The moment

My lifelong friend and fellow car guy stopped by to bring me a copy of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car magazine.  He brought this specific issue because of the six-page Drive Report on page 18; “1965 Lotus Cortina Mark II; a commuter car transformed into a no-lie legend”.

My first car was an English Ford.  It was an acquisition of opportunity.  I noticed it in a side yard three blocks from my parent’s house.  Week after week, it never moved.  In my mind, unused cars held the potential to be had cheaply.  After a few more weeks, I approached the door of the house and rang the bell.  Yes, it could be had.  A deal was struck for a sale price of fifty dollars.  With my Dad’s very reluctant approval, I drove it home.

The design of my 1959 Anglia had come from post-war English Ford’s which were returned to production almost unchanged from their pre-war ancestors.  The engine in my car was a sidevalve four cylinder not unlike that of a Model A, a design from a time almost 30 years earlier, except smaller and less powerful.  It was a frail, inexpensive car designed to transport Mum, Dad and two kids on a Sunday drive through the English countryside at low speeds.  In an economy ruined by World War II, it was designed for the home market; cheap to make, cheap to purchase and cheap to operate.

As the owner of an English Ford, common and unsporting as it was, I quickly learned that it had a modern relative that was blowing off 3.8 litre Jaguars in the FIA Group 2 classification for modified touring cars.  The Lotus Cortina was raced by drivers whose names later became known for victories in Formula 1; Jimmy Clark, Jackie Stewart, Vic Elford, Jacky Ickx.  I clipped every picture of the Lotus Cortina from Sports Car Graphic and Road & Track and affixed them to my bedroom wall, in the fashion of all good teenage groupies.  I was a fan.

In his retrospective, I found Hemmings West Coast Associate Editor Jeff Koch’s writing to be impassionate and impersonal, which says more about me than about him.  I was such a huge fan of this car that no writer could begin to capture my youthful enthusiasm, reserved for this one car, this icon.  It’s difficult now, from this distance, to describe in any way that makes sense what the Lotus Cortina meant to me.  It would be easy to dismiss the whole thing as the foolish and fleeting infatuation of an impressionable adolescent, which is true… and I would admit to that as the entire explanation, except that I can feel the pull as strongly now as then.

Sports Car Graphic and Road & Track had been part of my life for years by that time.  I devoured and mentally cataloged every issue, shelved them all for reference.  Sporting automobiles, from Bugeye Sprites to the F1 cars and drivers of the Grand Prix series, to the engineering, specifications and characterizations of current production models were all known to me.  With a fervor other guys reserved for baseball, walking encyclopedias of player stats, game results and winning plays, I fed a passion for British and European sporting automobiles.  I could hold my own in any conversation.  I knew of XKE’s, 911’s, 250 GTE’s.  In the world before unlimited access to information, I read and learned and discussed every attribute of every marque with a passion and certitude I have not possessed since.

But there was only one I wished to own.

Like the Cooper S Austin Mini, stealth was the Lotus Cortina’s main attribute.  It looked for all the world like a standard English family sedan, save for the Lotus-green slash from headlight to tail and the small Lotus Cars emblems on the grille and rear facia.  The appearance of a basic, sensible, boxy, economy car concealed a state of tune that was anything but staid.  Once switched on and brought to life, everything about it belied that image.  The car was fast.  In racing trim, the stiff oversize rear sway bar kept the limited-slip back axle and both rear tires planted firmly to tarmac, delivering all the power the Lotus-Ford engine developed.  And it gave the car its trademark corner stance; powering through the apex, all four throttle plates fully open, the car would lift its inside front wheel, performing a three-wheel ballet to the exit of each turn, where it would again return all wheels to earth, in the more customary manner.  Photos made it look dicey, but drivers who knew how to extract the maximum from racing cars all agreed it was fully controllable.

Jaguar, Porsche, Corvette and Ferrari were cars for the wealthy.  The Lotus Cortina was typical Colin Chapman; a light weight, incredibly capable sport sedan, based upon low-cost, production automotive bits, carefully prepared to a high state of tune.

From then until now, there was never a car I wanted more fervently than the Lotus Cortina of the late 1960’s.

The Hemmings article brought it all back, returned me to a specific moment one weekend long ago.  It must have been 1967.  I no longer remember how the information came to me, but I think one of the guys in the sports car community told me that a new Lotus Cortina had arrived at Harris Ford in Lynnwood, the only one in this corner of the US.  Also lost is whatever logic or chutzpah I summoned to get my Dad to go out to the dealership with me on that grey, featureless winter day.

