How We Used to Drive

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When you put your car in reverse, do you look back – or look down?  The answer will date you.

If you look back, it is probable you learned to drive before there were screens – and cameras – built into cars. You learned to use your eyes, instead – and therefore have no need for cameras and screens. Nor those squiggly little red-yellow-green lines superimposed upon the screen – accompanied by beeps – that are meant to let the screen-watcher know he is getting too close to the cars parked on either side (and behind) he’s not actually looking at.

Having learned how to judge the space available for maneuvering using your senses – such that it becomes almost intuitive – you know where the bumper of your car ends – and just how much room is left.

That intuitiveness is lost – because it was never developed – when people are taught to rely on cameras, screens and arc-moving squiggly lines, responding in pavlovian style to various chimes and beeps.

Back in the late-’90s, I attended a press-preview event for one of Ford’s then-newest models. It was one of the first models that featured Parking Assistance – which took the cameras and screen the driver was supposed to use in lieu of his eyes one step farther. Now, he was not supposed to use his hands, either. Instead, push a button to engage the system – which then maneuvered the car (using electrically-assisted steering) into the parking spot, with the alacrity and precision of a glaucomic old lady.

Inch the car forward. Adjust the wheel, a little – but not exactly accurately. Back up, some. Then a little forward, again. More steering adjustment – the car’s cameras feeding  computers, which then commanded the car’s slight forward-back-again movements.

Eventually, the car parked itself.

I asked the Ford rep whether they thought that a person who needed “assistance” to parallel park a car ought to be driving, at all. After all, I had been taught that parking a car competently is a basic driving competence; indeed, it was once necessary to demonstrate that competence in order to pass the driver’s test that was the basis for becoming a licensed driver.

Yes, certainly – “technology” can make such a competence irrelevant – assuming one ignores the fact that the car that parks itself takes forever to do it and not as well as a driver who knows how to park can do it. Of a piece with “fast” charging an EV in only 45 minutes.

But that dodges the fundamental question of competence – and the wisdom of not encouraging it when the driver is still otherwise in control of the car when it is being driven.

Not knowing how to tread water is inconducive to swimming.

Or rather, to not drowning.

We – those of us who learned to drive, when that skill was an expected right of passage – also generally learned to drive stick. This was due in part to the fact that, right through the ’80s and even into the ’90s, many cars (and most trucks) still came standard with manual transmissions and so, by default, we had to learn how to use them – if we wanted to drive. We learned how to balance clutch, throttle and brake-release on hills – so as not to roll back down the hill (and into whatever was behind us) without a Hill Holder Clutch to prevent us from learning this art.

As a result, we who so learned do not need a Hill Holder Clutch and regard it as another insulting nuisance – like crutches for the able-bodied.

But it is more than a matter of pride – though that is definitely a component, as it ought to be. A person should take pride in achievement; in having mastered a skill. There is a degradation involved in learned helplessness.

Which brings up another thing about how we once learned to drive. That being all-wheel-drive.

Practically every new car has it or offers it – in part because so many drivers feel helpless at the first hint that it might snow. Even in areas of the country where it rarely snows – and when it does, the plows generally have the roads cleared within 24 hours of the last snowflake having fallen – many people think they must have all-wheel-drive to even think of venturing out, in the event of snow.

And when – if! – they do, they venture slowly. Often, with their hazards flashing. This being what they were taught. We who learned to drive when most cars were rear-wheel-drive learned how to drive in snow. How to modulate a slip-sliding rear end and keep the car tracking mostly straight, counterbalancing throttle and steering.

We developed an intuitive understanding of momentum as it related to terrain. Knew the key was to keep it moving rather than slow down – if we wanted to make it up that hill.

Having learned how to maintain control of a car, we do not feel any need for various electronic controls, such as traction/stability control. Or – for that matter – anti-lock brakes, even. The more advanced among us learned that locking up the wheels can, in some circumstances, be a true driving assist – without any need for “technology.”

Perhaps the greatest irony is that the cars we learned to drive in didn’t need all this “assistance,” because they were in some very meaningful ways easier to control – and to park – than modern cars with all of their “technology.” This was so because you could usually see around you – and behind you – because you weren’t entombed within metal (and plastic) bur rather had lots of glass, all around you. And thus, could see – using your eyes.

