Dick Meister: Mucho car!

Pub date November 15, 2011
SectionBruce Blog

By Dick Meister

Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based former sports car driver.

It’s gone forever, my beloved Triumph Spitfire, that classic, marvelous looking British sports car that never ran anywhere near as well as it looked. Pearl white it was, with black trim. Pretty. But noisy, roaring sports-car-like down streets and highways to disturb my neighbors and who knows how many others.

For more than 30 years my 1979-model British beauty served me, going everywhere I wanted it to go, drawing approving glances and remarks from pedestrians and other drivers. It was, as one Spanish-speaking admirer exclaimed, “mucho car!”

The Spitfire also gave me the chance to spend lots of time with John, an extremely able, pleasant and sympathetic mechanic. Not to mention the tow truck drivers I often called on to get the car to John’s place of business for fixing,

It also won me the acquaintance of Anthony, the attendant in the garage of the radio station where I regularly recorded commentaries. Whenever I drove in, his eyes lit up. And on those frequent occasions when the Spitfire was being cared for by John, and I arrived in my wife’s humble Toyota sedan, Anthony was clearly disappointed and concerned. He sincerely wanted to know right away whether something bad had happened to “the little car?”

But the Spitfire and I have both become too old to remain together – though the car’s looks don’t reveal its advanced age. My wife Gerry and I were reminded of that recently by two teenage boys who were walking by on the street adjacent to where we had just parked and were sitting with the car’s vinyl top pulled back.

“What,” one boy loudly asked, “is that funny old couple doing in that slick-ass car?”

So now we have parted for good. The memories, however, remain.

It seems not everyone is familiar with Triumph Spitfires, which don’t have brand name labels affixed to their bodies like most other cars. The rarity of the unlabeled Spitfires became frighteningly evident soon after we began our long relationship. My wife Gerry and I were purring along, a mild summer breeze flowing gently around us, brilliant sky above, and not a highway patrolman in sight. Sixty, seventy . . .

Suddenly, a car roared up behind us and then pulled alongside. The driver waved and shouted. What was he saying? “Flat? Flat? “

My God, and we were going close to 80! Gerry didn’t panic. She never does. But me, well . . . “Look! Look! Which tire! Find it! Watch out! Hang on!”

The car next to us slowed as we slowed, and the driver repeated his message. Only now I could see that he was smiling – and hear that he was not saying “flat” at all. The word was “Fiat” as in, “Is that a Fiat, or what?”

And there were those kids staring intently from the rear of cars in front of us on freeways, demanding to know what they were looking at. It wasn’t easy to concentrate on the road with two, three, maybe four kids mugging and waving and pointing as we rolled full tilt down the road.

Coming upon suspicious characters hovering about the car in darkened parking lots and alongside the curb on dark city streets was exciting, too. They always said things like, “Just trying to figure what make car you got here, mister.” But life in the big city being what it is, I was never sure about that.

Yet it was quite nice to be approached in garages and parking lots by young women anxious to learn the identity of “that great looking car.”

Some people didn’t even bother asking the question. One day, for instance, there was a couple crossing the street in front of us, eyeing my magnificent unlabeled machine.

“What?” asked the man, smirking most knowledgably. “A Fiat, of course.” Imagine. My unlabeled British gem being taken again for an Italian.

Then there was the time after I came out of a building in which I had been transacting some important business, quite aware the time had expired on the parking meter. A meter maid in no–nonsense navy blue was slowly circling my unlabeled Spitfire, peering quizzically at the front, side and rear.

“Ah,” said I. “Just in time.”

“No,” said she. “Ticket’s written up. Just looking to see what make to put on it.”

“Oh, ho. And what happens if I don’t tell you?”

“Nothing. I’ll just write it up, ‘Make unknown.’ Actually, you know, it doesn’t really matter to me what it is.”

The final insult to the Spitfire came on its very last day in my possession. It was in one of its frequent non-operating moods, so I yet one more time called AAA for a tow. Out came a truck in four hours – four hours! – a truck equipped to carry, not a beautiful sports car, but a mere motorcycle. The dispatcher had assumed that my Triumph Spitfire was – you guessed it – a Triumph-brand motorcycle.

I tried to drive the car out of the garage and onto the flatbed tow truck’s ramp. Click! Click! Click! Over and over I turned the key and pumped the gas pedal, expecting the usual roar. But the car refused to start. I could only conclude that my beloved Spitfire didn’t want to leave me after all our years together. Finally, the reluctant car was pushed up and onto the truck.

What a humiliating way to go for the Spitfire. For me, too. At least I was able to send the car off to a very good home – John the mechanic’s garage, where it will be on display with a half-dozen other bright, shiny, aged and I assume happy classic British sports cars.

I’ll miss the excitement and feeling of adventure that came with driving what I freely to concede was a highly undependable auto. Despite the fondness I now feel for the departed car, I can’t quite forget the feelings of genuine panic it too often caused me. Too many times, I’d be driving along happily, when, suddenly, the engine would fail me. “Sputter! Sputter! Sputter!” I panicked as I searched desperately for a safe place to park my temperamental machine.

The greatest adventure was my last. I was driving up a very steep San Francisco hill, cars moving in a steady stream in both directions. Then, suddenly, no brakes! Down I plunged, backwards, at ever-accelerating speed, until, finally, I smashed into a neighbor’s parked car. I had no other choice.

I also had no choice but to spend lots to get the brakes replaced. I was used to that, however. I calculate that over the 32 years of our life together, I spent more than $14,000 on repairs for the car that I bought new for $6200.

It’s taken lots of very hard thinking, but I’m finally reconciled to losing what has been my attractive daily companion for three decades. That’s all there is to it.

It’s gone. Gone!

Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based former sports car driver.