By on February 10, 2013

Remember TTAC’s Future Writers Week? You chose the writers. The writers wrote. The stories are in (well, most of them …). Here is the first one. Do you like it? Tell us. The stories will be published in the sequence in which they arrived in TTAC’s mailbox.

Jeff called while I was watching the Ed Sullivan Show. He was my best friend, but it was odd for him call on a Sunday night. (As eighth-graders in 1968, it was unusual for any of us to call our friends except to see if they were available to “do something” at that moment, and we never did anything on Sunday nights.) Jeff did something all by himself. Jeff liked to take his parents’ 1967 Saab 96 around the block when they were gone and, that evening, he overshot the turn onto his street, jumping the ditch and landing in his next-door neighbor’s front yard. After repeatedly killing the engine while attempting to get traction, he managed to exit the yard. As this was a two-cycle three cylinder Saab that sounded like a chain saw when revved, Jeff assumed the neighbors, or the police, would soon be paying a visit.

The next morning, I walked a few blocks from my usual bus stop to survey the damage. It had rained the day before, so the Saab’s comma-shaped tracks were long and deep. When Jeff and his father drove by later that day, his father pointed to the damage, saying: “Looks like a small car went in there.” Jeff agreed : “Sure does…must’ve been a VW.”

We lived in a new subdivision and took to driving in the vacant lots that had recently been farm fields. No one owned trucks, or what we now know as SUVs: gas stations had Jeeps, Broncos and Scouts for snow plowing, and most of the pickups we saw were owned by the farmers occupying the undeveloped half of our town. Getting stuck was par for the course. A floor mat under the drive wheel usually provided sufficient traction in mud. Drainage ditches, nearly invisible in fields overgrown with weeds, were the biggest hazard – once your front wheels dropped in, the only way out required jacking up the front end and piling field stones under the wheels. Apart from a Corvair that landed hard after cresting a rise, snapping its oil filter mounting, significant damage was rare.

Once we were street legal, fresh snow provided cheap thrills. On a road slippery with fresh snow, the Saab 96 proved that a reverse spin could be accomplished in a front wheel drive car simply by giving the hand brake a sharp pull. A few years later, Jeff’s family moved on to the then-new Saab 99. Compared to the rear-drive domestic cars the rest of us drove, the 99 was fairly adept in snow. After snow storms we cruised back roads, searching for drifts which, if taken fast enough, allowed us to become airborne for a moment. Due to our inability to get up enough speed, and because it was at least four feet deep, an attempt on a drift in a school driveway failed, leaving the Saab perched atop it. Luckily, (it was -10 with a -40 wind chill, and we had only a collapsible army surplus shovel), a front end loader happened by and pulled us off, but not before the loader’s driver made us explain “what the hell were we doing.”

Given the prevalence of SUVs and trucks in today’s family fleets, these types of adventures must be different for today’s teenage boys. As SUVs are far more capable than the cars we drove, I wouldn’t expect vacant suburban lots to provide much of a challenge. The same is probably true for thrill-seeking on snowy roads. Of course, the level of risk-taking has probably increased with the corresponding increase in vehicle capability. Nevertheless, I want to believe that off-roading and drift busting isn’t the same in an SUV. Just as driving a slow car fast is more fun than driving a fast car slow, driving a car like a truck is more fun than driving a truck like a car.

Keith is a 50-something attorney, born in Detroit, now living in Appleton, Wisconsin. His interest in cars started when he was three or four, awoken by genes provided by a father who worked for Ford. Kevin does “not want to be defined by what I drive but the most fun cars I’ve owned include an ’83 GTI, ’96 Contour SE, ’98 S70 GLT, ’06 325i, and ’10 535xi.”

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51 Comments on “Life Before The SUV. A Future Writer Story....”

  • avatar

    So Keith writes a good story and then, in italics at the bottom, he (or someone else) ruins the story by telling us about some 50 year old attorney named Kevin…..Or is Kevin a nickname for Keith? Or visa versa? Or are the future writers better than the current proof readers?! :) OK, maybe I’m missing something….

