Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Our first car

My parents bought our first family car when I was nine. I clearly remember Dad parking it for the first time, early one evening, in front of our house. An imported 1951 Dodge Kingsway Custom, ‘Betsy’ was already 13 years old when her former owner, a Wollongong bookmaker, parted with her close to my ninth birthday. We were stunned . . . She was ours. A private thing that separated us forever from the grips of mandatory public transport. A marvel of privacy in an Australia already well down the path of embracing private family transport.

Betsy was an unabashed American. Big, all heavy steel with tanned leather bench seats. Her chrome hubcaps sported a single discreet word in equally discreet, yet confident red capital letters: DODGE. And her heavy, chrome bumper bars snarled menace rather than hinting discreet safety. Her age was underlined by a divided windscreen, steel sun visor and no seatbelts. There she stood, quietly and regally outside 71 Collins Street, Corrimal, light years away from the huge Dodge-Chrysler-DeSoto plant that spewed her out as a confident, heavy-weight statement of America’s mass-produced post-War industrial superiority.

Betsy sported a slow-beat Detroit-made six-cylinder side-valve engine that ran on Standard petrol, and guaranteed to deliver no better economy than 20 miles per gallon. But who cared about size or economy? Filling Betsy cost no more than $2-3 in these optimistic growth years, when petrol’s seeming endlessness was boldly underscored by rock-bottom prices. And Dad always had the pump attendant throw in a squirt of upper-cylinder lubricant. Betsy was green – in colour only.

Our first concession to Catholic safety on the roads was my parents’ insistence on having Betsy blessed by our parish priest, Monsignor Downey. And I can still see him circling the car in the school playground, dressed in red and white vestments, praying over this 1 ½ tons of American steel, and liberally splashing holy water across her expansive bonnet. Our second concession to Catholic safety was a St Christopher medallion my parents attached to Betsy’s dashboard. St Christopher, designated global patron saint of travelers, forever marked Betsy apart as being a transport testimonial to Catholicism.

But for all this effort, Mum only ever tolerated this car. Betsy was heavy without power steering, and wallowed from side to side around corners. She had all the handling manners of a mechanised whale, bred for a life on broad, sweeping expanses of North American freeway. A three-speed column-shift manual, with little if any synchro on first gear, Betsy was an unforgiving woman you always needed to handle with care in tight conditions and traffic. Mum would have liked a smaller car. Maybe a much lighter, Australian-made Holden. But she had no choice. The Dodge was Dad’s decision.

Yet Mum would cart us all over Wollongong in Betsy, and we’d all head off to beaches on summer weekends or picnic spots year-round. Betsy gave us unprecedented independence. We could leave for the beach when we wanted, and return when we wanted, stopping anywhere along the way we wanted. We could drive any number of different ways, too. The regimentation of public transport timetables and routes suddenly no longer applied to the ebb and flow of Heininger family life.

Dad reached an agreement with Mrs Mascord next door for us to borrow her attached garage, and cut a small gate in the adjoining timber fence. The driveway between our properties was steep and narrow, with the garage on the same steep angle. Maneuvering this heavy car up and down the drive, and parking her with just enough room to get out one side of the garage, and to close the tilt-garage door behind her was an artform in itself. Yet neither Mum nor Dad – and much later me – ever managed to scrape a side mirror, or dint a panel in the process.

Betsy really distinguished herself when it came to family holidays. Mum and Dad would still pack our suitcases the night before departure, and in the morning, usually just about dawn, they’d pack the boot, and sometimes (especially when we kids were very young) put a case on each side of the tailshaft tunnel. We’d also load in spare blankets to keep our small bodies warm (especially in winter) and pillows to make our leather-bound rear space even softer, and seemingly more luxurious. As we’d head off into the dawn, Mum and Dad would get us all involved in prayers for a safe trip. And while we never had an accident, we were almost always sure to meet mechanical trouble along the way.

On one trip to Melbourne, the rings on one piston blew just as we crossed the border into Victoria. The only way we could proceed was for the local road service mechanic to disable that cylinder and its running mate, so we could motor on four cylinders. This we did – at a leisurely 35mph – for the next 150 miles into Melbourne, where Betsy was repaired for the return trip to Wollongong.

Betsy also lost her brakes at least once. While turning into Sydney’s Broadway, off City Road, early one Saturday afternoon, Dad sternly announced he had no brakes, and had to rely, in the heavy bumper-to-bumper traffic, on Betsy’s handbrake. Again, a road service mechanic discovered the problem was a minute hole in one of the front wheel brake hoses, which he repaired by jamming a round plug of lead into the hose to isolate the hole. While this ensured no more brake fluid spurted out under pressure, it meant no braking on that wheel. Coming down Bulli Pass, one of the steepest mountain passes in Australia, later that day was an exercise in driving skill, courage and prayers all round. Dad held Betsy in first gear, dabbing gingerly and occasionally on the brakes, all the way down the mountain as we all fervently recited the Rosary repeatedly.

As she came to the end of her life, Betsy was prone to thirst on longer trips in hot weather, a fault overcome by wrapping asbestos lagging around the fuel line, between the pump and carburetor.

Betsy was part of our family for more than eight years – long enough for me to get my license. And while I passed my driving test in a Volkswagen Beetle, I was allowed to drive the Dodge when I needed to, but usually only during daylight hours. My first major solo drive, less than two days after passing my test, was out along the Coast Road to Coalcliff to visit a friend, Graham Everrett. Steering Betsy alone around the sea cliffs that late spring afternoon was exhilarating, and I knew then that I’d always love negotiating issues of the moment while driving solo. I quickly mastered the tight driveway, up and down between our fence and Mrs Mascord’s house, and the equally tight, steep garage.

And all the while, that small, plated St Christopher medallion, attached to its soft, green vinyl base, in turn attached to Betsy’s dashboard, never moved. While we were never involved in an accident, in hindsight we never had any right to attribute our good fortune to St Christopher’s protection on the road. Some years later, under a more recent Pope, he was quietly relegated from the Saintly roll, as the Church determined he’d never really existed.

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