So great was my admiration of this car that when we walked into the showroom, I was stunned to find it wasn’t there.  So much did I admire it that I expected it to be on a pedestal.  Was my information wrong?  Did they not have it?  If Harris Ford was fortunate enough to have a Lotus Cortina delivered to their dealership, why was it not presented in a commanding space in the center of their showroom?  Why had the Galaxy 500’s and Country Squires not been moved aside to make space for the most remarkable Group 2 saloon car of the decade?

In those days I was hugely intimidated by almost every adult and that included car salesmen.  I shied from their gregariousness, had nothing of my own with which to engage their glib and easy way with strangers.  It must have been a slow day at the Ford dealership; we were approached at once.  I suppose it was me who in a small voice asked about the Lotus Cortina that was supposed to be there.  Someone was located who had some information and we were led out of the showroom, to the dark, still and silent service area.  It was a Sunday, as I recall; all was quiet, devoid of its weekday racket, activity and service staff. We walked though the door to the service bays and there it sat, illuminated only by a few twenty-four hour security lights.

I was in complete disbelief.  What catastrophic error of judgment had occurred to allow this most remarkable of all automobiles to remain over the weekend in a deserted service bay?

The sales guy was obviously unimpressed.  Indeed, he very well may not have known or cared what it was, other than one of those odd little foreign cars that Ford kept insisting that they sell.  There was no sales pitch; indeed my memory is that he stepped back, said nothing, offered no information and dismissed our presence, and the car, as a small break in his otherwise ordinary weekend routine.

I was overwhelmed.  I was standing next to a real Lotus Cortina.  A new Lotus Cortina.  First one I’d ever seen.  Adolescent sensory overload.

The silence in that huge, dim service bay was deafening.  After a minor eternity, I began to recover the power of speech.  I probably said something to my Dad about its astonishing racing prowess; I may have mentioned how the car had been driven by none other than Jimmy Clark, the same Jimmy Clark that had won the Indy 500, in a Lotus race car powered by another Lotus-Ford engine.  I’m certain that I made an appeal to his appreciation of all things mechanical, in terms he understood, in the language he had taught me.  I described the Lotus development of the aluminum twin-cam head with hemispherical combustion chambers, adapted to the English Ford cast iron block; that the engine in this car, thus modified and tuned by Colin Chapman, made over one-hundred horsepower; that the car breathed through two side-draught, twin-choke DCOE Weber carburetors, not dissimilar to those used on Enzo’s V-12 Ferrari engines; that the exhaust, suspension, transmission, disc brakes, wheels and tires had been adapted specifically for this car.

The moment, forever frozen in memory, is of me standing next to my Dad, who had still not spoken.  The door of the car stood open, I stood beside Dad, looking into the cockpit, thinking how indescribably beautiful it was, how thick and sumptuous was the drivers seat, clad in its black upholstery, the wood rim of the Nardi-style steering wheel with the gleaming Lotus emblem and matching walnut shift knob.

With the service bay even more still than before, the silence at last having become eerie, and finding words somewhere to try, as feebly as teenaged words could, to describe the once-in-a-lifetime chance represented by this rare car being available for sale here in Lynnwood, the furthest outpost of the Lotus Cortina in all the world, looking at the sticker in the rear quarter window, seeing the delivered-price topping thirty-five hundred dollars and, finally, having nowhere else to go with my words, clumsily asking if he would help me to take advantage of this unique opportunity to own a genuine Lotus Cortina.

I heard the word before he spoke it.  I had known the answer all afternoon, well before we had entered the building.

Growing up, I never knew whether my parents had money or not, but the message was always clear; money was for saving, not for fun.  Dad would no more have spent three-and-a-half large on a car for himself, let alone for me.

To this day I do not know if he found the car even remotely interesting.  I know his automotive appreciation ran to Chryslers of the mid-Thirties, with sweeping fenders, large polished radiator shells, brightly painted wood-spoke wheels; engines that ticked over with all the precision and silence of a fine watch; Model T’s either resplendently original or stripped down to chassis, hood and seat for racing.  I even learned from my mother, some years later, that he had a secret jones for the Mark IV Lincoln Continental, of the kind Frank Cannon drove on television.  I also learned he could have afforded one for himself.  But such was not the character of my father.

Dad’s life was fueled by two things; his love for my mother and his devotion to his family.  If he saw his role in life as anything more than husband and provider, I’m not aware of it.  If I could speak with him now, I don’t know how he’d define himself and his life.  He was a man of his time; stoic, mostly silent and rigid in what he saw as his place.  I’m certain that my sisters saw him as even more aloof than I.  Coming to know his children as individuals was something he left mostly to Mom, although in quiet times when his kids were not present, she translated the events of our lives to him.  He saw need to inject himself into our affairs on few occasions indeed.  But he cared, and deeply.  His expression of it was, in some ways, limited to his experience.  He wanted for us a life governed by the rules and standards that he knew, those that he believed in and understood, and which he shared with Mom.  Exploring territory with his children that he had not experienced for himself, having them grow beyond those boundaries was a concept, I feel certain, for which he was unprepared and, most probably never quite understood.