    • 0 avatar

      We don’t have much money, and have crowd sourced proof readers. Thank you for doing your job : )

      • 0 avatar

        Crowd-sourced proof readers are understandable and I don’t mind occasional typos but periodically I’m amazed by the amount of mistakes made in a single piece (this piece notwithstanding). If only some writers would read their own writing the second time around they’d be able to fix most of the errors themselves. Especially considering that many pieces here are quite short and don’t require much time to proofread.

        I know I sound a bit like a Grammar Nazi but they are working for a publication and hence I would expect a bit more from them than from average Joe.

      • 0 avatar

        I read and write for a living. When I am wotking on a peer-reviewed article I always hand it to a colleague if only because my brain auto-corrects my writing. I imagine it is similar for most journalists.

    • 0 avatar
      Thomas Kreutzer

      My brain does that auto correction thing as well. It’s amazing how I can pick apart someone else’s writing but can’t see the flaws in my own until I come back to it more than a week later.

      Sometimes I’m amazed I can string together words to make a coherent sentence.

      • 0 avatar

        When I played music I noticed an analog of this and a miraculous solution. I’d practice guitar with the amp in another room and the door shut. It was like an ego-bypass, suddenly it was someone else playing and I could then be objective; critical or appreciative as warranted.

        Wish I could find a similar distancing strategy for writing.

  • avatar

    Great stuff Keith.. As kid growing up in southern Ontario,we did the same stuff. My friends mother had a 65 Valient, we would go out for a cruise on a snowy day,and armed with shovel,we see how far we could go without getting stuck. We ended up in the ditch,more than once.

    In the last few weeks we have had many multi car pile ups in our area. I can see why.

    The 4 wheel/all wheel drive folks,feel that thier immune to the laws of physics. That don’t understand that such vehicle,don’t stop or turn much better than a 2wd. Its seems to me, that the bigger,and heavier thier vehicle ,is an excuse to go that much faster.

    As a kid I learned it didn’t work that way. If you ditch a 65 Valient,pushing and digging it out wasn’t that hard. Now put a 64 Wildcat in the ditch. [we did} We give up trying to dig,and conned an old farmer, with a” Massey Harris” to pull it out.

    In winter driving, might is not always right.

    • 0 avatar

      “The 4 wheel/all wheel drive folks,feel that thier immune to the laws of physics.”

      It’s called “subaris” (a hybrid of Subaru and hubris).

      I should confess that I own a Subaru, so people don’t think I have anything against Subaru drivers. However, I learned the hard way a couple years ago that ice does not discriminate between RWD, FWD, AWD and 4-Wheel drive when it comes to stopping. After hitting black ice and rolling my 4×4 Pathfinder, resulting in a broken neck for my 7-month pregnant wife, I am very cautious in foul weather.

  • avatar

    2 years back , we got a GOOD snow here in NE Ohio…….was waiting for my oldest daughter’s indoor soccer practice to be over, so I am in my truck warming it up. At the far end of the parking lot 4 boys in a brand new 4wd Jeep Wrangler are hooning it like mad in the snow……15 minutes of this goes by until they get it stuck, high centered on a bank of snow that the plow driver made. These 4 boys try like mad to make the Jeep escape its trap, to no avail. So they CALL A TOW TRUCK!. I mosey over, explain that there are snow shovels at the soccer facility and that they better man up and dig that thing out. In unison, the 4 privileged sons of extremely high earners sang out “we can do that?”
    They did , I supervised. end of story. Pretty sad, to tell the truth.

    • 0 avatar

      Sadder still If these kids had got their tow truck and never learned that they could solve their problems with a bit of hard work. Good for you :-)

      • 0 avatar

        @BEERBOY12……..thanks for the kind words. career firefighter here raised in the Puritan fashion, so a sense that manual labor is good for the soul is part of my inner self……and these boys were the antithesis of that credo……a sad lot of spoiled rich kids…..the kind that don’t cut the grass ‘cuz dad pays someone to do it . i am sure that they didn’t learn a thing.

    • 0 avatar

      But the ending is good. You gave them a good lesson, and hopefully they learned from it. They may even remember you gratefully years from now, the way I remember various of my elementary and secondary school teachers.

  • avatar

    While I am a staunch believer in AWD/4WD (skier). It is equally important to have ground clearance and proper tires.

