I was a senior in high school with a driver’s license, and like others my age, I regularly pestered my father for the keys to the family car. Because of that, and because I would likely need a car to go to college following graduation (or go to work, if I wasn’t able to get into college), my parents decided to help me buy a car. The mere thought of having my very own car stripped me of whatever miniscule amount of reason I possessed as a typical dipshit seventeen-year old scouring the local newspaper for a reasonably priced used car. The year was (and I really hate to date myself) 1964.
One ad in the paper caught my eye. Someone was selling a 1960 Renault Dauphine (Yes, a farookin’ French car) for what seemed like a ridiculously little amount of money. In fact, it wasn’t much more than my friends had paid for cars four to five years older than that. I mentioned it to my father, who counseled, “I don’t know, Son. I’m not crazy about foreign cars.”
Naturally, I didn’t listen to him and badgered him to “just go look at it with me, PLEASE?”
When we arrived at the address given in the paper, it was easy to spot the car parked in the street, as Renaults were not at all common then (and thankfully, now either). It was a little white car that looked sort of like this. I say “sort of,” because what really caught my eye (which obviously, by this time, was not connected to my brain) about this particular car were the two blue racing stripes that ran longitudinally across the car from the front bumper, over the hood, roof and trunk, to the left of the center line, all the way to the rear bumper.
Those stripes turned the rather non-descript (even dumb looking) French piss pot car into something unique. My underdeveloped seventeen year-old brain saw myself driving up and down the main drag in town in a car that would be instantly recognizable by everyone. I wanted that car, and it was priced right.
We met the owner and he showed us the interior. Again, my emotions and desire for the car completely overpowered my reason, when I saw that there was ONE seatbelt in the car – on the driver’s side. I knew that cars (back then) did not come “stock” with seatbelts and that, if you wanted seatbelts, you went to a place like Midas Muffler to have them installed. And, if you were going to RACE the car, you only needed one seatbelt – on the driver’s side. Given the presence of the racing stripes and the single seat belt, one didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know that the car had been raced. I knew it, as did my dad, as evidenced by his trying to talk me out of my brainlessness.
Forging ahead and completely ignoring the obvious Red Flags (and my father’s advice to “let this one go”), I looked closer at the interior and saw a stick shift on the floor, but noticed that there was NO CLUTCH. I asked the owner about that, and he told me that the car was equipped with the then state-of-the=art “FERLEC clutch.” The FERLEC clutch was an electro-mechanical affair that permitted one to change gears without the need of a clutch. All you had to do was press down on the stick and shift the car as you would a normal stick shift. I thought that this was absolutely fantastic, but my father was, to say the least, highly skeptical. (“Jim, I never heard of such a thing, and it sounds like a horseshit idea to me.”) My father’s advice went in one car, passed through my car-mush inside my head and went out the other ear.
We bought the car.
What a disaster.
Proper use of the infamous FERLEC clutch required that when the car was stopped, you had to press down on the shift and put the car in neutral. The problem was that finding “neutral” was not easy and, because of the idiotic design of the electric clutch, finding neutral was often impossible. When you thought the car was in neutral, it really wasn’t, and it would stall (exactly as a standard shift car would if you stopped and did not engage the clutch). Once the car stalled, you had to “find” neutral, but knowing what gear the car was in was always a crapshoot. Not knowing what gear the car was in became a huge problem when trying to re-start the car after one of its episodes of stalling. If the car was still in gear, it would lurch when the ignition was engaged. If you turned out to be in first gear, the car lurched forward. If you were in reverse, the car lurched backwards.
So, one night, I was “showing off” my spiffy car with the racing stripe to a buddy of mine. We had successfully completed a couple passes up and down the main drag. On about the third pass, we stopped for a light in the center of town. This time, the infamous FERLEC clutch failed to work properly and when I put the car in what felt like neutral, the car stalled.
As I fiddled with the shift to make sure I was in neutral, the light turned green, and the guy in the car behind me beeped his horn for me to get moving. I turned the key in the ignition, and BAM!!! My car flew backwards into the car behind me. My friend in the passenger seat started to laugh his ass off, but I could tell from looking in the rearview mirror that the guy behind me was clearly surprised and not at all amused.
Anxious to simply get away from the embarrassing scene, I fiddled again with the stick shift and again turned the ignition to re-start the car, and BAM!!! I flew backwards into the guy’s car a second time.
By now, I was shit scared and sweating bullets, as I saw the guy in the rearview mirror, seriously pissed and opening his car door to get out and kick my ass. However, he abruptly changed his mind when BAM!!! I hit the son of a bitch a THIRD TIME! He must have concluded that I had to be some kind of homicidal nut, because he hopped back in his car, flipped a U turn and drove like hell the other way.
I was a basket case, but my friend in the front seat damned near died laughing.
The next day, my father followed me to the dealer a few towns away (keeping a safe distance behind me at intersections). At the dealer an honest mechanic took us aside and told us that the FERLEC clutch was a
worthless piece of shit design failure and that Renault stopped putting them in cars after that model year. Fixing the thing was expensive and next to impossible. He recommended spending some serious money to install a regular transmission and clutch.
We placed a “For Sale” ad in the local paper the next day.
I should have listened to my father in the first place. It wasn’t the first time I told myself that, nor would it be the last.