He never taught me how to buy a dress shirt, tie a tie or how to manage money.  This was not a failure of his fatherly role; it was an expression of his character.  In his world, he seldom had occasion to dress in a manner requiring a tie.  I think he mistrusted men in ties and suits.  So my education in how to dress for work in an office would come later, from others.  Money management meant taking his weekly paycheck home, endorsed, all of it, for Mom to deposit in the bank, less grocery money for the week, the house payment, taxes, the other expenses of living, as well as something put by for the future, all of which she managed.  He ceded financial responsibility to her, because she was better at it; his responsibility was to provide the wherewithal.  He could not have possibly foreseen the world of personal finances, credit, cashless transactions and tax-deferred investment I encountered.  He had his paycheck every week and his company-provided retirement plan.

This is not to say we lived miserly.  In winter, my sisters and I were outfitted with snow skis, from Dahlstrom’s on Ballard Avenue.  Rope tow tickets in the mountain passes were but a couple dollars in those times.  Music lessons were paid for.  My sisters were sent to Girl Scout camp.  I attended swimming lessons, from childhood to almost high school.  Every summer that I can remember, his annual two-week vacations meant loading the car for wonderful adventures across the western states.  We camped, in the folding camp trailer he built himself for the cost of the materials.  We stayed in motels only when everyone needed a bath.  Hotels and resorts were mostly experienced from the outside.  Spending was well regulated.  Sensibility and frugality determined the acceptability of any expense.

As a child, there was talk of my attending college after high school but, when that time came, all was silence.  Would he have enjoyed seeing us experience learning and the wider world that came with it?  Hard to say.  It is possible that he was content to see us take up a life of the kind that had worked satisfactorily for him.  My parents overarching objective was to see that their children never experienced the effects they lived through during the Great Depression or World War II, insofar as it was possible to protect us from such things.  It seemed not to include a widening of the experience of life beyond that which defined theirs.  The imperative was cautious living and always, always, conservation of resources, of whatever kind.  Money was high on that list.

I knew the answer to my hopeful question before it was beckoned.  I knew there would be no encouragement coming from my father.  And I knew in some cosmic way, at that moment, that I would never own a Lotus Cortina.

Yet, I was not disappointed.

It had been too much to consider.  Way over the top.  And I knew that he felt his answer was right.  There could be no doubt of that.  He would rather have walked through fire than made a decision about his son that he felt would be wrong for me.  I knew that.  I always did.

We left the car as we found it, in silence and darkness.  There was no point in stirring the sleeping engine to life, no purpose in a test drive.  Wordlessly, we walked back through the door that led to the showroom, out of the building to the car and drove down Highway 99, back home.  I don’t think we ever spoke of that afternoon again.

I don’t remember how long I left the pictures on the wall in my room but it wasn’t long.  Soon, other matters began to occupy my attention; the end of high school, the economic realities of 1968 in what was then a one-industry aerospace town after the loss of a major government contract, the political assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the chaos of the Chicago Democratic convention, riots in the streets, inner city neighborhoods ablaze, generation against generation, race against race; for me personally, the Vietnam war and the draft, all but unavoidable then. The world I entered the following year was not one which beckoned of possibility, opportunity or bright future.  It was a world filled with anger and terror and death, a war which was not being won, a war growing numbers of Americans were coming to oppose.  It was, I felt, a world filled with change and uncertainty and fear, a fear that filled me as well, of the immediate uncertainty of life beyond adolescence that awaited just weeks ahead, life that depended upon not being drafted to be killed by enemy gunfire in a southeast Asian rice paddy.  In less that a year, the importance of a car, any car, in my life would seem the least of all possible concerns.

From that day to this, though, the moment remains, frozen for all time, standing in that service bay, looking past the open drivers door, into the cabin of the Lotus Cortina, shoulder-to-shoulder with my father.  It was, and is, a bittersweet moment.  Now, many years after his death, I know my father well enough to realize he was congenitally incapable of even the most remote form of hedonism.  He think he was happy with his lot, but I never saw him indulge himself in any way.  My mother, occasionally, within reason, but not himself.  I also know that his love for me, his belief in what was right for me, his every decision on my behalf, was driven by an ethic that he not only believed in, unquestioningly, but that he lived himself, every day of his life.  He never asked me to accept any decision made with regard to me and my upbringing that he didn’t embrace himself.

I am now several years older than he was on that Sunday at Harris Ford.  From this distance, the importance of that moment with my father is greater than the Lotus seemed to me then.

This entry was posted in Essay, Personal Essay and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The moment

  1. Craig MacDonald says:

    Weighty. Fills my head with questions. We’ll talk!

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