  • avatar

    A few related musings.

    When I first moved the the snow belt in Colorado in 1977, Saabs and Subarus were the hip vehicle to have because they had front wheel drive.
    There were a few 4WD vehicles around too, but they were so crude and trucky at the time that they were not so desired. Now that 4WD is nearly ubiquitous, front wheel drive is looked down upon.

    When American motors brought out the Eagle high clearance 4WD wagon, it was a hit here, a case of being ahead of its time.

    In high school after snow storms, my friends & I would head for empty parking lots in Denver and “do donuts” spinning our cars for fun. The unintended consequence was that we learned a lot about vehicle handling dynamics and dealing with loss of, and regaining control in skids.

    My parents had a ’62 Chevy II wagon with limited slip differential. When that car was chained up, it was quite capable in deep snow.

    I said so before on this site, and will say it again. Winter tires make the most profound difference on snow & ice, regardless of the drive configuration.

    Driver skill, experience, and judgement is a huge factor as well.

  • avatar

    Kids are still kids.

    • 0 avatar

      Yep, kids can have fun with SUVs too. I drove a part-time 4×4 ’80 Jeep Wagoneer for my first couple of years. I never got the Wagoneer stuck, but I did get it airborne on multiple occasions. The ’86 Chevette that I drove in my senior year of high school did once get high-centered while off-roading.

  • avatar

    This story reminds me of one night back in the 70s while drinking around an area we called the pits because of the nearby gravel pits , when a couple of friends in an old caddy convertible and Plymouth Valiant were racing around a field doing donuts and generally just having fun . There happened to be a large steel pipe sunk deep into the ground at the corner of the field and my friend with the Valiant hit it hard bending the frame badly . Stripping/defacing the serial numbers he decided to abandon it there when two of the older local guys with well deserved reps for being crazy decided to shoot a hole in the gas tank and set it on fire . Before the fire got too big we hightailed it out of there before the police investigated and the next day visited the area . The car with melted tires and rusted seat springs looked like it had been there for years . Nowadays with a nearby development across the river and all land off limits doing things like that wouldn’t be possible , back then it didn’t even make the local paper .

  • avatar

    “driving a car like a truck is more fun than driving a truck like a car”
    the first vehicles i drove were a isuzu trooper (branded Caribe 442) and then a ’96 hilux.
    i remember driving that wobbly trooper up to 180 kph (111 and such mph). i also remember burning rubber and making donuts on the pickup (damned Dueler h/t tires).
    so it seems i was driving trucks like cars. i have not got fun like that in the AT cars i’ve been driving lately.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    My late uncle lived all his life in the mountains of Colorado, first in Climax (highest post office in the U.S.) and then in Kremmling (elev. 7,000+ ft.) Of course they got a lot of snow. He owned various models of Chevrolets (RWD) and equipped them with snow tires and snow chains when necessary. Don’t know of any instance where he got stranded. Properly equipped, with proper skills and some common sense (ask the folks who went on the Long Island Expressway in the face of a predicted massive snowstorm about that!) go a long way.

    For ten years, my family owned a mountain house in Canaan Valley, W.Va., the snowiest part of the state, which gets something like 100+ inches of snow every years. During the snowy season, we frequently would see various SUVs and CUVs off the road in unnatural positions and attitudes. I don’t ever recall seeing an ordinary car, or even a station wagon, in such a predicament.

    Saabs being something of a rarity in the 1960s in the U.S., the best “snow vehicle” was the VW Beetle, equipped with snow tires. With the weight over the drive wheels, the Beetle was quite capable unless the snow got too deep.

  • avatar

    I drive my rwd pickup still here in New England. I have too much fun with that thing in the winter. I await every winter just for that reason. It does have snow tires on the back which makes real driving better.

  • avatar

    This article raises an important point: are modern car designs today putting a crimp in teenage hoonage? I, for one, believe that teenage hoonage, in fields and parking lots, and streets full of snow but empty of parked car and traffic, is a vital part of growing up, teaching great lessons in driving skills and lying convincingly to parents and law enforcement.

