In many years of driving, I’ve had more than my share of scary and tragic mishaps involving the cars I love to write about. Now that a certain amount of time has passed, these stories have mellowed into amusing tales for dinner parties and blog posts. I definitely have nine automotive lives, though.
The place: Bombay, India. Approximate date: 1966.
My father was building a fertilizer plant as part of India’s “green revolution.” Our chauffeur-driven company car was a two-tone Hindustan Ambassador
, an indifferently made copy of an ancient Morris. India was protective of its domestic car industry in those days, and the Ambassador was the Trabant of its time — a horrible car with a long waiting list. Driving in the heavily polluting Ambassador was always an adventure, but nothing topped the day — in heavy Bombay traffic — when the column shifter came off in the driver’s hand and he responded by throwing up his hands and jumping out of the car, with it still rolling.
The place: Motegi, Japan. Approximate date: 1999.
I was in Japan to drive Honda’s fuel-cell car
, and indeed they let me get behind the wheel — for about 50 feet on a driveway. Dramatic it wasn’t. To compensate, they let us drive the company’s products on the combination race track, museum and amusement park Honda operates in Motegi. With a famous eco-journalist at the wheel and me in the passenger seat, we wildly spun a Honda S2000 at about 70 mph on the crowded track. You know how they say your life passes before your eyes? It does.
The place: Fairfield, Conn. Approximate date: 2009.
I was heading north on the historic Merritt Parkway
when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flying Ford Taurus. It was no less than 10 feet in the air, levitating well over the center divider and landing with a huge crash not 10 feet in front of my car. I barely managed to swerve around it, stopping long enough to see the Taurus driver emerge totally unscathed, scratching his head. I scanned the papers for a week and never saw a word about it.
The place: Genoa, Italy. Approximate date: 1998.
I borrowed a Mercedes in Stuttgart and we drove it across Europe, taking in a family wedding in Zurich on the way across the Alps to the crowded port city of Genoa, Italy. In all my years behind the wheel, I’ve never encountered traffic like that anywhere, despite extensive experience in India and the Middle East. Italian drivers go for it, at all times, under any circumstances — no traffic opening is too small. The photo at right gives a good accounting of driving in Rome. An Italian tuneup involves running your car at the redline for an hour to get the cobwebs out. After 15 minutes of that craziness, I was laughing like a hyena, driving like an Italian, and going for it, too. The Mercedes had a certain authority that allowed me to make it through unscathed.
The place: Northern New Jersey. Approximate date: 1969.
It was the height of hair. I was a month away from going to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair
. Peace and love, man. But love was not in the air when my brother and I went on some long-forgotten mission to the evil-smelling industrial wasteland around Newark. I drove a series of ill-maintained $50 cars back then, and one highlight was having four retread tires come apart simultaneously on the approach to the George Washington Bridge. But this day we lacked toll money, and my living-dangerously, defying-authority twin brother — who was driving — not only powered through the toll but also extended a rude gesture to the toll taker. Unbeknownst to us, however, the road was blocked off for construction half a mile ahead, and cars were redirected — right back through that toll station. They were waiting. A burly toll taker reached over and grabbed him by his (waist-length) hair and pulled him out of the car, shouting unprintable oaths. I don’t remember how we got out of that one alive.
The place: Westport, Conn. Approximate date: 1976.
I owned a Volvo 142S
(like the one at left) in those days. You know how they say you can’t kill old Volvos? I have proof. The car broke down on I-95 with some kind of fuel issue. I had AAA, and we were picked up by a teenager driving a flatbed with a girl he was trying to impress in the passenger seat. He hooked up the Volvo with what appeared to be a fairly loose arrangement of chains. “No problem,” he said. We made it as far as the next exit, where the Volvo rolled off the flatbed and headed for Long Island Sound, stopping only at the end of the chain. “Ronnniieee,” the girlfriend said. “No problem,” he replied, hoisting it back on the truck. At the gas station, he started to unload the car — right next to an old MGB. “No problem,” he said again, seconds before the car slid off the truck for the second time and creamed the MGB. Believe it or not, the Volvo had no serious damage from either encounter, and I drove it for years afterward — with the cloth seats smelling of soy sauce from an unfortunate spill.
The place: Nelson, New Zealand. Approximate date: 2002.
I was on a State Department-sponsored tour
, visiting the under-populated and thoroughly lovely South Island. We had just had a wonderful pub lunch, and I was admiring the pastoral scenery as I crossed the highway. I felt a hand pulling me back, and it was my State Department minder yanking me out of the path of a speeding Mini. I felt the breeze as it missed me by half an inch. I often wondered in later days if my life was meant to end that day, in that impossibly beautiful part of the world.