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A father and son reach a wheel understanding

When I think of Father's Day, the first thing I do is remind myself of my long-standing vow to never again give my dad a gift that's in any way, shape or form remotely related to cars.

Admittedly, most of my Father's Day gifts have been abject failures – witness the tapered shirt for a guy who was more beach ball than inverted pyramid. But undeniably, the biggest flops were auto-related.

I am convinced my father has a secret storage unit that holds all my car gifts, the world's most extensive museum of K-Tel and Ronco car gadgets – all in the original packaging.

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Whether it was the Miracle Auto Duster – "cleans without water" – or the Glareblocker – "no more painful squinting" – to my teenage mind nothing could express a son's love for his father more than something that promised to make driving more enjoyable and require less water and squinting. But as far as I can remember, none was ever used.

This hall of shame is indicative of the large role the car played in the somewhat uneven relationship between my father and me. And, by uneven, I mean everything from sheer joy to something just short of death threats.

To be honest, there were a few death threats directed at me, generally prompted by some backseat psychological torture of my siblings that today might warrant a term of two to five years. But for the most part, the relationship survived childhood and even the ultimate test of my father giving me driving lessons, an activity that often results in police intervention.

Then came my first car, which quickly became a flashpoint.

As a teenager in the 1960s, I was bound by law to reject everything my father stood for, including his monstrous 1963 Mercury Monarch – basically a living room on wheels. To my rebellious teenage brain, such beasts were gas-guzzling, environment-ravaging, fascist-supporting, imperialistic, soul-sucking dinosaurs.

It was the kind of car that Satan, or Richard Nixon, would have driven.

Then there was the clash in basic auto philosophies: to my father, a car was something to be babied, waxed regularly and treated as a member of the family – although with fewer death threats.

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To me, a car was an appliance like the toaster. As long as it didn't catch fire the way our toaster did from time to time, it was pretty much on its own. Live and let live, man, was my Sixties philosophy.

So it was only natural that my first car, purchased used for $600, was the anti-Monarch: a 1966 Vauxhall Viva that could have fit into the Mercury's trunk.

To my perplexed father, the only people who drove such cars were hippies or communists, or communist hippies. The fact the car was always covered in enough dirt to grow zucchinis produced much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.

Not only that, he described the car as "foreign junk."

To my father's credit, he didn't utter one I-told-you-so when the Viva predictably died a premature death three years later. When it was hauled off to the scrapyard it so deserved, there was a chunk of tree branch serving as a carburetor plug, a hockey puck preventing the driver's seat from falling into the back seat and a coat hanger for an aerial.

He said even less when I replaced the Viva with an equally small Datsun, possibly because he was rendered speechless by the fact I had spent half a year's salary on a car.

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Since then, our relationship has improved immensely and part of the reason, I believe, is that we've both softened our automotive views.

When I bought a foreign two-seater sports car that was basically a motorized skateboard, he actually told me how much he liked it. And when he bought a new Buick, twice the size of my roadster, I not only complimented him on his choice but actually asked if I could drive it.

Peace in our time.

But even with decades of detente, I'm not venturing into auto gift territory again.

Maybe a shirt (non-tapered).


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