MY LOVE AFFAIRS . . .with cars
My love affair with cars started in November of 1940 when I was about 7 years old (give or take a year or two). It began with an Eaton’s Mail Order Catalogue, which listed a pedal driven car in just my size. I studied the picture of that car and memorized every detail. I know it was November because I decided, as only a person that age can decide, that I was going to get that pedal car as a Christmas present. I even knew it would be my Aunt Isabel who was going to give it to me — without having had any conversations with her about it. She lived in Vancouver and operated a small antique shop, so in my mind she must have had lots of spare money. I really don’t know why I thought all that. I just did.
It didn’t matter that we had several early snowfalls that year. After every snow storm, I would go outside and shovel a “race track” in the snow — complete with curves and loops — carefully cleaned to ground level to make the pedaling at least possible, if not easy. Even at such an early age, I was concerned only with the journey and not with any identifiable goal. I didn’t get that car for Christmas. In fact, I never did get to see it “in the flesh” so to speak, and thus my unrequited first love affair with a car was astonishingly short and quickly forgotten. My older brother, my parents and I lived on a smallish farm about fifteen minute’s drive from the city of Swift Current, in the province of Saskatchewan, and so transportation was a major part of out life. There was a school bus except in wet or snowy weather. Obviously, we needed a car and a truck for hauling grain. I recall at least twice when we had a small private airplane fly out from town and land on a nearby field to take my father to town to buy groceries because of snow-blocked roads. When I was in eleventh grade I had a driver’s license. Farm boys in those days could get a license at age fourteen to help in hauling grain to the elevators. On special occasions, I would have the use my father’s newish (he always drove a car less than 4 years old) 1949 hydromantic Chevrolet to drive to the city. It was a nice car and it would happily do 70 mph (110 km/hr) on our gravel highways — so long as one was careful to avoid the loose gravel ridges. Somewhere, probably from an advertising brochure at the dealership, I had learned that the hydromatic automatic transmission was relatively indestructible because it was a fluid connection. They said it wouldn’t hurt the transmission if one were to shift from drive into reverse while the car was moving. They were right. Even at high speeds the back wheels would spin furiously in reverse and bring the car to a shuddering stop, provided the engine was revved up enough to avoid stalling. It was an interesting alternative to using the brakes, and it didn’t ruin the transmission, at least not before it was traded in on a new car. The Chevy was a good “transportation” car, but not a car with which I developed any emotional relationship, or even any
degree of respect (obviously).
I did learn the magical feeling of privacy, security and safety when one is alone at night in a car with another person. It was like being in my own private world. I started my first real relationship with a car that same year. It was a 1929 Model A Ford. It wasn’t really mine, but my mother and I had pretty much exclusive use of it, and I could do all sorts of improper things to it.
For instance, we just happened to have a wartime surplus airplane in our yard. The airplane had been disabled so the engine would not run (in spite of my best efforts), but it had an endless supply of switches, hydraulic pumps and other interesting things. We also had a war surplus truck (with right-hand drive) , a 4-wheel-drive jeep, and a few other things like a flamethrower, all in good working order. It may sound strange now, but at that time many people
acquired them for next to nothing. I installed a pair of airplane headlights on the car and had them work with auxiliary fuses and switches also from the airplane. They provided excellent lighting on dark roads — and a frequently dead battery.
