Archive | April, 2014

I Learned About Driving from That: Love and Addiction

7 Apr

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to begin at the beginning. My beginning, that is. Be calm, I’m not going back as far as biological origins, which may (or may not) have occurred in Duluth, Minnesota. We’re talking about the origins of my all-American love affair with the automobile. Typical, for the day, albeit it not so much now. (More on that phenomenon in another post).

I was about seven, living in sub-suburban Minneapolis, near Lake Minnetonka. I should add that this was before I got behind a steering wheel (sitting on an adult driver’s lap doesn’t count). But it wasn’t all that much before.

As a kid, I tried to drive everything. And I mean everything!

As a kid, I tried to drive everything. And I mean everything!

The first manifestation of impending automania was when my Mom got me a scrapbook. Her idea, very traditional, was for me to fill the book with snapshots, family memorabilia, and similar bric-a-brac. So she exhibited a certain amount of dismay when I immediately began filling the book with photos of contemporary cars, clipped from magazines. This was long before ads displaying only the Cadillac V and crest, interpreted in diamonds by Cartier. Ford ads still promised “there’s a Ford in your future.” (Which in my case turned out to be true. But that’s another story.)

Anyway, I found all those shapes enchanting. The low-slung Hudsons. The bathtub Nash. Kaisers and Frasers and double-ended Studebakers. I was destined to become better acquainted with the latter than anyone liked. But of course they’re all gone now. So now it can be told.

“You’re not going to just fill that up with cars, are you?” It was more command than it was interrogative. But in fact, yes I was. And did.

An Inconvenient Tree

The scrapbook wasn’t even filled when I had my first unassisted experience at the wheel of an automobile. It was pretty brief.

The car was a 1947 Studebaker coupe. In case you’ve forgotten—or, possibly, never knew—this car’s starter button was on the floor, under the clutch pedal. When you wanted to start the car, you stepped on the clutch. The arrangement made sense, and the designers though it was foolproof. Right.

My stepfather had showed me how the system worked, and allowed me to start the car from time to time. However, he didn’t know that I’d modified the starting procedure, reaching under the clutch pedal to get at the starter. I wasn’t all that tall at age seven, and somehow this was easier, hanging my right haunch on the forward edge of the bench seat and reaching down with my left leg to get my toe on that button.

This worked fine—provided the car was in neutral. I wasn’t quite dialed in on the gearshift, so on this one fateful occasion when I stretched my toe down there for the starter] the Studey happened to be in reverse. Naturally, ignition occurred, as I expected, and so did motion, which I hadn’t. The Studebaker’s wheel was cocked to the left, and the car accelerated backward. Vigorously. I never even touched the gas pedal.

So my first drive was even shorter than the Wright Brothers’ first flight, maybe all of about two seconds, culminating with a loud whump against a big ol’ Maple tree that happened to be just behind and to the right of the car. Hey, how’d that get there? Could it have been there all along? Yes. So before I could say uh-oh, there I was, with the Studebaker wedeged up against that tree, and the right side door stove in. Fortunately, the impact was enough to kill the engine, because at that point I was strictly a passenger.

The tree didn’t seem to mind. But my stepfather did. He was unhappy. Who can blame him? But can you imagine a starting system like that today? Every liability lawyer in the country would be licking his (or her) chops.

I wish I had that Studebaker today, for a couple reasons: first, presuming reasonable condition (and repair from my first drive), that car would be worth a lot more now than it was in 1947; second, I’d show everyone that you can get away with putting your toe directly on that starter button. Although I confess that what I learned was that it was more prudent to operate the system as designed, rather than using a shortcut.

As adventures go, that one was brief but exhilarating, albeit unhappy. It was the first chapter in a lifetime of expanding my driving experience and acumen. There were many more, and I plan to share more of them in future chapters. Stay tuned.

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