Their proportions weren’t as bulbous – especially in the rear – because in those days, the engineers rather than government bureaucrats designed cars.

You could even crack open the driver’s side door so as to be able to have a look behind you as your were backing up – or see how close you were getting to the curb – without the computer putting the automatic transmission in neutral while barraging you with cautionary beeps and automatically muting the radio, for good measure.

. . .

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  1. I must be the odd duck. I have always been a VW fan since high school. In the inventory, including son’s, is a (fully restored) ’63 VW bug, ’60 single cab pickup, ’61 double cab pickup and a ’66 11 window walk-thru transporter. There is a ’69 Meyers Manx in the mix as well. All with enhanced engines. While I am now 76, I still get it done.

    • Hi Dave,

      Fellow odd duck here. I’ve owned a number of old VWs, including two Beetles, a Thing and a Fastback. I wish I still had any one of them, today. All were great cars. Each had its quirks, but they were generally reliable and even when something needed fixing, it was almost always easy fixing. The cost to own-operate was so low a teenager with a part-time/after school job could afford it. And they taught teenagers how to drive, too.

  2. I’ve been towing a trailer around this week. Only side mirrors available. No problems with backing up, and I think if properly using the side mirrors backing up trailers is pretty simple.

    One thing that the rear camera is good for is lining up the ball and socket. But that’s offset by the “parking assist” warning buzzer that went nuts until I remembered how to shut the damn thing off. And that camera is a pretty expensive option if that’s all it is good for.

  3. I’ve been watching CHiPs reruns lately and I noticed where the fun of driving started dying, air conditioning. Everyone on that show that is driving has their windows down thus more connected to the world around them than in a personal bubble.

    I live in a rural area and one of the best things to do when driving is having the windows down, wind blowing, smells, noises, etc, on a sunny morning drive.

    Even when it gets hotter than Hades here in the South, I still keep a window or two cracked just so I can hear outside but keep the cool air in as best possible. It seems I hear sirens, etc. long before anyone else around me does.

  4. You want an example of old school know-how when it comes to driving? I had to take my bike in for a little work recently and couldn’t find anyone to give me a ride back home (lousy sisters, BIL’s, and “friends”). So out of desperation my 80 year old mother jumped in my 30 year old Mustang GT 5.0 with a 5 speed stick and followed me the 20 minutes to the mechanic. She drove better than 90% of everyone else on the road!

    She really enjoyed it, too. Said it took her back. I think now I’ve gotta keep a close eye on my car!

  5. I don’t think all these safety features are helping.
    People are worse at driving than they used to be.
    Seem to be severely inattentive.

    • Hi Dan,

      I agree. It’s a kind of feedback loop. The older cars – “unsafe” by modern reckoning because they lacked all of this “technology” – required more attention and care to keep under control. Ergo they were arguably safer than cars that encourage inattentiveness and even foster incompetence.

      • When I back up I look back and to both sides. Don’t remember having a vehicle without side mirrors since my 55 Chevy pickup but it has just about a good as twin mirrors with that wraparound back glass.

  6. Learned how to drive a stick in a 78′ corolla when I was nine. My dad took us out into the Nevada desert and showed us how to work the clutch even let us do a few “sand burnouts” once we got the feel for it. I was 14 before he let me graduate to his personal car. 1964 fury 3 had a 383 four on the floor dual exhaust and racing clutch “stiffer than hell too! Ran like a champ but looked like it belonged in a junkyard. What we used to call hot rod junk, they now call sleepers.
    I asked my dad why he didn’t paint it and get it looking good. He thought if he did then somebody would steal it and he’d never br able to find another like it with the factory options it had. (That’s a beater I wish I had.)

    I kind of miss the cars that you actually used to have to know what you were doing to drive. It won’t be that much longer before they’re all in car shows or museums priced higher than all but the wealthiest can afford. It’s easy to take for granted that almost nobody in this current world will re-live my childhood driving experience and wonder “who the hell can’t drive a standard, parallel park, or read a paper map?”

  7. ‘When you put your car in reverse, do you look back?’ — eric

    When they set up the entire auto market for a controlled descent into terrain, do you look ahead … or avert your eyes?

