A Driving Life

CarI’m of that generation of Americans who grew up with a deep love for the automobile. Born after Eisenhower championed the formation of the interstate highway system, we came of age with grease under our fingernails and the smell of gasoline on our clothing. To us the automobile denoted liberation and the opportunity to, as Joni Mitchell sang, find Refuge of the Roads. For me, this first took the form of a four-month road trip wandering America by car after high school graduation.

In the following decades, I equated combustion engines with freedom. Until recently, that is. Now everything’s changed, but before I cover that, I thought that I’d share my own driving history in the hope that future generations will understand what they’ve missed.

The Bachelor Years

1974 BMW 2002. This was THE first car. In the pantheon of “life’s firsts” it may rate higher than my first sexual experience or the birth of my first child. I bought the car at a time when no one had ever heard of a BMW.  My friends, in their Camaros and Firebirds, gave me no end of grief for driving a vehicle seemingly styled for the geriatric market. But when I took my tormentors for a ride through the hairpins of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the handling caused them to change their minds…and get carsick. Which made the washable rubber floor mats a nice plus. Unfortunately, I totaled it in an accident.

1979 VW Sirocco. My second car also had excellent handling, but the lines and interior styling were as pleasing to the eyes as a 1970’s Kraftwerk video. Thankfully, I also totaled it in an accident.

1969 Datsun 1600 Roadster.  This car was virtually indestructible. Once, I drove it for eight hours with only three functioning cylinders. Plus, it had toggle switches. Nothing says “sports car” like toggle switches. The Datsun also provided my first encounter with one of mankind’s great mysteries—the dual SU carburetor.

1967 VW Beetle Convertible. To my mind, this remains the perfect college vehicle. It was reliable, simple to repair and parts were plentiful. I overhauled the engine in the parking lot of my dorm. When the floorboards rusted through, I substituted plywood. I loved to drive it up to Lake Tahoe in the winter with the top down under the falling snow.

The Early Married Years

1984 Rabbit Convertible. Not the most masculine of vehicles, but it helped me attract my wife because she assumed that I was “sensitive”.

1962 TR3 Roadster. This car quickly changed my wife’s opinion about the whole “sensitive” thing. I could never get the SU carburetor adjusted correctly.  The fog was heavy where we were living causing it to go out of synch every morning. As a result, at least twice a week while leaving for work, my wife (dressed in her business suit) would exchange her heels for running shoes and push me down the street until I could pop the clutch to get it started. I attribute her amazing bicycling strength to the quads she developed pushing this car.

1996 T100 Pickup. I had a Levi’s jacket and a Tom Selleck mustache. It was the times, man. It was the times.

1957 Ford Skyliner Convertible. I bought this one at the Kruse Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona. I’m still not sure what the “f&*k” I was thinking. All I know is that it was a big-ass-shiny-red convertible with a ton (literally) of chrome. Without conscious thought, my hand shot up during the auction and the next thing it was mine! I drove it exactly two miles before it died on me. Two thousand dollars’ worth of repairs and three months later I was able to drive it home to California. For the next six years, I used the trunk for our savings. I would just cash my paycheck, pop it open and throw in the money. I found that this was more convenient than going to the bank to get money each time the car was in the shop for repairs.

The Parental Years

1984 Merkur Xr4TI. Despite the abysmal branding, this was a fabulous car. It was quick, with responsive handling and interesting styling. Alas, the need for infant car seats spelled its demise.

Minivans. Early in our marriage my wife and I pledged that we were the couple that was too cool to drive a minivan. We would never be like those other parents. That vow was forgotten quickly upon the arrival of the little people. We did try to show our individuality by at least choosing vans that looked aerodynamic or had some unique styling feature. But in the end, you really can’t put lipstick on a pig. It’s still a minivan.

1990 GMC Pickup. It was dirt-cheap. Completely bare bones — AM radio, roll-up windows, rubber floor mats. In fact, it cost less than the average doghouse in Terre Haute, Indiana.

1999 VW Beetle. This was the first year for the “new” Beetle.  I liked the retro styling although I used the bud vase only to hold pencils.  My buddies all made fun of me when I drove it.