It was a marvelous car. Whenever my mother drove it alone we could count on a story. “I don’t know why, but the motor stopped running half way to town,” my mother said. “You mean it wouldn’t start?” I asked. “It wouldn’t do anything. I thought it was ruined.” “So what did you do?” “This nice man stopped and said it was out of water. He went to a farm and got some water for it.” “And it runs now?” “As far as I know.” I checked the car. It was fine. It had run out of water, overheated and the engine had seized up. All it needed was a drink of water to cool it down. A car with a newer, tighter engine would have been ruined. Another time my mother and I were driving along the highway toward Swift Current. “That’s strange. What is that over there in the field?” she asked. I looked into the field and noticed a wheel rolling merrily across the ditch and through the field. “I don’t know. Maybe you should stop.” She pulled off to the side of the road. We got out and looked around at the car — neither of us knowing what we were looking for.” I looked where the left rear wheel should have been. As the old Irish saying goes, “there it was — gone.” The wheel in the field belonged to us. I chased after it until I caught it and brought it back to the car. I took one of the lug nuts off each of the other three wheels to attach the errant one, and we were on our way. No damage was done. In winter, if the car didn’t want to start at minus 35 degrees Celsius all that was needed was a kettle of hot water poured over the intake manifold and maybe a quarter-cup of gasoline down the carburetor. If it had been sitting in the cold so long that the oil was thick and the motor would not turn over, a bit of gasoline ignited in a pan and pushed under the engine heated the car’s oil pan with no damage. How could anyone help falling in love with a car like that? Just don’t try putting a small fire under a modern computer-dependent car with electrical wiring everywhere. After I graduated from high school, I went to the University of Manitoba as a car-less freshman. I was living in residence and city bus service was adequate, but I missed having a car.
The summer after 1st year, my father bought me an old 1939 Chevy. That was very kind of him, but he and his friendly neighborhood used car salesman had no idea what I really wanted in a car. I spent my spare time that summer replacing the head gasket with a thinner one designed to increase the compression ratio. This would increase the horsepower to what I considered a respectable amount. I hoped this would increase its original mediocre performance to a level that would allow me to accept it as a potential object of my affection. The transformation was successful and resulted in an amazing exhaust sound, rather like a high-pitched miniature wind tunnel on steroids.
My university roommate, Len, met me in Swift Current and we headed back on the 12-hour drive to the university. Unfortunately, the car was not up to the task and threw a main bearing two hours short of our destination. It wasn’t the car’s fault. I had requested that the main bearings be replaced (re-babbitted, to be precise) but, as I found out later, the garage had made a decision that the old bearings should be fine because those cars had a low compression engine. It was my oversight in not telling them that it had actually become a high compression engine. We limped to the nearest town and traded the Chevy for a 1950 Frazer (of Kaiser-Frazer fame). It was love at first sight. The car was old, luxurious, cheap and unusual — the perfect match for me. Its “free wheeling” feature won it a special place in my heart. There was a simple lever one could pull out when driving on the highway and it would allow the engine to idle while the car coasted silently along at highway speed. Technically speaking, the engine could drive the wheels when you wanted to speed up, but the wheels would not slow the engine down as a braking action, as in most cars. Pushing in the lever reconnected the wheels to the engine. Now, this might not seem to be very useful, which is probably why so few cars, before or since, ever had that feature. The attraction for me was the total silence as the car coasted along at highway speed with the engine idling. It was somewhat the same psychological effect as that of a turbocharged engine in a modern car — the car can accelerate without increasing engine noise. OK, so it isn’t exactly the same, but that is the closest thing to it I have experienced. The Frazer and I parted company later that year after my roommate plowed it into the back of a city bus. It wasn’t his fault. I would have done the same thing. The bus route was through an unpopulated area on the way to the university and I’d never seen it stop at that bus stop. Obviously, sometimes it did. I collected the insurance but didn’t buy another car for four years. It may not have been a coincidence that I had been keeping track of expenses and had discovered that it was costing me more to keep my car running than it did to provide myself with food and lodging. The conclusion was inescapable. I have never kept track of car expenses again since then, except for income tax purposes. Fast-forward through four car-deprived years. I had graduated with a B.Sc., and had taught for one year at the Swan River High School in northern Manitoba, intending just to make enough money to go back to university for my master’s degree in science. However, I enjoyed teaching so much I decided to get my degree in education. One of my students, Al, had a married sister in Vancouver and he planned to attend university there in the fall. He and two of his friends, Jack and Mel, decided to go there with him. I have no idea why I went with them — it just seemed like right thing to do at the time. The four of us went to Vancouver in July after the school year ended. The university was across the city from where we would be living. Obviously, it would be most efficient to have a small, old, cheap car instead of paying four bus fares every day. We visited a used car lot. None of us had ever seen or heard of the British made Morris Minor, but the salesman said it would be perfect for us. It got fantastically good gas mileage and it was cheap.
