A long, self-indulgent one about the love of driving. Sorry.
Early April, 1988.
Earlier in the day, I was driving in some small 4-cylinder car listening to the two other people in the car set a date when one’s family would come over and visit the other for a BBQ lunch. I just listened and turned when I was told to turn and let them carry on their conversation. The more they talked, the less they were thinking about me and the more I could think about the task at hand – and more importantly, what I’d do later. Later that day, later that week. Every day for the rest of my life, probably.
I was 18 years and three weeks old, and this was my driving test. And I could. not. wait. to start driving.
This is not my Holden Gemini. Mine was baby blue and didn’t come with a kangaroo.
Later that day, licence in wallet, I got into my 1977 Holden Gemini and drove around to my mate Jeremy’s house, picked him up, and the first thing I did as a licenced driver was head to the newly constructed Greensborough Bypass and break the law – as fast as I dared – with my little 1.6 Isuzu motor flying along at 160 km/h.
It was reckless, irresponsible and totally, addictively empowering. I was 18 and free. The only limits to my geographical freedom were the depths of my wallet, the reliability of my car and the law telling me how fast I could get there, wherever ‘there’ was.
I’d thrown in the towel at university and taken a job with Telecom Australia. Of course, with the job came an income and with an income came the ability to obtain credit.
That credit came in handy when I was driving to the movies one night with a friend of mine, Fleur, and we encountered one of those freak Melbourne thunderstorms. It came as quick as it went, thick with rain, and whilst sauntering along the lightless, curbless St Helena Rd at a very cautious 50 km/h, I realised that I was no longer on the road when I saw the tree about 6 feet in front of me.
Fleur and I were both OK, but the Gemini was toast and I couldn’t contain my excitement – that accident meant that I could finally ditch the baby-blue Gemini that was so unfitting for a teenage male and buy something a bit more ……… Aussie bloke.
That car was a 1973 Holden Torana. In white, with mags, a rear spoiler, tinted windows and a thumping 202 six cylinder with an ‘Aussie 4-speed’ gearbox.
This is not my Torana, but you get the idea.
I had no end of trouble with that car over the next 18 months, but no end of fun as well. It took me to Adelaide for the Grand Prix in 1989, tailing a HQ Monaro at one point at speeds that I don’t care to talk about.
I installed my first ever car stereo in it and yes, I was that guy who’d drive with all windows down and the stereo loud enough that I couldn’t hear the traffic.
I infuriated other motorists when I neglected to change all of the brake lights and indicators, which had burned out some months before. I once had a cop test the car for roadworthiness and when he asked me to test my (unknown to me) mis-aligned window washers, they squirted him with water as he stood by my driver’s door. We laughed and laughed and laughed.
The gear linkage got so gummed up in that car that I had to carry a massive screwdriver with me so could jam it in there and free up the shifter between 2nd and 3rd gear.
We all had old Holdens or Fords back then. Aza’s 1964 EH Holden that you could start without a key. Boris’s beautiful gunmetal grey EH wagon that got T-boned on Batman Avenue. Deano’s 1967 HR wagon with an electric horn that played 99 different tunes. John’s XW Falcon that he used to nudge Deano into intersections when we were waiting at red lights.
I loved every minute of it.
There were 5 of us and we were all checking our watches. It couldn’t be long now. We were all positioned near the door, with 4 others sitting close by and keeping their eyes on the clock as well. We all knew the drill, the signs to look for. We knew how the lecture would finish and as the cadence drew to a close, we were ready.
Rachel was nearest the door, which was appropriate as it was her car, a Peugeot 504, that we’d be in today. It was nearing 10:30 – break time – and when the moment came there wasn’t a disturbed look anywhere in the lecture hall as this group of young’uns crashed out of their chairs, raced for the door and piled into the Pug.
The prize was supposedly the first pick of the morning’s production at the local bakery, which is where the two car loads of kids were racing to. The truth is that there was plenty to go around, but we raced for the sake of it. It was the communal understanding, the friendly competition, the laughter along the way. The choc-iced jam donuts at the destination were just a bonus.
That little Peugeot saw a lot of love that year. And I mean that in the purest possible way.
The aforementioned Pug owner, Rachel, came from a good farming family in country Victoria and her parents had done well enough to buy a holiday house on Philip Island. Many of us from the bakery run would stay there on weekends, enjoying Smiths Beach and generally acting like young idiots.
I got such a taste for beach life that I eventually bought a bodyboard. That summer I’d wake up every morning, take a look outside and if things looked favourable, I’d jump in my (newer, 1978 and yellow) Holden Gemini and head down to Philip Island for a surf.
I was 22. It didn’t matter that it was 2 hours there and two hours back for maybe half an hour in the water if conditions were bad. I’d be doing one of the things I loved on the way there – driving – and I’d be doing the other – bodyboarding – while I was there before driving home again.
