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I Learned About Driving from That: The Nash Pursuit

17 Sep

In 1957 I considered myself to be a pretty hot driver. My role models in the day were “The Wild One,” the biker gang leader played by Marlon Brando, and a character in the Dick Tracy comic strip who characterized himself as “a wheelman.”

My ride at the time was a 1946 Ford two-door, the round-back sedan. It was in good shape, ran well, and could lay a pretty good patch of second gear rubber. Of course, the Chevy small block V8 had long since upstaged Ford’s immortal flathead, but I still thought my ride was quick enough. And anyway, going fast involves more than just horsepower. There’s also the willingness to go fast. I had plenty of that. More than enough. Too much, in fact, according to some. Particularly certain humorless law enforcement types.

So one warm summer day we decided to make a run out to Watertown, a small rural community about 10 miles west of my Minnesota hometown, Mound. Watertown was small and rural, but it did have a big Green Giant cannery, which hired lots of high school kids around harvest time. (Mound, for its part, was also a small community, but its location, at the western end of Lake Minnetonka, saved it from being truly rural. No one could tease us about being farmers.)

The “we” in this saga refers to a neighbor, Bob, who was a year younger, but also interested in a little summer employment.

Highly Invisible

Watertown in those days retained a 19th-century look, with sidewalks that were several feet above street level. And in the course of cruising the main drag after filing our Green Giant applications, I failed to notice a stop sign at the end of one block, because it was perched up on that lofty sidewalk. There was almost no traffic, so when I rolled through the intersection—at a very low and law-abiding speed, I might add—there was nothing to suggest I was in violation of anything.

Once clear of town, I picked up my pace. The road was clear, as were the skies. And my conscience. But it wasn’t long before I noticed a car coming up from behind. Gaining. Rapidly. What?

As it got closer, I was able to discern the make. A Nash, vintage 1949 – ’51. The Nash generation that was referred to as the Bathtub. The reference had to do with the shape. And it wasn’t intended as flattery.

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Really? Some farmer thinks he’s faster than me? I knew there were quicker rides than my flathead Ford. After all, the age of the overhead valve V8 was well underway, and the small block Chevy V8 was already on its way to ruling the street.

But the Nash lineup was still propelled by inline sixes, and no ol’ six-cylinder bathtub Nash was gonna outrun my V8 Ford. I toed the gas pedal, and the speedo crept up to 75. But the Nash sped up and closed even more.

The I’ll-Show-You Syndrome

What’s going on with this guy? You wanna race, buddy? Okay, watch this!

I put the pedal on the floor—80, 85, 90. But the Nash hung with me, and crept closer. And it looked like he was trying to pass!

Right about then Bob, who’d been craning his neck for a better look at our pursuer, spoke up.

“Tony, I think this guy may be a cop.”

Bob had a slightly better angle than I did, especially when the Nash edged toward the oncoming lane.

“C’mon, Bob, it’s just some farmer.”

I should add that Bob didn’t appear to be entirely happy with this adventure as our speed increased, so I considered his credibility to be suspect. But he became insistent.

“Really,” he said. “There’s something on the hood of the car. Some kind of light.”

By then, we were on a long straight stretch, no other cars around, and the Nash pulled up into my left rear quarter.

Bob was right. There on the hood was one of those fin-like, longitudinal signs that light up and say “STOP!” And it was in fact illuminated. And it said “STOP.” In red letters. Uh-oh.

I slowed down and stopped. I got out of the car. The cop got out of the Nash. He was wearing bib overalls, with a badge pinned on the bib. No gun. But he was big. And he was not amused. No.

But Officer…

The conversation that followed was pretty unpleasant. I tried to explain that (a) I never had any idea I’d run a stop sign back in Watertown and (b) I had no idea I was being pursued by a police officer. (I carefully avoided the word “cop.”) I was polite. I was contrite.

To no avail. I can’t remember the speed he wrote on the ticket, but it was a lot, and looking back I’m still amazed that he didn’t arrest me on the spot. But he didn’t.

When I showed up for my day in court about a week later, the local magistrate was not amused, either. I’d been told to bring a parent with me, in this case my long-suffering stepfather, which was pretty much standard procedure for a juvenile in those days. And it turned out to be good that he was present because the judge wasted little time in snatching my license right there on the spot.

I don’t recall the amount of the fine, but I do recall that for a 17-year-old part-time summer dishwasher it was substantial. But the license suspension—30 days—looked like a bigger hassle, threatening to interfere with my social life as well as my employment. So I figured I’d ignore it.

This proved to be challenging, because my stepfather, a law-abiding man, tried to make sure I respected the suspension. He knew me well. His method was to render my Ford inoperable by removing the rotor from the distributor. It was a trick he’d learned in the Army during WWII—kept other guys from driving away with your Jeep.

That worked for about a day, but he’d forgotten that he’d revealed the distributor trick in an earlier conversation. A replacement was easy enough to find, and I was mobile again—though I had to be careful about when I drove, and precise about parking in exactly the same spot. Also I made sure I was appreciative when the distributor part was returned to me when my license came home in the mail.

What did I learn? Well, a small town cop may not be driving a typical cop car. Or be wearing a uniform. Also, if your old Ford doesn’t start, and your dad was in the military during WWII, check the distributor.

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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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