It was a dinky little car, rather more like the pedal car I had wanted as a child than a real car. It had a “bullet proof” motor, as the car magazines liked to say — it never failed to start immediately and to run smoothly, even the one time when I discovered a hole the size of a quarter in the top one of its four tiny pistons. Another time, on a trip to Flin Flon with my friend, Jack, the car stopped running as if it were out of gas. I discovered the electric fuel pump was not pumping. We drove the last hour with the hood open and Jack draped over one fender so he could flick the fuel pump contact every 10 seconds. It did slow us down a little because I didn’t want him flying off the fender and into the ditch at highway speed.
There was another time when I was getting ready to go from Flin Flon to Vancouver. I discovered one of my tires had worn through the rubber so that the bare cords were showing. I had no spare and no one sold the tiny tires the car used. There seemed to be no choice but to drive to Winnipeg and get a new tire there. No one in Winnipeg carried that foreign size tire, so I just kept driving hoping I could make it to Brandon . . . and then Regina . . . and Calgary . . . and eventually Vancouver. I had traveled some 40 hours on a threadbare tire — lucky for me it was such a light car. I did finally get a new tire in Vancouver. Some people might say I should have purchased a spare tire at the same time, but obviously, I really didn’t need one.
The salesman was right about the gasoline mileage. We didn’t care much about mileage when we bought it because at that time gasoline was only 25 cents per gallon. However, I was glad for it one time when I was driving back to Manitoba via the USA through the International Peace Gardens Park late at night in the off-season. I was almost out of gas and all the gas stations were closed with the pumps turned off. Desperation is the mother of invention (to misquote Victor Hugo and many others). I think that car must have come with its own built-in guardian angel to lead me to those gas pumps.
I tried draining the gas from the hose at a gas pump. To my delight I found I could straighten out the hose and drain about half a cup of gas, caught in the loop of the hose, into my tank. So I went from pump to pump pulling the hoses straight and draining them. I drove for two hours by stopping at every gas station and draining the hoses until I found a station that was open. With the price of gas as it is now I may have to resort to draining the hoses at closed gas stations again. Besides, it was a convertible. The British were very fond of British green for their Morris Minors — I have never seen one in any other color except in pictures. I had never had a convertible and I assumed it would be awesome in Vancouver in the summer. Of course, I had no idea how much it rained in Vancouver in the summer time, but I loved it on the beautiful sunny days they also have. That car served us for the year and then took Jack and me to the mining town of Flin Flon for summer employment. We both worked underground initially and made pretty good money. In the fall we returned to Vancouver with the intention of continuing our studies there. A lot can happen in a summer. Al and his girlfriend suddenly realized they needed to get married — and soon. Her parents were not thrilled, to say the least, and strongly forbade the marriage. Al asked if they could borrow my car to elope. It was such a romantically exciting idea I couldn’t resist signing the car over to him, for the nominal fee of one dollar, as a wedding present. They sped across the USA border headed for Winnipeg as fast as the tiny, 10-year-old, 30 horsepower Morris Minor would take them. Her parents discovered their plan in the morning and took off after them in their new V-8 Chrysler. The chase was on. Their 10-hour head start was enough. By the time the parents arrived in Winnipeg, Al and his new bride had left the church. A few months later, I was named godfather of their first child. Years later, I was invited to their 25th wedding anniversary. Maybe it was Al’s example of how to grab hold of life and make it work for you. Or maybe I just realized I was coming back to more of what I had left in May. Whatever it was, I decided that if the Faculty of Education represented what teaching was all about then I wasn’t interested in pursuing it. I happened upon an ad for a Meteorologist course at the University of Toronto starting in January. I applied for the program and, without waiting to be accepted, bought an old car to drive to Toronto. At that time I just assumed I would get any job for which I applied. In retrospect, it may have been that I didn’t apply for many jobs, or I was just lucky.
