Paying Tribute to My Motoring Roots

Who launched your passion for cars? For me it was my dad.
Cars were definitely a thing growing up in the DeGraff house. When I was stroller-bound, my parents used to roll me down the street to the corner of of Brown Deer Road and Pelham Parkway to watch cars drive by, rain or shine, for hours. Then came the abundance of tiny Hot Wheels, Matchbox and Micro Machines toy cars that caused traffic jams in the hallways, scratching up the floors, or raced in circuits around the table legs of our kitchen. I also vaguely remember being gifted a Hot Wheels or Matchbox car as a reward for successfully doing my duty during toddler potty training.

My father has always been into cars, telling me stories about doing his first burnout in a Olds Cutlass 442, how he almost bought a Jensen Interceptor, or road tripping from Ohio to Wisconsin in a Toyota Celica during the late 1970s. He loves all-things Mazda, once owning a 1984 RX-7 and then an ’86. That burgundy ’86 stayed in our family until my littlest brother, Jamie, came around in 1995. Damnit, Jamie, now we had to get a minivan. I remember going out into the garage, and exploring that orange rotary-powered machine, opening up the rear storage hatches behind the front seats, pulling on the gear shifter, grabbing the ribbed steering wheel. Sunday afternoons on the way home from church, my brother Chris and I used to crawl in the back beneath the rear glass hatch, and dad would fling his car swiftly left then right, going down the road like it was a roller coaster. We’d laugh as we flew, unbuckled of course, from one side of the “7” to the other.
As my adolescences continued into the middle school years, the RX-7 got sold and a green Ford Windstar dubbed “Ocho” for unknown reasons, and a leather-canvassed V6 Toyota Camry XLE took its place. My dad so missed having a sports car, but then rumors came out about the return of the rotary. There was this thing called the “RX-8” coming soon, and my dad was hooked, instantly. I remember going to the Milwaukee Auto Show with him and seeing a pre-production model for the first time. It shined red under the bright fluorescent lights of the Midwest Express center. “I wanna buy it,” I remember him telling me. He was so excited, and months later we arrived at the local Mazda dealership and took one for a test drive. He shopped around, and on a November day in the fall of 2003 when I was walking home from school, I saw a Titanium Gray RX-8 sitting in our driveway with temporary plates on. He had followed his dream and bought it as a retirement present. The next morning, he dropped me off at school in it and all of my best friends ran out eager to see the new “8” when he pulled up revving its 1.3-liter Renesis high into the choir lofts of the tachometer. This ignited my passion for cars like wildfire.
Approaching age 16, my dad saw my obsession for cars growing, and growing, and growing. I was asking to go out and start the car, then drive it around to the front of our house, or pull the car into the garage on our way back from school. When I turned 14 before my freshman year of high school, he took me out and taught me how to drive stick on the RX-8’s tight six-speed manual. I remember every time I nervously stalled it, he’d laugh and just say “You’re fine, you didn’t break it, try again.” Thankfully his patience held up through all the embarrassing gos at trying to parallel park right before my driver’s license test.
After my sophomore year of high school, we went car shopping, and seeing how my love for cars was at the “just got your driver’s license climax” stage, he agreed to buy me a sports car, with the understanding that I took care of it, paid for gas and stayed out of trouble. We spent weekends floating between used car lots across Milwaukee, looking for sub-$10,000 “fun” cars that I had been drooling over. Mustangs, Camaros, 3000GTs, Celicas, 3000ZXs, Preludes. Pretty much anything a high school car nerd would geek out over, dream of customizing in the latest Need For Speed Underground on Playstation, then  probably lose their license with. Truthfully I had always wanted a fourth-generation Camaro, ever since going to the Chicago International Auto Show in 2002, seeing a 35th Anniversary SS convertible on display, grabbing a poster for it and hanging it up in my bedroom wall where today it still is taped onto the 1970s wood paneling. At a crowded used car lot in Milwaukee’s West Allis neighborhood, we found a red 2001 Camaro with T-Tops and the most atrocious, back-alley purple DIY window tinting job. We took it for a test drive and I fell in love. I drove that Camaro home that afternoon and I still own the exact car twelve-years later. It’s my pride and joy, and it wouldn’t have happened without my dad’s shared excitement for motoring.
Speeding tickets, speeding tickets, speeding tickets. He’d shake his head, call me an idiot and help me navigate the whole “thing you’re supposed to do” when you get into trouble as a juvenile driver. In high school I detailed cars at the local Toyota dealership, valeted through college, and began working a career in automotive journalism after earning that pricey degree. Buying cars, autocross racing, riding home two vintage motorcycles, and polluting my parents’ garage with car parts, tools, and spilled oil. My dad continued to selflessly support me and this passion. At 28, I’m still getting car books for Christmas, birthday cakes with Hot Wheels cars on top stuck in the thick vanilla frosting, emails with links to stories about classic muscle cars. My dad and I have started going to our weekly Tuesday night car show together, and it’s quickly turned into one of my absolute favorite traditions. We’ll walk past rows of shining, polished and waxed rides, pointing out our favorite things about said vehicle. He’ll ask me “What is this?” and I’ll answer with  whatever knowledge or fact that springs to mind. He loves these conversations, and I love getting to share with my dad something new about car technology or explain what makes, say, an old, mint Suzuki Jimny so special.
I credit my father, Robb, for sculpting me into the obsessed gear head I am today, and give upmost praise to all his support and encouragement. Now I just need to sway his objections towards me performing an engine swap in his driveway or taking out a bank loan on a used 911.