I think it was Ethan Hawke in one of those Seattle grunge-era early 1990’s movies who said (to Winona Ryder) that all he needed in life was a cup of coffee and a good conversation. Maybe she said it to him. Whatever. I just needed a place to be and a car to get there. Maybe a Coke as well.
Fire up the car, fill the tank, put some Hoodoo Gurus or Hunters and Collectors in the tape deck and there wasn’t another thing you could ever need.
Can you get a better day than that?
I locked my keys in that yellow Gemini so many times. I blew an engine and then I blew the reconditioned engine that replaced it. Thanks to Joe Montana, I was a big NFL fan in the years preceeding and I had my own NFL football, which came in quite handy as a support to hold up the busted driver’s seat; I wedged the football between the backrest and squab of the back seat.
But most of the time the car worked. It had a tape deck and an amplifier. It could do burnouts and it could fit a guitar case in the back seat and an amp in the boot.
My ex-wife had written off my first Saab, a 1972 Saab 99E. So I replaced it with a 1979 Saab 99 Turbo 🙂 that I bought for the princely sum of $400. If I hadn’t bought the car then it was going to the wreckers that week.
It needed a new gearbox and we discovered shortly thereafter that it needed a replacement turbo as well. I’d saved it from a premature death and I loved that car from my first feeling of the turbo boost.
I recall doing a gig with some muso friends of mine one night. It was around 60 kms out of Hobart so we had a bit of highway driving to do and, as you do, we had a few drag races along the way. The feeling of that car under boost and the sound it made going from 80 to 140 in the blink of an eye was just absolutely amazing. I was grinning from ear to ear, which is how I spent around 90% of my time in that particular car.
The gig went well, too. It was one of many gigs I did in that car.
A few months before that first law-breaking exercise in 1988, I went to a 21st birthday party in honor of my then-girlfriend’s cousin.
I have two memories of that night. The cousin’s Dad was either an engineer or an architect and I’m pretty sure that he had designed and built their family home. It looked strange to an uneducated young man’s eye, but I do remember it fondly.
What I remember better than his house, however, is his Citroen Goddess and the Kermit Green Saab 99 GL that he’d gifted his daughter for her 21st. It was my first personal encounter with a Saab. I didn’t know a thing about them, really, but I was instantly drawn to it and it stayed with me, well, until a few years later.
A few years later I met the aforementioned Rachel, whose younger brother Nathan had recently purchased a 1986 Saab 9000 Turbo. The 99GL might have been the first Saab I saw up close and personal. Nathan’s 9000 was the first Saab I ever took a ride in and that ride took place in that most loved of locations in the early 1990’s – Philip Island.
And what a ride it was. I’ve written about it once before – The Damascus Road – at 200 km/h. That place and that drive shaped my automotive passions forever and are the reason I do what I do today on this website.
There are so many more car experiences I could bore you with.
- An old band-mate of mine, Srecko Lorbek, and his European car showroom – my first ever drives of makes like Porsche, Jaguar and Corvette.
- Driving in Tasmania for the first time in February 1995 with all my worldly possessions in the back of a 1981 Toyota Celica.
- A week driving around Tasmania with Ed in his Mum’s Camry. We played Pearl Jam all week and used the Camry to tow firewood out of the forest (we had big fires that week).
Aside from my Viggen and MX-5, I’ve never spent more than $10,000 on a car. Ever. OK, we spent more than that on my wife’s 9000 many moons ago and we’ll do so again when we (hopefully) replace it with a new Saab in a few years time.
But I guess the point of this whole story is that what I love most is the act of driving and the experiences and freedom it’s given me. I’ve had most of those experiences in old, supposedly crappy cars that for one reason or another I ended up loving. They were bare bones cars that kids of today would probably laugh at and refuse to drive.
Our young bloke is taking his licence test next Monday and his Subaru Impreza is light years ahead of anything I drove until I was in my late 20s. I shudder to think what he’d say if I hid the Suuby and put a Gemini there in it’s place.
But those crappy, older cars seemed to involve you in the whole experience of driving. That’s what I remember, at least. Maybe it’s what I want to remember.
Today, 22 years after that first moment of liberation, I choose to pursue what is still one of my favourite activities – driving – in a Saab. In several of them, actually (and one Alfa). From my first 99 and through my 900’s, 9000 and 9-3’s, I’ve loved every second of it and it’s my sincere hope that Saab can continue working and eventually design and build a car that’s going to let me keep and match those memories with new ones.
When I was 18 I could go anywhere and do anything in my crappy Holden Gemini.
Twenty+ years later, it makes me smile to think I’ll be able to do the same in my Saab(s) for a long time to come.
I love driving.
And if you’ve made it this far, I’m sorry for dribbling on for so long. Some times you’ve just got to go where the keyboard takes you.