It was an old 2-door Plymouth — strictly a transportation car. I was accustomed to driving the Morris Minor at full throttle on the highway and drove the Plymouth the same way. It got most of the way to Toronto before the engine blew up in clouds of steam and hot oil. I didn’t have time to become attached to it, which was just as well because I don’t think we were really compatible. I didn’t even consider it as a friend.
I arrived in Toronto, by Greyhound, with my metal suitcase containing all my worldly belongings. The professors at the university kindly gave me work in the Meteorological department organizing research data and general office work until my course began in January. One of my early tasks was processing application forms. I was surprised to find myself looking at my own application form. It was an easy one to do — I didn’t need to check my references, and I approved it with dispatch. Life was good. I had a job and a future as a meteorologist. I thought I knew where I was going and how to get there. All I needed was a car. Toronto was full of used car lots. I spent many happy hours car shopping. The 1957 gull-wing Mercedes sports car was fantasy-love at first sight, but clearly out of my league in every imaginable way. The old square-fender MG-TC’s were tempting too, but a bit pricey for their age and performance, and somehow didn’t seem to fit my self-image. So I fell back on my first true love — another Morris Minor — it was a British green convertible. It was as if my previous car and I had been reunited for my new life. A year and a half later, near the end of August, as the world was getting ready for the beginning of a new school year, I became restless as I recalled how I had enjoyed my year of teaching in Swan River. I sold my beloved Morris Minor for a dollar — rapidly becoming my standard selling price to friends — to my roommate at the time, and took a bus back to Winnipeg. And so ended my fickle love affairs with a variety of old cars. My plan, if one can call it a plan, was to either return to teaching or to go to Mexico where my saved money would be adequate for me to live on the beach for at least a year. It was too difficult a decision for me to think about so I flipped a coin. I don’t remember if I won or lost the toss, but the coin sent me back to teaching. I had learned how to make a coin flip work for me. I make my call — heads Mexico, tails teaching. If it had come up for Mexico and I felt disappointed, I had my answer . . . teaching. If it had come up teaching and I felt good then that was my answer. The coin served only to focus my feelings.
It was late in the summer and there were only a few schools with an opening on their teaching staff. I chose Cranberry Portage, which was a tiny community in northern Manitoba, between Swan River and Flin Flon. It was a familiar area (you have to drive through it to get to Flin Flon) and I was dissatisfied with life in big cities. A small isolated rural setting might help me get my life together.
While teaching at Cranberry Portage, I chose my first-ever NEW car by reading magazines and looking at brochures. It was to be a 1959 Triumph TR3A. They were not at all common in Canada and available only in Toronto. So I bought a one-way ticket on Air Canada and flew back to Toronto to meet the car I had only seen in pictures. Little did I suspect that I would be sharing the rest of my life with this car, which I had never even seen.
With a minimum down payment and three years of payments it was all mine. It was a British racing car with a four-speed manual transmission. It had overdrive on the top three gears, giving it seven forward speeds. I learned to drive it on the trip back to Manitoba and fortunately I was very impressed with it. It had never occurred to me that I might find the car to be totally unsuitable for city or highway driving and I had made no plans for that possibility. I just knew I wanted it from what brochures and car magazines had told me.
When I read in the manual that the car should be driven at no more than 3500 rpm for the
first 500 miles, I was taken aback, thinking I was going to have a slow first 500 miles on my drive home. My fears were unfounded. When I first took the car out onto the highway, I discovered that in 4th gear overdrive, at 3500 rpm, I was traveling 78 mph (120 km/h) — more than the speed limit and thus adequate for the trip home.
First gear is generally not used for starting up (unless you want to lay two tracks of rubber or are starting uphill on a mountain slope). Around the city, second and third gears were more than enough, especially considering that there is the option of overdrive on both.
