission.

I had never heard of Audi before, and hadn’t cared much for cars until the day this machine sat in our driveway. But the Audi changed things.

My father, being generous and loving, offered me his newest acquisition as a test car, manual transmission and all. Weekend afternoons, I’d work on car control with my dad by slaloming between cardboard boxes; I’d perfect my feel for the car’s dimensions by steering tires onto specified pieces of newspaper; and I’d struggle through the ever-daunting manual transmission start-and-stop on a hill.

The hours of learning (and frustration) in the parking lot, the laborious oil changes, the detailing, the flying down backroads complete with a Kenny Loggins Top Gun soundtrack, and the times I pushed the car so my dad could pop the clutch to jump start it, all these moments and more all filled my teenage years with the wonder of octane. And then, finally, I came home one summer night to see a practical American replacement sitting in the place of the Audi. It was the end of an era, but one that would never be forgotten. – Bradley Hasemeyer

1977 Chrysler Town and Country Station Wagon

The car that dad drove was the same car that mom drove: a family station wagon. This was the late ’70s, early ’80s — the last gasp of the station wagon’s heyday, before families shifted over to minivans and crossovers. Volvo 265s and Peugeot 505s were de rigueur in the part of New England where I grew up — or, if you were buying American, Ford LTDs and Chevrolet Caprice Classics (with simulated wood panel siding, a cheap imitation of the “Woodies” from the 1930s and 1940s).

But we had none of these, as my sensible father (known as “Papi” in my half-Latino household) opted for his own father’s hand-me-downs, usually four-year-old Chrysler Town & Country station wagons. The Town & Country was actually considered upscale compared to the Ford and GM offerings. But nobody drove Chryslers where I lived, much less old ones, and this was a source of embarrassment.

What did I know? I was a kid. I bet I would have found a reason to be embarrassed even if my dad drove a Porsche 928 like my car-enthusiast uncle did. In retrospect, and now that I’m older, I’m grateful for my father’s frugality when it came to our family’s mobility — because the savings incurred by driving a hand-me-down helped send me to college. Thanks, Papi. – Tom Samiljan

1977 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser Station Wagon

My dad’s first car, after moving from South Korea to America, was a 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle — a white-on-red-vinyl two-door. I never saw the car, but from photos, it was a stunner, powered by a 200-horsepower Turbo-Fire 307 V8 engine. This was the car that he wooed my mother with, despite the fact that she could barely stay awake on dates. (Not because Dad was a bore, but because she worked the night shift at a hospital.)

Though it wasn’t an SS, it was a beauty. Dad traded in the white-knight Chevelle when he got married and my brother and I were born; when he did, he went for a bigger coupe in the form of a dark blue fourth-generation 1972 Chevrolet Impala with a 5.7-liter Turbo Fire V8 engine under the hood. Trips to Wrigleyville, picnics at Grant Park and late-night pickups at the end of my mom’s shift all remain fresh in my mind, as do the numerous times I fell asleep in the big rear vinyl seats.

Then came the Oldsmobile. It was mandarin orange, had a hood as wide as the deck of an aircraft carrier and felt like it was 30 feet long. In 1977, it cost about $7,000; this was the top-of-the-line Vista Cruiser, after all, with a 6.6-liter Rocket V8 engine. It was to be our road trip hauler for years to come, and we used to load it up with camping gear and enough clothes to last us three weeks on the open road.

That Olds took us to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park and everywhere in between. Dad bought a roof box as aerodynamic as a brick wall, and drove on Pacific Coast Highway like he was piloting a Ferrari. It’s a miracle we survived. He once T-boned a stalled car with its lights off in the dead of night, and the Vista Cruiser didn’t even get dented — thanks to that chrome bumper the size of a parking curb, and the complete absence of crumple zones. That sturdy Oldsmobile, of all the cars my father owned, was his pride and joy. – Amos Kwon

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