Dad, Me, and the New Capri

In the fall of 1972, a few months after I got my driver’s license, my father bought a sporty new Capri sedan. The Capri would be my mother’s car, replacing her small Ford Falcon station wagon, the car in which I had learned to drive. The Falcon was an easy car to drive – small, good visibility, simple controls.

There were still four kids at home. I don’t know why Dad bought the Capri, instead of a bigger station wagon (the best family option before the minivan era). I don’t even know if it was Mother’s decision or Dad’s. I suspect it was Dad’s. In any event, what Mother got was a copper tinted Capri.

As a rule, my mother and I shared the family’s second car. My father drove an Olds 98, which was as large as a tank. I rarely got to drive the Olds unless Dad was out of town.  So I knew I would have to drive the Capri when it replaced the Falcon.

There was just one problem: The Capri had a stick shift. My mother hadn’t driven a standard transmission since the early 1950s, and I had never driven one.

In my driver’s education class, we had had one simulator session to teach us how to drive a standard transmission. The alarm on my simulated car buzzed constantly, indicating a stall, until I realized that if I kept the clutch in the whole time, it would stay silent. And the instructor would never know I was failing this lesson. The primitive simulator could only detect a few errors, but in the early 1970s, this was as good as it got.

My real education on a stick shift came during weekend lessons with my father after he got the Capri. We went out to the old Army camp near our house, where I had learned to drive with him right after getting my permit. The barracks and other buildings in the camp had been removed, and only the paved roads remained, pitted and pockmarked and sprouting weeds – but adequate for beginning drivers.

Dad drove us to the camp, then I got behind the wheel of the Capri and lurched my way down the road.

My father muttered encouraging remarks from the passenger seat. “Put in the clutch. Now let it out. SLOWER!” he yelled when I stalled it.

“Try again.” He sighed.

We practiced for an hour or so, till we were both frazzled. “Well,” he said as he drove us back home. “You did better than your mother.”

A couple of weekends later, we were at it again. This time, Dad allowed me to drive home from the Army camp. Our route took us uphill toward a major intersection. The light turned red; I had to stop.

When the light turned green, I started forward. For about 2 feet. Then the car stalled and started to roll backward. I slammed on the brake.

Dad waved the cars behind us around, so I wouldn’t hit anyone when I tried again to go around the corner. I took my foot off the brake with the clutch in, and the car rolled backward. I let out the clutch and gunned the engine as I tried to get it in gear.

Stall.

Dad sat patiently beside me, waving cars around, then waiting for me to try again. It took three cycles of the traffic light for me to get through that intersection. I must have stalled it fifty times through those three cycles of green lights. Finally I got around the corner, and we headed home.

But I have never had any trouble with a stick shift since that day. I’ll stall a car occasionally, but not often. Even driving a strange car with a stick, I can quickly get its rhythm. I guess that afternoon at the traffic light was time well spent.

Just a few months after that episode, on an evening in early December 1972, we had our first snowfall of the year.  I had choir practice that evening.  My mother was in a tizzy over how I would get to our church across town. I had to go; we were practicing for Christmas. Neither parent was available to chauffeur me.

“Here,” Dad said, handing me the car keys. “Take the Capri.” It would be my first experience driving in snow, and he trusted me with the new car. I slid a bit that evening, but arrived at the church safely.

Dad’s patience in teaching me to drive with the stick that fall, and his faith in me that snowy evening, still awe me today. I tried to be as loving with my kids as Dad was, but if you ask my children about the year James learned to drive, you’ll know I failed.

Thank you, Dad, for your patience and trust over so many years.

Posted in Family and tagged , , , , , .

0 Comments

  1. When I was that age, all cars were stick shifts. One day while riding as a passenger with my mother, she told me to put my hand on the stick shift knob. “Some day your father will offer to teach you how to drive,” she warned, and began to instruct me in how the stick shift and the clutch movements had to be coordinated. For several weeks we drove together, she working the clutch from the driver’s seat, and me learning how to shift from the passenger seat.
    Sure enough, one Sunday, when we had company, my father suddenly said, “You’ve been nagging me about wanting to learn how to drive (which I hadn’t), go get in the car.” Before we left the driveway, however, he installed my grandparents in the back seat.
    There was seldom much traffic on our country roads. About four miles away from home, he pulled the car over to the curb, and traded places with me. I put my feet on the clutch and brake pedals, turned on the ignition, and drove the car home. At home, he got out of the car, walked straight into the house without a word. I learned later that he accused my mother of teaching me how to drive behind his back. I guess, in a way, she had.

  2. When I was that age, all cars were stick shifts. One day while riding as a passenger with my mother, she told me to put my hand on the stick shift knob. “Some day your father will offer to teach you how to drive,” she warned, and began to instruct me in how the stick shift and the clutch movements had to be coordinated. For several weeks we drove together, she working the clutch from the driver’s seat, and me learning how to shift from the passenger seat.
    Sure enough, one Sunday, when we had company, my father suddenly said, “You’ve been nagging me about wanting to learn how to drive (which I hadn’t), go get in the car.” Before we left the driveway, however, he installed my grandparents in the back seat.
    There was seldom much traffic on our country roads. About four miles away from home, he pulled the car over to the curb, and traded places with me. I put my feet on the clutch and brake pedals, turned on the ignition, and drove the car home. At home, he got out of the car, walked straight into the house without a word. I learned later that he accused my mother of teaching me how to drive behind his back. I guess, in a way, she had.

  3. Theresa, my friend Nancy Durham taught me to drive a stick shift by taking me to a vacant parking lot and making me drive until I learned how to shift. As the supreme test, she drove me downtown and onto the entrance ramp to I-70. She stopped the car, got out and told me that I would have to drive. I got behind the wheel, started down the ramp and merged with the traffic going 80 mph. I never would have learned how to drive a stick shift or how to merge without her.

    • Bob,
      At least you got to drive DOWN the ramp, instead of uphill for your first major test! Learning to drive does seem to be a memorable rite of passage for most of us.
      Theresa

  4. Theresa, my friend Nancy Durham taught me to drive a stick shift by taking me to a vacant parking lot and making me drive until I learned how to shift. As the supreme test, she drove me downtown and onto the entrance ramp to I-70. She stopped the car, got out and told me that I would have to drive. I got behind the wheel, started down the ramp and merged with the traffic going 80 mph. I never would have learned how to drive a stick shift or how to merge without her.

    • Bob,
      At least you got to drive DOWN the ramp, instead of uphill for your first major test! Learning to drive does seem to be a memorable rite of passage for most of us.
      Theresa

  5. Pingback: Change in Plans—In This Blog as in Life | Story & History

  6. Pingback: Change in Plans—In This Blog as in Life | Story & History

Leave a Reply