There were (at least) two downsides to the car. One was that it hated idling. It would overheat anytime it was kept to a slow pace such as in city traffic situations. The other was that it was very difficult to find a garage that wanted to do even the simplest work on it. I found it easier to do maintenance work on it myself. I should have clued in that having only one dealership in all of Canada did not bode well for servicing opportunities. But then, I have never said I was smart — good in school, yes — but not necessarily smart. I soon discovered that I couldn’t even leave it in a garage for a tire change without returning to be met by an irate mechanic demanding, “Get this %@#* car out of here.” It wasn’t that they hated the car; they just didn’t know how to release the parking brake to get it out of the garage. You see, it’s a racing car. The “parking brake” was designed to be used as a “racing” brake. It works only on the back wheels and is used when the driver wants to control a skid. Hence, it is designed so that that pulling the lever did not make it catch and hold, as do “normal” cars, unless you held down the button. When the mechanic automatically pushed the button (expecting to release the brake) and gave it a tug, the brake would hold more tightly. Repeating this action several times ended up with the back wheels becoming more and more firmly locked. When I arrived, pulled the lever (without holding the button down) and released the brake it somehow didn’t improve their temper. I tried having a sign on the dash saying, “DO NOT HOLD THE PARKING BRAKE BUTTON DOWN.” Unfortunately, they would either not see it, or if they did, it didn’t make sense to them so they would ignore it. The only effective solution was to stay at the garage anytime my car was there. It was the fastest accelerating thing on the road in its time, and still might be except for its progressively more common old-age problems.
That was some 50 years ago and I still have my original Triumph. Although we don’t play together as much anymore we have a standing arrangement to go out together for parades — I get it in shape for the event and it finds new ways to develop last-minute ailments.
I’ve had flings of convenience with other cars, some good and some not so much, over the years and probably will continue to do so. We went on a road trip with our children, age 8 and 11, to Ontario in a nice new Volvo station wagon. We bought it because it was highly rated for safety even though it was ugly and stodgy. On our visit to the Canadian National Exhibition, we parked in the “Go Train” parking lot near Lake Ontario and took the train to the exhibition grounds. After spending an enjoyable afternoon of rides and displays, we took the train back to the parking lot.
There had been some rain during the afternoon, and it seemed to look progressively wetter the closer we got to the parking lot. When we arrived, it became evident that a waterspout had passed over the area and had flooded the parking lot. The water was about two feet deep around our car. It had soaked our sleeping bags, luggage, and ruined our 8 mm movie camera. We got things dried out as best we could with the help of our friend’s wet and dry shop vacuum. My first surprise came when I pulled my seat belt across my chest to buckle up. It was soaking wet from the water trapped in its holder and sloshed as it went across my chest. It was even more amusing when we had to turn on our windshield wipers and discovered that the radio turned on and off with them. When we got home I traded in the car for one without the automatic radio feature.
I must mention the 1971 Karmann Ghia I bought in 1989 for my daughter, Anita, to drive when she went to high school in Winnipeg. I could have fallen in love with it — it had a beautiful body design — but it was built with the Volkswagen Beetle chassis and engine. Not that I have had anything against the Beetle, and I admire the engineering of its engine, but it was somehow not being honest. It looked like a high power sports car — I’ve had people at gas stations ask if it were a Porsche — but its performance was that of a Beetle. It struck me as somehow deceitful to be so beautiful without comparable performance. I sold it when Anita didn’t need it anymore . . . but it wasn’t easy because she was so beautiful. (I mean the car, not Anita . . . although she is, too). One of my fun times with a car was traveling with my wife in Germany on the Autobahn — a highway with either no speed limit or a speed limit based on the engine size. The bigger your engine the higher was the speed limit is for you. We were in a rented Ford Fiesta replete with a tiny 4-cylinder engine. It was a game little car that would respond to my flooring the gas pedal with a loud roar from the motor as it shifted down, but no noticeable increase in speed. However, it didn’t object to traveling all day at its top speed of 70 mph (110 km/hr). We had the experience of seeing Porsches appear in my rear view mirror, whip past us as if we were standing still and then disappear over the horizon in a flash. I thought someday I would like to go back to Germany and cruise the Autobahn in a rented Porsche. However, seeing the cost of Porsche rentals (and some of the accident scenes on the Autobahn) made me decide I should wait until I had a terminal ailment so I wouldn’t be risking too many good years of my life. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered rental companies don’t rent Porsches to old people.
