First published May 25, 2010
As the dust and bent metal settled on my son's Porsche crash, there was an obvious question: what happened? How had he managed to fire up a 500-horsepower car and launch it through our garage door like a four-wheeled missile?
When I decided to write about the incident for Globe Drive, the story quickly took on a life of its own. My son had created a real-life version of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. A $180,000 car was trashed. So was my garage. I was flooded with e-mails from around the world. Some readers blamed me for the crash, assuming that I had blithely handed my son the keys. (I didn't, although there was a tongue-in-cheek headline in the print version of the story which gave the opposite impression.) Now I was searching for answers, sifting through the debris like an air crash investigator.
The accident had been a spectacular one. The car was a 2010 Porsche Turbo, one of the fastest-accelerating cars in the world. In a distance of just a few feet, it had gained enough kinetic energy to blow apart a 15-foot-wide garage door that had been reinforced with extra steel reinforcement ribs. The door tracks, rollers and support frame were trashed.
Some things were obvious. My son had gone to the garage to show a friend the car. I didn't know he had taken the key. But what had happened after that? The only witnesses were my son and his friend. All they could tell me was that they had decided to get in the car, and put in the key so they could hear the stereo and watch the Porsche navigation screen come to life. I asked my son if he had pushed in the clutch. He didn't know. "It just went," he said.
I began piecing the disaster together. The Turbo was a six-speed manual. I had left it parked in first gear, which is standard practice in a manual car, because it prevents the car from rolling if the parking brake slips. The parking brake was also applied, but only a click or two - it was only a backup, in case the car got knocked out of gear. On a level surface (like my garage floor) even the lightest parking brake application would keep the car stationary. For someone trained on a standard transmission, this is all de rigueur.
The Porsche was equipped with a safety switch that prevented it from starting unless the clutch was depressed. So my son must have pushed down the clutch. I asked him if he had. He didn't know. Now the pieces started falling into place. My son only knows how to drive an automatic, and is trained to press on the brake before turning the key. He had pressed on the left pedal, as always, but it wasn't the brake - instead, it was the clutch. Although he didn't realize it, he had just cocked a 500-hp. weapon. There were safety mechanisms, but he had slipped past them all without realizing it.
As I analyzed the crash, I realized that it was about more than mechanics. It was about a generational shift. I learned to drive a standard transmission in the 1960s, before I was old enough for a driver's licence. Back then, mastering the clutch was both a rite of passage, and a point of pride. By the time I turned 16, I had mastered the finer points of manual shift-driving, including heel-and-toe technique, which allows you to blip the throttle while simultaneously working the clutch and brake.
But my son is part of a generation that has left the stick shift behind. In his wide group of friends, my son knows only one who can drive a manual transmission. The majority of cars sold today are automatics. When my son was 14, I took him out on a back road and showed him how to work the clutch and gearshift. The shift lever was like the door handle to the kingdom of high-performance driving, and I assumed that my son would be as awed by it as I had been back in the 1960s, when my father solemnly instructed me about its function - as I moved the lever, I envisioned the gears spinning on their shafts inside the transmission, a humming mechanical cosmos that was now at my command. But my son's eyes glazed over - unlike me, he had no interest in the workings of a car.
I spent my childhood reading about camshafts and suspension design. In my 20s, I worked as an auto mechanic. I dreamed about sports cars and airplanes. I built a workshop in my garage, and I studied aircraft design. But my son had different interests. He could recite the statistics of most of the players in the NHL, and saw form and pattern in the chaos of a game. He didn't care about power tools, aerodynamics, or the way cars worked. He just wanted to drive them. When his grandmother died, we bought her old Honda Accord from the estate. It had an automatic, and it became his car.
When he made a spur-of-the-moment decision to take the car keys with him to the garage, he opened a Pandora's Box. Now I was retracing his steps, learning how he had blundered. Turning on the stereo meant putting in the key and turning it one click, to the Accessory position. He spent a moment hunting for the key slot - on a Porsche, it is located to the left of the steering wheel, a non-standard position. He had expected to turn the key a single click, which would actuate the electrical system. But the key was in his left hand, a significant departure from his usual routine. And he went a click too far. The engine roared into life, filling the cinder-block garage with a sound that could be described as a cross between an enraged jungle cat and a giant vacuum cleaner.
In an automatic car, which can only be started in Park, he could have taken his foot off the left pedal (the brake) without consequence. The car would be locked in position by its transmission. To make it move, he would have to press on the brake and shift into Drive. But my son was in a machine that he didn't understand. Instead of two pedals, it had three. His left foot was on the left pedal, just as it was in an automatic. But it wasn't the brake. It was the clutch - and when he took his foot off it, the car sped forward.
Given the force the car developed, his right foot must have been on the gas. But my son can't say. He recalls the moment without comprehension.
Countless readers have offered theories and opinions about the crash. Some vilified me as an irresponsible parent, and a fool. Among them was Ken West: "So, here we have a supposed expert motor-journalist being clearly negligent in giving control of an expensive car to an inexperienced driver," Mr. West wrote, "and then using his journalist privileges to deflect attention from that negligence, and towards the poor judgment of a callow youth. ... P.S., my 10-year-old Toyota will not start unless the clutch is depressed. It's too bad that a $180,000 Porsche does not provide such a simple safety feature."
Mr. West, the car did have that safety feature. But in the face of teenage over-exuberance and some bad luck, it meant nothing.