06 November 2023

Life in the Fast Lane

You can’t exactly call a car an inanimate object, since you can use it to drive to San Francisco, or to the 7-Eleven, so clearly animated.  Though it’s not alive, not in the fashion of a German Shepard, goldfish or your Uncle Lou. 

I grew up in a car family, imbedded in a surrounding car culture, in the 1950s and 60s.  My father worked hard at his job, maintained our house, and worked on cars, to the exclusion of everything else.  To us, cars were no less creatures who lived with us than our various dogs and cats, and to a lesser degree, the children.  Our cars had names and the tradition was honored by my friends as well, so I spent satisfying time in Alice Blue, the Blue Max (no relation), Vinnie the Volkswagen, Dudley the Dodge, The Silver Goose, the Silver Queen (also no relation), Mr. B (my car) and Tootles, my mother’s name for her 1947 Plymouth which she drove fast enough to frighten Mario Andretti. 

    We all fixed our own cars in those days.  You only consulted a mechanic in the direst of straights.  And they needed a lot of fixing.  I had to change the spark plugs and distributor points on Mr. B on a regular basis, replace brake shoes and pads, and attend to the constant disintegration of exhaust systems, batteries, carburetors, starter motors, solenoids, and rocker panels, which I patched with sheet metal salvaged from an old refrigerator.

Safety was never a consideration.  Seat belts had yet to be required, and occasionally slamming your head into the dashboard was considered encouragement to improve your driving skills. 

I don’t remember learning to drive, since my brother and I had hurled whatever junkers were cast about the house through the trails and fields of our neighborhood from the time we were tall enough to look out the windshield. 

    What does all this have to do with writing, the mission of this blog?  When I created Sam Acquillo, my first and most enduring protagonist, I gave him a 1967 Pontiac Grand Prix, an impossibly oversized and stupidly over-powered hunk of Detroit iron, because that was the type of car I was raised on.  It was an obvious thing to do.  I made his father a mechanic (like mine, though my dad was an Ivy League graduate and corporate executive, which did nothing to dilute his thuggish devotion to internal combustion, in his cars and himself.) 

I’m sure you can be a male American mystery writer and never include a dumb car in the narrative, but not if you’re from my world.  It’s as essential as a divorced spouse  or an everyday bartender. 

Cars today are serenely smooth, quiet and efficient.  They are computers with engines attached, and I don’t know the first thing about fixing them.  The average minivan could probably smoke a souped up ’67 Mustang off the line, but there’s something missing.  I’ve had a string of Audis, and some have sparkled with personality, including the two aging versions my wife and I still cling to.  The Subaru that’s now my everyday ride is even more refined, and I love it, but it’s too good.  There’s no rattle and roll, no coughing start, no deafening wind noise, errant squeaks or intermittent, mysterious surges of power.  There’s a big digital screen filled with functionality I’ve barely scratched, ways to drive without holding the steering wheel, a four-cylinder turbo-charged engine (four-cylinder?!) that leaps from green lights, and constant reminders to behave in a more responsible and socially conscious manner.

In other words, entirely tamed.  And taming.  We’re better off for it, but I’m grateful that I got to live in the Wild West of unfettered, lethal and exhilarating car-crazy abandon, when I was too young to know how lethal, and too lucky to suffer any permanent harm. 


  1. Chris, I smiled all through reading this. My first car was a Triumph Spitfire. My second, a Lotus Europa, unusual for a girl in the 80s. And the electrics...well, I know they're fast, but honestly, I don't feel the wild sensation of controlling a beast with them. We still have an SLK convertible with a stick, as a last hurrah, I guess. And - you will smile - a Subaru for winter - laff!

    1. Melodie! I had a blue Spitfire, cute but… The fan's machine screws kept working loose, whereupon it would chew its way through the radiator. After the 3rd time, I peened the screws and threatened it with spot-welding. The brake warning lamp was cross-wired with the low oil lamp… and you can guess that disaster.

  2. Oops - that's Melodie above

  3. Now you’re embarrassing me. My first car was the Frog, a 49/50 Nash Ambassador that from the rear quarter looked like a frog. Side curtains, roll-top radio, station changer a foot switch. A later vehicle was Else, or L.C. for Land Cruiser. If it doesn’t have a name, it isn’t animate or maybe sentient.

    I’m working on a story that contains this:

    “283 cubes, legendary Duntov cam, solid lifters, twin four-barrel carbs, plus four-on-the-floor. A trickle charger hooked to the battery glowed green.”

    You probably guessed I’m referring to a ’57 Bel Air Sport CoupĂ©. The tech detail serves a story-telling purpose, cluing the reader the protagonist knows more than he lets on.


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