The Night My Beretta Died

I'm rather surprised to have so few pictures of my first new car, a 1990 Chevy Beretta GTZ. It mostly predates my interest in photography, and the only pictures I have with it were shot with a little Ricoh point and shoot. But still, I have so few of it.

That car got me to football games in the midwest in 1990, to ballgames in Boston and Baltimore in the spring of 1991, and then to a bunch of games in September of 1991, when I spent the middle days between weekend midwest ballpark and stadium visits on a sojourn to South Dakota. Here is my best picture of it, taken in Badlands National Park...

Wait, let me make it pop out a little more...

That's better. The day before, she had topped 100 MPH for the second time. It was a great trip in so many ways.

Little did I know that my car would be declared a total loss a few months later.

Without warning, my deep red Beretta GTZ spewed orange–red flames into a rainy grey January evening. I was returning from the DMV of all places, when the fateful incident took place. On the westbound LIE, at the Cross Island Parkway interchange, a sudden loss of power, power steering, and, worst of all, brakes occurred. A tap of the brake pedal resulted in its just swinging aimlessly back and forth like a pendulum. While I tried to figure out what was going on, I saw smoke rising from the sides of the car. To my left, I could easily read the lips of a passing driver shouting “YOUR CAR IS ON FIRE”. I calmly gave a “Thank you, I know” wave, and realized I had to somehow get my car off the road and get out of it. The fact that it was on fire helped here: Surrounding drivers were unsurprisingly courteous and cleared a very wide path for me. I slowed the car with the emergency hand brake using my right hand, while steering the car toward the shoulder with my left hand--again, power steering was gone. 

Bolting from the car, I stepped over flames coming from beneath it, and retreated a good 100 feet or so. It was an unbelievable sight. The flames grew, rising for spurts to what I’d estimate was 50 feet. The police and fire departments arrived about 15 minutes later. This was the pre-cell-phone, clunky car-phone era of the early 90s. My father, still active with the NYPD, learned soon thereafter that about a dozen people had placed 911 calls.

The NYFD quickly extinguished the flames and told me on the spot that the car was a total loss, and I suspected they were right. Not knowing what to do with the car—but knowing the insurance adjuster would need to condemn the vehicle—I had it towed back to my place. I entered the house where everyone was already seated for dinner. I told them that “I am fine”, words simple enough to convey personal safety and well-being while at the same time letting the listeners know that there was a problem, and that a “but…” was about to follow. When I explained what had happened, there was a mad dash to the windows.

The next morning, I went to see the insurance agent, and later that day an insurance adjuster arrived, almost instantly saying what we all knew—the car was a total loss. The next step was a sad one. My car was lifted onto a flatbed truck, and I never saw it again. 

Perhaps the subject of another post, I did get a new car soon thereafter. Anyway, it's hard to believe that was 20 years ago this month...


  1. Wait, so this thing was only about two years old when it burst into flames? That is some fine craftsmanship right there...


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