That is All: On the road again … and again


First Posted: 1/15/2009

“When I’m drivin’ free, the world’s my home, when I’m mobile …”
— The Who

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Model T.
Henry Ford’s genius way back when made mass production of affordable cars commonplace. And in the process, Mr. Ford changed the world.
I don’t know whether to curse or praise Henry Ford.
When I’m stuck in traffic on a scorching afternoon, waiting to make a left at a busy intersection, I curse Henry.
But when I’m out in the country on a summer evening, cruising with the windows down and the wind blowing what’s left of my hair, with the waning sun reflecting off my hood and the radio blasting one of my favorite songs, I praise Henry.
I’m an air-conditioned gypsy.
When I’m trying to get out of a parking lot onto a busy multiple-lane thoroughfare and a white Yukon — seemingly as big as the Yukon itself — pulls ahead and blocks my view of all three lanes of oncoming traffic, I curse Henry.
But when I’m taking a hairpin curve with growing speed and fourth and fifth gears to go, I praise him.
Lately, when the cost to fuel my mobility is literally eating into my weekly food budget — when I’m standing at the gas pump, nozzle in my shaking hand, watching my life savings gurgling into the tank of my car — I curse Henry.
But then I hear an old song on the radio and remember all the fun I had as a teenager in a golden two-door Ford with a V-8, and I want to give Henry a bear hug.
Like so many others, I have a love affair with the automobile. There are more than 600 million passenger cars in the world.
I’ve written before about my special relationship with the car I considered my “first,” an orange VW bug.
And while I loved that car, there was one car in my motoring history that remains my favorite — a Buick Skyhawk. In the driveway with the engine off, that car looked fast. It was candy-apple red, and had the best paint job I have ever seen on a motor vehicle. I swear the boys at the plant dipped the chassis of my Skyhawk a few extra times in that bubbling red paint.
And it had the meanest, sleekest hood ever. This car had personality. It looked like a sportscar, even through its name and pricetag said otherwise.
My personal parade of cars over the years has been varied and quirky, from a handful of Pontiacs — my dad built Pontiacs for 40 years — to a ridiculously wide gold Ford Torino that I took to my junior prom.
Also in the fleet came a series of cars with automatic transmissions: a Toyota Celica (very dependable), a maroon GrandAm (boring and impossible to do your own oil change and replace headlights), and a maroon Ford Escort (I made more trips to the repair shop than the grocery store.)
When the Escort finally died, I was forced into a tough situation. Having little money, my options were beyond limited. At the repair shop that read last rites to the Escort, the owner-mechanic said he had a couple of junkers “out back.”
Of the three orphaned vehicles behind the garage, only one would start. It was a 1988 Chevrolet Caprice — a retired police cruiser — and its enormous white body was intimidating.
I don’t remember what the odometer read except that it was some stratospheric number.
The mechanic said somebody found the car under a mound of faded straw and pig poop inside a barn just outside of town.
There were stains on the once tan back seat that I didn’t want to know about, and small holes in the dash that presumably once held crime fighting do-dads and gadgets.
Five hundred bucks, the guy said while scratching his head. What could I do? I had to have a car.
As the miles roll, I was able to get plenty from that old cop car, but the Chevy never worked right and ended up costing me plenty in repair bills.
And several times I nearly died behind the giant steering wheel of that car.
Once, rushing to cover a murder trial in a neighboring town, a rear tire blew while the speedometer was pushing 70. I had the windows down and I’m not sure whether I’ve ever heard a louder sound.
I called out to the Big Guy Upstairs, and wrestled with the rigid and jerking steering wheel until I manhandled the beast to the shoulder of the road. Once I’d gotten the aircraft carrier with thinning tires out of traffic and safely moored, I took a deep breath and vowed to get rid of the incredible hulk.
Of course, I couldn’t afford to, and was forced to drive the two-ton death trap another three years.
When I finally ditched the Chevy, it would no longer go in reverse, and its automatic transmission was down to one workable option: first gear.
Took me a day and half to drive the two miles from my apartment to the used car dealer that had so graciously agreed to take the Caprice off my hands and pay me $700 toward a shiny and tiny black Hyundai. The Hyundai Accent wasn’t new but it sure seemed that way to me.
Three years off the lot and 33,000 miles on her, this ebony baby was sleek, small, quiet, comfortable, gas efficient. Best of all, it has a manual transmission — an honest-to-goodness chrome and black leather stick shift.
I soon realized how my decades of operating boring, crappy automatics had robbed me of my love of driving.
The first weekend I had the Hyundai, I drove northward up Lakeshore Drive, a beautiful and winding two-lane paved road that hugs the shore of Lake Michigan. Scenic and curvy — like women I’d known — it was a fun and exciting journey.
That tiny black car still graces my driveway, and every so often I’ll take her out for a spin, just to enjoy the experience.
The bottom line is that I love to drive, and I’ll be doing it for as long as my own skin and bone chassis lets me.
That is all.
— John Charles Robbins can be reached at 739-4322, Ext. 122, or at [email protected].

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