Spirit Quest


Remember the 'sin' of that new car smell

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

It was one of those pleasant September evenings, my parents and I were sitting on the steps of our porch enjoying the remainder of the day when a shiny new car pulled into our driveway. Few cars had ever used that lane inasmuch as we didn’t own a car, not yet, and the neighbours called on foot. Presently the driver got out. It was Mr. Weese, the owner of Weese Motors in Trenton, Ontario.

He approached us and announced, “This car isn’t what you ordered but your name has come up on the waiting list and I thought you might want to look at it. If you don’t want it you will retain your place in the queue. You might have to wait a good while before the car you ordered is available.  Have a look.”

It was the fall of 1947 and auto production from the Big Three: Ford, GM and Chrysler were in full swing after the wartime hiatus when these companies had been producing weapons of destruction - guns, planes and tanks. Indeed the Bata Shoe Company, my father’s employer, had been deeply involved in war production but now was getting back to shoe making. They did retain a machine shop that concentrated on making shoe  machinery. That’s where my father was the quality control inspector.

The Bata people, Czechs and Slovaks, who Tom Bata had brought with him to Canada just before the outbreak of hostilities, were now acquiring their first cars. My school chums had glossy brochures of new cars stuck among their school texts in their bags that could be fawned over in spare moments or leafed through under the desk out of the teacher’s view.

We had decided to join the cue at the GM dealership placing an order for a brand new Chevvy. We were 84th in line at the beginning of the year and had almost forgotten about it when Mr. Weese made his epiphany. Shiny cars of different colours and makes with  gleaming grills were already popping up in our neighbourhood driveways.

The '47 Chev Mr. Weese was showing us was battleship gray, a four door sedan unlike the more stylish maroon coloured coupe that we had selected. This car in our driveway did not blow us away instantly  But it was in our lane.

The whole family got up and like wolves surrounding their prey circled the vehicle. Mr. Weese named the price  which was a bit less than the one we had ordered. Best of all, the $1,630.00 was almost the same amount that we had just been paid for those 160 acres, a quarter section in prairie parlance, of dirt, rocks and scrub and some log houses of questionable quality, in northern Saskatchewan. We thus had cash on hand and nothing is more sin enticing.

We went into a huddle briefly and then father announced to Mr. Weese we’d take it. At that moment his son pulled up as if by magic, to take his father home. We all went into the house and did what one did in those days to purchase a car. There was only one problem: none of us had ever sat behind the wheel of a car.

As soon as the salesman had disappeared down the road with our $1,630, neighbours converged. One offered to take us for a drive and later to teach us the rudiments; depressing the clutch, putting the engine in gear and gradually increasing pressure on the gas pedal while letting out the clutch. Wow! It moved — with mighty jerks.

We circled the little village and waved at the neighbours. Father sat next to Johnny Panko, our tutor while mother and I occupied the spacious bench behind. There were no seat belts to constrain us. Thus we entered the automotive age. Sixty days later I was tested by “Skinny” Ketcheson, a garage owner, in nearby Frankford who was commissioned to test new drivers in the area.

Skinny had me drive out into the country a few miles and then ordered me to turn around. I performed a perfect three point turn as I had been taught and headed back to the garage. There was still the oral part of the exam. Skinny asked me what I would do if I hit a dog. I replied with confidence that I would stop. Skinny made no remark but signed my permit and I returned home. Father would take another sixty days, wisely, before attempting to prove his mettle at the wheel. Thus I became the family chauffeur .

1947 had been a banner year for me. A few days before this transaction I had returned from a flying visit to the Big Apple. I had spent five days there and felt that I had attained a new sophistication far above my confreres; a flyer, a big city connoisseur and now a licensed driver. That year seemed like the BC/AD divide in my personal history.

Do I need to remind you how life has changed in those last 65 years? The roads and parking lots are filled, and new ones are being built. More cars are pouring off the assembly lines. Highway gridlock is for many a fact of daily living.

Eight years before the purchase of this car we had taken possession of a team of horses and a box wagon that could be converted into a hayrack. Driving those two animals with a will of their own was both easier but less predictable than manipulating a steering wheel. At age 11 I had acquired the skill of harnessing the horses or riding them bareback inasmuch as we could not afford a saddle. Cars were scarce in prewar rural Saskatchewan and horses were scared of them. Father had learned to guide the plough and binder and all the rest of the equipment required to farm our fields. Before that he knew only how to drive a desk.

The petroleum industry depends very much on people like us. But the ongoing supply of fuel is questionable. Oil supplies from places like Alberta’s tarsands is hugely polluting  and the Middle East oil patch is politically unpredictable. As the 25-cent gallon increased to $1.30 plus a litre the sustainability of our motive power is in question.

Is this New Age approaching a radical disjunction? What will replace fossil fuels? Also, where will we drive or park when we get there?

1947 at least for me seemed as if we  were we entering a new age? What will be the milestone to mark the next era?

In the immediate future gas will still spirit us along the roads and avenues of our land for ever higher costs. We will continue to build larger and more dense traffic arteries and the cars and trucks to fill them.

However, we need to listen intently to a different Spirit that questions our dependence on oil, electricity and even nuclear power. Can we really continue to live as we have been accustomed? Does AD perhaps stand for the Automotive Demise? Can we think outside that box with wheels?