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

* 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.

* 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



Autoist Archive

Jul-Aug | 2019
Emotional rescue

Who would be crazy enough to drive a 36-year-old VW 3,000 miles over two weeks . . . with no A/C or other contemporary car creature comforts? Our Cliff Leppke, of course. He had a ball.


May-Jun | 2019
From beater Bus to dragstrip demon

The Goblin Works Garage team, part of a UK-based collective that rebuilds vehicles as part of a cable TV series, takes on a 1969 VW Bus.


Mar-Apr | 2019
Anniversary Theme

February???s Chicago Auto Show paid tribute to the anniversaries of four venerable marques, including VW???s Jetta GLI.


Jan-Feb | 2019
Tribute to a mom: How Kathy Janiszewski and a '72 Volkswagen helped inspire a lifelong hobby

From this VW Bus, Kathy Janiszewski emerges with her wedding party in July 1966. She inspired her son, Tom, to follow a passion for VWs.


Nov-Dec | 2018
Commemorative Issue

In commemoration of its milestone 500th issue as publication of the VWCA, the Autoist gets a facelift for the first time in a decade.


Sep-Oct | 2018
2019 Jetta: New, Larger Economy Size

Some things come in small packages, and the seventh generation of VW's popular Jetta sedan delivers.


Jul-Aug | 2018
What's in your garage?

Amid the chaos, a home to vehicular gems and memories.


May-Jun | 2018
GTI AUTOBAHN: VW's latest version is a shopping cart full of enjoyment

Pack 220-hp and 258 ft.-lb of turbo kick under this hot hatch's hood and you've got a grocery-getter with options.


Mar-May | 2018
ARTEON: VW introduces its stylish replacement for the CC model.

Volkswagen???s attention to detail is notable in its new Arteon sedan, which made its debut at the Chicago Auto Show.


Jan-Feb | 2018

Volkswagen has upped the ante by inflating the 2018 Tiguan to almost mid-size capacity. Is it fit for a king?


Nov-Dec | 2017

Hundreds of VWs of every stripe gathered at Foster Park in Kokomo, Ind. for the annual Oktoberfest.


Sep-Oct | 2017
62nd VWCA Convention Wrap-up

Members gathered at the throw-back Cascade Drive-in Theater for "Cars 3," part of the VWCA Convention


Jul-Aug | 2017
Back To The Future Car

Cliff Leppke's 1983 Scirocco has notched its share of more than 333,000 miles in trips to Road America in Wisconsin. The latest covered about 3,000 miles during a whirlwind vacation excursion.


May-Jun | 2017
Swingin' time is in store for members, guests at 62nd annual Club gathering

Augustino's will get members rocking while the NIVA Club will roll out another lineup of VWs at its annual BugFest, part of the VWCA Convention in St. Charles, Ill.


Mar-Apr | 2017
Will VW See The Light?

VW once again evokes the memory of the beloved Microbus with its new concept called I.D. Buzz, which created quite a stir at the annual auto show in Detroit. (Photos by Tom Janiszewski)


Jan-Feb | 2017
Costly Mistake?

Joe Mayer says he's not out to punish VW over its diesel scandal - he just wanted to make some extra money on a car he thought would be junked. (Photos by Joe Mayer via jalopnik.com.)


Nov-Dec | 2016
WATTS OF FUN . . . . . . Meet the new e-Golf

Here's the car that, when you give it a charge, you'll get one back. In VW's first important pivot from its diesel scandal, the e-Golf provides an opening salvo in the carmaker's goal to electrify its fleet.


Sep-Oct | 2016
61st Annual Convention

What's an anniversary without a cake? This one didn't go far or last long as Club members enjoyed a variety of activities, including a Sunday car show and picnic, part of the 61st Annual Convention.


Jul-Aug | 2016
It's Time To Show Off

A couple of Karmann Ghias are resplendent at the Michigan Vintage VW Club's Festival in Ypsilanti, Mich.  The club held its 29th event in May, while Mid America Motorworks in Effingham, Ill., saluted the air-cooled crowd with a big show in June.


May-Jun | 2016
Windfall for TDI owners?

The scam was on as early as 2008, when this Candy White Jetta TDI Clean Diesel model, embellished with green plant matter, was rolled out.  In case anyone had a doubt, VW added the wording "Not a concept car."


Mar-Apr | 2016
Lost In Translation

VW CEO Mattias Mueller was in the hot glare of media lights at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, providing the company's latest response to the diesel emissions scandal.


Jan-Feb | 2016
VW's Game Plan

VW remains embroiled in a high-stakes game involving government agencies  and hundreds of thousands of owners of diesel models. The company's car on the road of Life has taken a big detour.


Nov-Dec | 2015
Engine with a split personality puts VW on the hot seat

The news in September was beyond belief for many VW and TDI enthusiasts: Volkswagen executives admitted that the company intentionally produced cars that violated clean-air laws.


Sep-Oct | 2015
Big bites of fun at the 60th VWCA Convention

Doug Narczewshi from Spring Valley, IL, looks over an assortment of water-cooled VWs on display at NIVA's Bug Fest event, part of the 60th VWCA Convention in suburban Chicago.


Jul-Aug | 2015
1969 Beetle gets a second chance to adorn the silver screen

Crew members working on the film "The Good Blonde" prepare for a shot on the California coast involving a 1969 Beetle owned by VWCA member and correspondent Lois Grace.


May-Jun | 2015
My Mom, the Daredevil

Around 1960, Cliff Leppke had no idea what was in store for him while being ferried about by his mother. Needless to say, his head was up and his eyes were open.


Mar-Apr | 2015
It's Show Time!

The Northeast Illinois Volkswagen Association has an activity-packed weekend planned for the 60th VWCA Convention in suburban Chicago.


Jan-Feb | 2015
Diesel Memories

Jack Pavie of suburban Philadelphia had to wait several months to get his 1975 Rabbit diesel, one of three models he enjoyed in the '70s and '80s.


Nov-Dec | 2014
Golf Lessons: Three new models charge up hatchback lineup

The scene at the Salamander Resort in Middleburg, Va., where Cliff Leppke and other media members ran the 2015 Volkswagens through their paces.


Sep-Oct | 2014
Having fun with miles per gallon

A morning commute for a 2012 Golf TDI has become a test on how high the fuel mileage will end up. It hit a high mark in July.


Jul-Aug | 2014
2014 VWCA Convention: Wagons, wagens and more - where the buffalo roam

In the VWCA's 59 years of Conventions, the setting in Hudson, Mich. was unique. Just ask VWCA's Tom Janiszewski, the guy driving the orange 1974 Camper.


May-Jun | 2014
New Beetle milestone: Though this 1999 model has shown it's flaws over 15 years and 90,000 miles, it's been a blast to drive

May 25 marks the 15th anniversary of my family's New Beetle ownership experience. It was on that day in 1999 that we took delivery of a brand new red GLS model from Kempthorn Volkswagen in Canton, Ohio.


Mar-Apr | 2014
Dune buggy with a twist at the Detroit Auto Show

There's a saying that everything old is new again, and since the New Beetle's production debut in 1998, that has been the car's underlying theme.


Jan-Feb | 2014
Back At The Ranch

At northern California getaway, Vernon and his family found plenty of ways to enjoy life