The magic of getting one’s license is lost

I am wondering if the car as a cultural icon may be as passé in 30 years as malt shops and full-service gas stations are now.

When I was a teenager, my greatest and most burning desire — aside from the biologically provided one — was to drive a car. The moment of graduation from a bicycle to an automobile was the moment when you graduated from being a kid to being an adult. From one of the herd, you became one of the cool and, of course, referring back to those biological desires, the opposite sex suddenly started to pay more attention to you.

In order to achieve these ambitions, I cheated a little. When I was 15, I arranged a trade that reaped me a Suzuki 120 motorcycle. For several weeks, it was skillfully hidden in bushes across the road from the farm on which I grew up. (City kids probably couldn’t do this with any certainty of the bike being there the next day.)

Each morning, I walked up our 183-metre lane to “catch the school bus,” quickly got the bike out, fired her up and rode to school. I was indeed a rebel! Around the same time, and buoyed by the success of my clandestine motorcycling, I started to “borrow” my mother’s car, a purple 1965 Chevy Impala. That went well, despite the constant threat of discovery by the police — or worse, my mother. The closest to disaster I got was when a girl dropped a bottle of Leilani wine, a very cheap, very sweet and smelly wine popular with 16-year-old girls at the time. (I didn’t drink even then, by the way. The bottle wasn’t mine, honest.) For some reason, the bottle broke and the car filled with the smell of Leilani. The rest of the evening was spent cleaning the car. When it ended up back at home, it had the cleanest carpets imaginable. A crew of six had scrubbed them for hours.

Every time I ever got in that car again, I smelled that wine, but I am sure it was a product of a guilty conscience. My mother never noticed.

The day I turned 16, I flew up to the Ministry of Transprtation offices in Aurora to take my driver’s test. First, I wrote the exam to get my 30-day permit, then I asked if I could take the driving test. They had a spot, so a few hours later, I took it. As mentioned before in this column, I flunked after driving an almost perfect test simply because I failed to put the car in reverse to back up when parallel parking. The car jumped forward with my arm correctly over the seat staring intently out the back window. Glancing at the instructor, I knew I had just failed. I am sure it had more to do with me being a cocky 16-year-old than just my one mistake, but he let me come back the next day to do the parallel park. By the second day after my 16th birthday, I had become a man.

Funnily, no one ever taught me to ride a motorcycle or drive a car and the cars had standard trasnmissions. I was shown how to drive a tractor when I was 14 and sort of built on that.

I was hard on my cars. By the time I turned 25, I had had 15 of them. A good one lasted maybe six months, many just a couple of weeks. Fortunately, cars were rather cheap back then. My first, a 1959 Ford four-door in brown, cost $25. My next one was a ’61 Comet that cost $20. I turned down a ’56 T-Bird for $15 because you could only get two people in it; well, maybe three. We once got 14 people into a friend’s Mini Minor and drove to the newly opened Ontario Science Centre in Don Mills from Richmond Hill, Ont. On the way home, we got caught by a police officer when we stopped at a variety store. He pulled in behind us and, with a big grin, asked us to file out. No one noticed him because we were too crammed in to see. It seems he had noticed sparks coming from the bottom of the car and then, when all he could see was arms, legs and asses plastered on the glass, I guess he figured we may be in contravention of the traffic act. He let us go with a warning. Can you imagine that happening today?

Now, it is a lot more hassle for a teenager to get a licence. The world has turned into a very sober, serious place and the black-clad ninja traffic officers have no sense of humour. (Probably because their black commando outfits cause their core body temperature to rise four degrees in the summer.)

Insurance also costs prohibitively more. I used to have the $25 uninsured motor vehicle permit. The government doesn’t do that anymore for some reason.

On top of that, what kid wants to drive a clapped-out Kia when he or she can drive a Ferrari Enzo or Lamborghini Murciealago on the Xbox? For many of them, their alternate realities may have more substance than the real world — at least our real world.

I am astounded by how many twentysomethings can’t drive and have no ambition to get a licence or car. The young seem to, for the most part (except for exotics, which they still yell and wave at), ignore cars as anything other than transportation. It is easier to have Mom or Dad taxi them about rather than do the work and spend the money required to get their own cars.

I guess the magic of cars and getting your licence has gone, replaced by bureaucratic red tape, driving schools, Draconian insurance policies and police unforgiving of even the slightest kid-style misdemeanor.

I am very glad I grew up in a simpler, less complex and more forgiving time. I may have grown up with the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over my head, but if the mushroom clouds had blossomed, at least I would have gone out as a man.

And the car as an icon? It may well be that the generation after this Game Boy generation will see the automobile only as the root cause of Earth’s disastrous problems — problems that may be, in consequence, perhaps even more dire than the once imminent threat of nuclear obliteration.

Sadly, they will never have icons such as the ’57 Chevy or American Graffiti. I’m glad I am almost an old fart.

David Grainger laments the fact that kids today don’t care about cars or getting their licences like they did in the past — or in the 1973 movie American Graffiti.
Photograph by: Handout