By on March 24, 2007

imperialclubcom.jpgIn 1965, my family moved to Baltimore. From my seventh-grade perspective, it sucked. Iowa City was friendly, open-minded, cosmopolitan and relaxed. Towson was cold, prejudiced, provincial and uptight. I soon learned to loathe everything about Maryland– except crab cakes, soul music and the eastern shore. I became a rebel with a cause: driving.

My official driving license was still years away. I mourned the loss of my hot-rodding neighbors, friendly dealerships and farm vehicles. I withdrew into an inner auto-life. I spent long afternoons at the drug store reading car magazines cover to cover, ignoring the pharmacist’s reproachful gaze. I left everything from Hot Rod to Sports Car Graphic shop-worn.

J.C. Whitney’s mail-order auto parts catalogue also played an important part in the cultivation of my expanded fantasy life. I would select a certain year and model car, anything from a VW to a Corvair. Then I’d carefully embellish, modify and rebuild it with every possible part the Chicago customizer could provide. Pimp My Mind.

Memorable moments of auto-reality punctuated the ennui. My father bought a brand new 1965 Opel Kadett A. The salesman had to extricate the tiny thing from the clutches of a Buick Wildcat in the back corner of the showroom. GM’s “captive import” was bright green, weighed 1475 lbs. and sported a 903cc 40 hp mill. Having only driven automatics, my father struggled with the German sedsan’s hair-trigger clutch.

When he released it too quickly (i.e. all the time), the Opel responded with a squeal and a hop. He’d quickly depress the clutch– and then release it again (too quickly). And again. He was like a little green frog hopping down the street. My poor father; we’ll never let him forget the amusement provided by his on-off relationship with that clutch.

Meanwhile, my older brother used the Opel to bait VW’s into stop-light drag races. The Opel’s 300 pound weight advantage and willingness to over-rev left them in the dust. (I’m sure his hooning had something to do with the car’s valve job after two years’ service.) A boringly sturdy slant-six Dart soon replaced the Kadett, joining our 1965 Coronet 440 wagon.

As we’d become a two Dodge household, I jumped on the Mopar bandwagon. The brand was hot in drag and stock-car racing. David Pearson, one of the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time, was my hero. His ’65 Coronet dominated the dirt tracks.

I used to imagine that our Coronet was a 440– the engine not the trim level– especially when I got to back it out of the garage in exchange for washing it. It was a fair trade; the wagon was permanently spotless. But stopping at the end of the driveway became increasingly difficult.

My rebelliousness and early-adolescent funk led me into bad habits. In seventh grade, I started smoking. I began commissioning willing winos to buy me booze. (Their fee: two big swigs.) Hooking school, copying homework, cheating, falsifying report cards and forging signatures became my stock and trade. I even impersonated my father on the phone with the school principal.

Ironically, when I was AWOL from school, I was often “studying” at the Baltimore public library. I immersed myself in the institution’s substantial automotive section. Exhausting that, I found hundreds of old Popular Mechanics magazines with car reviews going back to the forties (“Floyd Clymer wrings out the all new 1949 Ford”). It sure beat sitting through grammar class with “Chucky-Frank” (Sister Charles Francis).

It wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy my automotive cravings. It had been three years since I’d last driven tractors and the chore scooter on Iowa farmland and gravel roads. My withdrawal symptoms had never abated. My desire to drive had only grown stronger. One crisp fall day, it happened. I was fifteen. My parents were gone for the day; I succumbed to the need for speed.

I took the spare keys to the Coronet, got in, backed her up, and didn’t stop at the end of the driveway. I drove around the neighborhood, and headed out Charles Street. When I hit the 695 Beltway, I went for it.  The only problem was a nervous twitch in my right leg approaching 60mph. But it smoothed right out at around 70.

I had rehearsed this moment in my mind a thousand times. Finally, I was liberated. It was the perfect antithesis to the perpetually-bored inattention of adolescence. I was 100% alive and awake. I was in tune with every subtle nuance of feedback, motion and sound emanating from the hijacked Dodge.

