Tim Sample: Stories I Never Told You

My last car

Tue, 01/28/2014 - 8:00am

Ever since I was a kid I’ve been crazy about cars. And I might as well include trucks, motorcycles, dune buggies and anything else equipped with wheels and an engine. If it can be driven, just hand me those keys. I’ll take it out for a spin.

My obsession may have been stimulated at least in part by simple geography. I spent most of my childhood at the end of a peninsula on the Maine coast. And over time it seems reasonable that I would come to think of Route 27, the serpentine stretch of two-lane blacktop connecting my hometown to coastal Route 1, as my own personal on-ramp, a gateway to every other road on the planet.

Whatever the source, I definitely caught the “car bug” at an early age, regaling childhood friends, relatives and total strangers with random automotive statistics: 0-60 times, quarter mile speeds, comparative horsepower ratings and the like, the way other eight-year-old boys reeled off the batting averages of their favorite big league ball players.

When the original Ford Mustang debuted at the New York World’s Fair in April of 1964, the nationwide launch came as a complete surprise to most Americans. Not me. Although I was as smitten as anyone by the Mustang, I wasn’t the least bit surprised.

By the time the hoi polloi caught onto Ford’s new “pony car” I’d been avidly following its development for months. Magazines like Motor Trend and Sports Car Graphic had been providing me with regular updates via fuzzy “spy photos” and debates over which name Ford would decide to bolt onto the new car’s sheet metal flanks (Cougar and Allegro were considered the front runners).

So when I finally slipped behind the wheel of my first car, a 1956 Chevy (previously driven by Boothbay Harbor’s version of the “Little Old Lady who only drove it on Sunday” my friend Doris Farnham), I was ready to hit the open road. Time flies whether you’re having fun or not but I certainly had tons of fun racking up the million plus miles I’ve driven since then. Over the years I’ve owned dozens of vehicles: a couple of AMC Hornets, a Dodge pick-up, a bunch of Fords and Hondas and even a few of the more exotic marques.

There were a couple of Fiats, an Opel, several Mercedes and a sinfully posh Jaguar XJ with Wilton carpets, Connolly hides and those oh-so-British, burled walnut picnic tables for my backseat passengers. Can you say “Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?”

I’ve also owned around 15 motorcycles ranging from 50 to 1100 cc. I was even briefly the proud owner of a metal flake orange 1975 Suzuki RE-5, the world’s only mass-produced rotary engine motorcycle!

Which brings me to my current dilemma. Given my age (let’s just say “early sixties” shall we?), and reasonably good health, I figure I’ve got maybe 20 good driving years left. Here’s the problem. I’ve recently test driven a selection of the latest models and found the whole experience deeply disturbing.

Apparently I’ve become a member of a newly endangered species: We’re the ones who prefer a clutch, manual gearshift and large, clearly marked knobs for the radio and heater so we can keep our eyes the road. That’s right. We actually look at the road while driving. Weird huh?

It gets even weirder. We also use mirrors and turn signals, dim our high beams for oncoming traffic, and obey the “Keep Right Except to Pass” law. Yes, Virginia, that really is a law.

For me, driving is never a passive experience. Yet modern cars are rapidly evolving into passive entertainment capsules where the fact that you’re hurtling down the road at lethal speeds serves as just one more irritating distraction from your critical “infotainment” priorities.

I have absolutely zero interest in a “self-parking” automobile with a jumbo, interactive “infotainment” screen, adaptive cruise control and (God forbid!) “hands free steering.” Unfortunately, pretty soon we won’t even have a choice in the matter. These and similarly inane examples of technology-run-amok are rapidly becoming standard equipment on every make and model on the lot.

Maybe I’ll follow Jay Leno’s example. Leno still owns the 1955 Buick he bought for $350 back in 1972. It looks the same except it’s been modified with disc brakes, radial tires and a contemporary drivetrain. Maybe I’ll find another ’56 Chevy. Even with similar modifications it wouldn’t cost much more than the pricey new models.

Besides, if I’m going to be driving off into the sunset, why not go there in a car featuring the best of both world’s: modern underpinnings and a steering wheel the size of a Domino’s pizza!