Everyone has a different story for how they got into cars. One particular story revolves around a midengined Italian sports car that circled just out of grasp.
I have my own story about chasing a 1965 Chevy Corvair for years around my hometown, but it hardly stands up to this story by mtdrift and how his life focused in around a non-running Lancia Scorpion out in the endlessness of Wyoming. It's a long story, but one worth reading.
Imagine this scenario - one that has played out countless times - the birth of gearhead consciousness.
I was 8. It was 1986. My parents had just moved the family from the lush forests and ferns of Portland, Oregon to the stark and desolate high plains of Casper, Wyoming. Casper: home of the F150, the Buick LeSabre, the Dodge Ram, and the beige Crown Vic. A homogenous landscape of patently uninteresting cars.
My folks had Beetles, two of them. These VWs were my baptism into the cult of cars. I spent many happy hours in the garage "helping" Dad with the valve adjustments, and some of my most clearly crystalized early memories are of (stupidly) riding shotgun in the green '70, hanging from the "oh, shit" handle, and playing with the brake-test button. That rattletrap, horse-hair-smelling Bug was my rocketship. T-shirts on the torn and sagging seats and all.
When we moved to Wyoming they eventually sold my mom's yellow '73 Super to make room for my new brother and a grey Chevy Celebrity Europort wagon. (A car I miss in an ironic kind of way these days - it was cool in its own pallidness, and, in truth, it was REALLY great for dates in high school. Yeah.)
We were slowly starting to assimilate. When the Ford Tempo showed up a year later, I figured we were doomed. But the green '70 held on, tucked in a corner of the garage - a defiant West German middle-finger to all the American iron that surrounded us, and that most of my new Wyoming friends worshipped. I was the lone heretic, except for the weird kid who loved Saabs, and I'd secretly sneak into the garage after school to sit in the Beetle and shift the gears and saw the wheel back and forth. I studied the aircooled flat four for hours. I stared at my reflection in the hubcaps. Every once in a while dad would fire it up, and we'd go for a ride, flying on the arrow-straight rural highways north of town, quarter windows open. An "Italian tune-up", he'd call it.
But this is all classic misdirection. The green family Beetle lives on (his name is Gregor - Kafka fans, anyone?), in my garage now, no less. No, the car I really wished to save, the one that launched me head-first into certified gearheadedness wasn't in the family. The remaining Beetle was safe, and, after all, it still belonged to my dad.
I firmly believe that we evolve in our early gearhead identity. There's a significant turning-point when you move from attaching your identity to cars that are part of your family experience, to a car that is about you, and you alone. It's at that point when cars go from overgrown toys, representations of abstract grown-up objects, to real things in and of themselves - the possibility, however faint, of driving and loving and living with your own car. Moving from the doll to the actual baby. That's the moment.
For me, that car was a 1977 Lancia Scorpion, the moment was in 1988. And it desperately needed saving.
One Spring morning when I was 10, I saddled up my Huffy, Transformers backpack slung over one shoulder, and pedaled to school. A few blocks from my house I casually leaned into a sharp, but high-speed corner at the bottom of a long hill, my favorite part of the suburban morning commute, and nearly crashed into a car that was parked on the near curb, close to the apex. This car surprised me because it had never been there before. I skidded to an unbalanced stop.
It was the Lancia - silver paint peeling like sunburn, cracked tires tucking under the fenders, oddly squared fenders, temporary tags. I dismounted and looked it over with a critical eye. Was it mid-engined? I was used to cars with strange engine locations. This tiny car seemed improbably sized just for me - a fourth grader's Lamborghini. It was Italian, right? Lancia seemed like an exotic foreign marque - I resolved to learn more. I resolved to own that car.
I dragged my mom to the library, checked out all the books about Italian cars, ordered more. Learned about Lancia, learned about FIAT, and Ferrari, and Alfa Romeo. Suddenly, the Beetle that would eventually, unbeknownst to me, become my patrimony, my first car, my high school chariot, diminished in my eyes.
There was only the Scorpion.
Of course, I knew nothing about the Lancia's fragility, its unreliability, its intimate and inextricable relationship with the tin worm, that fact that its parent company had abandoned the US, never mind the hinterlands of Wyoming, long ago, its terrible handling and underpowered lump aft of the driver, the fact that nobody within 600 miles could service it. It was just different, beyond comprehension, defiant like the Beetle once was, among the hordes of Taurses and pick-ups.
I saw it each day on my walk or bike ride to school. I would leave early just to have a few minutes of quality time with the car. But it never moved. Not an inch. The paper license tag yellowed and faded. The paint peeled more aggressively, the targa top split apart, tell-tale dark red streaks appeared on the fender lips. At first, I thought it was waiting just for me. It collected leaves in the fall, and was buried under snow drifts and plow waves in the winter. I often lovingly scraped the snow and road grime from the back deck.
Two years on, when I moved to the junior high school, located in a completely different direction, I would take the long route just to pass the Scorpion. It became a constant companion, a friendly reminder that the world of cars held possibility, was bigger than I knew. I began to believe that the Scorpion actually belonged to me, not some stranger I'd never met. And would never meet.
I turned 12, 13, 14 and the Lancia still languished on the side of a side road, all four of its tires succumbing to the elements, going flat. As I approached driving age it seemed all the more inevitable that I would rescue it from its long decline. I imagined an involved restoration - me and my dad wrenching side-by-side late into the night, spraying primer, pulling the transmission, stitching upholstery. Emerging finally with an Italian beauty worthy of its vaunted name.
My friend Sam said his dad promised to buy him a Fiero. I said encouraging words, but, inwardly, I scoffed.
I learned to drive in the green Beetle when I was 14, leaping from corner to corner in the neighborhood. I learned to adjust the valves and change the oil. We replaced a transmission. I learned the meaning of the word Zundfolge. I backed the Celebrity wagon into a tree when I was 15. I was being groomed.
One day, the Lancia moved.
Its owner had dragged the now desiccated carcass of a car into his driveway, and covered it with a blue plastic tarp. Ripped from the public domain, I was less bold about communing with the car. I went to high school. Girls started to be important. I got my permit. I had a ride - the girls loved it. The Beetle became part of me again. The Scorpion had lost its sting.
Then, one day, it was gone.
It hit me like a piano in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Piloting the Beetle, I skidded to an off-kilter stop in the empty space where the Lancia had sat for years. I pulled the e-brake and jumped out. The block was quiet, save for the grumble of the flat four, the driveway was empty. I leaned on the fender of the VW and sat and stared. In the fog of teenage life I hadn't self-consciously registered what that derelict Italian had meant to me. I recalled the countless cold days when I struggled against the wind and snow on my walk to school, and grazed the cubist coupe with my gloved hand - a little bit of warmth in a Wyoming winter. Dreams of top-off motoring in the Mediterranean sun.
That weird kid who loved Saabs in elementary school eventually drove a very fast and pristine brown 900 Turbo in high school. We'd often park our oddballs next to each other in the school lot along with another outsider and his ratty BRG MG, sharing the love of European cars and dreaming about Porsches. Scoffing at the Fieros and Mustangs and F15os.
The Scorpion is gone in more ways than one. I love my MINI, and the XJ gets me to the trailhead in the summer and the ski area in the winter. Gregor the Beetle is snug in the garage, and now is the season when I run him up the highway once a week, quater windows open.
I know better now. I know a Scorpion is a terrible beast, better left to the daft and fanatical. But a car I've never driven, never even sat in will always shape my automotive identity. I wish I had saved it, but in some ways, I'm glad I didn't.
Photo Credits: Lancia, mtdrift