The day will come when I am conveyed from point to point by an electric car and maybe even have my name on the title of one. But the day will never arrive when I truly call a vehicle not powered by fossil fuel a car for the simple reason that my definition of a car is intertwined with my earliest memories of engines growling, roaring, and belching exhaust fumes.
I was born in 1958 and I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s when automotive behemoths and big-engine muscle cars ruled the roads and knew no speed limit.
When I summon my earliest childhood car memories, it’s a red convertible Volkswagen Beetle, not a Cadillac or GTO, that comes to mind. My mother drove her Beetle for better than 15 years in an era when kids piled into the back seat with the top down and no one wearing a seatbelt.
My brother and I pretended we were house painters one afternoon and tied paint cans to the Beetle’s rear bumper. We either forgot or were too afraid to tell her about the cans when she piled us into the car to rush off to do an errand.
After she looked in the rearview mirror and saw paint splashed across our cul-de-sac, we were treated to the classic 1960s, “Wait until your father gets home” lecture.
She took pride in a marvel of German engineering that linked the Beetle’s tire pressure to the window-washing fluid pump, and a foot of fresh snow didn’t deter her from downshifting to first gear and powering up a hill.
I took my first driving lesson in the Beetle. My dad ordered me to drive up a hill and brake to a stop just below the crest. My fumbling attempts to work the clutch and accelerator and climb the crest only resulted in the Beetle stalling and rolling downhill.
Drivers honked or gave me the finger as they steered around me and I was close to tears as my dad repeated, “One more time, one more time.” My left foot eventually figured out how to balance the clutch while my right foot eased down the gas pedal and nudged the Volkswagen forward.
If I wasn’t driving the Beetle during my teenage years, I was rolling down my town’s byways and highways in my grandmother’s Oldsmobile 98. Six guys could pile into the Olds with ease and the big car’s suspension forgave steering mishaps that sent it bouncing over curbs.
I don’t know the fate of the Beetle, the Olds, and the 1966 Mustang (original color, sea-foam green, pony-insignia imprinted on the seatback) that I drove in the 1990s. They probably met their end long ago in a scrapyard or maybe they are in a junkyard, slowly surrendering parts to after-market dealers.
I like to think a car lover adopted each one, garaging and tinkering the antiques in the winter, and taking them out for a spin on summer days.
Summertime is made for car daydreams and mine turn to the improbable day when I will be reunited with a Beetle or a Mustang or maybe acquire a 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, with tail lights mounted on absurd fins, and a ton of chrome festooning the bumper.
Then again, my wife has always looked great behind the wheel of a red convertible just like she did when I first met her.