"Sometimes you need to ease off in order to go faster." -Sir Jackie Stewart
Enjoying cars and enjoying driving are two very different things, that is just a fact. You've got some folks out there with a collection of cars that they gawk at, in their garages, or frankly, warehouses. They have one, or a few, cars trailered to a Concourse show for other people to drool over and post on Instagram with some ludicrous hashtags. They gloat about how few miles their 1962 Ferrari 250 GT Lusso has, they like to gab about the money they spent on it and how much it will appreciate over the year or two they own before they sell it for a profit. I fear that many cars that fill our dreams end up in this position; Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches, Datsuns, you name the marque, stuck in a garage destine to hardly ever be driven. Some car that you pine after is probably sitting in a museum or a private collection somewhere with a pie tin laying beneath the engine to catch any dirty, dirty oil that may soil the pearly white floor, not having been driven in years and may not be driven for sometime. And sure, we need to preserve these artifacts of open road for future generations, after all we're all just curators of these vehicles for our lifetimes, they'll always have a future beyond what we provide them now.
Anyways, I digress. No longer will I whine about people with too much money, who don't drive their coveted classics. I want to talk about driving, not the lack there of! I really began to learn something about driving when I got into my second car, my first manual car; a 2005 Volkswagen Golf GL. It was bone stock, mechanically speaking. It did have an aftermarket radio but unfortunately that didn't help with power output of the naturally aspirated 2 liter. A five speed gearbox mated the engine to the wheels with an open differential in between. The body was painted in the handsome Indigo Blue Pearl, clad with two pinstripes that encircled the car like a low laying halo. A black on black interior completed the package. What a magnificent thing it was.
I remember finding the car on the internet in the spring of 2014 and immediately fell for it. I had never really been into Volkswagen before this point, never liked Beetles, never really cared about Golfs or Jettas. Even earlier VWs didn't really tickle my fancy at the time; MKII GTIs , Rabbit Pickups, Type 3s, Scirrocos, nothing! But for whatever reason this car struck me like a bolt of lighting. My family and I tripped over to Downingtown, to Fred Beans Subaru, to check out the golf. As we pulled in, I was unable to find it in the sea of new Subarus and I began to get a bit concerned. Driving towards the back of the lot we saw some used vehicles of different makes and amongst all of the nonsense, there it was! It looked even better in person. An hour or so later, we left the dealership with a new, used MKIV Golf.
As a result of not knowing how to drive stick, my father took the keys and drove us home that evening. At one point very close to our house, I asked my dad if he would let me give it a try. I had to get it us up a hill, make a right, and we would be in front of our abode, that's it. We were right down the street at a stop sign. We quickly made a driver change and I, for the first time, in my 17 years of existence, prepared myself to manually shift gears. This was purity. This was driving. I slotted the shifter into first and slowly let the clutch out looking for the engagement point and fed it a a bit too little gas and stalled the car. Not being discouraged, I fired up the willing VW and tried again. For the second time, I slotted the shifter into first and let off the clutch and gave it a bit more gas, maybe a bit too much gas but we were off! Up the hill, I rolled through the stop sign at the top out of fear of being stuck on the hill. I pulled into the drive way and felt a bit discouraged. I realized that this was going to require practice.
I have always had an issuing with not being good at things. I'm definitely a bit arrogant when it comes to certain tasks that typically take practice to master. This time being no exception, I was frustrated with myself and my evident lack of skill. For a time after that evening, I was afraid to drive the car; Frankly, I had disappointed myself and had become completely disillusioned with driving a manual car. "Why does it have to be so damn difficult?" I thought to myself after a few more outings in the Golf. I avoided driving the car to school in order to avoid being laughed at (naturally). I remember having a date with a girl and asking her to pick ME up so I wouldn't embarrass myself in front of her. She had no issues picking me up, thankfully, and we had a lovely night.
One day, I texted a good pal of mine, named Will, to ask him if he could give me some pointers in my car. He excitedly accepted my invitation and agreed to pop over that weekend. (Sidebar: At this point in my life I don't think I had ever asked for anyone besides my parents for help. This is definitely an extension of my arrogance, beyond any doubt of mine. I've become so much better at asking for help these days and trying my best to not let my ego get the best of me. I even ask my wife for help, sometimes. Anyhow, the point of this tangent was to share how-ALREADY, this car, that I had only owned for a few weeks, was teaching me something about myself: That I suck at driving and I won't always be great at things the first time around. In retrospect: They were invaluable lessons to learn at age 17. In that moment: frustrating beyond comprehension. This lump of german steel was embarrassing me.)
