Most people don’t just magically wake up one day and decide that they are into cars as more than just a light hobby, and when it’s rooted in from childhood, the blame usually has to be addressed to one particular individual. In my case, that isn’t quite true…it took a village to raise this gearhead, with many people influencing me on my way. You can blame an uncle for bringing home the car that flipped the light switch, or my stepfather for teaching me that car control was more than keeping it between the lines and not hitting anything. You can blame the crazy-ass neighbor I lived next to for years for showing me how to drive as if I was running cases of shine when I was still a couple of years away from getting a permit. But, if I have to be truthful, in reflection my biggest inspiration probably matches most of your answers: my father is the final word.
I don’t bring up my father much because I lost him young. Robert was 42 when he succumbed to cancer in 2005, and due to circumstances better left unprinted, there were gaps of years where I didn’t get to see him, talk with him or work with him. But there were always clues that said he was the source, the first spark that lit the fire for what has brought me here today. Maybe it was because he was a young father. Maybe it was the mistake of buying his young child a Hot Wheels for a present decades ago, one that I keep to this day. Or maybe it was his cars.
I can pretty much list off 90% what he drove from my first memory to the end: a sweet 1969 Plymouth Fury III that was sourced from my mother, bumpside-era Ford truck, a very early third-gen Pontiac Firebird S/E that really belonged to his mother, a red 1982 Jeep CJ-5 Renegade, a borrowed 1970s Dodge truck that I’m pretty sure belonged to his father, an absolutely beat Mustang II hatchback that wound backfire loud enough to startle a corpse, the white 1985 Cavalier wagon that he hated with the passion of a thousand burning suns, a late 1970s Ford F-100 stepside that was nothing but trouble, a 1977 Pontiac Grand Prix that was nothing but rust (and the fastest way to get yours truly into trouble), a Hyundai Excel that for some reason he adored even though it burned enough oil to keep the mosquitoes away, another Jeep that he was hoping to restore, the 1987 Chevy C-10 that had lived a charmed life on a farm, and finally, a Saturn L-series that he thought was a sensible choice for a daily beater. Then there was his high-school mythos, the 1968 Pontiac GTO that would more often than not come up in conversation when we were trading BS stories, and the fleet of semi-tractors that he drove all over the country in order to keep the family going.
I wouldn’t be quick to call my father a gearhead. He could appreciate a car, and he didn’t mind spinning wrenches, but if there was a hot-rodder in him, that red stepside Ford pretty much killed that dead. It ate transmissions like candy, and I’m pretty sure he had some cracked ribs after dumping a transmission onto his chest. The only good thing that truck did was that it taught me how to swear fluently and correctly at a young age…mostly because I went and told my stepmother what Dad was saying under the truck. But that didn’t mean that he didn’t have the ability to bring it back when needed: after my attempts at teaching my younger sister how to drive ended…well, interestingly…Dad took her down to a boat launch in winter weather, put her behind the wheel of that C-10, and basically taught her how to drift, which gave her confidence in her ability to control the truck she eventually wound up driving to high school.
About that same time, just before the Saturn appeared in the driveway, on leave from a deployment, I tried to buy him a truck. From the moment I got home, he kept mentioning a red Dodge pickup that he had been looking at. One day, we went to check it out, and in one of my better impulse purchases, we bought it that afternoon. I put tires and shocks on it with him following me home, and after a bit of tuning we took it for a bit of a drive around the country roads of Southern Illinois. He wouldn’t take the truck, but he had no trouble hopping behind the wheel and rowing through the gears. As we were making our way back home, he looked over with his trademark smirk and said, “You know I haven’t shifted with the clutch once?”
“Oh, bullshit,” I replied.
“Nope. Just to start out with, and when I stop. The shifter is great, the transmission is smooth,” and just to drive the point home, he started swapping cogs and I watched his left leg like a hawk…not one bit of movement, flat on the floorboards. I was impressed…and a bit floored, to be honest, but I should’ve seen it coming after years of rowing Kenworths.
I get my Mopar streak from my grandfather and older cousin. I get my aggressive driving style from my stepfather. My wanderlust is purely my own, but when it comes down to it, I owe my father more than anyone else when it comes to cars. Robert would be 55 today, and there are times, like tonight, where I wonder just what he would think about where I am in life. Would he be telling me to be patient with my projects? Would he make the trip down from Southern Illinois on a long weekend to help out if I needed a second set of hands? Would he make the trip out to some race that I was running or shooting at? I’d like to think so.