I flunked driver’s ed. That’s no joke.
It’s true. I write about and review cars and the first time that I took driver’s ed I flunked. How’s that for irony? Now I’m not like that Korean lady who spent a fortune repeatedly failing her driver’s test before finally passing on the 950th try. The next time I took it, I passed, then passed my road test, got my license and never had a problem on the road.
So how did I flunk driver’s ed?
When I was a teenager, school districts still had enough money to offer driver’s ed as an after school or summer course. Car companies and dealers had enough money to donate mid-size sedans to those same school districts. I suppose it was good PR, what with doing their civic duty and all. I’m sure there were tax write offs available as well. Of course exposing a new generation of drivers to you product line was part of the motivation as well. So the first car that I drove was a 1970 Dodge Coronet, blue if I recall correctly, just like the four door pictured in the sales brochure below. I tried finding a current photo of one, but per our EIC pro tempore’s “Grand National Problem“, it seems that most old Coronets around today are Super Bee and R/T models (or clones). Of course the first car that I drove didn’t have a big block V8. It had a 318 if I recall correctly.
Regardless of the engine’s displacement, it was the first car that I drove (the homebrew go-kart my older brother and I built doesn’t count). No ‘borrowing’ my parents’ cars after they were asleep, or bugging a friend to let me drive, the first day of driver’s ed was the first time that I’d been behind the wheel. Make that the second time. When I was seven and we were at my aunt’s house. I was playing in the car in the driveway, pulled it out of gear and managed to turn it right into a parked car as gravity took over and I couldn’t reach the brakes.
I was inexperienced and nervous the first few times that our Driver’s Ed class went out on the road, but I was picking it up. I figured that once I got my learner’s permit, I’d get more comfortable in traffic, which is what eventually happened, but not for another year and a half.
The problem was that the driver’s ed teacher was a truly stupid and alcoholic phys ed teacher who got off on flunking a smart kid. Mr X was what I’d call a typical phys ed teacher in the 1960s or 1970s. A high school and college athlete who wasn’t smart enough to coach or do anything beyond grunt work in the real world, so he got his degree in physical education and a job at the local high school. He made his peace with the world by making sure all the nerds and smart kids got clobbered by the jocks in dodge ball, while he sipped “coffee” from a Thermos. Not qualified to really teach any serious academic subjects, not smart enough to teach shop, he supplemented his income like some of the other duller teachers by teaching typing and driver’s ed.
I don’t mean to disparage all teachers. When I said “stupid teachers” I’m not saying they all were stupid, I’m talking about the small number of less than intelligent teachers. As a matter of fact my high school had some really outstanding teachers. My Algebra-Trig teacher, Mr. Parnes, was brilliant, as was Mrs. Politzer, a science instructor who had done some of the early work isolating amino acids. Along with those fine pedagogues was my 11th grade chemistry teacher. He understood the topic well enough to teach it at a high school level but I relished the idea that I earned my A and didn’t pay for it with a fifth of booze like some of my classmates. I don’t know if he drank on the clock like Mr. X did.
So Mr. X was a big dumb lug and somehow I survived his phys ed class. I’m not a gifted athlete and I have trouble making a layup (let alone dunk at 5’6″) but I’m not uncoordinated and I think I got a B or C. Mr. X had very firm rules for grading. If you were a varsity athlete, you got an A (and get to run around the locker room rubbing your junk on the non-jocks while the phys ed teacher laughed). Everyone else got B’s or C’s depending on how much Mr. X resented your intelligence. While I was in high school, all the valedictorians were girls because all the smart boys got downgraded in PE.
So in the summer between my sophomore and junior years, when I was old enough to sign up for driver’s ed and found out Mr. X was the instructor, I knew it wasn’t going to be fun, but I had no idea just how much some teachers resent smart kids.
