Along for the Ride

Even though it has been over three decades, I can still remember the escalating excitement of obtaining my driver’s license at age 16.

Being permitted to drive is one of the rites of passage to adulthood in America and, in my opinion, the most exciting of the lot. Consider two of the others: turning 18 and becoming eligible to vote, and turning 21 and being able to legally drink. These are the birthday equivalents of the sad trombone. Being eligible to vote? Have you seen who is running for office? And as far as the legal drinking age is concerned, who waits until they’re 21?

To a teenager, driving is both the symbol and action of freedom, the opportunity to spread one’s wings of independence while still having the security blanket of hearth and home at another’s expense. It is the gateway to doing new and different things, such as going to school or your friend’s house to hang out. True, you have been going to both since kindergarten, but instead of being dropped off by your parents or riding your bike, you can drive yourself. Nothing so routine felt so fresh.

I entered this burst of nostalgia as the result of the rapid approach of my semicentennial birthday and the recent news that Nissan is joining Volvo and GM in over-committing to the electric vehicle (EV) craze. To be fair, Nissan will only transition 40 percent of their production totals to EV, while Volvo and GM are dedicated to becoming EV-only by 2030 and 2040, respectively. I was surprised to see Nissan joining the EV club; not so much with Volvo, which for years has been on the cutting edge of meaningless trends. Remember their 2004 press release “Volvo Unveils First-Ever Car Designed By Women”? Probably not. Most likely because they never actually produced a single drivable version of the concept car. Those whacky avant-garde Swedes. Full disclosure: I am a proud Volvo owner. It may be a two-and-a-half-ton SUV with the design of a cinder block, but it is powered by a petrol sipping, turbocharged 4-cylinder, just like God intended. I like to consider myself the ultimate recycler: I use processed, liquefied dinosaur remains to get from place A to place B.

(Not my Scirocco but the same color and model year)

Reminiscing about getting my driver’s license transitioned to reflecting on vehicles I have owned. Though mostly a bland lot, there have been some notable exceptions. My first car, for starters. It was a golden brown 1979 Volkswagen Scirocco, VW’s replacement for the Karmann Ghia. Billed as a two-door “sport compact hatchback,” it came with a 1.6-liter fuel injected engine – one of the selling features, placarded on the hatch during assembly for all the world to see and marvel.

“Hey man, is that a fuel injected engine in your radiantly brown car?”

“Why yes, yet it is. Thank you for noticing.”

It produced 76 bhp and 83 lb-ft of torque. When it ran, that is. My particular Scirocco had plenty of “Fahrvergnügen” on good days but it also had a serious case of “fährt nicht” too. This was accentuated by my creative yet ironic license plate “SUREIGO.” Lol. Not always.

The single wiper blade on the front window was unique and fun but the non-functional wiper on the hatch was frustrating. At least I saved on the costs of a replacement blade! Sadly, I had been driving it for about a year when I realized that it was a five-speed manual and not four as I had previously been led to believe. In my defense, the numbers had worn down on the shifter and they were impossible to read. Towards the end of its life, and my high school career, it began to have significant electrical issues. Eventually it was not worth the cost it took to fix and we got rid of it. Still, I miss it, warts and all.

During my time at college I had two cars, a 1973 Datsun 240Z and a 1979 Buick Electra Park Avenue. The attractive 240 was my “rebound vehicle”; I had gotten rid of the Scirocco but hadn’t gotten over it. Thankfully, the 240 helped me get my groove back. A small two door sports car, the inline, 2.4-liter six-cylinder made it fun in the mountains, but the non-functioning heater made it miserable in winter, which runs from October to April in Boone. That, and the holes in the floorboards, à la Fred Flintstone, guaranteed that I sold it after a year.

The Buick was the Datsun’s opposite in every way. It was a study in monochrome: the exterior paint was gun metal gray, the vinyl roof was looks-like-rain gray, and the faux leather interior was white. It was the size of an Olympic swimming pool and had a 6.6-liter V8, which produced an unremarkable 175 bhp. How can so little power be squeezed from such a large engine? One thing it was good at though was guzzling fuel. I affectionately named it “Gaston” (from “Beauty and the Beast”) due to its size and the sound of the horn, which could stop trains in their tracks. “No one’s BIG like Gaston, no one’s WIDE like Gaston, no one completely GUZZLES the fuel like Gaston.”

(Not my Buick but the same exterior colors and model year)

Like the other two cars, Gaston had its share of quirks. The driver side door didn’t open from the outside; that was rectified by having the passenger reach across the six-and-a-half feet of width and open it from the inside. The power windows needed manual assistance but finger prints across the top edge of the glass never really bothered me. On the plus side, it was solid. It lasted me through a year of grad school and even provided shelter during a hurricane. It was a good car but, unlike the Scirocco, I am not interested in owning another.

One other stand-out was a minivan that my wife and I were given: a 1989 Dodge Caravan SE. Reliable, unremarkable, regular. Almost. Originally owned by a local commercial cleaning company, it was painted bright yellow and still had the company’s name written in blue reflective decal on the driver’s side door. Think Big Bird with a faded Navy tattoo on his left forearm and you have a good idea of what we were driving around. The interior was what you would expect: functional, clean, and boring. In other words, a typical Dodge. The vehicle ran well until it didn’t; towards the end of its life it developed the ability to change its own oil. Eventually adding oil on a regular basis was no longer practical and we sent it to a better place, vis-a-vis the junkyard. The car got us through our first few years of marriage and even made it to DC and back. I wonder, when we were parked in front of one of the Smithsonian museums, did people think we were there as visitors or to clean it? I’ll never know.

Independence, even in the tightly controlled space of driving with curfews, is quite a drug. One taste is not enough, you must keep going back for more. But the more you get, the less you feel. Thirty-plus years of driving has numbed the thrill that was so palpable at 16. However, there are days, usually warm ones when the humidity is low, the sun is above the horizon but not yet at its zenith, and the road in front of you is free from school buses, farm vehicles, and drivers from Florida, that the old feelings return. Roll the windows down, turn up the stereo, and let the joy of the open road transport you to a time when your cares were few and your future was little more than a dream. That’s the taste of freedom and, once and while, you’re lucky enough to be along for the ride.