Eventually– and reluctantly– I brought the Coronet back home, hoping the neighbors weren’t out raking leaves. My head was buzzing and my body glowed. I had discovered my drug of choice, and I was thoroughly addicted. Like most addicts, I couldn’t lay off the good stuff– regardless of the consequences.

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9 Comments on “Auto-biography 9: Fulfillingness’ First Finale...”

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Ah, the pleasure of reading these pieces on a weekend morning. Nine weeks now and still coming strong. Don’t stop, Paul!

  • avatar

    Damn! You brought back memories of slipping out with dad’s ’65 Impala SS coupe (silver-blue). Likewise, there was no going back.

  • avatar


    In my case, it was a little further south (US-301 in Bowie) and a little less cool (Dad’s 10 year old ’82 Camaro Berlinetta V8 with 200k miles on it), but the net result was the same.

    I also learned VERY quickly what that weird sign with the arrow turning right around the oval shaped thing meant.

    Excellent chapter… loving the series-

  • avatar


    Don’t blame you for hating Maryland. I lived over two decades in DCand never liked the mid-atlantic region. In fact, living happily in the Boston area, I’m an aesthetics refugee (didn’t particularly like the Eastern Shore, either–it’s a poor person’s Cape Cod.

    I never took the car out of the driveway. My parents had instilled the fear of take-the-house lawsuits. My baby sister, who I taught to drive at I can’t remember what age started taking the car out when she was 14, to visit friends a couple of towns away. My parents eventually caught her.

    Those dodges were great cars, but in those days I was a confirmed Chevy/GM man, and hated Chrysler with the passion of a Red Saux (correct pronunciation) fan hating the Yanks. Eventually, cognitive dissonance killed my GM fanhood, and at new car time, 1970, I told my parents to get a valiant or a dart. The Valiant lasted them more than twice as long as they’d ever been able to keep a car before, adn my parents subscribed to the keep them as long as possible school of car ownership. My sister was 7 when they bought it, ths was the car she took on joyrides at 14, and it was still going when she got her bachelor’s degree. And she told me years after we bought it that she could tell it was going to last the day we bought it.

  • avatar

    the part about the Opel Kadett — both your father hopping along in it, and your brother burning out the valves racing beetles — cracks me up. I didn’t realize those thigns were lighter than beetles, although I do seem to recall somewhere way back in the spiderweb covered basement recesses of my brain that they could accelerate.

  • avatar

    My father, unlike yours, apparently, was fully competent with cars. This was all the more amazing because he grew up in Brooklyn and thus didn’t drive until he was in his mid-20s, in the US Army in the USSR during WWII. He was taught in a Jeep by a guy who d been a race driver in the states. The guy used to get the Jeep up on two wheels when cornering. One day he said, “the trouble with these Jeeps is you can get them up on two wheels, but you can’t always get them back down.”

  • avatar

    Oh my God Paul, I was there man !! My father was a total tyrant and my Mom was sooo sweet . In 1975 she would let me take her new Mercury Monarch to the Columbia Mall before I had my license!!!!! Is that crazy !! I was 15 but she said I could drive better than her so why not!!
    Just for the record, I was suspended from high school for leaving class early to move my Z28 out of the sun and into the shade!!

  • avatar

    As a Bel Air boy I can understand your hate of the self obsessed Towsonites but, don’t understand your hate of Maryland in general.

  • avatar


    Really enjoyed #9. I’m going to have to go back and catch up on those I missed in your series. Keep up the great work!

    I was 14 when my Grandfather began having me drive him around the suburbs of Detroit, looking for “scrap wood” with which he could build birdhouses. That Crown Vic floated down the road silently, absorbing any and all potholes.

    It was later that year that I mustered up the gumption to take Mom & Dad’s Chevy Beauville van over to a friends house for a party. I just told them about that excursion a few months ago…sixteen years later…

    I can’t imagine how much trouble I would have gotten into had I gotten caught…

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