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2015, May - Jun

My Mom, the Daredevil 

By Cliff Leppke

My mom, the daredevil: When Dolores Leppke found an alternate path, she took it

Given that we honor our mothers in May, don’t be fooled into thinking this story is another warm ode from a son to his mother. The usual exchange of greeting cards contain narratives about maternal nurturing, human closeness and world peace set in domestic locales such as kitchens. This story is not one of those.

My mother and I have a distant relationship; both geographically and emotionally. Abetted by, of all things, the automobile. According to my mom, this gap appeared during my early childhood. As she tells the story, she wanted to play ball, a game of catch. My idea of playing ball was when I caught the orb, I would keep it; I didn’t toss it back. Instead, I grabbed it and ran away—headed to my favorite mode of escape, an early 1960s Murray “flat face” pedal car with fender ornaments. She was frustrated.

Mom had a countermeasure, though—the family car. She discovered that nearly the instant I was supported by a 1955 Ford Mainline’s seat sporting a glittering cover, I became pliable, docile and sleepy. It’s as if Scarlett Johansson’s voice whispered through the car’s see-through Astra-Dial speedometer.   

Years later, mom’s instrument to garner closeness was a station wagon, a 1967 Ford Country Sedan, with three-speed manual transmission, manual steering and manual brakes. Egad, the gold-colored behemoth didn’t have a radio! No napping when she drove this monster. Nonetheless, riding with my mom was instructive, as well as destructive. For instance, my mother drove cars as though they escaped from the state fair’s midway. In her hands, automobiles were Tilt-A-Whirls run amok.

Given the Ford sedan’s slab-like waffle-print seats, this meant it was very important to fasten the outboard seat belts. Mom often set the Sears Lady Kenmore clock-controlled oven, then became the neighborhood chauffeur ferrying kids to all of the wonderful places mothers take their brood, such as our community’s outdoor swimming pool. On one occasion, she approached a fork in the road, downshifted and then, at the same time, gleefully stomped on the throttle—instant autocross, a ride on the wild side.

Our preacher’s kid, who was sitting shotgun sans seat belt, however, was unprepared for the resulting “gee” force. He was tossed smack against the door panel. With wide eyes and a queasy stomach, he frantically pleaded for the demonstration to stop. I couldn’t contain my laughter; it suddenly dawned on me: My mother’s idea of family-style motoring wasn’t the norm. Let’s just say that my folks’ minister wasn’t amused. Yet, that minister understood my mother’s playful side; years later, he officiated at my sister’s wedding. 

To my mother’s credit, I don’t recall a major mishap due to her Danica Patrick-like aspirations, other than a slightly creased 1300cc VW’s fender (courtesy of the ’67 Ford’s bumper) and plunging the 1959 Rambler Cross Country into an apple orchard’s muddy abyss, fouling the distributor. These days you’ll find my 75-year-old mom piloting a Ram diesel truck with a five-speed manual transmission or a Toyota Camry Hybrid. And yes, this former farm girl does double clutch dad’s non-Synchromesh 1927 Buick.

Did this driven woman teach me to drive? Possibly, but she refused to let me sit in the driver’s seat, even on the trip home after I got my driver’s license! I rode in the back seat. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

 

Sunday drives home from church could be devilishly thrilling. My mother played the church’s organ. She also presided over one of the early two-car families on my block. That meant my folks could head to-and-from church services in separate cars. They did. My dad, Elton, and I weren’t keen on arriving at our house of worship an hour early for music prep. Heading home, however, was an entirely different matter.

I had a choice: One, ride with my nerd-insert dad (pocket-protector pop with a sliderule), who drove as though he had to get every millimeter out of his investment in a set of Duralon bias-ply tires. Two, ride with my daredevil mother. The choice wasn’t always obvious. With Dad, you could ride in the front with your eyes scanning the roadside for hubcaps that were dislodged by one of his wife’s escapades. In contrast, when Mom drove, she claimed the front bench for herself, and sheets of church music. Not that I’m complaining.

Nonetheless, perch yourself in the back of her commandeered auto and be prepared for a trip, as she preferred the longer trek, the alternative path, a wending rural route that snaked between a farmstead and its barn, then dipped abruptly downhill with a steep rise yet farther ahead. This wasn’t Cape Canaveral, but in my young mind it was awfully close; mom clipped the apexes, maintaining as much speed as possible heading toward that low spot that was to become the height of fun. Then, she liberally applied the vertical pedal. Let’s just say that for a moment the car felt airborne, and the resulting sensation was much closer to authentically NASA approved than thing offered by Tang or Space Food Sticks.

