This Is How I Learned To Dance, With Cars
Story by Chuck Wilberger
Learning to operate a motor vehicle is still one of the most exciting and memorable moments of my life. It’s a skill that brings me great pleasure, every day. While I don’t want to sound like one of those old people who say, “today’s kids have it so easy,” the fact is, driving was a bit more challenging in the year 1968. Power steering and power brakes were rare options, air conditioning was only on “rich people’s” cars, and while automatic transmissions were pretty common on most American cars, it was a rare feature on foreign cars.
My first car was a 1959 Volvo PV 544. In addition to lacking any of the features mentioned above, I had to learn how to start a car with a choke, park the car without the assistance of power steering, and operate a clutch with my left foot. Sometimes, I had to do all three at the same time.
I had to learn to dance with the car.
Let’s begin our first step, by starting the car: you had to use a “choke” to manually modify the engine air/fuel mixture and once the car was started, one had to make slight adjustments in the position of the choke lever to keep the engine running properly. How did you know how much and when to make the adjustments? Ah-ha!
That was part of the dance! You had to “feel” how the engine was operating. Much like dancing, I had to be aware of my partner’s position and adjust my steps accordingly. The next step of the dance is the clutch.
Once a forward or reverse gear is selected, one has to transfer the power of the running engine through the transmission to the wheels. This is accomplished with the clutch. Release the clutch too quickly and the engine stalls, or the tires make a noisy chirp, causing my dance partner to stumble. Prolong the clutch’s release, and the friction material can overheat and cause damage.
As in dancing, all of these elements have to come together in a harmonious and fluid motion to successfully move a car forward.
Study of the dance steps is one thing, but performing the steps on the dance floor is another thing. Like many skills in life, it takes some practice to conduct a function without error, but it takes a lot of practice to perform a function at an impressive level.
Early in my initial learnings of motor cars, I was offered a job at an automotive dealership that sold Volvo, Triumph, and Alfa Romeo cars. My job was that of “errand boy” which included everything from sweeping the floor to moving cars about the dealership. The parking space for the customers who brought their cars in for maintenance or repairs was located across the street from the dealership, so one of my routine assignments was to move cars to and from the service department.
The same dance steps I previously described applied to the cars I had to relocate, except: every dance partner is a little different.
The cars that were brought in for service were Volvos, Triumphs and Alfa Romeo from the mid ’60s. So all of them had carburetors and manual gearboxes, but, with age and mileage, the nuances in operation reacted a bit differently.
Sometimes, finding reverse or 1st gear was a bit of a challenge. Fortunately most of the manufactures placed a diagram of the shift pattern on the top of the gearshift knob. But a popular accessory of the day was replacing the plastic knob from the factory with a wooden or leather knob with no shift pattern, or just the vehicle emblem. To add to the difficulty, the engineers wanted to ensure the operator of their vehicle did not select the reverse gear while in forward motion, so they created blocks or obstacles that required an additional effort when selecting reverse gear.
The most common obstacle was spring resistance to selecting reverse, but not always…
The Volvo P1800S required you to lift the entire gear lever up to clear the barrier to select the reverse gear gate. Some gearboxes required you to push down on the gear lever, and some had a ring or collar around the shaft that had to be pulled up whilst moving the lever to select reverse. Each time I went to move a car, whether a new model or a seasoned customers car, I did not know exactly what to expect.
But I knew the steps of the dance.
Each time I got a different dance partner, I had to quickly analyze the slight differences in her style so we could dance together. So I began to stereotype my dance partners into distinct groups. It’s now considered sexist to identify cars as the female gender, but my choice for dance partners has always been female so I’m sticking with that identity.
My Swedish girls (Volvo) were always open and welcoming each time we first met. They were simple and predictable. Not confusing at all. Things were located where you would expect. Comfortable seats that made you feel at home right away. They seemed to want to be with me and their cooperation was soothing.
My English girls (Triumph) were always a bit difficult to get to know. They seemed standoffish, but once they realized this American boy knew his way around they seemed to relax. And then it was about having fun. Very sporty and flirtatious and they liked to giggle a lot—not in a childish way—but as an adult, which caused me to smile.
My Italian girls (Alfa Romeo) were in a class all by themselves. Very stubborn to get going, but once things warmed up, look out. They all had the sweetest song. But they always wanted to go faster than I was willing to go, so I held back. Somehow, I think they were laughing behind my back at my inexperience but I was more afraid of causing injury to myself. It is a classic case of, “I wish I knew then what I know now”
So my daily experience of dancing with a wide variety of partners from different countries had me feeling the part of an international driving Playboy. I knew the proper steps and could quickly coax each of them into a smooth but brief relationship of cooperation…and then I was off to my next date—sometimes 15 to 20 in one day! Did I like some more than others? Of course.
On some days, I did not want to leave the exotic spin with the Alfa. On other days, it was fun to frolic with a Triumph and for a day of relaxing there was nothing like the Volvo. Did I “Love” any of them? No, that was reserved for my special one.
At the end of the day, I would walk to my own car, my Volvo PV544. This was my love, because we were keenly familiar with each other I knew exactly how she operated. I knew just where to place the choke and release the clutch. We danced together flawlessly without effort or thought. I had learned all my initial driving skills with her, and she taught me all the basics I needed in my elementary days of learning motoring skills. She was my first love.
We would take long rides together with the windows down and summer breezes flowing through the car. She would play our favorite songs, and I would sing along. I would rest my elbow on the window frame and we would cruise the open roads. It was much like holding hands on the beach watching the waves roll in.
There were times when I would find a secluded, curvy country road and we would behave a bit naughty with unnecessary downshifts and push the engine a bit beyond the suggested red line. It was clear she enjoyed the randy behavior as much as me.
We went everywhere together.
But as life does sometimes, we reached a point where it was time to go our separate ways. There was not a lot of emotion when that moment arrived, as we both knew it was time to move on, and we did. It has now been 42 years since we parted. I’ve had many relationships with many cars. Some have been exciting and some have simply fulfilled a need.
I currently drive a 2014 Volvo XC60. She is a great car for my position in life. I don’t have to mess with a choke or clutch to take a journey. She handles it all. She does so not with an attitude of “I can do this better” it is more a position of “let me handle this for you”. (The fact is, she does it better than I ever could.) With the heated steering wheel, and heated seats she gives me the warmth and comfort as if sitting by a fireplace with a hot tea on a winter day.
But do not assume she is sedate. (Oh, far from it) With her turbo engine rated at 300 horsepower, she can hold her own against the best of them and she does it with style and grace. She is a wonderful lady and I deeply love our time together.
In my heart, however, there is a place I have guarded with a fortress or maybe, better said—I have created a shrine. It is the place where I keep the memories of first learning to drive with my 1959 Volvo 544. From the moment we parted, I knew that nothing could ever replace the adventure, excitement and discovery we shared.
I knew then as I know now, it had purity and honesty that could never be duplicated or replaced—and I have never tried: there is nothing like your first love.