UB grad student Ellen Hartley watches her wild life race past from behind the wheel.

1956:  The Chrysler

When I was 15, my mother drove me to the doctor’s to have a growth removed from my neck. I was old enough to get my learner’s permit but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. So I had to be chauffeured. Mother was more than happy to comply — she was in no hurry for me to start driving. Especially since it was her car – a shiny new Chrysler Windsor Deluxe – that I’d be abusing.

The surgeon’s office was downtown in D.C. General Hospital.  It was hot and this was before auto air-conditioning, so I opened my window and rested my elbow on the window frame. Down Connecticut Avenue we drove, uneventfully, until a truck came barreling down a side street on the right and plowed right into my window. I’m told I went into shock, because the next thing I remember is sprawling on the cold tile floor of a hamburger joint (it may have been a White Tower) while someone pressed an ice pack against my elbow. My blouse was streaked with blood.

Well, the long and the short of it is that I ended up in an ambulance which took me straight to D.C. General, where the surgeon-on-call, the very same removing-the-neck-growth surgeon, as it happened, bandaged my elbow and put my arm in a sling. The bone was chipped, but you can’t do anything for a chipped elbow, it stays chipped. He then shot me with Novocain and removed the neck growth.

The next morning The Washington Post ran the headline: “Girl on Way to Hospital Gets There in Ambulance Instead.”

1956: The Nash   

After my elbow had healed and my arm was sling-free, I decided I was better off driving myself. I took the bus downtown to Motor Vehicle headquarters and got my learner’s permit. Then I set out to learn. It wasn’t my mother’s shiny new Chrysler I was after, grand, staid, and automatically transmissioned, but my father’s cute little Nash Metropolitan. A bright yellow two-seater convertible. Stick-shift. Cool and zippy.

My father drove me to the nearby high school parking lot, where many a novice driver had gotten started. He got out and ushered me into the driver’s seat. I sat.

“What are you waiting for, honey?” he asked. “Turn on the ignition!”

I turned the key. The car bucked and stalled.

“Try again, this time take your foot off the clutch slowly and shift into first.”

I did. But must have shifted mistakenly into third, for his adorable little Nash reared up, took off and…dived into a concrete retaining wall.

We were fine.

The right headlight was in many pieces.

“I guess we’d better start with the Chrysler,” he said.

1957: The Chrysler

One Saturday, shortly after I got my license, my friend Ellen Yamasaki and I went downtown to the main library to research a history project. I drove the shiny new Chrysler. On the way back, going north on Connecticut Ave., we were stopped in traffic in front of the Mayflower Hotel.  I was in the right lane; cars were parked at the curb.  As we started moving, a massive black Cadillac pulled out of a parking space and bashed into us. I was terrified because I was a new driver, certain I was at fault. The right rear door was smashed but the car was drivable. We exchanged phone numbers and I continued driving home. Suddenly to my surprise, coming toward us in the other direction there appeared my parents in Daddy’s cute little Nash. I honked wildly, gesturing toward the Chrysler’s crash site, but of course they couldn’t see the right side of my car. They honked back, waved and drove on.

I took Ellen home and returned to my house. Mother and Daddy were not yet back. I walked up the street to our neighbors, who offered me consolation. When my parents came looking for me, I poured out my misadventure, and cringing, showed them the damage, resigned to having my new driving privileges revoked.  But they assured me that it couldn’t have been my fault and set out to contact the other driver. To their chagrin they learned he was a diplomat from South Asia and that diplomatic immunity shielded him from the consequences of bad driving.

My parents collected from their own insurance company.

1948: The Hudson

The first family car I remember was a dark blue Hudson. My brother (age three) and I (age seven) used to fight over who got to lie down on the “shelf” over the back seat, inside the rear window.

1963: The MG

When I was in college, my future husband drove me home for spring break. He had a red MG convertible even tinier than Daddy’s Nash. No room for my suitcase, so I had to sit on it for seven hours. After we married, my sister-in-law took me to a deserted street and taught me how to shift. This time I did not crash into a concrete wall, or anything else for that matter.

The MG was heaps of fun to drive, though a challenge to fit a week’s groceries inside.

1965: The VW Bug

After college, student grants took us to West Berlin, where at the U.S. Government’s expense we lived like kings. If kings drove VW Bugs. That’s what everyone in Germany drove and we were no exception. Manual transmission, of course. We called ours “Little Leap” – an Anglicized “Liebchen.” She was indeed our darling, our intrepid voyager who took us all over the continent. This was 1965: Europe was divided. Once, crossing the “Wall” isolating West Berlin, Little Leap was stopped at Checkpoint Charlie and we were strip searched by burly border guards who confiscated a month-old NY Times in the trunk.

I remember slogging through East Germany, where street lights were turned off at nine to save electricity; through Czechoslovakia, where we ended up with bread and beer for dinner because they didn’t know English and refused to speak German; through Yugoslavia, where, cramped and shivering, we tried to sleep in Little Leap’s ill-cushioned interior, because the only hotel on the road from Belgrade to Athens stank from the urine of past motorists.