Some background on Will: He and his dad were diehard petrol heads. His father raced a first generation Camaro in the nineties and early 2000s and eventually was bitten by the Porsche bug so he ditched the American muscle for a black 1984 911 (that car would spark my interest and ultimate infatuation with Porsche). There may have been some other cars mixed in there but those are the two I remember Will talking about. Needless to say Will's father made sure Will could drive a standard transmission vehicle before he could use the bathroom himself. Anyways, Will came over that Saturday afternoon, if my memory serves me correctly, it was mid to late April of 2014, the Pennsylvania weather was perfect. We tend to get pretty lovely weather during the springtime here in PA. It was an ideal day for a drive, I remember that. We drove over to my high school, to their large empty lot and got down to business. "A bit more gas, a bit less clutch!" he declared repeatedly. "Feel for the clutch's engagement point, you need to know where it is to gain the muscle memory..." uttered Will. It's important to mention that Will is, or at least was at this time, incredibly patient (I haven't talked to him in years), so he was calm, cool and collected as I was just about ready to tear my hair out because of my incessant stalling and clutch riding. "Where is the happy medium?!" I wondered to myself. We spent about thirty minutes in this parking lot before he told me something that should have been obvious to me from the get-go: "Slow down! Pay attention to what you're doing. Really feel for the engagement and take your time.". In that exact moment it occurred to me that no-one was behind me, no-one was going to honk at me or be upset I was sitting at a stop sign too long. I was rushing! Rushing was not a new concept. Most of my academic career was comprised of me procrastinating and then making up some awful garbage the night before a paper was due just to have something to turn in. Or rushing around to complete some homework or studying to get out of the house and go run about town with my friends. I was always rushing. This is something that couldn't be rushed, otherwise you'd be snapping your neck and getting a taste of your steering wheel all too often.
Suddenly it clicked. "Take my time..." Granted the concept of juggling the clutch and the gas and the brake never eluded me, I just wasn't taking my time, I wasn't paying attention to what I was doing. My ego was in the way, making me not realize that this was going to be a skill that required practice. Clutch in, first gear, clutch out slow, a little bit of gas and feel for the engagement point. Step by step. Baby steps, if you will. That's just the way it has to be sometimes.
Months later, driving my golf was like walking in the park. I began to understand the little things about the car, the nuances of driving a manual transmission. Traffic on highways and through towns wasn't nerve-racking any longer, just routine. When I reached this point of my life, when I really felt like I was getting good, is when I really began to love driving. It wasn't just about being quick, 0-60 times and red-light drag races. Being fully engaged with the car and paying attention to it and the road, that was the exhilarating part. Working on more difficult driving techniques like finding the fastest line through a turn, rev-matching and ultimately, Heel-Toe down shifting, to name a few. I was regularly taking long drives, going nowhere in particular to find new backroads that offered new turns, scenery and ultimately new experiences. I took many midnight forays into the cool summer nights with the windows down, really stretching the legs of the mighty, naturally aspirated 2.0 liter, rowing through the gears, trying my best to drive certain bits of road faster and faster, driving as smoothly as possible. I used to time myself with my phone's stopwatch, starting it, racing along some of my favorite roads in the early morning hours over and over, often times forgetting to stop it after I passed my mark. I loved it. (I was always careful to drive safely, especially around pedestrians and other drivers. Often having the radio off and the windows down to best be engaged with the ever-changing circumstances of traffic around me. I may have often been driving quickly but only ever in the dead of night, on the most quiet of backroads.)
I love driving, I imagine I always will and that's all thanks to my trusty old Golf. It's no longer with me but I sure do miss that piece of german steel (even with it's broken glove box door. MKIV problems, am I right?). My soul draining 2012 Civic is a spiritual burden and isn't exactly the most entertaining to drive but I try my hardest to get the most out of it and keep my passion alive. I'll get into something sportier and more exciting someday; a Miata, another VW, a MR2, even an old Civic hatch would be fun. So get out there and find your next favorite backroad with it's tight and winding roads. Or maybe one that brings you to some stunning scenery, a view that really makes your heart leap. Whether you drive a Ferrari 488 or your mom's old clapped out Jeep Renegade, just get out there and have an experience, go feel something.