1999 Ford F-150 Pickup. So, I bought one of these. My testosterone level rose dramatically, I ditched the light beer and even considered chewing Skoal. I really loved that truck. Regretfully, a few years later, my son totaled it.  Like Hank Williams, Jr. says, “It’s a family tradition.”

2001 Volvo V70 XC Wagon. It was a great car, but the AWD caused it to burn through tires. I swear I bought a new set every time I had the car washed.

1969 GMC Sierra Pickup. I bought this baby from my brother for five hundred bucks. I think it was mustard yellow, but the color was the subject of much debate because it was almost completely covered in rust, mold and Bondo-filled dents. The truck was equipped with a special “Stairmaster” braking system—you had to pump them aggressively before they would function.  Almost nothing worked in the interior cab. No radio, no interior lights, no speedometer, no heater, no defroster. Not even the latches on the doors worked. I kept them closed by running a bungee cord between the armrests of each door. This also served as an additional driver restraint system, which was a good thing because the truck had no seat belts. The only time I used it was for runs to the dump on weekends. When I backed up to unload the bed, I could sense the disgust of the others at the dump. They would look down at me with disdain as they swept out the back of their pristine F-250, Suburban or Hummer. It’s about now that you are likely asking why I purchased this vehicle. Well, on the dashboard of this truck there was this little silver button. A very special silver button. It was the only thing in the cab that worked. When you pressed it, the bed of the truck automatically lifted emptying the contents to the ground, earning the begrudging respect of those in the vehicles around me.

2001 Volvo C-70 Convertible. It was a sophisticated, solid functioning, car with absolutely no soul. Kind of like a four-wheeled Dracula. Come to think of it, I never noticed its reflection when I drove past glass buildings.

2007 Lexus Hybrid. See previous comments. As a result, this was my wife’s car.

2015 Lexus Hybrid. My wife enjoys soulless solid functioning automobiles. Consequently, she is now driving the identical car. It has the same color and options, just a newer model.

2006 Mini Cooper John Cooper Works.  Nice lines. Fun to drive. Great gas mileage and a 210 hp engine that allowed you to scare the crap out of yourself when so inclined. And BMW has done an outstanding job of creating strong brand affiliation. When you drive a Mini you feel like you belong to a secret club with a special handshake.

2006 Tacoma Pickup. My son is using it at college. I figure the odds are against him wrecking it like his older brother did the F150.  But, then again, I could be wrong.

2005 Ural Patrol. This was my mid-life crisis. I’ve included the Ural because it constitutes at least three-quarters of a car. It was a Russian made motorcycle with a sidecar based on a WWII design. Regretfully, it was little changed from the original design and frightening to drive at speeds over 40mph.  I upgraded to a 2015 Ural M-70 last year. Very cool retro styling, electronic ignition and best of all, brakes that actually work.

But now, more than four decades after I first fell in love with the combustion engine, it’s over. All those years of spent under the hood, changing plugs and points, overhauling transmissions, wondering if the car would start, they are all in the past.

The future? Next blog.


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4 responses to “A Driving Life

  1. U. Dick

    I remember the ride in the Ural, sweat machine.

  2. Mike! How good to hear from you again! It’s been a long time, but always worth the time to read your musings. I look forward to the next installment, whenever it comes.



  3. Joe Benning Sr

    Mike: What a fun read! Your uncle in Indianapolis sends me emails when you write something in your Blogs. Several years ago, he even recommended your book, “Changing Cadence”. That also was a great read. All though I am almost but not quite your dad’s age, I was lucky enough to be too young to have to fight in the Korean War. But I do remember your dad’s 1955 (or was it a 1956) Buick convertible that he allowed his brother (Dick) to use while he was training to be a Naval Pilot. Boy, O’Boy was that fun to tool around Terre Haute in the 50’s!!! Now, what prompted this entry into your Blog was your discussion of your 1999 VW BEETLE. Ours was a 2000, Beetle, with a diesel engine getting 45 – 50 mpg even in the city. The color was a Canary Yellow with a small sunflower in the flower vase (That was my wife’s idea). By the way, our kids grew up in a Buick Estate wagon….the fore-runner to the minivan. Mike thanks for bringing back the memories.
    Joe (the same age as your uncle in Indianapolis)

  4. Pingback: A Driving Life (part 2) | mike's blog

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