Anyone who knows me well enough knows that I love cars. But even if you have only read my posts here, you know from my series on Miniature Models that building car models and collecting die-cast cars has been a big part of my life. How I developed this love for cars could be one of those typical chicken or egg questions about which came first. Did my parents recognize in me an interest in cars and thus provided me with toy cars as a child? Or did my parents think that cars were just good toys for a boy (their first) and I simply developed a love for them since they were available to me? Just as we will never answer the chicken or egg question, I will never know how I developed my love for cars. Even with origin unknown, a love for cars is definitely there.
I must say growing up that my dad only owned what I would consider to be boring cars. I say my dad because my mother never learned to drive so she never had a car. And with two adults and four kids to transport everywhere, our choices were fairly limited in the 50s and 60s. I can remember at least three different station wagons and a slew of four door sedans. Being a minister with all of the visitations and rural churches to drive to, my dad tended to put a lot of miles on his car every year. I recall him needing to purchase a new one about every four years, just about the time the old one was paid off, much to the chagrin of my mother who managed the family finances. My dad always provided for his family before himself so I mainly remember him only having two possessions while I was growing up: his fishing gear and his cars.
I still remember the excitement of going to the dealership to purchase a new car even though as I said, it was always boring. The new car smell—at least while it lasted—was always a welcome aroma to breath in. And what new features would it have? Air conditioning? Power windows? Stereo Speakers? For anyone who has only known modern car technology with USB ports, on- board video, and in dash GPS, you cannot really appreciate how far we’ve come.
So thinking back over my lifetime of cars, I must start with the first one that I had when I was only four years old – a pedal pusher. Oh if only I still had this gem. Thankfully I have a picture of myself in it when I was probably about six. And I’ve mentioned before that my wife has kindly given me pedal car Christmas ornaments, which provided me fond reminders of this first car.
To really enjoy cars though, one obviously needs to know how to drive cars. So how did I learn? In thinking back about this question, I have a sense that even before I got behind the wheel, I knew how to drive. This probably developed partly from my paying close attention to the things my dad did while he was driving.
My first real experience behind the wheel of a motorized car was at the 1968 HemisFair in San Antonio, Texas. I remember telling my parents on the way there that the only ride I wanted to ride all day was the motorized cars. Probably ¼-scale and powered only by a 5 horsepower lawnmower engine, the cars were driven around a paved track with a steel guide rail in the middle of the track to keep the cars from being driven “off-road” by young, inexperienced drivers. I have to say, “bless you Mom,” as she repeatedly allowed me to drive her around the track for multiple rides while my siblings were off with my dad riding something they considered more exciting. But how could anything be more exciting for someone who loved cars? I distinctly remember thinking that if I could carefully steer without allowing the guide wheels on the car touch the middle steel rail I would really be driving.
My next “driving experience” came when I was about 15 years old and I went to visit my sister who lived in a small town in Arkansas. At the time, she had a rural paper route that required her to drive small country roads delivering the local newspaper. Since there was no traffic on the deserted roads, she allowed me to drive her Ford Pinto with manual transmission. I know she had to tell me at first how to slowly release the clutch to avoid stalling the car. But after a short time, I know I was getting it on my own. In spite of my heart racing, this was real driving!
When it was time to get a learner’s permit, I had my dad take me to the testing station exactly three months before I turned 16, the earliest you could legally get a permit at the time. I remember studying for the written test and I only recall taking it once so I must have done well enough to pass on the first attempt. My greatest fear however was that I would fail the eye test, something I couldn’t study for. Ever since I was in the second grade, I had had to wear prescription glasses. What if my prescription wasn’t good enough? I would be devastated to have to visit the eye doctor before I could get my permit. Fortunately, my glasses were good enough and I passed that too.
With learner’s permit in hand, I was ready to officially drive. The only restriction at the time was that a licensed driver had to be in the car with me. And since my two older sisters had already moved out of the house, the only available licensed driver was my dad. I remember every time we got ready to go somewhere, I would ask my dad if I could drive. I must have been a very cautious driver starting out, as my dad would sometimes answer, “No, we don’t have time.” But since I already “knew how to drive,” I knew it was just a matter of time before I’d be able to drive on my own.
It was on my 16th birthday that I asked to go get my real license. The date wouldn’t work for my dad due to prior commitments he had so my mother asked our neighbor down the street if she would take me. Although it might have been an offer of my mother’s famous brownies that “sweetened” the deal for our neighbor, she graciously agreed. And the car she had was a 1960’s vintage Mustang, even sweeter for me.
Once we arrived at the testing station and while I was alone waiting for the “tester” to come join me in the car, I decided I should familiarize myself with the car’s features in case I was asked to turn on something. While I knew a manual transmission would have been more fun, I was glad to see that it had an automatic stick shift–one less way for me to fail the driving test since I didn’t have to worry about stalling the car while letting out the clutch. I thought being able to apply the emergency brake would be a likely challenge so I found the brake lever and pulled it towards me. Sure enough, it set the brake; now to release it. I tried pushing it in but it didn’t budge. I tried pulling it out further but that only set the brake tighter. I am sure I was sweating by the time the tester got into the car with his clipboard and said let’s go. I started the car and then didn’t know what to do. He said let’s go again and then I had to admit that I had set the emergency brake and didn’t know how to release it. I started to explain that this was the first time I had ever driven this car when he reached over and pulled the brake handle twisting the lever downward at the same time to release the emergency brake. At that point I assumed he was going to mark me as “failed” and get out of the car. He said let’s go now. Catching my breath I backed out of the parking spot and made the four obligatory right hand turns required to complete the test. We parked and both got out of the car. I still didn’t know if I had passed; I was too scared to even ask. When we got inside and he told me to sit for a photo I knew I had either passed or my picture would soon be plastered in post offices nationwide wanted for driver fraud. Fortunately it was the former and I became an officially licensed driver.
I can’t begin to describe the elation I felt knowing I had gotten my license. For some kids my age it might have meant freedom, for others it might have meant the beginning of trouble. For me, it wasn’t about gaining freedom or finding out how much trouble I could get into, it was about getting to do the thing that I knew I would love and always have. It meant I could drive! Now I just had to figure out how to get a car of my own.