These days, that route has been subdivided with all twists and changes in elevation sanitized, a pity. Yet, there’s a verity: if your idea of a family car is a mom-approved safety cocoon, you weren’t riding in our family car.

Any amusement ride can become a mode of cruel and unusual punishment. Remember Alfred Hitchcock’s merry-go-round in “Strangers on a Train”? Well, my mother came close. She found cruising at 55 mph on a county highway the ideal velocity to introduce the facts-of-life quiz—and we’re not talking the TV show.

What was a guy to do? I mean there must be something in the Fourth Geneva Convention banning this form of deportation and confinement. What could I say? Quick turn left at the state’s vehicle inspection facility. I think they were open late to check nocturnal emissions? One wrong word could provoke my mom: there’s was no telling what avenue she would take next.

When on the road, it is possible for a kid to learn how to thwart adult authority. During one trip home from the city, which was supposed to include a side trip to McDonald’s for Hot Apple Pie, I discovered that crusty concoction was conditional. There was a stern parental request. I said “no.” It was one of my early victories. I won the battle but lost the treat. Had I retorted that McDonald’s wasn’t nearly as good as mom’s homemade pie—a verity—my smart mouth might have scored an extra bite.

Mom, however, turned our 700-mile treks to grandmother’s house into excursions any car-crazy kid would dig. She would dole out trinkets meant to delight and entertain. One of those treats was a Matchbox model 8, a silver oval-rear-window VW Beetle, which I still have. My brother got the Microbus. My mother engaged us in car and card games. Auto bingo was a favorite. She handed out cards with colored windows you slid over De Soto, Packard or Nash logos. Those defunct auto makes were still roving the early interstates, if you watched carefully. Then there was Mille Bornes, a French car card game. You would win by racking up 1,000 kilometers.

Neither that game’s tire punctures nor speed limits, however, were as fiendish as my mom’s wicked use of the family car. And unlike the game, you cannot play a coup-fourré (counter thrust, protection card), when your mom is at the wheel.

Mom knew how to make American cars go, but our first VW Beetle, a 1966 Bahama Blue sunroof sedan, introduced a novel idea: four on the floor. At first, she drove it like a three speed—third gear was top gear. My, how that car growled. Yet, she had a blast screaming down the highway with the sunroof open. It didn’t take long for Mom to find fifth gear.

One driveway incident was instructive. In one of my mother’s rare scrapes, she backed the Bug into our 1967 Ford wagon. Because the bumpers didn’t line up, the Bug got bunged. All things considered, it was a trifle. When my father spotted the car’s ding, he knew exactly what happened. Nonetheless, he was ticked: Why didn’t his wife say she scratched the car? The answer:  “I thought the bumpers touched.” Dad retorted, “You know those bumpers don't match.” And that was as far as conversation went. You don’t argue with my mother’s driving style. 

Perhaps the best homage to Wolfsburg performance from my mother was a rare family gathering where our driveway lineup include a VW Squareback, VW Scirocco and VW Jetta GLI. Mom had an errand, and we let her have her pick of the driveway automotive sampler. She choose the Jetta, a smart choice. She said she liked that one because it was fast. No fooling, it was the quickest and best handling ride.   

You expect mothers to pick practical, sensible safety mobiles. Not mine. She fell for fast and furious. You cannot argue with a woman like that. VWCA  

An earlier version of this story, entitled “Mom Car(d),” appeared in High Gear Media's website and Woman on Wheels.

Cliff Leppke | leppke.cliff@gmail.com

ALSO IN THIS ISSUE:
* ROAD TRIP: Learning about life in the fast lane, inside a 1967 Ford Country Sedan.
* "THE PEOPLE'S CAR": New book from British author reveals much about early VW.
* A TURNING POINT?: What's next for VW after Ferdinand Piech's resignation?
* GRINDING GEARS: Gearboxes on early VW frontdrivers were short-lived.

PLUS OUR REGULAR COLUMNS AND FEATURES:
* Driver's Seat - VW news & views by Cliff Leppke
* Frontdriver – Richard G. Van Treuren
* Small Talk - VW and Audi news - quickly
* Retro Autoist - From the archives
* Parting Shot - Photo feature
* VW Toon-ups - Cartoon feature by Tom Janiszewski

 

 

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