June 18, 2012
It was just like I remembered it — the car I learned to drive on when I was 16 years old.
That year, 1966, my dad handed me the keys to his brand new Sunbeam Tiger, a British-made sports car with a Ford V-8 engine, and said, “Try not to grind the gears.”
All I can remember from that day is sitting in the driver’s seat with my twin sister Martha next to me with the car rolling about 60 mph backwards down a steep hill as I tried to figure out how to use a clutch, the gear shift, the gas pedal and the brake all at the same time.
Now, 46 years later, I am driving that car again, heading to a small farm-style arts community in upstate New York where we plan to bury my dad's ashes.
For the past 10 years or so, the Tiger had been sitting in the garage in that upstate home. The garage was unheated but the car was a comfortable winter home for squirrels, mice, chipmunks and a range of mountain vermin who nestled into every nook and cranny of the car from the engine block to the seats. An axle had dropped. The car was undrivable.
So in the fall of 2009, I took it and brought it to a specialty refurbishing place near Hopkinton. I planned to have it back the next spring for dad to see, not drive, even though he still was driving at age 90.
It was not to be. I got it back earlier this month — 7 months after Dad died. A breathtaking rehab. But it still smelled the same, and drove the same — it’s gassy, and fast and hard to control. I was nervous. So I drove it around Boston suburbs for about 60 miles before I dared take it on a 250-mile jaunt on the highway.
I took off around 4 p.m. on a beautiful crisp blue Friday afternoon, top down, engine roaring in idle. I had not gone 2 miles before I started getting beeps and thumbs-up. By the time I reached the end of the Mass Pike a hundred cars and large trucks had honked — startling me every time — hands flying out the windows signaling their approval.
The last 38 miles of the trip were through mountain back roads, which I know well. I thought about Dad. I remembered him telling me he once hit 140 mph on Interstate 87. I floored it — hitting 90 before I felt the new Nardi wheel begin to rattle and I backed off. It was exhilarating.
And so Dad, who had never ridden in the passenger seat, much less the small back landing where the dog and grandkids used to perch, got a final ride after all. We put the burled maple urn containing his ashes in the back and drove his beloved Tiger to the cemetery where we revved the engine a few times before placing him in the earth. We left a nip of Maker’s Mark while we were at it.
I’d like to say the story has a happy ending, but only kind of. The Tiger was packed for my return to Boston. The weather conditions were the same as when I arrived. I had one more person to see: the small-town guy who used to repair Dad’s car. I found him home. He said, “Car looks better” but “you’re losing antifreeze.” I left it there.