    It’s also instructive, since the hoons grow up and attempt to deny their own kids the behavior they engaged in, only to have these stories come up and force parents to confront their own hypocrisy.

    Please tell me teenage hoonage is not going on the wane! There must be some genXers among the B&B who can assure the older folk that even in AWD SUVs, teenage hoonage endures!

    • 0 avatar

      P-71 detective model + midnight racing against impala SSes = maximum hoonage. The impala could destroy me in a straight line but once we hit the twisties I was back on his ass and passing him. Some of my best times were in that car. 180 hp my ass. :3

  • avatar
    slow kills

    A wonderful short story about the joy of finding one’s limits. Modern cars have dangerously high limits, but the result is drivers with amazingly low capability.

    This was even shorter than 800 words and it felt short, proving 800 words as an ideal length.

  • avatar

    Maybe it’s my advanced age, but fwd cars just don’t seem like fun at all for hooning. I always felt the reason a lot of outstanding racers came from the Great Lakes area was that they grew up driving hot rwd cars on a lot of slippery roads.

  • avatar

    This brings back some memories. My father had a 96 when I was a high school senior, and with its skinny 165-16 snows, it could easily drive through 6″ of unplowed snow. I drove it through a blizzard in January of 1978 to a concert and it never put a wheel wrong.

    • 0 avatar

      Curious… did your father put snows on all 4 wheels or just the front?
      I only recently learned that there is a sizable contingent who believe in 4 snows on FWD. After watching some tray-sliding videos, I think there must be an argument for max lateral grip in the rear of an FWD car.

      • 0 avatar

        There is no argument; only some residual ignorance. The rear tires should never have significantly less grip or hydroplane resistance than the fronts. The most dangerous possible tire setups would be studded tires on the front with any sort of studless tires on the back on warm, wet ice – an illegal tire setup in some Canadian regions – or any new tires on the front with any near-bald tires on the back in heavy rain. Either could result in a spin so sudden that no driver in the world would catch it. A competent driver could probably get away with studless winter tires in front with good all-seasons in the back on a FWD. But only probably. I wouldn’t even consider it, myself.

      • 0 avatar

        Agree with rpn453. You should never cheap out and only put snows on the front in a FWD or only on the rear in a RWD. While snows on the drive wheels may help you get going, snow tires on all four wheels will ensure better braking and handling too.

        It’s the same argument for why 4WD/AWD isn’t enough. While 4WD/AWD may get you going, it doesn’t ensure improved braking or handling in all situations.

  • avatar

    Tow truck drivers in my neck of the woods say the first into a highway ditch during a winter storm is the SUV. I’ve never had all wheel and I’m not against it. My traction Queen was an 80’s Sentra shitbox with skinny all-seasons that somehow really dug in. I heard K-cars were pretty awesome too – for what they were. I’m talking ordinary cars here for ordinary folks not racers.

    I like that Japan idea – electric motor in the rear that cuts in at low speeds for extra traction.

    • 0 avatar
      Joe McKinney

      I grew up in Florida and never drove in snow until I moved to Kentucky to attend seminary. This was 20 years ago and my car at the time was a 1985 Dodge Aries. The K-Car was a good car for someone who was a rookie snow driver. The fwd always felt secure and I never got into any trouble.

  • avatar
    Robert Gordon

    Unfortunately unlike a SAAB 96, handbrake turns are not really possible in a SAAB 99 (unless you’re reversing). The SAAB 99 was why the ‘Scandinavian Flick’ was devised.

  • avatar

    ” As SUVs are far more capable than the cars we drove, I wouldn’t expect vacant suburban lots to provide much of a challenge.”

    Actually you would be surprised. Most of these vehicles are 2wd with an open rear diff and all-season tires. These things get stuck in wet grass and 1″ of mud just from parking outside pop warner football games.

  • avatar

    Great post. Got me reminiscing.

    I grew up in the SUV age: born in ’84, got my license in 2000. However, my parents never had an SUV and I couldn’t afford a 4×4 when I got my first car. I ended up with a RWD ’85 Ford Ranger with the terrible Cologne V6 and a manual tranny.

    I had a loads of fun in the mountains with that truck, and it was a riot in the snow. I fancied myself quite the rally driver.

