LAST EDITED ON Mar-29-19 AT 01:18 PM (EDT)
I was driving to the next town over this afternoon, and as I passed the spot where I had my first car accident (well, the first that happened when I was driving, you understand), it suddenly occurred to me that I got my driver's license 30 years ago(!) last month.
Nowadays, Maine has one of those preposterous graduated licensing schemes where you don't get a real driver's license until you're I don't even remember how old, and before then you have one that basically restricts you from driving under any condition anyone might actually want to drive under. I can't remember the details. No driving after dark, or with somebody else in the car, or without somebody else in the car, or with the radio on, or who the hell knows what restrictions.
Anyway. It weren't like that when I were a lad. I was part of the last cohort to be licensed at 15 in the State of Maine; IIRC, the law was changed to raise the driving age to 16 after I finished Driver Education and got my learner's permit, so I was grandfathered and able to take my road test before my 16th birthday.
I practiced on all sorts of different vehicles—my father had a little collection of 10-or-more-year-old cars at the time, the most expendable of which was his 1976 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu hardtop, a metallic green monument to the incredible knack GM's engineers had of getting as little power as possible out of an engine in the 1970s. Seriously, the Malibu sometimes had a hard time getting out of its own way, it was so massively underpowered. Probably an excellent learner car for that very reason! Short of driving it down a boat ramp into a lake, you couldn't hurt yourself or anyone else driving a '76 Malibu if you tried.
(I also learned to drive a stick shift on a 1980½ Dodge Power Wagon, not unlike this one, except it was also green. From this, you might form the impression that my father liked green cars. In fact, my father has never cared what color a car is. In private sales, as both the Malibu and the Power Wagon were, he buys whatever's going; from a lot, he selects whichever one has the features he wants and is cheapest. We had a lot of cars with unpopular color schemes when I was a kid, including a Subaru GL wagon in a color that was probably not, but should've been, called Incontinence Yellow. But anyway.)
When the time came for me to take my road test, however, I got a surprise: my very own father, thenunto (is that a word? IT IS NOW) the stingiest man in the world when it came to automobiles, solemnly presented me with the keys to... the Toronado.
Fig. A This is not my actual Toronado; I swiped these photos from a Hemmings Motor News listing. It looks just like it, though. Same color! Inspiringly called Frost Beige.
Yes, when I was 15, my family had an unusual number of cars for one divorced guy and his not-yet-driving-age son, but only one nice one: a 1984 Oldsmobile Toronado. We had acquired it in 1987, fresh off a three-year lease to a guy Dad worked with, and it was beyond question the nicest car any family I knew had ever owned (apart from my friend Mike's, but then his father ran the Cadillac dealership in town).
In many ways, the Toronado was the antithesis of my father's automotive ethic at the time. See, like I said before, back then Dad was cheap when it came to cars. He had an especial aversion to power anything—"that's just another thing that will break and cost a lot of money to fix"—and he shunned air conditioning on the same grounds, plus he objected to the way it wasted engine power and insisted it wasn't necessary in Maine (despite the fact that it's virtually tropical here in the Penobscot valley in high summer).
Purchased at the urging of my rather more sensible mother, the Toronado was what they used to call a Personal Luxury Coupé—it had power everything and everything conditioning. It was the base trim level, the Brougham, but all that really separated the Brougham from the hifalutin Caliente model was digital gauges and leather seats. That didn't matter; GM's digital gauges of the era generally stopped working after about three years, and the Brougham's seats were better than leather.
Fig. B Ohh yes.
Yes, the Toronado Brougham's seats were upholstered in the finest Corinthian velour. "Vulgalour," Jeremy Clarkson would call it, but man, I tell you what, those were the most comfortable damn seats. None of these ridiculous sporty side bolsters or rock-hard lumbar protrusions like you get in modern cars. It was like driving a living room sofa. And unlike the cheap grades of leather GM used at the time, the vulgalour wouldn't peel the hide right off you if you sat on them wearing shorts in summer time. I would happily have a set of 1984 Oldsmobile Toronado Brougham seats as furniture in my house today.
That may say more about me than the seats, but anyway.
You may also have noticed that the interior of the Toronado in this particular exterior color is furnished in a color scheme we might call Gentlemen's Club Brown.
