Coming of Age
As an insatiable reader, I was knowledgeable about automobiles long before my first driving adventure. In 1949 at the age of 12, an older friend let me drive his Crosley station wagon. I was enthralled. I had found a new love! According to an old African proverb, once a baboon tastes honey, his feet never again touch the ground. Cars to me are like honey to baboons!
A driver’s license is the rite of passage to the grown-up world. At age 14 I had my learner’s permit and was able to drive with an “adult” accomplice. No opportunity was missed. Early on, the transmission in my mom’s 1936 dark blue Ford sedan was trashed as I sought to perfect my technique of speed shifting. My car-loving father shrugged it off and had the transmission repaired.
Soon after, my dad acquired a machine that was life changing. Get this: a used . . . one year old . . . 6,000 miles on the odometer . . . 1952 MG TD . . . black with tan leather seats. If a boy can fall in love with an inanimate object, this was it! With the written guidance of Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated, I proceeded to learn how to drive a sports car. It was quite a number of years before I fully understood one of McCahill’s comments on the transmission of a car he was testing (“. . . as smooth as a prom queen’s thighs”).
Licensed to Drive
In the Florida of the early 1950s a 16th birthday was the age it became legal to drive an automobile unaccompanied. My job during my “big birthday” summer was picking watermelons. My Sunday School teacher gave me that opportunity in his fields near Newberry, Florida. The pay was five dollars a day, good wages for a boy then. On the all-important day when I returned from the watermelon patch, my folks met me at the door and led me to the backyard. Sitting there in the shade, top down, was my wished-for but unexpected birthday present: a 1931 Ford Model A roadster. The color was sunburnt blue but it had a rumble seat, and it was my ticket to ride! From this nifty car I learned much about basic automotive mechanics, and . . . aah, the freedom of movement it provided with my now-unrestricted driver’s license!
Licensed to Speed
As in many small towns during the Second World War, the U.S. Army had constructed an airbase in my hometown of Gainesville. The extensive back roads of the base, abandoned and deserted, presented an isolated place to drive at unlimited speeds. It was not long before I laid out my own race course. With windscreen folded, the muffler replaced by a straight pipe, and carefully adjusted tire pressures, I perfected my heel-and-toe technique. With each outing, my enthusiasm increased and my lap times consistently improved. I became convinced that I was talented.
The local University of Florida had a Sports Car Club. Because of my interest, despite being a high school Junior, I was invited to become a member. The Club sponsored an autocross one weekend to allow members and guests to test their driving ability over a sinuous course laid out with pylons on a large parking lot. My quick times in the well-polished MG were a quantum faster than all others. My talent was proven!
Trading Sports Cars
My father and I continued to enjoy sports cars. The first MG TF in the USA was displayed at the Sebring 12 Hour Race in March 1955. Father brought it home to replace the loyal and well-driven TD. Through the years these cars (usually one or two at a time, the older models sold or traded to get the newer machines) were followed by an MG A hardtop, six Porsches, another Corvette (1960), Mercedes Benz 190SL, 230SL, 250SL, 280SL, 380SL, and, the best of this marque, a 300SL roadster, white with blue leather, geared for top speed of 136 mph (frequently achieved!). A 1964 Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce and a sea-blue 1966 Guilietta became our opening Italian stable, followed by a 1971 Ferrari 365GTB/4 Daytona, a 1973 246GTS Dino (the Cannonball Dino), and a 1978 Ferrari 400GTA. All were driven as designed and intended. The Ferrari Daytona seldom hit the road without seeing at least 100 mph on the dial and on many occasions pulled over 7100 rpm in fifth (top) gear above 175 mph. A 1972 Rolls Royce replaced the usual Oldsmobile or Cadillac sedans for my mother.
My 17th year had begun with a heady sense of freedom. Soft summer nights beckoned, replete with all the excitement and joy of discovery that are the heart of youth. I remember a world that seemed without end. I still enjoyed the Ford Model A until I went north to college. My dad had paid 130 dollars for it. After two years, many adventures, and a new paint job, I sold the venerable wheels to the twin girls next door for 165 dollars. Ah, sweet nostalgia, I wish I had that Ford now!
College and Military
College at a military academy did not quell my ardor for fast cars, but it succeeded in drastically restricting my time behind the wheel. Finally, a few months before graduation and with an army officer’s commission secure, I was able to purchase a new 1958 Chevrolet Corvette. Soon the white plastic machine and I became as one. Frequent long-weekend drives back to Gainesville from Georgia and North Carolina honed my talent and experience for high-speed travel on public highways.