When we returned to the states, we had Little Leap shipped back and drove her for years. Until I became pregnant. My husband, then a medical intern, had seen in the ER what happened to people in VW Bugs who got into accidents. They were mostly dead. This would not do for our future progeny, so we traded it in for a Ford sedan: larger, stodgier, and presumably safer.

It was my first car with seatbelts.

1958: Seatbelts were introduced into general use by Saab at the NY Motor Show.

We bought our VW Bug in 1964. I don’t know what the Germans were thinking, but they were not thinking of seatbelts.

1973: The Ford

We had moved to Baltimore. I was racked with “walking pneumonia” but needed to get to York, PA., for an orchestra rehearsal which could not do without the flute part of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. I was doped up on Contac and antibiotics, so Janet (violin) agreed to drive my safe, stodgy Ford. I sat next to her, Lynette (bassoon) in the back, together with our instruments. It was raining hard – good thing my husband had gotten new front tires, steel-belted radials, the latest. We were speeding up Route 83, when just before the Pennsylvania border the safe, stodgy Ford swerved wildly, careened off the road, and turned over on the shoulder. Minutes, eternities; a passing motorist stopped. The car was toast. We were trapped inside, hanging upside-down from our seatbelts.

“Our instruments!” we wailed.

Our lives did not flash before our eyes.

The helpful motorist cut us down, and I went crawling around on the floor (formerly the ceiling), collecting bright pink Erythromycin pills from the wreckage. My ankle was scratched; otherwise we were fine. Our instruments were fine. We learned that 40 feet ahead of us was a bridge with a low guardrail — we would have gone right over.

The police asked me what idiot put radial tires in the front and left worn out regular ones in the back.

1973: The Dodge

I needed a new car. My husband said I could get anything I wanted. I had no idea what I wanted. A friend said to get a Dodge Dart. That afternoon I got a Dodge Dart. Dull gray – the only one in the showroom.

Dull it may have been, but that car ran like a dream. I called it “Vivaldi” because it never missed a beat. My marriage, however, was not running dreamily; when my husband moved out, I had it repainted a stunning shade called Miami Blue. It kept running like a dream. One Saturday morning I clocked 56 miles shuffling my kids back and forth to music lessons, art class, tennis. I drove it so much that I was hardly surprised when the back door fell off. Cash-poor after the divorce, I went to a junkyard and found the right size door – bright gold. I figured no one would ever steal an old Miami Blue Dart with a gold door. And no one ever did.

My kids insisted that I drop them off a block away from wherever they were going.

1981: The Honda

A friend offered me $900 for the Dart when it was just short of 100,000 miles. I would have liked to celebrate its centennial birthday but decided to take advantage of a good deal. In its place I got a Honda Accord, the first car I’d ever purchased on my own. Front wheel drive, snow-friendly (driving in snow had always terrified me). Sturdy and reliable. It was an innocuous silver gray, devoid of drama. Just right for a single woman facing the world with less than complete confidence.

1992: The Saturn

Eleven years later I was ready for some excitement. The Saturn was my overdue midlife crisis car: a luscious plum coupe; insolent and snappy; my fun car.

In 1995, when I remarried, I crammed the snappy Saturn full of ferns and a fig tree too fragile to entrust to the moving van. Away to Long Island, where I gained a husband and four stepkids. The youngest was 11. Their mother had died of cancer. The family needed some fun.

The kids loved the car. My husband did not; he deemed the lack of back doors an annoyance. He was not crushed, as I was, some years later, when son number-two, who’d recently got his license, totaled the snappy Saturn by driving it through a flooded intersection.

2000:  The Nissan

The Nissan Maxima was a practical family car — a moss green sedan with plenty of room for kids and groceries. Its roominess was problematic for me; my legs were too short to fit comfortably in the driver’s seat. But marriage is a compromise and my husband is a wonderful man.

I bit my tongue and drove the practical Maxima. For 11 years. Until a woman, who was speeding in the other direction while texting, made a left turn into my door, squashing the car into an embankment. Goodbye, Maxima.

This time I was not fine; I saw a chiropractor for months.

2011:  The Second Honda

All our kids are grown and we’ve moved back to Baltimore. Today my life is about comfort and peace of mind. After the Maxima was totaled my husband bought a Subaru with all-wheel drive to take us through the coming climatic upheavals. I inherited his old Honda Civic, worn from years of service. I no longer worry about dents or scratches.

The front seat is exactly the right size for my legs.

Ellen Hartley is a nonfiction writer, currently enrolled in the MFA program at UB. When her career as a professional flutist failed to pay the rent, she became a lawyer and served as Assistant State’s Attorney for Baltimore City. She has also taught at Towson University and written music reviews for local papers.

5 replies on “Car Talk: A Memoir”

  1. So sad about the “snappy” Saturn! Great job with this, Ellen, Have loved reading your work!

  2. Wow! You did it! the ol’ segmented essay looks good in print – a kind of potpouri of projects – congratulations. You’re professional now!

Comments are closed.