One thing I’ve discovered since I started to write and do research for The Mystery of Grace is that everybody loves to talk about their cars. Even if they didn’t work on hot rods and customs when they were kids, they’re still keen to talk about old cars they’ve owned, the vehicles their family owned when they were growing up, and especially their own first car.
I’ve never really thought of myself as a car person for all that I’m appreciative whenever some classic vehicle goes by me on the street. I can’t tell the difference between a Ford and a Chevy grill, or what year a Fairlane had those particular fins. I’ve done a little body work (mostly cleaning up rust, filling holes, repainting) and minor mechanical fixes, but not as much as some of my friends, so I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the research for this book.
I don’t remember the first family car. I was four months old when we got off the boat from the Netherlands and drove across Canada along the Trans-Canada Highway, and then up into the Yukon. But in the fifties we had one of those wonderful Chevy sedans, gun-metal grey, with the curves you just don’t get anymore. When I was ten or so, we lived in the Middle East and we had a Landrover. My dad was really into antiquities, so we drove all over the place looking for and finding various ruins. Later, when we were going home, we took the Landrover across the Europe to Amsterdam, where it was shipped back to Canada.
I can’t imagine doing that today–shipping one’s vehicle across the ocean, I mean. Though these days no one crosses by boat, either, unless they’re rich, or on a cruise of some sort. I’m assuming the company my father worked for covered the expenses.
We had that Landrover for many years until a wheel came off while my father was driving it. Somehow he managed to maintain enough control so that it just slid into the ditch, rather than being totaled.
* * *
I came of driving age not long after the Summer of Love in 1967 and the cool car then was a VW Bug. But I couldn’t afford one.
My first car was a 1956 Austin Minor 2-door sedan for which I paid something like $35.00. I remember getting a ticket driving it home from the guy I bought it from and the ticket was more than I paid for the car. I tried to convince the policeman to just take the car instead, but he wouldn’t have anything of it.
It was a great car with a few quirks. I can’t remember the colour, but I’m thinking it was a light, maybe bluish grey. It sat high off the road like the cab of a pickup and didn’t have a starter. Or at least the starter never worked while I owned it. Whenever I went somewhere, I made sure I had someone along to get the car started up again for the trip home. This wasn’t a hardship for my friends, since most of them didn’t have cars and they were happy for the ride.
I lived in a rural area and when I was at home, I’d park the Austin up on top of a hill with a low grade not far from the house. When I wanted to go somewhere, I’d start it rolling, jump in and pop the clutch to get it going. If it didn’t start, I’d have to push it back up the hill (hence choosing one with a low grade) and try again.
I had a lot of cars over the years, including a couple of Bugs. It wasn’t until I met MaryAnn that we actually bought a new car (a little green Honda Civic)–the first one I owned that I hadn’t paid more than a couple of hundred dollars for. I didn’t see the point, since they never lasted. Though paying so little, I don’t know why I’d expect them to.
* * *
The other thing about old cars in rural Quebec where I grew up is that you could always find abandoned ones in the forests and fields, or you’d pass them by on the highway. I remember finding them as a little kid and you’d climb in and drive off to all sorts of places in your mind. The reason those cars were there was because in those days that was just what they did with vehicles they didn’t want any more.
Even now along the little road going to our cottage in Bouchette (which itself is an old ’60s school bus with an attached kitchen), a few yards off the road there are the rusted remains of a VW Bug, a ’50s 4-door Ford Sedan, the cab of an old Ford pickup, and parts of an old motorcycle. The panels and frame of the sedan actually still seem pretty solid, but the last thing I need in my life is to take on a restoration project like that.
Except, you know, my character Grace would have in a heartbeat.