Monday, December 27, 2010

My Life with Porsches: The French Kid

My Mom and Step-Dad sent me over to France in 1969 to stay with his parents for a while. I had met them one time each in ’68 when they came over to check out this American woman and boy who had married into the family. They were nice, they bought me treats. I finished my school year and my parents promptly put me on a TWA 707, by myself no less and sent me over the pond.

On the plane I was a star. A brave little kid travelling by himself. The Stewardesses (yes back then they were called Stewardess) swooned and fawned over me the whole flight over. If only I had been 10 years older…but it would be doubtful that they would have spread the same affections for a scruffy teen. But a 9 year old? Man it was great, an endless supply of Coca-Cola and a smile.

I got to the airport and some nice lady took me through customs into the arrival area AND there was nobody there to meet me. I immediately started crying, I wanting to go home. The poor woman did not know what to do. Then off in the distance we heard a noise, someone shouting my name. I looked and saw two tiny legs running as fast as they could in heels. It reminded me of a short terrier dog, that fast, frantic, almost stiff motion. As she came closer I could see she was crying too. It was my Mameé. I ran to her and hugged her tight. There had been an accident on the highway and she was stuck in traffic. She was sorry she was late. Relieved, the woman handed her my documents and we left.

She drove a white Renault 8, this tiny French Sedan was slow and boxy, it felt little even to me. She opened up the hood and dropped my baggage inside. Where was the motor? In the rear she said. The windows did not roll down in the back; they slid side to side…but only part ways. I thought that was strange. But she drove it with such verve, rowing the spindly gear lever and stomping on the throttle. It was like she was asking the car to give her everything it had…too bad it did not have very much to begin with. We arrived at their flat in Paris. To call it a flat or apartment did not do it justice. It took up the whole floor of a Mid-19th Century apartment building. They had whole wings they did not even use.

Every morning I had breakfast with my Papa on the balcony overlooking the Champs du Mars with the Tour de Eiffel as our back drop. I had absolutely no clue how good I had it. Ahh, Papa - The boss, the Dictator, the Commander in Chief. He knew it all. And if he did not, it was such a triviality that it simply did not matter. He had married Mameé in 1935 and she came with a dowry of $1M (in 1935 dollars; imagine what it would be like today!). He took that money and made a fortune. When Papa spoke or made a pronouncement (which he frequently did) everyone took note or with natural Gallic disdain at least pretended to.

And…he had this crazy car (you knew I would get around to it at some point right?). A 1966 Chevy Chevelle SS convertible, with white body, white top and a red interior. It was loud and fast and for France at that time such an “F-You” statement. It screamed money…as in I can afford the gas and you can’t. He would drive it one-half a block to the Tabac for some cigarettes or a paper, leave the car running outside and then drive the half-block back. He loved that car, it was so….American. And of course I drove with him the whole half-block, both ways.

I gotta say though, I was terrified of the man. He had this deep gravelly voice and such a stern look. He always wore a suit, even at dinner and when he spoke to me I listened closely for fear I might forget something he said. Later in the summer Mameé told me that I would have to drive with him (by myself) from Canne back to Paris, I was mortified. To keep me placated he sat a whole bag of Bon-bon in my lap and told me to have as many as I wanted. As he chained smoked our way back to Paris, I ate piece after piece.

Until I started eating a lemon one. He nailed the throttle to pass a slow moving truck and as he did it, the Chevelle hit a bump. The shock jolted me and I swallowed the candy whole, getting it stuck in my wind pipe - I could not breathe. I started to panic. He looked at me and instinctively knew something was wrong. He pulled over to the shoulder of the highway and quickly got out of the car and walked around to the passenger side. He literally pulled me up and over the door (since of course the convertible top was down) and gave me one huge open handed slap on the back. It dislodged the candy and sent it flying to the ground, breaking into tiny shards. I took a deep breath and started crying. He hugged me tenderly telling me everything was going to be okay. He also suggested that maybe…just maybe try not to eat the lemon ones.

I looked up to him with tears in my eyes and knew everything was going to be fine. Looking at his watch he said we needed to move or we would be late for dinner back in Paris. He hated being late for dinner…

The Chevelle shot forward once again, but I left the rest of the candy in the bag. Better not to press ones luck too much…

We did make it on time for dinner.

Until next time.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Life with Porsches: How I became a car nut

I come by auto fanaticism naturally. My mom’s second husband was French after all. Come on…the 1960’s, a French guy that smoked Gauloise cigarettes, cooked incredible French food and looked like a French movie star? Of course he knew how to work on cars too. He seemed born to it. In 1967 he bought an Austin Healey 3000 Mk III, medium blue with a dark blue leather interior. The car was only 4 years old, but it may as well have been 100. It was broken all the time. How could this nearly new car spend so much time with its hood open, its insides being exposed? Easy…Lucas electronics. The Prince of darkness, the Earl of sitting on jack stands.
He worked on it each weekend to get it running again; it seemed to work on the weekdays and if by magic broke down on Friday evening. I remember that it required a lot of tools and parts that seemed to only come from a place very far away and it came with a lot of dirty fingernails and broken knuckles. And it required a lot of money…which we did not have much of.
But when it ran; it was like nothing else. That sound, the deep basso thunder of the inline 6-cylinder motor, that impossibly low exhaust hanging just centimeters from the ground and for me at least, those tiny buckets in the back that were supposed to be seats…with no seat belts. Ah…the 60’s.
We drove it once from St. Louis to Lexington, KY one summer so I could meet my real father. I remember sitting in the back, hanging on, looking at the speedo seeing 120 MPH on the dial. The wind rushing not so much around me, as though me. Funny, I was not even afraid of falling out. I trusted him completely.
Back home in St. Louis, he took me to a European car dealership and while he bought some parts (believe it or not), left me alone to wonder around the cars that were for sale. Oh…that magical moment, the beauty, shapes that could only be described as other worldly. I touched a Lamborghini GT350 and actually sat in it. I put my hands around the steering wheel and gear shift, but dared not move them, fearful that I might break something. I saw a bright red 275 GTB/4. A real Ferrari! Something my step-dad had only talked about. But here it was right in front of me. And nobody was looking! I slowly clicked open the door and climbed inside.
I was transported into another world; this was beyond anything I sat in before. The first thing that hit me was the smell. Then yards of leather and chrome, that huge thin rimmed steering wheel, the wood smooth to the touch, the impossibly tall chrome shifter set into the grated gear pattern, all unmistakable Ferrari. I breathed in, it smelled of hand cut leather, rubber and a faint whiff of oil; intoxicating perfume for a 7-year old. I just sat there soaking it all in. There were other great cars on the show room floor; Maserati’s, Lotus (Loti?), Jags. But what did it for me was the Lamborghini and the Ferrari. I was hooked! Smitten with the beauty of the shapes the Italian houses produced. No muscle cars for me. Oh I appreciate the brute speed, but I still lust after them funny fer’in cars.
So you see, it was all a set up after all. I would be car guy for life. I came by it naturally too. I have the tools, the dirty fingernails and broken knuckles to prove it. Oh and I have owned 9 Porsches too. But that is another story. Until next time.