Auto-biography 10: Strung Out
Once I crossed the line, once I became a fifteen year-old driving addict, there was no turning back. Nothing could stop me from using my drug of choice. Like most addicts, I was willing to cross any line to get my fix. If my supply was cut off, I found another. Needless to say this is not my auto-biography’s most innocent chapter.
After my first illicit drive in the family’s Dodge Coronet, I couldn’t stop. On the day after Thanksgiving, I cruised to the mall. A sale-crazed woman ran a parking lot stop and hit me in the rear. Panicked, I drove away. It was just a dent, but returning the keys to my parents was not a Kodak moment.
My punishment: a two year postponement of my license. Did that stop me? Did that even slow me down? Hell no. They might as well have banned me for life for all the difference it made.
I cultivated other sources of wheels. In a pinch, I still took out the family Dodges. Locked? A stick opened any Chrysler product vent window. No keys? A piece of wire and a screwdriver and I was ready to roll. Oh, and I also unhooked the speedometer cable; my father had a photographic memory for (odometer) numbers.
I finagled a job at a tiny two-pump gas station. I worked solo on Saturdays, pumping extra-high-octane Sunoco 260.
I only had some twenty customers a day, but many drove high-performance motors looking for their un-cut fix. I eagerly popped the hood to check fluids, especially if a Jag 4.2 or 426 Hemi was lurking there. It was a great way to spend Saturday: listening to The Doors blaring on the radio, examining the obscure objects of my desire. AND I got paid.
The boss owned a fleet of taxis (Coronets!), which he parked behind the station. Most had tired slant sixes. One ’67 still had a semblance of vitality, holstering a 318 V8. I always went to work an hour early and treated myself to a therapeutic “wake-up drive.”
In the fall of 1968, I was a sophomore in a boys’ prep school. It was destined to be my last year at that august institution (I flunked out). The school had a fresh-out-of-college French teacher who drove a ’65 VW bus. He was very friendly to his students.
During lunch, half the class piled into the VW “smoke-mobile”. We had our mid-day nicotine fix while (slowly) touring the neighborhood, smoke billowing out the windows. It shouldn’t have surprised us that our accommodating teacher was fired after only three months.
Because I could get his bus started when the choke stuck, or perhaps for other less salubrious reasons, the French teacher became particularly friendly. Next thing I knew, I was driving everywhere (slowly) in a VW bus.
To honor its name, the smoke-mobile eventually blew up in a cloud of…. smoke. The ex-teacher’s grandfather gave him a pampered 1962 Olds F-85 Cutlass coupe: black, bucket seats, and the four barrel 185 hp version of the immortal Buick-Rover-MG-Morgan-Land Rover aluminum 3.5 V8. Those ’61-’63 GM compacts were sharp looking and light; they shared their Y-Bodies with the Corvair. With the V8, the Olds was no slouch.
We went to Ocean City. At night, somewhere between Cambridge and Salisbury, I opened up the Cutlass. The speedometer needle’s progress slowed above 95. But it kept moving: 96, 97, 98… damn!
Steam erupted from the front of the hood. The thermal challenges of the aluminum V8 had stumped the GM engineers. Maybe that’s why they sold it cheap to Rover: the weather’s always cool in England, no?
After his dismissal, the ex-teacher (and accelerative enabler) tried out the monastery. Driving back late from an outing, the police pulled me over going a little too fast on the Beltway. I shook the intoxicated sleeping novice awake.
While Maryland’s finest got organized and out of his car, we changed seats (no joke in the little coupe). The fogged-up rear window helped. The dazed-looking theologian in the black Olds presented his religious-affiliation ID, and was instantly absolved. Praise the Lord! My, how times have changed.
Even though most of Baltimore was still in 1959 (think “Hairspray”), I embraced the psychedelic late sixties fully. Hallucinogens opened new windows of auto-perception. It was like being five again; cars became living, breathing entities. We communicated, and I gained new insight into their personalities as expressed through design. I almost solved the mystery of the ’61 Falcon grill.
Although my fellow mind-travelers were freaked out at the idea of dropping acid and driving, I never had problems driving in drastically altered states of consciousness. You just had to know how to talk to cars and ask for their help, when needed. As I soon to discovered, danger was never far away.
[Editor’s note: TTAC does not recommend driving while under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. Always wear your seat belt.]
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