From box truck to sporty Sprite

Randy Riley - Contributing columnist

When I was a teenager, most of my friends were already licensed drivers. A few of them even owned a car. Wherever we were going, whatever we were doing, I always had a ride.

So, when I turned 16, I didn’t feel an overwhelming need to get my own license and a car. Finally, Dad said, “I won’t pay for it, but I’ll help you get a car. But here’s the deal. You need to learn on a standard shift and your first car will be a standard.”

When I asked Dad why, he said, “If you learn how to drive a car with a standard transmission, you will be able to drive any kind of car, truck or even a semi.”

I liked the sound of that, so I only practiced with cars that I needed to manually shift.

Once I eased off the clutch and got the car moving, shifting was easy and kind of fun, but working the clutch to get rolling smoothly from a complete stop could be a little tricky.

With practice, I got good at it. However, whenever I had to take off from a slight incline, I found it challenging to move my foot from the brake to the gas while letting off the clutch to get moving without the car jerking around. I hated it when the car jerked around. It made me feel like I needed a lot more practice.

So, I practiced and practiced and practiced, until I had it down pat.

Over 50 years ago, two of my good friends, Craig and Rusty, had a father who ran a swimming pool business. They helped me get hired doing above-ground pool installation. The company, Swimco, was located on East Dorothy Lane in Dayton.

Our construction crew started each day at the shop. We worked hard all day at the construction site and then returned to the Dorothy Lane shop to clean up equipment and get ready for the next day.

Late one afternoon, Mr. Miller, said he needed to have a diving board and some filtering equipment delivered to an apartment building on the north side of Dayton. He asked, “Can anybody here drive a truck?”

Based on what my dad had told me, I raised my hand and said, “Sure. I can drive a truck.”

We walked back to the loading dock and there sat a huge box truck. It was at least 20 feet long and wider than anything I had ever driven. The equipment had already been loaded. All I had to do was get in, start it up and start driving.

Mr. Miller assigned one of his sons, I think it was Rusty, to go with me to help unload. As we shut our doors, rolled down the windows and settled into the huge cab of the truck, Rusty said, “I didn’t know you knew how to drive a truck.” I explained what Dad had told me and then recommended he hang on.

I started the truck, eased into first gear and we started rolling. I did great for about 40 feet.

Then we got to the street. I needed to turn right. I drove over several feet of curb and sidewalk and almost took out a big wooden light pole.

Rusty looked at me. With a worried grin, he said, “You know we have about ten miles to go?” I told him I would start turning wider and that I needed him to help keep watch on his side. Off we went.

I did fine with the clutch. We moved great until I had to make a turn, then I slowed to a crawl and tried my best to stay off the sidewalks.

We finally pulled up to the apartment building. It seemed like a lot more than 10 miles. After a lot of jockeying around and barely missing some cars, I finally got us close to their swimming pool. We unloaded the equipment and started our ride back. Luckily, rush hour was over. I decided to reduce our turns by staying on State Route 48 until we got to Dorothy Lane.

Everyone was gone from the shop when we returned. I pulled up to the back of the shop and turned the truck off. Rusty and I shared a nervous laugh, shook hands and we headed home. After driving that big box truck, my normal ride (Mom’s little, blue Corvair) seemed like a roller skate.

The following year, I finally bought my own car. By then, I really enjoyed driving and shifting.

So, I bought an Austin Healey Sprite. It was a 4-speed British sports car. When cruising down the interstate, I felt like a race car driver. As I made the turns on country roads, I would downshift and to slow down and bang through the gears as I accelerated. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

In reality, I’m glad I sold it before I killed myself. That car was too sporty for this teenaged boy.

I have owned many, many cars since driving that big box truck and owning my little Austin Healey. They quit marketing standard shift vehicles about 20 years ago. I have not driven a car that I had to shift in quite a long time.

But, according to my Dad, I could still drive a semi-truck if I needed to — but at this point in my life, I wouldn’t even try it.

Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

Randy Riley

Contributing columnist