Of all the possible things for me to focus on–women, or fine art, or making a buck; the whitewater wash of a river, skyscrapers, and possibly, Hillary as President of Us All, I tend to focus mostly on the automobile. It’s been a long and determined focus, too, one stretching back to my “learning the ABCs era” and has led me to where I am today.
Back when I lived it, when everything was in Black and White and men wore hats, I would get chauffeured around in a succession of postwar Packard’s and Buicks and other examples of Detroit’s Leviathan Period. On my way to school, I’d ride my training-wheel Schwinn past rows of marvelous creations parked at the curb, and I would fantasize about the faraway day when I would drive my own Studebaker or get me a sweet ’49 Ford Convertible, have a personal MG…then I’d go to school and be punished by the teacher for drawing little cars at the margins of my textbook.Someday, I told myself, I’d get a thousand bucks somewhere and get a car……Someday.
Meantime, the dealerships around my neighborhood hated me. I was the little kid who crept into the showroom and snuck into the Driver’s seat, making little gear-changing noises and pushing buttons as I cranked away at the wheel. I’d run off with their printed material and peek under the shrouds the manufacturers would use to disguise their new cars. I’d show up in their service department and just quietly watch them take things apart. I got thrown out of all of them, but not before I “drove” anything I could get away with.
Dad empowered me. He have me answer “…QUICK–what was that car??”” as we drove around. He took me to all the Auto Shows and he’d come home from work with Life Magazine-sized brochures for the new Caddy or Mercedes. He would take me along when the cars got serviced, and he’d point out all the details that a kid needs to know about how things work. He gave me tools one Christmas. That’s when I became a gearhead.
As I grew, I began to feel that mellow lust a car guy often feels–that pull you get when you see certain cars, the sudden overpowering desire to drive it, possess it, to be the one and only sentient being allowed to rub wax across its’ body or turn the key. Certain cars, ‘Vettes, Jaguars and the like, would distill all the car lust in me into a bombshell…
At 13, my very first drive was behind the wheel of a ’58 Lincoln Continental. It was not my Dad’s car–it was the car of an actual Mafia capo, an Upstate big wheel who happened to be the father of my Best Friend. Somehow, he GOT my car enthusiasm and he enabled me greatly. We would spend winter afternoons driving around the closed roads of a State Park. He knew the Park Rangers. He knew everybody.
Later, in High School, my formal training was performed on a Driver’s Ed. VW 17-window BUS!!! An undecorated Hippie van!!! I had all the moves down the moment I sat in it, and I graduated with Honors. THAT was a class I looked forward to.
By 15, I had a Permit and was ready to seriously begin driving. My neighbor had a ’54 red Chevy Convertible, three-on-the-column. I would do little jobs for him, like change the plugs or oil, and he’d toss me a few bucks. He drank a lot and would ask me to drive him places. Usually, he’d pass out and I’d run his tank dry. By 16, I was an expert driver.
My parents liked to travel and I would beg for time behind the wheel on our trips to Florida or Indiana or Canada. I’d drive until my eyes dried out. They’d have to pry the wheel from my hands or just outwait me. I had to use the bathroom SOMETIME.Often, they’d toss me the keys to go and run some little errands. I’d vanish for hours. They would get angry and threaten all sorts of reprisals, but they usually tossed keys if I asked the right way. First, they’d check the odometer.
One day, two friends and I had the chance to buy a ’56 Packard for $600. We all went to the same school and lived around the corner, two of us had after-school jobs, so everything–like usage, upkeep, gas, etc seemed to work out in its own communistic, adolescent way. We forked over six large to a guy in a black suit and bought his Packard. It was my First Conspiracy–our parents were never to know. It was also my first Car, in a surreal way. We pooled our money and had secretly bought –a hearse! A month later, in the dead of winter, we drove the 6000 pound hearse onto a deep, frozen bay to visit friends who were ice fishing. Ten minutes after we got there the Packard went down, just like the Titanic did–stern in the air in a sea of ice. We walked home, each of us having deep conversations with our families that night.
I couldn’t shake the desire for a Corvette. Dad and I made a deal. He would MATCH any money I came up with and get me a car for graduation–IF I maintained a good average, Bs at least. I already had that, and I had a secret savings of nearly $900, a big number in the early ’60s, so Dad and I went shopping. I’ve forgotten what we looked at that day, but I’ll never forget what we got–a blue, 1960 Triumph TR3A. It was no ‘Vette, but it was loaded with all the things that made a sports car a SPORTSCAR. –Overhead cams, 4 speeds, independent suspension, the newfangled disc brakes, even radials–it had it all!!! It was so tiny that you could easily jump over it. It was so diminutive that you could drop your arm out the door and touch pavement. I thought that it was way cool, iconoclastic. Nobody else had one. I could outperform big American V8’s and it was cheap to run around in. Not cheap to repair.
The first thing I did was drive down to New York City through the Catskill Mountains. The second thing I did was try to find a Triumph brake caliper in Brooklyn.I had to call home for a loan. My Dad, who had just paid for half of the car began thinking from that day on that he had raised an idiot.
The journey began. At my HS grad party, a cute girl fell in love with my car, so I gave her a ride. Later, when WE fell in love, I realized how totally impractical my little sports car was, but what the hell….
Amazing!!! My first car, AND my first girl–both in practically the same month!!!
My second car was a ’56 Chevy. It was a winter car, and it cost me $5.My girl hated it. But, that’s a story for another day….
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