    Eventually I got tired of being left behind on the trail by my 4-wheel drive friends in their Jeeps and Toyota trucks, so I saved up and bought a ’94 Explorer 4×4. Took it places most Explorer owners would never imagine going. SUVs can be a lot of fun if you use them for what they’re intended for.

  • avatar

    I guess I was lucky I grew up when Saabs were just weird expensive treats but I spent hours drifting my big old GM boats in fresh snow.

    My ‘rents had expensive treats in the form of Quattro Audis, had lots of fun in those too. I recall encountering a fresh unplowed Raynham dog track parking lot in a storm once (i.e. huuuuuge parking lot with barely a light post). I couldn’t resist 60+mph AWD drifitng…

    I had a friend who grew up with a Cherokee in the family and he still hooned it about, took it offroad etc.

    Non-defeat stability control may be the biggest enemy of informal driving self-education.

    • 0 avatar

      “Non-defeat stability control may be the biggest enemy of informal driving self-education.”

      I have faith that they’ll be smart enough to yank fuses!

      • 0 avatar

        Yeah and lose brake proportioning and ABS which is sort of a nice safety net to hooning.

      • 0 avatar

        ABS? I’m not quite that young, so I suppose I can’t relate to what it would have been like to not learn that you can’t steer when you lock up your brakes, that you get the suspension settled and the car headed straight before braking hard, and that you should be off the brakes for any quick maneuvers unless you actually want to induce instability.

        Besides, it’ll stop better in the snow without ABS!

  • avatar

    Nice article, reminds me of my hooning days with a ’60 Saab 93. I liked to try it on Jeep trails in the Adirondacks. One time I couldn’t get a steep hill due to lack of traction, so I tried it in reverse, and no problem!

  • avatar

    Terrific first post , _WELCOME_ to the fold .

    Pops brought home a ’54 ” Barn Door ” VW Combi (base model VW Bus) to our rural New England home and it had a 36 HP engine and tall , skinny tires , always the best in snow . never once got stuck or slid .

    Older snow drivers will remember that skinny tires do the best in snow .

    In 1964 he brought home a shiny new red Saab 2 cycle wagon , another good snow car .

    I no longer live in The Snow Belt andI can’t say I miss it .

    Agreed ,sliding about when you’re learning to drive , helps make better drivers .


  • avatar

    Every time there is a review of an AWD car, somebody always chimes in with ” Pfshaw! Who needs AWD? My dad lived in Manitoba for 40 years with nothing but a 2WD Ford pickup truck and a coupla sand bags.” He probably forgot all the times that his dad had been stuck. All the times when he had to carry door mats and rugs. All the times when he avoided going out because of the snow conditions.

  • avatar

    Grass driving, doughnuts in the snow, and ramming shopping cart trains in empty parking lots into stuff is the story of my early driving years.

    I still have fun in the snow, had a massive dougnut session in the wife’s Pilot on saturday in an unplowed parking lot.

    I will say that while I find fwd fine in most snow conditions ( I run snows tires on all 4), I prefer the AWD of the Pilot in one situation: starting from a dead stop on snowy hill. That is the only situation where I really see the benefit of AWD, where you can actually get started most of the time, whereas fwd cant, no matter how much you feather.

  • avatar

    I have had 4×4 pickups since 1984, but the most capable 2wd in the snow was the VW bus with snow tires in back. The bug had too little ground clearance.

    I currently live on a hill in snow country. You are right, FWD doesnt work well uphill, regardless of tires. Cable chains do help.

    • 0 avatar
      Andy D

      Yah the old buses had a reduction gear on the ends of the axles and this gave them great clearance, plus you could carry enough people to just pick it up and carry it.

      • 0 avatar

        Reduction gears were a carry over from the war time Kubelwagons….

        The Typ II dropped them for the 1968 Model year and never looked back , they didn’t help snow driving at all , they helped move heavy loads on the earlyier smaller engines when 55 MPH was fine .

        Most folks are unaware that the VW Typ II was a /4 ton truck fom 1952 through 1969 when it was rated 1 ton .

        I still have my old ’68 Typ 211 Panel Truck , slightly upgraded with a twin port 1600 and later model tranny .


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