    One corporate victim stares into the approaching abyss:

    ‘One of Europe’s biggest automakers warned after a landmark deal to phase out combustion engines that the industry is doomed unless electric vehicles get less expensive.

    ‘Stellantis is aiming to cut the cost of making electric vehicles 40% by 2030, Chief Manufacturing Officer Arnaud Deboeuf said Wednesday.

    ‘If EVs don’t get cheaper, “the market will collapse,” Deboeuf said at the company’s Tremery factory in France. “It’s a big challenge.”’ — Bloomberg

    Well, that’s a piquant fix you’ve got yourself into, Monsieur DeBoeuf.

    Maybe y’all should have indulged in a moment of reflection before rashly leaping off a cliff just because all the other euro-lemmings did.

    As ol’ Jim Morrison used to croon, ‘I guess I like it fine, so far. La la la, la la la la.

    • Jim,

      Mr. Morrison also once quipped that he wanted to get his kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames. I think it’s well evident that the shithouse has been ignited.

  8. Hey that’s Dads VW bus! He had a ‘62, 23 window with the slippery roof. If we’d only known they would end up collectible now. Along with Moms ‘64 Impala 2 door hard top. Dad was a two door man for cars, “only old people and cab companies drive 4 doors”.

    • My mom also drove a 64 Impala. It was a rustbucket, and we kids were embarrassed when she picked us up from school. I remember many a trip to our grandparents’ house, 3 kids laying on top of each other in the back seat, or seeing how many out of state license plates we could count as we drove up the highway.

    • Hi Sparkey,

      Us Gen X people have lots of stories about what were just “old beaters” when we were just beginning to drive, back in the ’80s. Would you believe that a high school friend of mine bought an intact and operational ’71 Plymouth GTX 440 for $2,200? My high school parking lot was full of cars like that… cars that, today, cross Barrett-Jackson at $50k-plus, for the “common” ones.

      • 1970 GS 455 (not a Stage 1) for $950 back in 1982. I passed on it.

        I’m officially the dumbest person any of you met today.

        • I’ll make ya feel better, Horst. You can be 2nd dumbest. Around 1975, maybe 76, looked at a 69 Plymouth Road Runner. Real one, bird stickers, 383 and all. 400 bucks. Needed an exhaust system and tires, so I said nah, think I’ll keep lookin’. If only I knew!

          • Hi Floriduh,

            I’ll raise both you guys. In the late ’80s, I could have bought a real ’74 SD-455 Trans-Am. It was tired and faded. It had rust here and there. Dings everywhere. The dashboard was cracked, the seats had rips and someone had gutted the factory AC. It rode on ratty Cragars. But it was otherwise original – and it ran and drove. The For Sale sign in the window read $4,700 OBO as I recall.

            It might as well have read $47,000 – for me, at the time, being not long out of college and unable to come up with the geld to buy the thing. The pain still hits me every now and then..

            • Yeah I was in the same boat,Eric. We forget, 400 is pocket change today, but at the time, that was almost a month’s take home pay for me. That plus the repairs was more than I could spend when I was just looking for basic transportation. Few people knew or cared about a roadrunner or whatever in those days anyway, it was just another junky old used car. We also forget that unlike today, back then, by the time they got to be 5, 6, 7 years old, most cars were junk. As the French say, c’est la vie. When I was young and wanted these things, I couldn’t afford them. Now, at my age I could buy just about anything if I really wanted to, but I no longer have the desire.

          • That’s exactly what I bought my first car for back in ’76: $400 cash. A ’69 Chevelle SS in near mint condition. Man, I wish I still had that car.

            • My brother bought a 69 Chevelle SS right around that same time, about the same money. Don’t remember exactly, but 4 or 5 hundred. His wasn’t mint, but it was decent with the 396 and 4 speed manual. That was a bitchin car. He used to put the gas to the floor then slide his foot off the clutch and the car wouldn’t go forward, it would just spin around in a circle. And he never could figure out why the rear end grenaded 3 or 4 months later. Hmmm………. Maybe that’s why my cars last longer nowadays without any repairs. I’m not a stupid kid and I don’t beat the ever lovin shit out ‘em anymore!

