Auto-biography 8: Childhood's End

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
auto biography 8 childhoods end

After five years living in the quiet, sheltered and nurturing environment of Iowa City, Iowa, my family moved to Baltimore, Maryland. I was twelve– that pinnacle year of childhood. I was blissfully ignorant of the long dark tunnel of adolescence just ahead. And in those very last days of innocence in the heartland, I was graced with a peak automotive experience.

It was during my final summer spent with the Mennonites. The preacher and I were working at their neighbor’s farm, helping with an old-fashioned barn-raising. For two hot days, I nailed down endless floor boards, while the men prepared the rafters for the final assembly. Towards the end of that second day, putting away nails in a shed, I had a genuine “barn find”: the chore scooter.

The short, squat creation is best described as a mini-me version of Henry Ford’s 1903 “999” racer. A tall one-cylinder air-cooled industrial engine sat in the front of its stubby bare frame. Two back-to-back three-speed stick shifts converted its thumping torque into nine speeds. Their output fed directly into a narrowed automotive rear axle, on which an old tractor seat was mounted, facing a junk-yard steering wheel.

The chore scooter’s pre-ATV mission: scoot the farmers around their large spread. To my eyes, this proto-auto, the archetype of all four-wheeled automotive vehicles, was perfection. It was the ideal blank slate, the veritable automotive white canvas upon which to express fully the range of my childhood auto-imagination. That afternoon, as I tooled around the farm on its bare bones, the chore scooter eagerly metamorphosed into every vehicle of my childhood dreams.

With a twitch of the wheel on a graveled curve, I was heading sideways for Monte Carlo in a Saab 96. In low-low gear, playing those split rear brakes, I crawled up the steepest banks in a Dellow trials special. Pounding across the rough field, I caught air in my CJ-3 Jeep. And cutting a circle in the packed dirt of the steer yard, I let her fly, like the “Mad Russian” Bill Vukovich in his Kurtis dirtrack roadster.

I revved up the beleaguered old Wisconsin, leaned back, popped the clutch and lifted a wheel (or two?) pulling a hole-shot in my G/Altered at the Summer Nationals. I cruised down the lane in my vintage Mercer Raceabout. Out on the road, I shifted both trannies into top gear and opened her up. Hunched down, I flew down the Mulsanne at Le Mans in my Jag D-Type at somewhere between 40 and 180mph.

That glorious summer day, every automotive thrill was mine for the taking. When I sheepishly returned to the farmyard low on gas, Mr. S grinned, told me to fill’er up and go have some more fun. This was unexpected, as joy riding is not part of the Mennonite ethos. But unlike my stern preacher host, this round middle-aged man had a ready smile and wink. He knew a little fun wasn’t going to take me and the chore scooter straight to hell.

So I made the most of my opportunity. I knew it might be a long time, if ever, before I’d have another chance to drive such a perfect set of wheels. When I reluctantly swung shut the shed door on the crackling-hot scooter, I somehow knew that I was closing other doors of my life.

The men raised the barn the very next day. I felt privileged to watch the well-orchestrated spectacle, knowing I was a witness to an increasingly rare event. Well over a hundred church members and neighbors showed up in their cars and horse drawn buggies. The women cooked dinner and set out long tables under the trees. Using block and tackle, the men lifted and assembled the huge rafters, posts and beams. I mostly watched– too young to work with the men, too old to play with the children.

At day’s end, when a fully-framed enormous barn stood in front of me, I felt as if I’d been witness to a farewell performance, a final lesson designed to instill a lasting insight into the value of self-reliance, and the power of community.

In recent years, I’ve been entertaining thoughts about a “project” car. I’ve had visions of a four-port-head Model T Speedster, a Triumph TR-3, a Bugatti Type 35 replica, a Caterham 7, a 1930’s dirt-tracker, and a CJ-3 Jeep, among others. They’ve been received, contemplated and, thus far, rejected.

In my quixotic search, I’ve been looking for that one elusive vehicle that encompasses all of their qualities, and more. So I’ve been struggling to go deeper and locate the well-spring, the proto-type of my visions. In the middle of writing this article, awash in the memories of that magical late-summer afternoon, I’ve finally realized the fount of my unresolved automotive yearnings: the chore scooter.

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  • Esldude Esldude on Mar 18, 2007

    Your list of possible project cars is almost exactly same as mine other than the CJ which I would replace with a 32 Deuce. I think I am looking for the same thing too. A simple, basic, elemental fun car. I know you can never get one car to be the best at everything. But maybe a simplified design can get you to all the fun parts well enough. Doesn't need to be fast, or anything, just needs to feel alive and interesting to spend time driving. May the gods of automotive bliss smile on you during your quest.

