BY BUD HERRON

In the summer of 1960, I learned to drive my mother’s green, 1948 Pontiac Torpedo Deluxe Sedan.

Mom had not intended to own such an upscale automobile, but her brother needed cash (as he usually did when he stopped by our house smelling like Old Crow) and sold the mechanical marvel to her for $150 and two jars of apple butter.

“The Torpedo” had around 160,000 miles on it — only about 150,000 more miles than the warranty covered, and only about 75,000 more miles than the national record for operation without a complete engine overhaul. It was quite a bargain. Standard features included an on-the-column manual gear shift with a transmission that required a double pumping of the clutch when going from low to second gear.

On the negative side, the right rear fender was rusted through, only one of four mud flaps was still in place and the radio antenna was broken off. On the positive side, the radio didn’t work (negating the antenna problem) and an oil leak from the V-8 engine helped keep down the dust on our gravel driveway. I was 15 and proud my family owned such a sporty vehicle.

Driver self-education included trying to shift through all three gears before I reached the end of the driveway and then grinding the gears into reverse for the return journey. I gave myself grade points for not hitting our dog (which always ran barking beside the car), for taking out no more than one shrub and for stopping before the car hit the pavement of State Road 9. (My daily score varied, but my enthusiasm was constant.)

That fall I was signed up for a driver education course at school as the first official step toward getting my “regulars” when I turned 16 the following May. Yet, I knew the school would not teach all I would need to know about driving.

For instance, how would I learn to drive and shift with just my right hand in order to keep my left arm free to stick out the window and wave at friends? How would I learn to drive and shift with just my left hand so my right arm would be free to put around the shoulders of my snuggling girlfriend, if I ever was able to get one. “The Torpedo” was perfect for such practice.

My dad was skeptical about “The Torpedo.” (He was a Plymouth man.) He estimated the car would get about five miles to a gallon of gas and might go 20 miles per tire patch. Gasoline prices had jumped from 24.9 cents to a staggering 29.9 cents per gallon that summer, and he feared my driveway journeys alone might put the family into bankruptcy.

Mom also began to regret her purchase — not so much over the miles per gallon as over the shortened life expectancy of the family dog. By Thanksgiving, “The Torpedo” was gone — replaced by a little, yellow Nash Rambler American station wagon with an automatic transmission and an engine that sounded a lot like Mom’s sewing machine.

That was the car I had to drive the next spring when I got my “regulars” and for the rest of high school. It was an image-destroying vehicle that my friends referred to as “The Mountain Goat.”

The Rambler was (in my mother’s words) “a small, sensible car” meant for transportation rather than teenage swagger. That is why I hated it so much. Still, I adapted, went on with my life and soon discovered responsible driving is not just about speed and loud mufflers.

For instance, the seats in the “Mountain Goat” could be folded down — enabling a five-passenger vehicle to hold as many as 15, if two were willing to ride on the roof, clinging to the luggage rack.

I am sure that is the sort of maturity, adaptability and common sense the Indiana General Assembly was counting on when it set the legal driving age at 16. Still, I can’t help but wonder what could have been had Mom not sold “The Torpedo.”



Herron is a retired editor and newspaper publisher who lives in Columbus. He served as publisher of The Republic from 1998 to 2007.