I don’t know what driver’s ed is like today, I guess they must use driving sims on computers by now. As early as the 1950s there were mechanical driving simulators that were synchronized with film strips but our school district didn’t use them We had classroom work with books, film strips and tests, along with practical driving instruction and practice on the road. Back then it was fairly common for driver’s ed and even regular students to have to watch gory auto safety movies, but I don’t recall us having to watch any gore. However, the course was horrific enough for me. I discovered that with each additional 98, 99, or 100% score that I got on the classroom work, Mr. X got more and more critical when I was behind the wheel, while giving me less and less wheel time, far less than any of the other students.
So I flunked. I was completely mortified. I could already do some basic wrenching on our cars, as mentioned I built a go-kart with my brother, helped my friends work on their cars, followed racing since I was young, had a four lane slot car set (thanks to dad and a connection at a wholesale toy distributor), knew what understeer and oversteer were and just exactly why they taught us to “steer into a skid” (i.e. use opposite lock), and I flunked driver’s ed.
It was a bit of a hassle. All my friends had their licenses, a couple had their own cars, and I was stuck bumming rides, having my dad drive me, or worse, getting there late because my mom has never been on time in her life. The hassle was compounded when due to budget cuts I wasn’t able to get back into a driver’s ed class till the middle of my senior year. This time around I had another one of the school’s lesser teachers, but he was more interested in actually teaching us how to drive than acting like a bully. I passed the course, got my learner’s permit, then passed the road test given by the infamous Great White Whale. That’s what all the kids called the rather large lady in charge of road tests at the Secretary of State’s office that was around the block from my house. She was reputed to not pass a lot of new drivers but in fact nobody that I knew whom she tested didn’t get their license.
We had a spare car so the SS in name only 1966 Impala SS was mine for a few months till I left to spend the summer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Actually, that Chevy pretty much died when my dad tried to drive me to NYC for my flight. My brother joined us. We made it as far as Toledo before the 283 started overheating. We managed to limp home and instead took my older brother’s first car, a convertible Buick Special. He’d kept the Buick ragtop after buying a Lotus Cortina. It was June and not many mid-60s sedans had A/C, let alone convertibles. If you had a sedan, on long trips you used “4/80 Air” – open up all four windows (and vent wings – remember vent wings?) and go 80 mph. Most cars then also had some kind of vents in the kick panels that let in some fresh air. There was a time when “flow through ventilation” was high tech. Since it was a ragtop, dad just drove the 600 miles to NYC with the top down, sun permitting. After years of driving though Canada and then down the NY Thruway on our way to visit his relatives in and around NYC, my dad loved how much time the new Interstate 80 took off the trip. I think we made it in a tick over 10 hours.
When you buy a convertible they don’t tell you about too things, you don’t really want to drop the top on hot sunny day and you’re going to need shampoo. By the time we got to Brooklyn I think the only time that my hair has been dirtier has been when I’ve had to wash oil or transmission fluid out of it. When I got back to the States to go to the University of Michigan that fall the Chevy had been junked. I bought a Honda 90 “Super Cub”. Fine for around A Squared and just powerful enough to take back roads back to Detroit now and then. I rode the 90 for a year, upgraded to a Honda 305 the next year and when I decided to get a car, I used the monetary gifts from my Bar Mitzvah to buy a ’66 Lotus Elan that I still have, in pieces, in my ex’s garage. By then big brother had already dealt with iron-oxide alloy on a Lotus Cortina and a Mini Cooper, and I didn’t want something that would disintegrate. It was just after the first oil crisis of 1973. Besides my brother’s Cortina, a friend had already traded in his ’72 Montego MX with a 351 Cobra Jet for a new Lotus Europa Special for gas mileage reasons, and I’d already been reading the buff books for years so I was more than a little familiar with the brand.
The first car that I bought was a Lotus and I flunked driver’s ed. Wrap your head around that.
I think that I’m a decent driver. I’ve gotten less than a half dozen moving violations in all the years I’ve been driving, never caused a serious accident, certainly nothing hazarding life or limb, mine or anyone else’s, and whatever accidents I’ve had have been very minor.
Still, I have to hang my head in shame and admit that I didn’t get my driver’s license till I was 17 because I flunked driver’s ed.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS