“Can I drive?”
In a dark parking garage in downtown Louisville, I had just boldly asked best-selling author and ENR contributor Dan McNichol to hand over the keys to his 1949 Hudson, affectionately named Mrs. Martin and serving as the vehicle for ENR’s Low and Slow infrastructure tour.
“Go right ahead,” he replied and calmly slid into the passenger seat.
I didn’t really expect him to say yes, as Dan is quite protective over Mrs. Martin. Acting as though he were majordomo of a Bugatti and not a rusty old sedan, Dan watches over those who might man-handle Mrs. Martin. And rightfully so: The 66-year-old upholstery is delicate, and the car has a distinct odor of something sickly and fragile.
Most importantly, she has to get Dan and ENR senior transportation editor Aileen Cho to L.A. in one piece.
Dan proudly wears the Hudson badge as part of his personal uniform, too. Hanging from his belt were the car keys, which jingled on a silver and red Hudson fob. Throughout the day as we took hardhat tours of the Ohio River Bridges project sites in Louisville, Ky., Dan would carefully tuck the keys into his pants pocket.
All this is to say it’s a big deal to drive Mrs. Martin. “You’re the only other person besides a guy I met who used to race old cars,” Dan said.
No racing would happen today. We were in a parking lot, and in that lot I was ordered to stay. Make a loop or two, perhaps, but no showing off, Dan requested.
I settled into the long bench seat, as plush as a parlor sofa. First, I reviewed the gear pattern on the three-speed column shifter. Up and in is reverse. Down and in is first gear. Up and out is second. Down and out is third. I turned a simple chrome knob of the dash, and the headlights flickered on. I put her in gear and slowly pulled away.
As the owner of an old car—my 1965 Chevrolet turns 50 this year—I find that antique things can be both comforting and disconcerting. Antiques can be comforting in that they remind us of our past. Yet they can be disconcerting in that they serve as an analog to our progress—or lack thereof. Watching Mrs. Martin in Interstate traffic quickly drives the point home.
Dan sees Mrs. Martin as a symbol of out-of-sync priorities and politics. Why do we continue to accept dilapidation and disrepair in the world around us when we have the technology and resources to improve our engineered environment? Why do we demand the latest smart phone but not the latest bridge, tunnel or road?
Quite often, our progress comes at greater expense than we realize, and so we are in a constant game of catch-up. Just moments before I wrestled the car’s column shifter, Dan and I had heard a Kentucky transportation engineer point out spalled concrete on a 52-year-old bridge—now past its 50-year design life—and blamed much of it for de-icing chemicals, or in his own vernacular, “liquid bridge remover.”
As I made my quick lap and brought Mrs. Martin to a stop, I thanked Dan for sharing the experience of driving Mrs. Martin. And as I drove home in the comforts of air conditioning and Pandora radio, I was even more thankful that I wouldn’t be the one piloting her across the country.
See more Low & Slow coverage at ENRLowSlow.com.