Clutch in, shift up. Clutch out, accelerator down. Knuckles white on black leather, beats keeping pace with revs. A tiger growls under metal cover, and gravity asserts its dominance.
Despite our advances in robotics and AI, I’ll always argue that a car is the closet we have come to creating life. Loyal, dependable, but reliant on our attention and love, a car is a mechanized pet, an ever present comforting companion. I know not all people are “car people” but everyone who has ever really driven, felt their synapses fire along with every zing of the spark plugs, knows the power and freedom that comes from piloting what is in essence, a controlled explosion bolted to four pieces of rubber.
My Friday nights in high school weren’t typical; when others were roaring rallies at football games or bases-deep mid-movie make-out, I drove. Down narrow back roads lining the Potomac, too fast, too hard, eking every inch out of every corner, leaving my mark in streaks of black and rubbery squeals through quiet Maryland nights. Never did I feel as alive, as invincible, as physically vulnerable and on the edge of everything, than when I dropped into second and swung hard around a hairpin somewhere off of River Road.
I grew up with tales of street races, of my dad tearing through Knutsford and Sale in his Triumph Dolomite Sprint, of him jumping a bridge near his house and throwing a con-rod through the side of the engine he tuned and babied for months and months. The stories, sweet and sour, seemed like memories of loves lost; partly excitement at pushing the car and himself to their literal limits, partly melancholy remembrance of those who came and went before their time. It was hard to say where the line cut through my dad’s adoration. To him they were maintained machines; tools, steel, and oil. But they were also lubricated lust; romantic, beautiful, mobile art. A car was not conveyance. It was confidence and conviviality, courage and companionship.
He taught me everything I know about vehicles, showed me that nuts and bolts were bones and joints, pistons were heart valves, that exhaust was a voice and headlights eyes. He taught me the mechanical specifics – the how and why of car repair – but indirectly instilled in me a sense of awe in understanding (and as a result control over) a force much bigger and stronger than myself. I love cars because my dad loved them. I drive because my dad drove. Our genes are a gearbox.
I drove my previous car for ten years and one hundred and twenty three thousand miles. My dad helped me put the down payment on the ’04 Mini Cooper S, smiling proudly while also giving me the obligatory parental, “your payments better be on time” look. He’d been pleased that I’d taken to Minis; he’d rebuilt and driven two in 1970s England, a Mini Clubman, and a Mini van. It was officially my car, but my dad spoke to it too, and whenever he took that driver’s seat from me, I could feel it bowing to his authority, like a wild horse to a worthy rider.
I eventually had to sell it, though. Cars, much like people, don’t always age gracefully, and by the time my friend was pushing eleven, arthritis had claimed him suspension, and his skin, despite years of anti-aging treatments, betrayed the cracks and wrinkles of old age. I didn’t cry, but my chest definitely tightened as I signed his body away to the Carmax funeral home. I knew I couldn’t afford to keep him forever, but as I stood in that little office, reviewing my title, I had a momentary notion to run, slide into the seat, drive until neither of us had anything left. I wrapped my arms around the black and glass as best I could before the staff drove him back behind the building, frozen, for a second, by the idea that I had just given up this piece of my life that had been a constant for a decade.
It wasn’t the car itself. Sure, I loved the black and chrome, and the comfort of knowing every inch of the car perfectly, intimately. But that’s not what swirled the acid in my stomach, not what forced that tell-tale surge of regret.
It was the memories.
Taking my future wife to lunch the first day we met. My dad riding shotgun as we cruised to the beach. Nights of DC rush hour, weekends on open endless roads. Pushing 90 MPH in tears, the day I got the call. The hours and hours and miles and miles that separated 18 year old me from 28 year old me. The life in the clutch, in the shifter, in the leather seats, and rear view mirrors. The ghost of my passing life living in that machine.
I worried that I’d lose all that, the what that made my who.
But the ghost lives on, moved from one machine to the next. In the decadence of the new car smell I can feel the old car’s spirit; in the few hundred miles feel a hundred thousand memories. When I connect to the new car, I can feel my dad’s arm through mine on the wheel, see my wife in the seat next to me, revel in everything he taught me manifesting anew, for a whole new set of adventures fueled by those I left behind.
Clutch in, shift up. Clutch out, accelerator down. Knuckles white on black leather, beats keeping pace with revs. A ghost haunts the steel frame, and memory asserts its dominance.