Boldly Going Forward

Boldly Going Forward

Originally posted May 5, 2005. Submitted to the Vancouver Sun and published in their Driving section on June 24, 2005 – my birthday!

It was only supposed to be for a little while. Really.

I was on a weekend getaway with a friend. We’d headed down a narrow, dead-end dirt road, so I hiked my Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme into a driveway, switched into reverse – and nothing happened. A moment later, the reverse kicked in again. But a day or two after that, it stopped working for good.

Little did I know that an 18-month driving adventure was just beginning.

It wasn’t hard to make the decision to ditch the Olds. My previous car had been a 1984 edition of the same model, but it was steadily falling apart. I liked the car, though, and when I spotted a gleaming white ’87 model sitting on a used-car lot, I went for it. Alas, when the first rainy winter rolled around, I got a nasty surprise: rainwater flowed inside the car, onto the passenger-side carpet and right through the back, where it pooled as much as a half-inch deep. I had to bail water out of my car. Not good.

My mechanic had done a good job of sealing the leak, but I knew it was only a matter of time before it would be back. And now this. So I determined to go car-hunting again – but this time, I was going to put my hard-earned cash into a keeper. That meant searching for my dream car, or something close to it: an early-60’s Ford Falcon or Fairlane, or a Mercury Comet. The AMC Rambler was also a contender. My heart was set on a classic charmer from the Kennedy era – Atomic Age styling and lots of chrome.

Meanwhile, whether out of thriftiness or just plain stubbornness, I determined to keep driving the non-reversing, potentially-leaky Oldsmobile. But just until I found that great old car.

Now, you’d think that driving a car that doesn’t go in reverse would present you with some serious problems. And you’d be right. But I found that, if I anticipated the most likely trouble spots, I could actually manage without much difficulty. It turned out that, in everyday driving, you’re virtually never called on to back up at all. It’s getting in and out of parking spots that presents the true challenge.

Here, I found that gravity was my friend. If the ground was sloped right, I could parallel park, back out of spaces – anything a regular, bi-directional car could do. I’d pull past a space on the street, go into “reverse”, and slowly coast backwards. To look at me, you couldn’t tell that anything was amiss.

I developed a keen sense of how little slope I could get away with. Sometimes, when the slope was a bit shallow, the movement into the space would slow down to a crawl, and I’m sure the waiting drivers must have thought an overly-cautious senior was behind the wheel!

I also developed certain specialized techniques. For instance, when faced with the row-style parking in underground lots, I realized I could just drive through from one side to the other – then I could drive straight out.

I didn’t figure all these techniques out right away, of course. It took time, and a few, shall we say, touchy situations. Early on, I parked at the road’s edge in a ritzy neighbourhood, with no other cars nearby – but facing downhill. When I returned, someone had parked right in front of me, and I was stuck. I had to trudge up the road to the rather grand-looking house nearby, ring the doorbell, and sheepishly explain my situation, hoping the owner was there. Luckily, she was. And I made sure to only park uphill after that!

The no-reverse situation did limit me, of course. I had to leave plenty of extra time before going into an “untested” parking situation – after all, it takes time to find a space at just the right angle, and it’s rarely nearby. But for my regular haunts, I knew exactly where to go. I also was wary of alleys and blind corners that might leave me stranded. And more than once I found myself with no option but to reluctantly lean my foot out the door and give the car a Flintstones-style assist.

But gradually, I grew more relaxed and confident, and was no longer on pins and needles every time I steered my Oldsmobile out of my parking lot. I was both embarrassed at the dubious situation and strangely proud of how I’d managed to hide it so well. The few friends I told could barely believe it – but I justified it to them by explaining that the car just reflected my philosophy of life: always moving forward, never backward! The only person avoided sharing the news with was my Mom – I knew she’d worry too much, and probably insist I buy another car that very second! Besides, I told myself, this situation wouldn’t last much longer.

Trouble was, a few weeks of never moving backward turned into a few months, and eventually into nearly two years. All the time, I stubbornly kept on searching for that dream car. Many times I thought I’d found the right one, but it never worked out. I despaired that I would ever find it. And yet, to give up and get a “practical” car, one just like all the others out there, was unbearable. I’m of the opinion that 90% of today’s cars are indistinguishable from each other – rounded, anonymous pods or tank-like SUV’s. I wanted charm and uniqueness. I wanted to reject soulless conformity and go unapologetically retro!

Then, finally, this May, an ad in the Buy and Sell led me to a charming, turquoise 1963 AMC Rambler in New Westminster. Amazingly, it had been stored since the late 70’s and only had 25,000 miles on it. There was only one thing that needed fixing, the owner told me: it didn’t go in reverse!

Anyone else would have run when they heard that. But to me, it was almost like an omen.

Sure enough, the reverse gear turned out to be relatively easy and inexpensive to fix, and now I have finally entered my own personal automobile Nirvana. The Rambler draws smiles everywhere I go. Total strangers come up to me and tell me about the Rambler their dad – or their granddad – drove years ago. In the end, I not only went in reverse, I went all the way back to ’63 – and found the classic car of my dreams.

And maybe now it’s safe to tell Mom the whole story.

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