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Lessons Learned / Mike Turpin

Published 9:03 am, Friday, October 12, 2012
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There was no speed limit on the Nevada state line;

The air was red wine on those top-down nights.

Just you and me my old roller skate;

And the common sense to know our rights.

Sweet old racin' car of mine, roarin' down that broken line;

I never been so much alive ...

-- David Crosby, Too Young To Die

I was ushering at church one Sunday when a physician friend rushed in uncharacteristically late for the service. He seemed to feel the need to confess the reasons surrounding his tardiness.

"I was down at Zumbach's Coffee. You know they have that car show now every month -- Caffeine and Carburetors ..." He smiled and tipped his head toward his irritated spouse. "She had to pull me out of there with a crow bar. Man, there was this Bentley there."

She grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the closest pew. Turning back she shook her head and whispered with a smile.

"Boys and their cars."

On Sunday, Oct. 14, Zumbach's Coffee once again becomes a nexus for its automotive show -- Caffeine and Carburetors -- where automotive connoisseurs and motor heads can nostalgic peek under the hood of a 426-horsepower Chevy Camaro SS with an LS3 V8 paired to a six-speed manual transmission. Man, with power and torque so effortless and ever-present, a guy can go 0-to-60-mph in 4.4 seconds. Did you get that? 'Cause I sure didn't.

I confess to not feeling too at home under a hood, but I do have very fond memories of my first automotive relationship. She had been previously wed to another man and was already a decade past her debut. She was an aging actress -- temperamental, unpredictable and had the shakes in times of stress. She was a true platinum blonde, a bantam weight whose critics maligned her for her Bavarian simplicity. She traced her parentage back to a German industrialist who, in concert with Adolf Hitler, had conspired to create a legion of utilitarian vehicles known as "the people's car." Her friends nicknamed her "Bug" presumably for her endearing hyperthyroid eyes, curved muscular frame and an evolutionary sense that she could somehow go on forever. I adored her the first time I set eyes on her.

Her gas gauge would stick and often needed to be gently tapped to avoid a humiliating walk down a lonely road with a gas can. Despite her peccadilloes, she was intelligent and resourceful, a marvel of engineering genius, deploying a clutch-less manual transmission that offered all the joy of a stick shift without the hassle and wear of a manual clutch. She was cautious on corners having been born just before her siblings were fitted with strut front suspension. She punched her weight using her tiny base and light weight to maximize a 1.6-liter, 60-horse engine. And, she was mine. She would spend the next several years opening my eyes to a brave new world.

Her death was a sudden, surreal crash of twisted metal and burning rubber. One autumn evening a Nissan, unable to navigate a hairpin turn, crossed the yellow lines to broadside her. As I staggered from the wreck, I saw that she had yielded as much of her door as she could in an effort to save me. Her side had accordioned under the pressure of the collision and the chassis was a hopeless pretzel of scrap metal. I somehow understood that we were never going to see one another again. Her job was done. As she lay dying, it was clear she wanted me to find a younger, more contemporary companion.

The insurance adjuster wrote me a check for $5,800, referring to her as a "total loss." It was a profane transaction. In my mind, she could never be replaced. But life in the land of freeways must go on. I needed a new partner.

I moved on to a copper-toned beauty from the Far East -- a Datsun 280Z 2+2. I found her at a used car lot -- the equivalent of saying you met your spouse at an airport cocktail lounge. I could tell she had been around the track, but it was hard to gauge her true age. She seduced me with promises of high speeds and a front seat that would never be without a blonde or brunette. It was a stormy romance riddled with public outbursts that left me stranded at parties and broken down along desolate stretches of interstate. Her ancient fuel injection and manual transmission left her wild and unpredictable. She was high maintenance, but I remained with her out of a misguided loyalty. A phone call changed everything.

My father had received a Renault Alliance as part of a special promotion from one of his advertising clients. This Motor Trend Car of the Year could be mine -- at cost. She was French and given the French's penchant for elegance and passion, I divined this would be the sartorial equivalent of driving a Hermes tie. Our first date was disappointing. She was seasick green with a thick ankle, square chassis. She had an unimpressive interior and instrumentation that resembled an arcade video game. As with all things French, she was whimsical and preferred short work weeks. She was also incontinent and often left embarrassing oil and fuel stains in the garage. California's heat and climate proved too much for her and one day in traffic, she just sat down and went on strike.

There were others, but I eventually returned to practical sedans and five-seat family cars. It was no longer about me. I do get restless at times and when I attend Caffeine and Carburetors, I find myself occasionally flirting with a sleek Italian model. She senses my automotive provincialism. She is mocking me for even coveting her. She is cold, inferring that I could never handle her power or price. When these green moments of envy descend, I must remind myself of how happy I was in a simple yellow VW bug with a broken gas gauge, a microscopic engine and a tortoise-like sense of invincibility. I knew that when the traffic died, the marketing dissolved, the rain stopped and the dust and gravel settled, she'd still be there -- two of us alone on some ancient stretch of road.

"Too fast for comfort, too low to fly. Too young to die."

Check out Mike Turpin's blog at usturpin.wordpress.com.