Jun 222015

While waiting at a stoplight recently, I began thinking about working a clutch, and more generally, how I learned to drive.

I grew up in Montana, where one could obtain a driver’s license at age 15. A “learner’s permit” allowed one to drive at age 14 if accompanied by a parent. I had heard through word of mouth that kids even younger than that were allowed some sort of special dispensation if they lived on a farm, and operated farm vehicles, but I never followed up on that claim and I don’t know if it’s true.

Back in the 70’s, our high school offered “driver’s ed” or driver’s education, if one chose to learn how to drive through conventional means. This was one of the few classes that kids looked forward to, at least in considering it a legitimate means to an end, as opposed to something like algebra class. Over the years I recall learning that high schools do not offer driver’s ed as routinely as they once did, but I don’t know this as a fact.

I was lucky, in that my mother saw fit to teach me how to drive even before high school driver’s ed. We lived in Missoula, which encompassed Fort Missoula, just on the outskirts of town. Its grounds were open to the public and had wide, flat roads between buildings. The buildings were either not in use, or were used by few people, so the place was largely deserted. My mother and I drove out there in our metallic aqua Ford Galaxy station wagon. Not surprisingly, this vehicle had an automatic transmission. I’m firmly of the belief that one should learn how to drive with an automatic transmission, simply to master the basics of starting, steering, stopping, signalling, and basic control before attempting the tricky business of working a clutch. Frankly those lessons were so prosaic I barely remember them. I probably drove no more than 25 MPH on dry, flat roads with few stop signs and no traffic.

My mother didn’t care for our big Ford station wagon, as it was something of a boat; she regularly drove our Renault 12. She and my brother were Francophiles, and had previously owned a Renault Dauphine, which must have been one of the smallest four door sedans ever made. The Renault 12 had a clutch, and I needed to learn how to work it.

For those who have never driven a clutch car, it’s tricky learning how to engage it without stalling the engine, especially when starting from a stopped position in first gear. The clutch pedal is first depressed all the way to the floorboards, then slowly “feathered” out while simultaneously pressing the accelerator pedal just a bit. Perhaps others had an easy time learning this task, but it vexed me significantly at age 14. Inevitably I would “rev” the engine a bit too much, and “pop” the clutch pedal out too fast, and kill the engine. My mother was remarkably patient in allowing me to try this. She was also remarkably tolerant in allowing me to try this without even a learner’s permit!

One time our Renault was parked over at my grandmother’s house, which was only about two blocks away from our house. My mother gave me the keys and allowed me to walk over and drive the car back. I was thrilled she would let me try this! I walked over, got in the car, and tried to start it. I couldn’t! The steering wheel had a locking mechanism that was becoming popular in the 70’s, and I couldn’t figure out how to work it. In retrospect, this was a bad idea on the part of my mother’s as there was a stop sign on the road between my grandmother’s house and our house. A vehicle driven by an unlicensed driver stalled in the middle of an intersection would have been a foreseeable outcome with a driver still learning how to work a clutch…

I remember finally mastering the clutch; again with the Renault parked at my grandmother’s house. Again my mother allowed me to attempt driving solo. This time I knew how to work the locking steering wheel, and managed not to kill engine while feathering out the clutch pedal! But what now? I drove into the intersection in first gear then pulled a big U turn and drove back. Instead of parking across the street from where I started, I decided to park on the same side from which I started, facing the wrong way. I came in WAY too sharply for reasonable parking, and managed to hit the front wheel on the curb! Amazingly, my mother was not particularly upset by this. I dodged a couple of bullets on that day…

Eventually I took driver’s ed class at Hellgate High School. This involved a combination of classes and supervised driving. The cars used to teach students were big sedans with automatic transmissions, and brake pedals for the instructor in front of the front passenger seat. All in all the instruction seemed quite reasonable, except for the “Link Simulator.” This was one of the most absurd and insane wastes of money in the name of education I’ve ever seen. It was contained in a semi trailer parked in a parking lot on the south side of the building. Inside was a movie screen at the front of trailer, with the rest of the space given over to weird driver consoles that sort of duplicated a car interior with a steering wheel, an accelerator pedal, turn signals, a brake pedal, and probably a seat belt. Being the 1970’s, there was no feedback between what the “driver” did behind the wheel and what appeared on the movie screen. This was not a video game. The movies were relentlessly square, Leave it to Beaver – Readers Digest Americana, with scenes of picket fence neighborhoods navigated by cars driving about 10 miles an hour. We were told that somehow our “scores” were being recorded, as allegedly the Link Simulator could tell if a driver over corrected with the steering wheel, or failed to brake at the correct time. When I was a student we were never given these “scores” and I have to wonder if we were simply being lied to in an attempt to keep us from completely screwing around. Imagine if you were being taught how to throw free throws, or hit a tennis ball using a video game in which there was no feedback; it’s an insane idea from an educational standpoint.

Eventually I got my learner’s permit, and drove around a few times under the watchful supervision of my father. I turned 15 in August 1977, and very much looked forward to getting my real driver’s license. I dimly recall taking the “practical” portion of the test, which involved parallel parking. I must have passed, as I was given my license. I recall driving the Renault 12 by myself all the way through Deer Creek and Pattee Canyon that day. A genuine adolescent rite of passage!

I moved to Seattle in 1987, and was shocked to encounter people who either didn’t own cars, or who didn’t know how to drive. I couldn’t fathom how young people wouldn’t WANT to own their own cars and know how to drive! Personal power and freedom felt so good, why didn’t everyone want this?

Sometime in the late 80’s I was involved with a woman who didn’t drive. I decided to teach her how. At the time I owned a 1987 Dodge Daytona.

Dodge Daytona

Unfortunately for teaching purposes, this vehicle had a clutch, so my poor student had to learn this to start with. One night we drove out to Northgate Mall, as I believed wide open parking lots would be a good place to start. Not surprisingly, this episode didn’t go well, and we never repeated it. There’s a great scene in Breaking Bad in which Walter White tries to teach his son how to drive in similar circumstances. It’s a cringe worthy scene, and reminds me of my own attempt.

As I mentioned at the start of this essay, I recalled my clutch history while waiting at a stoplight. I realized, decades after it could have helped, that actuating a clutch is MUCH easier if the car is already in motion, and the easiest way to do this is by gliding down a slight hill. Jebus, such a simple tip; why didn’t I think of this years ago, or learn it in driver’s ed?

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