I walked around the car show feeling very out of my element. Of course I am a HUGE car fan and my family complains endlessly about my obsession of the show Top Gear (the UK version of course—the others are just lame), but I only have a brain full of facts about cars going back to about 2004 and even that is stretching it.
As I looked around at these unfamiliar cars I remembered a Top Gear episode where Jeremy Clarkson had made a comment that “all British sports car drivers were middle aged and had facial hair,” and except for John Nikas, the driver of Grace the Drive Away Cancer car, HE WAS ABSOLUTELY RIGHT! This facial-haired crowd was intimidating. In the world of a 14-year old like myself there are few things cooler than a beard.
My Uncle Dave gave me and my younger sister a ballot to vote for our favorite cars. As I looked at the categories of cars, it was all so confusing! English car names make no sense. They’re all letters and numbers! But picking out our favorites was fun. It was nice to see a car with a stick shift in real life, and it was cool to see what a supercharger actually looked like. And eventually these owners weren’t intimidating; I could ask them questions and expand my knowledge beyond modern-day cars. My sister, Leah, even learned that when someone said Midget they weren’t meaning a little person.
I walked over to the back of the field of cars where the rest of my family and John Nikas were talking with Gene, a man (with a beard) who owned a green MG TD. This car looked so proper you could imagine the queen driving it on her lawn during one of her garden parties for a cup of tea.
Gene was the nicest person in the world to me that day.
When I looked on the inside of his car I thought it seemed all wrong. The gear stick was way under the dash, the steering wheel was enormous, and when you look for the pedals they were tiny—and the gas wasn’t a pedal at all, it was just a knob where a pedal should’ve been. So, because I was thinking about all these faults, it completely took me by surprise when Gene started asking me questions about driving.
Don’t get me wrong, I love driving snowmobiles, go-karts and golf carts, but my experiences with driving anything for the first time have been anything but good. My first time driving a snowmobile I ran straight into a tree within the first fifty yards of driving it. With a golf cart, I drove around all day on the course on Grandpa’s lap. When we reached the parking lot and Grandpa was putting his clubs in the trunk, I guess I decided I could drive by myself. Fortunately my uncle could run faster than I could drive and he stopped me inches before crunching a Jeep. Even just this year I ran into one of the posts on the side of our driveway while mowing the lawn.
So now maybe you can begin to understand my nervous reaction when Gene insisted he would teach me how to drive a stick—in his MG TD! All thoughts of my previous accidents were in my mind as I climbed in and looked out at the field full of beautiful cars.
I have pretty big feet and the pedals are small so Gene told me to take my shoes off. It was also weird to see a choke on a car, but as soon as I relaxed I followed Gene’s teaching and it was amazing. I was terrified that I was going to make the grinding CRRRKKCRRRK noise of the clutch, but as I pulled away it was just smooth! And I didn’t spray everyone with dirt either.
As soon as I got going I wasn’t worried a bit. It helped that I stayed a few hundred yards away from all other cars.
I also figured out why I had thought everything about the car was so weird—it was because this car wasn’t meant to be looked at from the outside, it was about being in it and driving. Everything was in the perfect place, even the humungous steering wheel that came all the way into my lap.
I couldn’t imagine a more patient teacher to learn from, or a better place to be taught to drive. I will always remember Gene and that day. It was all absolutely perfect.
By Andrew Gortsema
At the John Twist Summer Reunion 2012