When I was first married, back in 1971, we had an antique car—a 46 Plymouth coupe—fat fenders, steel construction, a monster beautiful in its heavy metal sleekness. At the time, I was in school at Appalachian State in Boone, NC. We lived just off campus, where it was closer to walk to class than to climb up to the parking lot, drive to another parking lot, and then walk to class.
The Plymouth had a manual transmission, three on the column. Automatic transmissions were not standard, maybe not even available in ’47. I learned to shift gears driving that car, but without a wise teacher—another story for another day. When I taught my daughter to drive stick, she went up and down the driveway, since the hard part of changing gears is starting and stopping. I learned on the Blue Ridge Parkway, pulling into and out of overlooks
Learning to use the brake pedal, the gas pedal and the clutch pedal at the same time with only two feet, such as at the stoplight on the crest of the hill in front of the apartment building, was a real challenge for me, as it is for all new drivers of straight-drive cars. I stalled the car a lot at first, and was always mortified. I was not a confident driver in the best of circumstances, and chose not to drive if I had any other option.
The car had quirks, one of which was that the head gasket, the piece that seals the top of the motor from the bottom, leaked air, which made it lose power driving uphill, and I would have to downshift into second to climb the hill. I lived in the mountains, so I got pretty good at downshifting.
Another quirk was that the windshield wipers operated on some kind of vacuum, which meant I had to let off the gas for a moment every so often, so that the windshield wipers would work. I remember riding down the mountain in the fall, when the rain sliding down the windows made the leaves look like they were melting.
Being students with only workstudy jobs, learning to work around the car’s quirks was cheaper than getting the car fixed. Getting the head machined and replacing the gasket was about the same price as a quarter’s tuition.
That car’s adventure happened while we were moving back to our apartment during our senior year. The car was loaded to the headliner. I can’t imagine what all we were bringing back to a two-room furnished apartment—maybe 500 square feet of space—but the car was packed, followed by more stuff in my uncle’s car. It was a good thing he came along, because as we got through Hickory, NC, the driveshaft came loose from the rear end of the car and fell out.
The car stopped, of course, as there was no physical connection between the transmission and the rear axle, just rolling enough to get off the two-lane highway.
The funny part was that we were in front of a NAPA parts dealer. My uncle went in to the store, bought the four bolts we needed, crawled under the car, and reattached the drive shaft. This car was so high off the ground that an adult human could easily get under it.
Old cars were much simpler then, mechanical instead of computerized. We drove into town, got a mechanic to check the driveshaft for damage, and then drove on into Boone. We had no explanation as to how the bolts could have come loose, but we were lucky that they chose a convenient spot.
I learned later that the emergency brake literally clamped against the driveshaft to keep the car from moving—maybe that had something to do with it.
What I learned was that things could be fixed. I didn’t have to do the fixing, but we didn’t have to call AAA either—good thing. This was twenty years before cellphones, and we didn’t have that kind of insurance anyway. But this incident lead to another one later on that taught me about the zen of automotive maintenance.
I also learned that I could drive competently, if not confidently, even with vehicle issues, which come with lack of maintenance, as you’ll see in the next post.