Automotively, I suppose you could say I’m a bit of a late bloomer. Living in a relatively walkable part of the San Francisco Bay Area, and having nothing more appealing to drive than my parents’ pair of ugly 1990 Volvo 760s, a matched set of gold sedan and gold wagon, I didn’t bother with getting my driver’s license in high school. Dad’s refusal to add me to the insurance, citing the astronomical cost of insuring a young, male driver didn’t help. Heck, I didn’t even have my learner’s permit until last summer, after freshman year of college! The one nice thing about waiting this long was that I didn’t have to pay for the ten hours of professional behind-the-wheel driving lessons that are mandated for those who are under 18 when they receive their permit. Anyway, I came home from school over this past winter break and passed the license test, driving Dad’s automatic 760. The only area in which I lost points was for driving too slowly; perhaps I was secretly intent on becoming the American answer to James May. Regardless, I had a license proving that I probably wasn’t a menace to society, although the jury is still out on that one. Still, I knew I wouldn’t feel like a real driver until I could row my own gears.
I’m going to take a step back here and say that, while it took me longer than most to kick my ass into gear and get my license, I’ve been a huge car person from a young age. My dad and I used to read his Road & Track magazines together, and he’d always complain that they’d rave about a car’s 0-60 time or handling, but conveniently omit companies’ reliability records for past models or projected costs of ownership. (You listening, Okulski?) Couple that skepticism of performance brands’ durability with the man’s healthy distrust for domestics after a nightmarish two-year stint in college with a Mustang II that couldn’t be convinced to engage reverse, and it’s easy to understand the reasoning behind his automotive proclivities. The breadbox-shaped Volvos and the Honda Odyssey parked in the driveway during my childhood were certainly safe, reliable transportation, though they didn’t quite compare with the Mustangs and Camaros on my wall. The point is, while I never had the Corolla buyer’s mentality that cars are A-to-B appliances, I also wasn’t chomping at the bit to just go for a drive when my choices of transportation were three stodgy slushboxmobiles. (Is that even a word? It should be.)
Once I actually climbed behind the wheel of the ‘Vo, however, I was pleasantly surprised. For those of you who have made it this far and are mentally berating me for describing a turbo Swede as being boring and ugly, you’re absolutely right to object—at least about the “boring” part. By the time I had my license, the 760 wagon had passed on to the great highway in the sky (actually, the local Pick ‘N’ Pull lot), but the sedan was still going strong, with the exception of some minor electrical gremlins that, I kid you not, caused the controls for the front and rear power windows to be swapped, prevented the car from starting if the driver’s seatbelt is buckled, and enabled the radio to switch itself on and off at random, sort of like a Scandinavian Bumblebee, but without the cool transforming part. Between these quirks and the drama of old-school turbo lag, though, the car was anything but a boring appliance. Mashing the gas to merge onto the freeway, waiting for the turbo to spool up, feeling the vibration and thrust from all 2.3 liters of angry force-fed displacement, and all the while hearing intermittent bits of radio chatter through the broken antenna made for an engaging if somewhat mystifying driving experience. Still, the call of the manual beckoned.
The first time my dad tried to teach me the ways of the mystical third pedal, things didn’t go well. The only manual car we owned was his 1967 Datsun 1600 Roadster, a beautiful car but a bit finicky for a first-time stick learner. I managed little in that first session than stalling repeatedly in an empty parking lot, due to a combination of inexperience, a rather hungry and therefore impatient instructor (hi Dad!), a sticky gas pedal that seemed to function like an on-off switch, and a cramped cockpit in which I had to maneuver my legs around rather than under the steering wheel to reach the pedals. While the first of these was certainly most at fault, I needed all the excuses I could get to put that initial failure behind me.
Today was our second try. I’ve been blowing smoke to my dad for a while about picking up a rust bucket and fixing her up, but he and I both knew I’d want a beater with a stick, and I’d need to know how to actually drive one first. So, this afternoon, we took the little Datsun out to the cemetery down the street and practiced. I must say, I’m pretty shocked at how well it went. I learned how to successfully start from a stop, reverse, upshift, downshift, and all that good stuff in just about half an hour, and then made the hilly two mile drive to the grocery store with no issues once my dad was reasonably certain I could handle public roads. I’ve still got to nail down some of the details, like parallel parking with a manual car and minimizing rollback on hills, but overall I’m more excited about driving than I’ve ever been. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I’m looking at buying a running but somewhat neglected Volvo 122s from a local mechanic who’s had it sitting in his back lot for a while; after another day or two of practice, I’ll be confident enough in my abilities to finally give it a test drive and bring it back in one piece. While I’m still improving as a driver, and I especially need to ingrain the muscle memory of driving a car with three pedals, I feel like I’m finally through most of the heavy lifting. Stay tuned for upcoming misadventures as I try to find and buy my first car. Onward and upward!
P.S. I want to thank the Oppo and Jalopnik community for being great sources of advice and super supportive through my somewhat belated journey towards becoming a real car guy. Cheers, folks!