Figs. C-D Harrumph! Sanderson, see if any of the good Cubans are left in the humidor, will you? There's a good fellow.
That's real wood! So heavily varnished and polished that it both looks and feels more like Wood-Look Plastic than wood, admittedly, but still wood. Also, you can't see it because of the steering wheel, but the pulls on the insides of the doors are these hinged metal and wood handles, like you would find on old-fashioned hard-sided luggage. Spared no expense!
Anyway, and more practically for purposes of our current discussion, another feature of the '84 Toronado you might have noticed is that it had a hood so long and flat you could use it as a helipad.
Fig. E Does my hood intimidate you?
I parallel parked that car. With that incredible nose and those prodigious rear-quarter blind spots. Under pressure and the scrutiny of the state driving examiner. It was required as part of the road test.
Fig. F No windows here, bucko. Just these fetching decorative side lights—a throwback to the style of horse-drawn carriage that was originally the thing called a brougham, which had lanterns on it abaft the doors.
And the thing was, it was easy. The Toronado was a big car, but not anything like the biggest of its era; at the time, that model was considered a midsized car by Oldsmobile standards, and it had been significantly downsized from earlier generations of the Toronado itself. The hood ornament, and the fact that the front end was so square you could see the corners of it from the driver's seat, meant it was easy to tell where that massive nose was, unlike in modern cars where some consideration is paid to aerodynamics. It even had little backward-facing running lights out there (which would flash when the turn signals were on), so if you turned the parking lights on, you could locate the nose at night just as easily.
And the power steering and power brakes were so powerful that the car, for all its bulk, required basically zero physical effort to operate All of which meant that you could just sort of settle back on the velour sofa, relax, and let the watchful spirit of Ransom E. Olds take you to the house. That brown and woody cabin was such a calming place to be that the stress of taking the all-dreaded road test just... went away, and a half-hour's pleasant drive around town later, I was being congratulated on my fine performance and awarded a full and unrestricted driver's license, four months shy of turning 16.
Pleased as punch, I went home and reported my success to Dad. I figured he would probably sign me out the Malibu from the family motor pool now, but I didn't mind—a car was a car, and the Malibu didn't smell too bad with the windows open.
You may, therefore, imagine my surprise when he turned around and awarded me the Toronado, claiming that it was not to his taste anyway.
(In fact, I realized later that this was mainly because, being the newest car in the fleet and also front-wheel drive, it was both the most reliable and the safest car we had, and he was hedging his bets against having to either rescue me from far-off breakdowns or come help the cops hose me off a tree somewhere. When he was that age, he spent pretty much all his time nearly getting killed in a succession of barely roadworthy hoopties. Really, it's a wonder I even exist.)
So there I was—15 years old, freshly licensed, and the slightly dazed third owner of a five-year-old Personal Luxury Coupé. Some of my friends mocked it as a grandpa car, but I didn't care. I was going to be the one sitting on the velvet couch, steering with one finger on the Interstate, listening to a tape deck that sounded like a concert hall while bowling along in silent, air-conditioned comfort. I loved that car unreservedly.
The very next day, I crashed it.
... I was tempted to end the post there, but that would be mean. Besides, then you'd have to go a day or two thinking it was my fault, and I can't have that, because it totally wasn't. Sort of. See, what happened was that I got run off the road.
See, the main road leading out of town wasn't always there. The last couple of miles before you get to the town limits were built in... I forget, the 1940s or '50s, I think. Before then, the route into town from the east meandered off by the river for a while and came into town by what is now the back way, an alignment that was a few miles longer and a lot more winding. Ultimately, the road through the middle of town (now called Central Street) was connected directly to that main road with a new and much straighter run through the woods, and the old route became a much-less-used side road that branches off a couple of miles outside of town.
The day after I got my license, I was out driving for the sheer hell of it, as you do, and I decided to go out there on the main road, pick up the Rice Farm Road (so called because there used to be a farm out there belonging to a family called Rice, not because they grew rice), and drive back into town the back way, just for funsies. Now, the turnoff from Route 157 to the Rice Farm Road is pretty sharp—more than 90° if you're heading east on 157—and it's near the bottom of a hill. So to make the turn safely, you have to do a fair bit of braking, on a road with a speed limit of 55 mph.
