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Using a roof rack is not a universal skill. (Laure Neish/Photos.com)
Using a roof rack is not a universal skill. (Laure Neish/Photos.com)

Road Rush

Tying one on: The art of loading a roof rack Add to ...

My father-in-law Ron was a man of talent and taste: He played the piano like a dream, and his celestial tenor earned him a place with the Canadian Opera Company. He also fathered the woman I love.

But as an automotive load master, Ron was a complete and utter failure. Letting Ron fasten luggage to the roof of a car was tantamount to throwing it in the trash – the luggage would not be there when you arrived. Oh well.

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Using a roof rack is not a universal skill. If you want proof, go to to the loading area of an Ikea or Home Depot and watch drivers lash down furniture crates and lumber with knots that are guaranteed to fail. Mattresses are flopped on top with a metre sticking out the front, creating a giant wing that will lift with relentless force. It’s terrifying.

The world can be divided into two kinds of people – those who know how to attach something to a car, and those who don’t. The first group understands leverage, knot tying and aerodynamics. The second group should never be allowed near a car and a length of rope. My father-in-law was that second group’s honorary president for life.

Ron’s load management and fastening skills were the stuff of family legend (not the good kind). He forgot my wife’s little sister at church once, and when he decided to drive his family from Halifax to Montreal for the 1967 Expo world fair, he lost an entire collection of camping gear off the roof.

This was one of many engineering-related debacles that I learned about after taking up with Ron’s daughter, Marian, back in the 1980s. Joining the Beare family took me into a world far different than my own. My father was a tone-deaf military officer who could load a Hercules transport plane with a company of soldiers and a full set of combat gear, then fly it halfway around the world with every last item perfectly secured.

Ron, on the other hand, was a gifted musician who could sing a Turandot aria and decode a Bach cantata, but could barely tie his own shoes. Mechanical relationships of any kind left him utterly confounded. (When I replaced the worn-out closer on his screen door, he acted as though I had rebuilt the space shuttle. “How did you do that?” he asked, in genuine wonderment.)

Loading a car brought Ron’s mechanical disadvantage into sharp focus. I always wondered how a man with such intelligence couldn’t learn how to tie a bowline knot or use a load strap. (But then again, I can’t play an instrument or read music.) But Ron had developed strategies that let him avoid knots (after the failed 1967 Expo trip, the family had forbidden him from using a roof rack).

The Expo story was like an earthbound episode of Mayday (the Discovery Channel show that analyzes aviation disasters). Ron had borrowed a roof rack and loaded it with a 10-person canvas tent, half a dozen sleeping bags, several folding chairs, a couple of coolers and a Coleman stove. A good, military-trained load master would have distributed the load fore and aft to minimize windage and equalize the pressure on the rack, wrapped it in tarpaulins, then cinched it all down with ratcheting cargo straps or ropes tied with trucker’s knots.

Not Ron. He piled the gear on top and lashed it down with a chaotic web of ropes that resembled something between a spider web and drunken macrame, all tied with knots that began loosening themselves even before he left the curb. A few hours into the trip, the kids noticed that people in passing cars were gesturing frantically at the road behind. When Ron finally pulled over, the top of the car was empty. Even the ropes were gone.

The mixing of the Cheney and Beare genes brought much-needed qualities to both families. I was a mechanic, and my dad could fix anything, but no one in my family could play an instrument, carry a tune, or tell the difference between Bach and Mozart. The Beares were pianists, opera singers and music teachers. But no Beare could be trusted to operate a machine more complicated than a can opener – or to fasten down a moving load.

My wife and I turned out to be an ideal pair, offsetting each other’s weaknesses. She played the piano, using the skills that her father had drilled into her during more than a decade of Kiwanis competitions. And I handled the roof rack, using the skills my father had instilled.

Improper loading was a sore point with my dad. When I was a little boy, he spotted a parked car with an 18-foot canoe on the roof. The canoe was tied down with two frayed lengths of twine. Without saying a word, he went into a nearby hardware store, bought a package of rope, then tied down the canoe with two lengths, each fashioned into a trucker’s hitch that doubled back on itself, providing a three-to-one purchase. Then he tied V-lines to the front and rear bumpers. (As my dad taught me, the front and rear lines countered each other in tension, and the front one resisted the air loads that would try to lift the canoe’s bow.)

Years later, I was following a car in B.C. that had an aluminum boat roof when I noticed that there was no V-line to the back bumper. Was there one on the front, I wondered? I decided to drop back a few more car lengths. A few minutes later, I saw the boat begin to lift at the nose. Then the air caught it, and the boat shot straight up, somersaulting and glinting in the sun.

I got serious about roof-top load carrying when I took up hang gliding back in the 1970s. Over the decades that followed, I built a series of padded, cantilevered racks that kept my gliders safe (except for the day when I drove into an overhanging roof because I was distracted by the kids. But that’s another story).

Most of my flying friends are natural load masters. Carrying expensive flying machines over long distances gives you a lot of practice. But there are some Ron-style glider pilots. One lackadaisical pal used to throw up to 10 gliders on top of his van like so many logs, then secure the lot with two lengths of rope. It worked well enough until the day he rear-ended a car outside Chattanooga, Tenn., while carrying six gliders – they launched themselves off the roof like a phalanx of air-to-ground missiles.

Another built a plywood rooftop box big enough to hold four gliders. Only after it was finished did he realize that it weighed more than 700 pounds with the gliders in it. We tried to warn him that it was a bad idea, but he was a man on a mission – he lifted the box onto the roof of his Toyota with the help of six friends and congratulated himself on his beautiful creation.

“Looks great,” he declared. The rest of us didn’t think so. The bars of his Thule rack bowed under the strain, and his car sagged on its springs, like an Olympic weightlifter trying to press an impossible load of barbells.

And then he was off. I heard that the box ripped off the Toyota’s roof somewhere in Tennessee, destroying itself and the gliders inside. Like I said – the world is divided into two kinds.

Click here for Peter Cheney's photo gallery of the week: In pictures: Inside a McLaren supercar

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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