Tuesday, September 20, 2016

I Liked It Better When ... #3

-- By Tom Phillips

I liked it better when shifting gears was the driver's job.

The hardest part of learning to drive on my parents' 1958 Rambler was the co-ordination of clutch, brake, gas pedal and stick.  Hundreds of times over, the car shuddered and stalled in the empty parking lot where my father and I practiced.  Give it a little more gas, let the clutch out easy, he would say, and eventually I learned to feel the gears engaging deep in the transmission, starting to turn the driveshaft, the wheels, picking up speed.  We were on our way!

Driving a stick shift meant your sense of touch was extended out in four directions, to where the rubber met the road.  Meanwhile you scanned the landscape, anticipating the next shift -- power down to rev the engine, speed-shift up to accelerate.  Janet Guthrie, the first woman to race in the Indianapolis 500, said:  "There is very little in civilized life that demands everything you've got intellectually, physically and emotionally.  Driving is living. It's aggressive, rather than passive living."

You didn't have to race in the 500 to appreciate that.  But you did need to shift for yourself.

Today, driving is passive living.  The automatic transmission and power steering made driving easy;   the GPS made it mindless.  Now, we're entering the age of the driverless vehicle.  You can still get a high-performance car, with four or five gears on the floor. They're probably better than ever, and they'll never disappear.  But hardly anyone knows how to drive one.

I never saw the Indy 500, but I did drive 500 miles in a racing car once.  I was hitch-hiking home from college in the early 60s, and got picked up at midnight by a rich hippie in Ohio, driving a new Jaguar.  He'd just been to the Indy 500, needed to be back in New York the next day, and he was exhausted.  Could I drive?   Sure.

I slipped into the bucket seat and extended my legs almost straight out to reach the pedals.  The driver's seat was maybe 18 inches from the road, you could feel your way into the whole aerodynamic frame as the engine idled.  I slipped it into first and we were on our way, roaring out on the Ohio Turnpike, then the entire length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a winding mountain road with trucks laboring up the hillsides. We took the fast lane and zipped past them.  I dodged a raccoon trapped in the middle of the road, the Jaguar responding like a cat.  I drove all night, don't remember stopping or getting tired.  My sleepy host was grateful, but I was more so, for the chance to engage those gears, to feel that road. to speed past those trucks.  Guthrie's "aggressive living" has nothing to do with road rage.  It's decisiveness, spontaneity, risk, consciousness in action.    

-- Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips
1960 Jaguar roadster
PS:  The Road to Dotage needs you!  In our fast-changing world, everyone over the age of 12 has something that's gone missing from their life, something that gave it pleasure and meaning.  Write yours up in 500 words or so, and email it as a Word attachment to:  



  1. You'll be glad to know that Joel just got his first car ... and it has a standard transmission!