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Peter Cheney's father, Ben, always owned humble cars despite pining for a Porsche. (Cheney family photo)
Peter Cheney's father, Ben, always owned humble cars despite pining for a Porsche. (Cheney family photo)

Road Rush

It's astonishing what my father learned since I was 15 Add to ...

My father always dreamed of owning a Porsche. Thanks to me, he never did. I drained his sports car fund with seven years of university, broken skis and blown-up engines. So my father made do with cars like base-model Mercury Comets and used Opel Kadetts.

His cars may have been humble, but my dad’s skills were not. He could drive a Jeep, a tank or a Fiat with a broken clutch. He navigated the capitals of Europe, the sands of the Golan Heights and Nova Scotia snowstorms without missing a beat. When our fan belt snapped, my dad fixed it himself. He could jump-start a car by pushing it himself and jumping in. In 50 years of driving, he never crashed.

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Yes, my father was a great driver. He handled a vehicle the way Vladimir Horowitz handled a piano. Of course, I didn’t appreciate this at the time. In fact, I thought my father’s driving sucked. Such is the nature of fathers and sons.

I spent my teens angry with my father because he wouldn’t drive fast or sink money into a cool car. When he dropped me off at school in our Mercury I slunk down below the window line so no one could see. Other dads had Mustangs and Jaguars, but my dad refused to go into debt for a set of wheels.

It would take decades for me to see his wisdom.

By the time I was 15, I thought I knew everything there was to know about driving. My actual experience was limited to a few sessions with my dad, but I read Road & Track religiously, and studied every engineering book I could find. I knew way more than my dad. Or so I thought.

My first real driving lesson was at the age of 12, when my father took me to an abandoned military airstrip and taught me how to work the manual transmission of our Comet. Two days later, I could start, stop, and go through all three forward gears. Within a few weeks, I was ready to apply some racing techniques that I’d read about – like braking deep into a corner, then powering my way out.

“Go ahead,” my father said. When the Comet went sideways and spun out, he laughed. But I still thought I knew better.

My father was a military officer, and he approached driving the same way as his work, reconnoitering every situation, on constant alert for hidden dangers. I wanted to go fast and drift through corners. My dad wanted to keep the ride smooth and avoid crashing.

By the time I graduated from university we had lived in more than a dozen places, and in each one, my dad tried to show me the risks. He showed me how the decreasing-radius turns on a Banff mountain road could suck you in. In Belgium, he tried to tell me about cobblestones, and how slippery they could be when you were driving through a patch of shadow on a cool day.

I tuned him out. I knew everything, after all.

Then came my epiphany. Zooming down a cobbled road in Brussels in my little Fiat, I hit a diminishing-radius curve that was in deep shadow on a cool day – I slid off the road, narrowly missing a tree that would have killed me. Now I saw what my dad was talking about.

As I stood shaking by the side of the road, thankful to be alive, memories of rides with my father came flooding back. I remembered one from 1966, when he drove my brother and me across North America in the dead of winter. We’d faced glare ice, whiteouts and two jack-knifed trucks, but my dad cruised through it without incident. My brother and me were free to listen to the radio and argue in the back seat. Being in our father’s car was like being in a cathedral. We were safe.

I was in my forties before I realized what a good driver my father really was. I started noticing the way he synchronized every downshift, working the clutch and throttle like a maestro, and how he subtly altered his line through curves to carve the widest possible arc. Had he always done that?

There was more to his car skills than the driving. While others blew money on expensive, gadget-laden cars, my dad stuck to the basics – manual transmissions, roll-up windows and fuel-efficient motors that went the distance. As far as I know, he never had a car payment. But he had always longed for the same car – a Porsche 911.

When I was a little boy, we were stationed in Germany, not far from the Porsche plant. Some of my dad’s friends bought Porsches and raced them on weekends at the military airstrip. But my dad already had three kids, and he didn’t want to borrow the money for a Porsche. Instead, he bought a Borgward Isabella, a less expensive yet sporting car that could carry his family. “It’s perfect,” he told me. “I don’t need more.”

When we moved to Africa, he brought the Borgward with him, even though the wheel was on the wrong side (they drove on the left in Ghana back then). As we went down the road, he was next to the curb, and as passenger, I rode next to the centerline. My dad taught me to look around the cars ahead for passing opportunities, and the laws of physics were never driven home so clearly as the time when I misjudged an oncoming truck.

I later realized that my father knew the truck was there, and that there was more than enough time to get back into our lane. But he wanted to show me how things worked, and how important it was to make smart decisions. It was another lesson that would take me 40 years to understand.

As it turned out, the Borgsward was my dad’s first and last cool car. There were new expenses and pressures. My little brother died of spinal meningitis. A new sister arrived. We moved back to Canada and bought a Mercury that relegated to us the bottom rung of the automotive status ladder.

“A car is a way from Point A to Point B,” my dad told me. “I’m not going broke over one.”

My dad never stopped wanting a Porsche. But he didn’t complain about not getting one. That’s just the way it had to be. He drove what he had, and drove it well. When I became a father myself, I saw him through new eyes. I was amazed at how smooth he was, and how he seemed to anticipate everything that might happen. As we drove down a deserted road one day, he suddenly slowed for no apparent reason. Then a coyote ran out in front of us. “Saw something in the grass,” he said.

My father’s final lesson was on the art of dying. In 1998, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My mother had died just three years before, also of cancer. My father was living alone on Vancouver Island, retired from the military after more than 40 years. His Black Watch regiment uniforms and combat fatigues were hung in the closets, and his car was in the garage, freshly serviced.

He died on the night of the National Newspaper Awards, just two hours after I won one for investigative reporting and dedicated it to my father. His last words to me had been on the phone the day before, when I urged him to hang on so I could come out for one last visit.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll be here.”

How could a boy worry with a father like that? I had ridden with him for many years. And when I drive, the Major is still with me.

Peter Cheney at age two in Sydney, Nova Scotia with his father, Major Ben Cheney

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

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