  • Jjd241 Jjd241 on Nov 04, 2009

    Just catching up on some old posts after finding some of Paul's other columns. Here is a CJ-3 project idea!

  • Dukeisduke I still think the name Bzzzzzzzzzzt! would have been better.
  • Dukeisduke I subscribed to both Road & Track and Car and Driver for over 25 years, but it's been close to 20 years since I dropped both. I tried their digital versions with their reader software (can't remember the name now), but it wasn't the same. I let it lapse after a year.From what I've seen of R&T's print version, it's turned into more of a lifestyle thing like The Robb Report. I haven't seen an issue of C/D in a while.I enjoyed both magazines a lot when I was subscribing. R&T for the road tests (especially the April Fools road tests), used car reviews, historical articles, and columns like Peter Egan's Side Glances and Dennis Simanitis's Technical Correspondence. And C/D for the road tests and pithy commentary, and columns like Gordon Baxter's, and Jean Shepherd's (that goes way back to the early '70s).
  • Steve Biro It takes very clever or amusing content for me to sit through a video vehicle review. And most do not include that.Tim, you wrote :"Niche titles aren't dying because of a lack of interest from enthusiasts, but because of broader changes in the economics of media, at least in this author's opinion."You're right about the broader changes in economics. But the truth is that there IS a lack of interest from enthusiasts. Part of it is demographics. Young people coming up are generally not car and truck fans. That doesn't mean there are no young enthusiasts but the numbers are much smaller. And even those who consider themselves enthusiasts seem to have mixed feelings. Just take a look at Jalopnik.And then we come to the real problem: The vast majority of new vehicles coming out today are not interesting to enthusiasts, are not fun to drive and/or are just not affordable.You can argue that EVs are technically interesting and should create enthusiasm. But the truth is they are not fun to drive, don't work well enough yet for most people and are very expensive.EVs on the race track? Have you ever been to a Formula E race? Please.And even if we set EVs aside, the electronic nannies that are being forced on us pretty much preclude a satisfying driving experience in any brand-new vehicle, regardless of propulsion system. Sure, many consumers who view cars as transportation appliances may welcome this technology. But they are not enthusiasts. I don't know about you, but I and most car fans I know don't want smart phones on wheels.There is simply not that much of interest to write about. Car and Driver and Road & Track are dipping deeper into nostalgia and their archives as a result. R&T is big on sponsoring road trips for enthusiasts - which is a great idea. But only people with money to burn need apply.And then there is the problem of quality in automotive writing. As more experienced people are let go and more money is cut from publications, the quality and length of pieces keeps going down, leading to the inevitable self-fulfilling prophecy.Even the output on this site is sharply reduced from its peak. And the number of responses to posts seems a small fraction of what it used to be. This is my first comment since the site was recently relaunched. I don't expect to be making many in the future.Frankly Tim - and it gives me no pleasure to write this - but your post makes me feel as though the people running this site have run out of ideas and TTAC's days may be numbered.Cutbacks in automotive journalism are upsetting. But, until there is something exciting and fun to write about, they are going to continue. Perhaps automotive enthusiasm really was a 20th century phenomenon..
  • THX1136 I think that the good ole interwebs is at least partially to blame. When folks can get content for free, what is the motivation to pay to read? I'm guilty of this big time. Gotta pay to read!? Forget it! I'll go somewhere else or do without. And since a majority of folks have that portable PC disguised as a phone in their pocket, no need for print. The amount of info easily available is the other factor the web brings to bear. It's perhaps harder now to stand out. Standing out is necessary to continued success.In an industry I've been interested (and participated) in, the one magazine (Mix) I subscribed to has become a shadow of it's former self (200 pgs now down to 75). I like print for the reasons mentioned by another earlier. I can 'access' it in a non-linear fashion and it's easily portable for me. (Don't own a smarty pants phone and don't plan to at the moment.)I would agree with others: useful comparison reviews, unique content not easily available other places, occasional ringers (Baruth, Sajeev, et al) - it would be attractive to me anyway. I enjoy Corey, Matt and Murilee and hope they continue to contribute here.
  • Daniel J I wish auto journos would do more comparisons. They do some but many are just from notes from a previous review compared to a new review. I see where journos go out to a location and test drive and review a vehicle on location but that does absolutely nothing for me without any comparison to similar cars. I also wish more journos spent more time on seat comfort. I guess that doesn't matter much when many journos seem to be smaller folks where comfort isn't as important. Ergonomics are usually just glossed over unless there is something very specific about the ergonomics that tick the journo off. I honestly get more from most youtube reviews than I ever do about reviews written on a page.