A Family History — In Cars


I am a gearhead.  I love cars.  I like to drive fun cars.  I like to read about cars.  I have subscriptions to 2 car magazines.  (Actual magazines.)  I like to see cars go fast.  I love the sound of an engine at high RPM’s.  I discover new places by driving around.  Standing on a busy street corner, I can pick out the sound of a 10 cylinder super car blocks away and will stop in my tracks to see it drive by.  It makes me happy.

I come by this honestly.  In my family, cars are historical markers of lives lived.  As a child, and well into adulthood, whenever the men (and a few women) in my family gathered around to tell stories about the knots in our family tree the telling included a car.  It went like this, “When your Granddad (Blackie) went to work in Helena, Arkansas he drove a 1940 Chevy Sedan.”  The car is critical to the memory.  People may talk about their first car but my family remembers all the cars in between. 

How do I know the story about Blackie and the 1940 Chevy Sedan?  In 2000, I asked my Dad if he could just write down the history of our family in cars.  He did.  In detail.  On two sheets of a yellow legal pad I have a family history beginning with my Grandad’s 1931 Model A Roadster.  In all, my father told our family history across 46 different cars and linked every car to a place, a trip or a family member.  Oh, and don’t think the stream of cars stopped in 2000.  There is an addendum possible with many more vehicles in the 21st century.

Dad and his Uncle Jake were close in age.  They owned a service station together.  Uncle Jake built race cars.  At first go carts, then drag racers and stock cars.  They both put in 12-14 hour days almost every day of the week, but on Saturday nights we all went racing.  Uncle Jake’s race cars always had number 24. The stock car was hooked to the back of a tow-truck and hauled up to the 1/4 mile track in San Bernardino. The fender banging racing was a kind of church for us.  As it is still for many people.

My first car was a 1972 Pontiac Ventura Sprint, an orange muscle car with white racing stripes and raised letter tires.  I bought it almost new.  People don’t get handed cars in my family.  I had been working and saving money since I was 11.  My folks bought the car then collected the down payment from me.  Dad made a little payment book and I paid them back with monthly payments.  I was responsible for all upkeep and insurance.  No insurance…it would sit parked on the street.  It always had insurance.  Dad wasn’t kidding.

For a skinny, geek of a kid (before geek was a word) my car was a statement.  Settled into that high-back bucket seat I had a whiff of power I didn’t feel much in my day to day life.  I fought anger and depression by driving high up a switchback road into the mountains during my lunch breaks.  I’d park up there and look out to the desert.  The clear-sky infinite view made me feel small, my problems even smaller.

And then my car life went haywire.  I was up until the early morning one Saturday night putting a new quad 8-track stereo in my car.  Damn it rocked.  On my way to work the next morning a car ran a stoplight at about 45 MPH.  I saw it just quickly enough to gun my car and turn hard to the right, hoping the other car would avoid me.  It didn’t.  The big car hit at an angle right at my door handle.  The metal wrapped around my legs and the steering wheel, with my hands on it, ended up toward the front window.  I walked away with a bruise on my leg from the door speaker I had just installed.  Horsepower and turning that wheel probably saved me.  If he had hit me flush, I was a goner.  My beautiful orange car was totaled.

From that moment until 2008, I lived in a strange purgatory of practical cars.  I replaced the Pontiac with a 1975 Toyota Corolla Deluxe.  There was nothing deluxe about it but it got me across country.  I, or Sally and I, had a Toyota Pick-up, Camray, Ford Pick-up, VW Passat, VW Passat Wagon (two dogs) and Honda CRV.  Kept the Ford for a decade.

During all this time I went to see car races, became a Formula One fanatic, drooled over sports cars I saw on the street and just kept driving practical cars.  You see, I was raised by Great Depression era parents and Sally grew up poor.  As a pair, we are cautious and, well, cheap.  For most of our time together we have had a problem convincing ourselves we deserved what we thought of as luxuries.  Even now, we look at each other when we spend money on something we don’t need.  Sally is still a thrift store savant. It isn’t an awful characteristic.  I retired early.  What we have, we own.  But for people who have always worked hard, we always had a strangely inexpensive version of fun.

Our recovery from un-fun began when I left Standard Insurance.  I think that was the point Sally and I agreed we deserved to play.  For me it was a master’s degree and a 2008 Mini Cooper S.  For Sally, it was a trip by herself to Europe.  Mostly, in my case, it was my wife looking at me and saying, “You love cars so much, you really should just always have one you love.”  Seriously, how many people get that kind of permission in life?

In the Mini, I felt like I finally was back in the fold as a Blackwood car guy.  For the first time in my life, I got speeding tickets.  I took it on the race track several times and did high performance driving training.  I bought goodies to make it handle better.  Straight-line speed is for wimps.  Late braking into a fast corner is a real drivers game.

I think because I am an avowed car guy people like to tell me that the future of the car is dim.  Soon we will all be sitting in car-like pods without drivers, staring at our smart phones and impatiently waiting to just be somewhere…anywhere…but inside that humming pod.  I have done plenty of reading and I think that will be a truth for some folks, especially in urban areas.  A lot of people see cars as a utility.  Good on them.  There’s a Prius for you and an Uber app on your phone.  

Still, even the new arrivals to Portland are not who you think they are.  Just down from our house an old church was replaced by 20 townhouses each with its own garage.  Based on how the street filled up with cars and SUV’s with out-of-state plates, it is pretty clear the majority of those new residents own 2 cars.  Kids still have to get to soccer practice, and the dentist, and the store and to the beach.  And…Ford just announced that they are no longer making sedans.  It’s trucks and SUV’s America wants.  

Our fossil fuel dilemma may depend on how efficiently we burn fuel in those vehicles.  Hey, Formula One cars are now all hybrids.  Soon, it will be natural for a Ford F150 pick-up to run like a Prius.  It’s coming.

America is big.  So big.  You really don’t understand that until you drive across it.  A car crossing miles can be a mystical thing.  There is something deep in the human psyche about controlling your movement independently.  Look at the pictures of Saudi women getting their driver’s license and tell me that isn’t a striking a blow for freedom.  

My Mini was a gateway drug to a BMW.  I haven’t gotten a ticket in it…yet.  When I got my first car, my Dad told me that when I got a speeding ticket I should just thank the officer and smile.  “You will have earned that ticket a thousand times before.”  Seems my old man was teaching me Buddhist equanimity before either of us knew what that was.

My Dad is 85 and still talks about cars.  More importantly, he talks about what he would like for his next car.  There is something happy and optimistic about that fact.  Don’t tell Sally, but I have been thinking about my next car for a couple of years now.

Over my shoulder as I sit here today is a picture.  My Grandpa Blackwood, Blackie, is sitting at the wheel of his big brown Buick.  He has a huge smile on his face and is about to head off in some direction.  When the Blackwood’s talk about my grandad we say he’s somewhere up in heaven behind the wheel of that car…going for a ride…and keeping an eye on all of us

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1 Response to A Family History — In Cars

  1. Sally Blackwood says:

    Every spouse should be so lucky to see their partner as happy as you were the day you got the Mini Cooper. Well worth it!


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