My wife and I made two trips to Europe with our children, Anita and Ken, and traveled in rented cars. I discovered that the different racial stereotypes were clearly reflected in their driving habits. In Spain the people tended to be aggressive in their attitude and speech. This was reflected in their driving — it was as if they were seemingly acting out a bullfight. Although the roads had beautifully smooth, paved shoulders the drivers would never use them, even to avoid oncoming traffic such as when approaching a person passing. You could almost hear the cries of “Olé!” as the car pulled back into his lane at the last possible moment. Maybe they would use the paved shoulder if it were absolutely essential to avoid a collision, but fortunately, I never had the opportunity to experience this.
Crossing the border from Spain into Portugal presented a totally different type of person. The Portuguese are a polite, mild-mannered and gentle people. This was reflected in their highway driving and in their way of life. One time I was driving the wrong way for a few yards down a back street to get to our parking place. A man who saw us pointed his finger toward the ground and waved it, and his head, gently from side-to-side. In Spain we would have heard about it in emphatic Spanish and perhaps a more pointed hand gesture. The Portuguese version of bullfighting is also gentle and is called “bloodless” because they do not kill the bull in the ring as is done in Spain. The first part of the “show” consists of a horseman dressed in a traditional costume fighting the bull from the back of a specially trained horse in order to stick a few small javelins into the back of the bull. Then one or more matadors taunt the bull with a red cape in a manner similar to the Spanish fight, except they are not armed with swords. The finale, and most exciting part, is when a group of eight men, often locals from nearby villages, storm into the ring in their ordinary work clothes, without any protection or weapons, and attempt to subdue the bull using only their own skill and strength. The sight of one of the apparently fearless men holding the bull’s tail while others assaulted its body and one man throwing himself between the bull’s horns to grasp its head was an exhilarating mixture of humor and fear. Although the men won by wrestling the bull to the ground in the one we saw, it was an even battle with more likelihood of a person being hurt or killed than for any damage to the bull. The British, of course, very properly drove on the wrong side of the road as if it that were the only possibility and obeyed the rules of the road politely and formally. Only the British could consider a roundabout to be a logical method of turning a corner. In fairness to them, I must admit roundabouts are surprisingly efficient and avoid the North American left turn accidents, once you get used to the idea of suddenly having cars on both sides of you driving at different speeds in a circle — at least they are all going the same direction.
The emotional and spontaneous Italians were an experience. When stopping for a red light they would move over and line up to fill all the lanes, resulting in two sold lines of traffic, half of them on the wrong side of the road, facing each other. When the light changed green both sides drove forward at full speed, gradually merging and dodging their way to the proper side of the road. Fortunately, their cars tended to be small and nimble. It was efficient but very surprising the first time I unexpectedly found myself in the middle of it.
Germans drove with precision and determination. Instructions to other drivers (such as blinking their headlights to signal they were going to pass you) were clear and consistent, with the expectation that you would know what they meant and would do as you were told (as in, get out of the way of my speeding Porsche).
I think my love affairs with cars are now over. I must admit I did arrange to have a look at a new Ferrari in a showroom in California recently — very nice but not really my type. I’m afraid she might be too much for me. Maybe if I were 50 years younger? Besides, I still have the Triumph parked in my garage.
~ Communication Problems ~
Driving my new Triumph home from Toronto for the first time, I stopped at a small city gas station for a quart of oil. The manual specified Castrol motor oil (a very common brand of British motor oil). I asked the station attendant, “Do you have ‘Castrol oil?’” The service person replied seriously, "You'll have to go to a drug store for that.”