Mar 15 2009 10:31am

Old Cars

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.

David Dyer-Bennet
1. dd-b
Good advice for many authors, really: you should not necessarily take your characters as good guides for how to live your own life. :-)

My parents took a car over to Europe and brought it back once; they spent the 1973-74 academic year in Zurich (my father was on sabbatical), and they didn't feel they could afford to buy a new car as we had in 1966, so they shipped that car over, used it for the year, and shipped it back. (Hence they had one car from 1966-1984 when they finally retired it; a Mercedes 200).
Chris Heinz
2. Chris Heinz
I bicycle around SW Lexington KY. Off of the west end of Parkers Mill Rd is Frogtown Rd. My bike maps told me it was around 2/3 mile to a dead end, and I could see it started with a nice downhill -- meaning a nasty uphill coming back -- so I never biked it.

Last summer I was heading home and still had some juice, so I said, OK, let's do it.

One or two horse farm entrances. The road keeps getting thinner and thinner as you head south.

Then at the end, a right turn west, and uphill, and you find yourself in a dead car garden. My memory is not real good here, because this was a magical reality kind of moment.

There were 3-12 cars abandoned at the end of the road. Some of them were partially absorbed into the earth -- 1-2 ft of earth pushed up around them. Plants growing through them -- and they really didn't look like they'd been there that long.

It was surreal, and creepy -- I turned the bike around and headed out before the cannibals could start swarming.

Now that I have an iPhone and take pictures with it, I may go back this summer and try to capture some images. Hopefully I will come back alive.

True story.

Matthew Brown
3. morven
For Americans, you pretty much can't take a car from abroad and bring it back, anymore. The inflexibility of regulations intended for big manufacturers and with no leeway for individuals ensure that.

Non-American citizens can bring a car in from outside the US for a year, after which time it has to return. Classic cars can be brought in (the rule is either 20 or 25 years old, I forget which), as can race-cars and museum exhibits. There is a very limited program that allows you to bring in a vehicle if you guarantee it won't be driven more than 6,000 miles a year and you'll have it modified to meet the US or California emissions standard for its year of manufacture.

That's pretty much it, unless you're willing to go through the whole DOT approval process as a manufacturer or importer, which would entail every single component of the vehicle meeting regulations down to the symbols on warning lights etc.

As I recall, Canada has a less stringent regulation allowing cars more than (I think) 5 years old to be imported without modification.
Chris Heinz
4. Daria Chasse'
Morven, your comment is a classic...We're America with a reputation of freedom, until you try to do something with that freedom...then you get regulated out of your rights to freedom!
Mary Thiedeman
5. LensCapp
My parents brought the old Audi from the States to Germany, and then back to the States when I was a baby. We flew in (not that my couple-month-old self would recall the flight), and it is my understanding that the car left before us by boat. As we moved to NYC, it didn't seem to matter when the car arrived, as I don't recall it until years later in Indiana, although it apparently took up residence in a parking garage.

A friend of mine was restoring an old Ford (forgive me, I know not the model!) in high school. We haven't spoken in ages, but I saw him drive by the other day in it. It was pretty spectacular, and for all my lack of mechanical talent, I still felt a twinge of pride knowing I assisted turning the rusted pile of junk into the beautiful machine I saw on the highway. Even if I only handed him tools and turned the key to check the engine.

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