For the serious car nut and gearhead, marriage can be a dicey enterprise: as history has shown, few spouses are willing to put up with a lifestyle based on high-speed lapping sessions, $700 torque wrenches and an endless series of time-sucking project cars.
So I believed that I would always be a bachelor. And yet, on a sparkling Christmas Day in 1983, I found myself in a snow-covered Nova Scotia field with a diamond ring in my hand and the woman I loved standing before me. Against the earnest advice of my racing buddies, I was proposing marriage to someone who had zero interest in machinery.
As my buddies saw it, there was a major fork in the road of life. One fork led to a mechanical paradise of sports cars, racetracks and polished tools. The other led to a conjugal purgatory of Ferrari-sized child-care bills, crushing mortgages and wives who lost interest shortly after the wedding. (As one of my motorcycle-racing friends put it, getting married was like bringing a sandwich to a banquet.)
I saw their logic, but I had never met a woman like Marian. She was a music teacher and choir director with a long string of piano competition wins. She was demure and elegant. Her family was rock solid. On the downside, she didn’t know the difference between a carburetor and a brake drum. And what she saw in me, no one really knew. (My own mother took Marian aside and cautioned that I might not be the ideal husband, given my penchant for risky sports and kitchen-table engine rebuilds.)
Against my mother’s advice, Marian accepted my proposal. We were married on April 28, 1984, in a Halifax church that her family had attended for three generations. This was the beginning of our life as a vehicular odd couple. Asked to describe a car, our respective responses might go something like this:
Me: “It was a Porsche 911 with BBS center-lock wheels, Ohlins coil-overs, ceramic brakes, shaved heads and a short-shifter kit. It was lowered 30 millimeters, and it was running a lot of negative camber.”
My wife: “It was blue.”
As per my friend’s predictions, marriage put a damper on my automotive ambitions. My sports-car fund was quickly drained by family responsibilities (two kids, ballet lessons and a Toronto house represented the cost of a dozen Porsche Turbos or so.) In the early 1990s, I tried to buy a two-seat sports car called a Caterham Seven, but Marian vetoed the deal and put the money into a house payment and education fund. (I would come to appreciate her wisdom later, but it hurt at the time.)
In my younger days, I had witnessed the aphrodisiac power of a hot car. Many of my friends had invested in Triumph TR6s and Boss Mustangs to attract women (it had worked only too well.) But my wife was utterly unmoved by expensive cars and the social status that others associate with them.
When I showed up in a brand-new Porsche Panamera test car a couple of years ago, my wife didn’t know what it was. All she cared about was whether it had enough room for her schoolbooks. And when teachers and students poured out of our son’s school to ogle the Panamera, making us the object of all eyes, my wife rolled down the window and told them: “It’s not ours.”
To Marian, all cars were essentially the same – as long as they carried our family where we needed to go, that was good enough. Unlike me, she didn’t care if the paint was waxed, and she didn’t flinch if a kid spilled a juice box in the back seat – she saw cars as transport devices, not works of art.
In the early days of our marriage, I thought that I could bring Marian around to my way of thinking, gradually raising her engineering standards and teaching her to appreciate the aesthetics of fine machinery. Maybe there would be a day when she would long for a beautiful sports car, enjoy driving on the racetrack, and perhaps even fly with me in my glider. Such was not the case – one lap of the track was enough, her first flight with me was her last, and her taste in cars remained resolutely practical – a dented Honda was all she needed.
We didn’t have great cars, but we were always on the road. We drove to Nova Scotia every summer with our kids. We drove to Georgia several times a year so I could fly gliders at my favorite site. As the kids got older, Marian and I went for evening cruises together around the city and weekend runs into the country, happy just to spend time together and take in the scenery.
Over the years, I came to realize that my wife is the greatest driving companion I have ever known. She’s always up for a trip (including a top-down drive from Toronto to Chattanooga, Tennessee, in a convertible with the top down all the way.) We have probably clocked a million kilometres together in the past 30 years, and the destinations have been endless – family reunions, hockey rinks, grocery stores, airports …the list goes on and on.
Whenever we’re in Nova Scotia, we drive to the hillside meadow where I asked her to marry me nearly 30 years ago (it’s in the Annapolis Valley, and is known in our family as Proposal Field.) A lot has happened since then – our kids have grown up, our parents have all died, and I finally got a sports car. And yet the field is still exactly the same: a gentle green slope that leads down to a stream where I once swam and fished with my grandfather.
When my parents sold the family farm, they sectioned off that field and left it to me in their will. I’ve driven to it countless times, in more cars than I can remember, from beat-up VWs to a brand-new Porsche. When I was a little boy, I thought that the cars would matter. Now I realize that they don’t. On the road to Proposal Field, the only thing that counts is the person next to you.
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Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive
Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/
Correction: Chattanooga is in Tennessee, not Georgia as stated in an earlier version of this story.