Which I was perfectly willing to do, but the trucker behind me had other ideas. By about halfway down the hill, it was evident that my options were to A) abort the operation and proceed to East Millinocket, or possibly Newfoundland; B) get run over from behind by an 18-wheeler; or C) try to make the turn at, oh, 45 miles an hour.
Now, it's obvious to us all, sitting in our comfortable gweeping chairs, that A is the only viable course of action there. In the moment, though, it never occurred to me. B did, and was obviously not ideal; so I gave C a go. And to give me credit, I did clear the path of the semi truck; but we didn't get all the way around the corner. It was February; the tires were cold, there may have been some traces of ice on the ground, and we were just going way too fast.
On the flip side, it was February, so all we did was spear across the corner into the snowbank on the far side, well out of the path of traffic on either road, and wedge there long before we'd have reached the trees. Ironically, if the car hadn't been front-wheel drive, I probably could've just backed out of the snow and been on my way. As it was, the front end was too buried to extricate itself, and I had the deeply humiliating experience of being come upon and towed out of the snowbank by the lady who had been the crossing guard out front of my elementary school not too many years before, who seemed deeply entertained by the entire affair.
And here's the thing: the Oldsmobile was absolutely fine. One of these Tupperware boxes we're all driving today probably would have been totaled in an accident like that—its fragile forelimbs all bent out of shape, engine computer rendered neurotic with shock, plastic bodywork scattered over half the county, probably airbags deployed and interior ruined. But Oldsmobiles were made of pig iron and boot leather. Look at that bull bar of a front bumper it had! No, the Toronado was completely unruffled, not a hair out of place. The only evidence of our adventure was that the front wheel covers were all stuffed full of snow.
Fig. G These are not real wire wheels; however, they are real wire wheel covers, secured with a bolt in the center, not mere hubcaps.
I did get some snow tires for it the next winter, though.
I had that Toronado for the next two years; it wasn't the only car I used regularly, but it was the first that was Officially Mine, and remained the go-to for long trips until my senior year.
I never had another accident in it, although one of its many fine traits was that it was so heavy and quiet, and its engine (a 307-cubic-inch V8 the Oldsmobile people called the "Rocket 8", which was a little generous given that it had about 150 horsepower, but anyway) ran so smoothly, that it drove exactly the same at any speed of which it was capable—which could tend to enable one to get into trouble. I remember I was driving home from Bangor on the Interstate one evening, not using the cruise control for some reason, when I looked down and noticed that I had unconsciously sped up to...
... well, I'll never know, actually, because there was an odd bit of legislation in force in 1984 that limited how high cars' speedometers could read in the United States. Bizarrely, it didn't affect how fast the cars actually were, it only mandated that their speed-reading instruments could not read above 85 miles per hour.
Fig. H Thus. This is one reason why they added that big digital speedometer to the DeLorean in Back to the Future, by the way; because zoom in however the Second Unit might, the stock speedo was never, ever going to read 88 miles per hour. :)
So I looked down and saw the speedometer was reading 85 mph. This came as a surprise, because the car felt exactly the same as it did at 55 (which was still the Interstate speed limit when I was in high school). Startled, and conscious of what an incredible reaming I would get from the carabinieri if they caught me at that, I lifted my foot...
... and it took, er, several seconds for the needle to come off the peg, there.
So, I don't know exactly how fast I got that car going, but I would guess it was rather more than you would expect a two-ton luxury car with 150 horsepower to be able to go.
Well, anyway. Enough of the follies of youth for today. That time I wasn't speeding on purpose, anyway. Maybe sometime I'll tell you about the time that I was, but that was in a different car. The Olds and I never got into trouble again. No accidents, never got a ticket; I don't think I was ever even pulled over in that car.
Then, one day in my senior year, the transaxle failed. Dad put a new one in it... and then insisted that he be allowed to sell it, on the premise that "now that one thing's gone on it, it's just going to be one damn thing after another with that car," and he wouldn't fix it if anything else went wrong. What did I know? I was 17. I let him sell it.
The cheap car gods giveth, and the cheap car gods taketh away.
To be fair, we did replace it with something even cooler (if nowhere near as comfortable or well-equipped). But that's another story.
Benjamin D. Hutchins, Co-Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & Forum Mod
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited http://www.eyrie-productions.com/
zgryphon at that email service Google has
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