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8 responses to “Paying Tribute to My Motoring Roots”

  1. P161911 Avatar

    Probably a combination of my dad and my grandfather. My grandfather was always tinkering with some vehicle, usually tractors. I got to watch. My dad had a bunch of cool cars before I came along, including: A Fiat 1600 Spider (that think had to be incredibly rare in the US at the time.), a Ford Fairlane 390 GTA, a Triumph Spitfire, and then a long series of boring 4 door GM products by the time I came along.

  2. GTXcellent Avatar

    Are gear heads born or made? Growing up, we NEVER had cool cars. My folks traded in their 242GT Volvo when I was 4 and they’ve had nothing cool since.
    BUT – I’ve had a total love affair with cars, trucks, boats, tractors, snowmobiles and anything else with a motor since my diaper days. I think it’s genetics. My grandfather died before I was born, but he was a gear head – he owned his own service station and always had “hot” cars including a custom ordered, hemi-powered ’56 Dodge D500. Prior to kids, my folks had some pretty sweet cars including a Chevelle SS, an Opel Manta Rallye and said Volvo.
    Hard to say, guess Popeye was right – “I Yam What I Yam”

    1. P161911 Avatar

      I do remember one car story about my grandfather, he had a 1940 Ford in the 1940s. He was working as a traveling salesman. He finally got rid of the 40 Ford because he got tired of the cops following him thinking he was a bootlegger.

    2. nanoop Avatar

      Growing up I thought we didn’t have cool cars: CV2, Peugeot 504ti, BMW E30 318i, W123, W124, Audi 100/C4 V6, meh.

    3. Sjalabais Avatar

      I can identify with that. After reunification, my mother got a rusty Panda that just fell apart over a few years. Then a succession of Twingos. Finally, a new car, a Kia Shuma. At the same time, I convinced several befriended families to buy Volvos, which eventually earned me a job at the local Volvo dealer (as a 16 yo I couldn’t close deals though; some sort of law against that). But maybe a tolerance for and interest in odd cars was born somewhere in between those crapcans.

    4. Smaglik Avatar

      My parents were never into cars either. Not sure how I got the bug.

    5. crank_case Avatar

      My Dad is a weird one when it comes to cars… he never had anything I thought was cool at the time (in hindsight, the Citroen Dyane and KE70 corolla wagon are stuff I’d like now, but at the time they were just old hacks, and he didn’t buy them because they were interesting), and he’d never had an interest in fast cars, but always had an interest in mechanical things in general, though the peak of his interest was before I was born when he had scooters like a Vespa and Heinkel Tourist. His taste in cars has alway been relentlessly practical and comfortable, at a push, if you really pressed him on it, he might say his dream car was a fins and chrome Cadillac, so while I do have a fondness for that stuff too, it didn’t explain why my love of cars veered more toward the lightweight b-road/touge warrior stuff, which to him just seemed a bit mad.
      Born or made? ¯_(ツ)_/¯

  3. Smaglik Avatar

    Brown Deer and Pelham? I had to look that one up… Never heard of the latter. When I was in my early teens, about a decade before you, we’d sit out on Center Street, just east of Menomonee River Parkway, and call them out as they went by…