(first posted in 2007) I was fifteen and had never driven a car on the street before. The parents were away for the weekend in my father’s Dart. And there I was, looking out over the long hood of the ’65 Dodge Coronet wagon towards the far end of the driveway and the street, the fast-idling 318 V8 taunting my quivering foot with its gentle tug against the brakes. I looked down at the shift quadrant: I was in R. But very nearby was D. That stands for Drive. So I did.
In 1965, my family moved to Baltimore. From my seventh grader perspective, it sucked. Iowa City, a University town, was friendly, open-minded, cosmopolitan and relaxed. Towson was cold, prejudiced, provincial, uptight and had unbearably humid summers with no nearby pool or tractors to drive. I quickly came to loathe everything about Maryland– except crab cakes, soul music, girls and Ocean City. I became a rebel with a cause: driving.
My official driving license then was still some time away. I mourned the loss of my hot-rodding neighbors, friendly dealerships and farm vehicles. I withdrew into an inner auto-life. I spent long afternoons at the drug store reading car magazines cover to cover, ignoring the pharmacist’s reproachful gaze. I left everything from Hot Rod to Sports Car Graphic shop-worn.
J.C. Whitney’s mail-order auto parts catalog also played an important part in the cultivation of my expanded fantasy life. I would select a certain year and model car, anything from a VW to a Corvair. Or combine the best of both. Then I’d carefully embellish, modify and rebuild it with every possible part the Chicago parts purveyor could provide. Pimp My Mind.
Memorable moments of auto-reality punctuated the ennui. My father bought a brand new 1965 Opel Kadett A. The salesman had to extricate the tiny thing from the clutches of a Buick Wildcat in the back corner of the showroom. GM’s “captive import” was bright green, weighed 1475 lbs. and sported a 903cc 40 hp mill. Having only driven automatics, my father struggled with the German sedan’s hair-trigger clutch.
When he released it too quickly (i.e. all the time), the Opel responded with a squeal and a hop. He’d quickly depress the clutch– and then release it again (too quickly). And again. The Opel was like a little green frog hopping down the street. My poor father; we’ll never let him forget the amusement provided by his on-off relationship with that clutch.
Meanwhile, my older brother used the Opel to bait VW’s into stop-light drag races. The Opel’s 300 pound weight advantage and willingness to over-rev left them in the dust. (I’m sure his hooning had something to do with the Kadett needing a valve job after two years’ service.) A boringly-sturdy slant-six Dart soon replaced the Kadett, joining our 1965 Coronet 440 wagon.
As we’d become a two Dodge household, I jumped on the Mopar bandwagon. The brand was hot in drag and stock-car racing. David Pearson, one of the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time, was my hero. His ’65 Coronet dominated the tracks in 1966.
I used to imagine that the chrome “440” numbers on its front fenders were a call out for what was under the hood, and not the trim level– especially when I got to back it out of the garage in exchange for washing it. It was a fair trade; the wagon was permanently spotless. But stopping at the end of the driveway became increasingly difficult.
My rebelliousness and early-adolescent funk led me into bad habits. In seventh grade, I started smoking. I began commissioning willing winos to buy me cheap rye whiskey (Their fee: two big swigs.) Hooking school, copying homework, cheating, falsifying report cards and forging signatures became my stock and trade. I even impersonated my father on the phone with the school principal.
Ironically, when I was AWOL from school, I was often “studying” at the downtown Baltimore public library where I immersed myself in the institution’s substantial automotive section. Exhausting that, I found hundreds of old Popular Mechanics magazines with exotic automotive inventions and car reviews going back to the forties (“Floyd Clymer wrings out the all new 1949 Ford”). It sure beat sitting through grammar class with “Chucky-Frank” (Sister Charles Francis).
But it wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy my automotive cravings. It had been three years since I’d last driven tractors and the chore scooter on Iowa farmland and gravel roads. My withdrawal symptoms had never abated. One crisp fall day, it happened. I was fifteen. My parents were gone for the day in Pop’s Dart, and I succumbed to the need for speed.
I took the spare keys to the Coronet, got in, backed her out in the tight turn from the perpendicular basement-level garage, and face to the street, hesitated for a brief moment, dropped the chrome lever into Drive, and didn’t stop at the end of the driveway. I drove through the neighborhood and headed out Charles Street. When I hit the 695 Beltway intersection, I couldn’t resist and just went for it. The only problem was a nervous twitch in my right leg approaching 60mph. But it smoothed right out at around 70.
I had rehearsed this moment in my mind a thousand times. Finally, I was liberated. It was the perfect antithesis to the perpetually-bored inattention of adolescence. I was 100% alive and awake. I was in tune with every subtle nuance of feedback, motion and sound emanating from the hijacked Dodge. Not that there was all that much feedback, especially from the utterly numb Chrysler power steering.
Eventually– and reluctantly– I brought the Coronet back home to 305 Colonial Court, and drove down the long driveway, hoping the neighbors weren’t out raking leaves. My head was buzzing and my body glowed. I had discovered my drug of choice, and I was thoroughly addicted. And like most addicts, I couldn’t, and wouldn’t lay off the good stuff– regardless of the consequences.