  9. I learned stick on Dad`s 71 chev 3/4 pick up with a big block…What a screamer …Have only owned 2 autos in 45 years Hated them both. Have never driven a car with a back up cam….and in 45 years have never backed over any body or thing. FJB

  10. Lane Assist. Was hauling ass OMW back from visiting a sick relative at the Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto. Got on the ‘280 and just took it eastbound through San Jose until it became ‘680, to take to ‘580, then eastbound through Livermore, then the ‘205 through Tracy, and finally NB on I-5 to Stockton, a quick dash across town on CA-4, then pick up ’99 to Grant Line Rd, then up Sunrise to home. The damned LA feature was more a hindrance than a help to maneuver through Bay Area freeway traffic (surprisingly light, but it was well after rush hour), but IDK how to shut the fooking thing off on my 2020 (con)Fusion.

    • Hi Randy,

      For me, it was an old VW Beetle; it may be why I have such affection for the ass-engined, sputtering ratteltraps! I hope – one day- to own another…

      • Me too! My dad had a ‘65 Beetle that I learned to drive stick on; as I remember the clutch was fairly soft and had a long throw so it was easy to do. I had it up here for a couple years while I was in college and it was great fun and easy to navigate the narrow streets with. Only complaint was not much heat/defrost action during the winter.

        • Hi MrBill-

          Men also – in re the old Beetle. Easily the best car I’ve ever owned. How else to describe a car I bought for $700 that provided me with mostly reliable transportation for several years? That cost me almost nothing to maintain and which I could maintain myself? It was also empowering, for those reasons exactly. Here was a car any young guy could just buy – and easily afford to drive. Such cars are no longer made, Well, not here.

          It’s very sad what’s been lost.

      • For me, I learned to drive a stick in my girlfriend’s (now wife) Mitsubishi pickup truck. 25 years later I picked up another stick shift, a Formula Firebird with a 4 speed. It took me a couple tries to get back into the swing of it, but now I’m banging through the gears again like a pro.

  11. I learned how to drive on my uncle’s farm, in a old 3-on-the-tree Ford pickup, age 14. Drifting in the fields, learning how to use a combination of throttle, clutch, steering and brakes to keep the ass end under control, was a lot of fun. I had no trouble passing my license test at 16 without a single official driving lesson. And yes, that included parallel parking.
    The good old days – gone but not (yet) forgotten.

  12. I rented a BMW X5 that I’ve been tooling around Switzerland. This fooking car beeps, whines, flashes messages on the windshield, and makes loud noises, distracting the hell out of me. And it’s the first car I’ve driven with lane Keep Assist – OMFG – the car literally fights you as you navigate tight twists and turns on the narrow Swiss mountain roads. The car is stressing me out. Who likes this shit? Who wants this shit? Who asked for this shit? Ultimate driving machine – indeed.

    • BAC – same experience 3 years ago with a VW SUV, same type roads in Der Fatherland and Switzerland. Hope the BMW is easy to disable, the VW was miserable slog thru the menus on every restart. VW would dance to the left when passing trucks too, unless disabled. Wunderbar – nein!

      • ‘Hope the BMW is easy to disable.’ — Sparkey

        Me too.

        Because if what BAC reports about the X5 is equally true of the 2023 Z4, it’s gonna be a deal-killer even if the Z4 gets a 6-speed manual option like its mechanical doppelgänger, the Toyota Supra.

        As Eric pointed out in his review of the Supra, pushing one button for three seconds defeats ALL the noxious nanny tech in one blow, as casually as chucking a bag of ripe dog-doo into the dumpster.

        Once you’ve seen the promised land of freedom, nothing less suffices.

      • Geez Volkswagen, what happened to Fahrvergnügen? Replaced it with Fart Fig Newton at the Fuehrerbefehl of the DC Gauleiters?

        And AWD being needed for snow driving, BS! I myself, not having been raised in snow country, was sent at Uncle’s expense and direction to a place in Central NY wherein 20″ of snow is considered a nice September! Did 3 years there in a FWD Plymouth, no problems. 4 speed manual and a carburettor with auto choke to boot! Never failed to start, though the starter did need to be replaced for salt infestation. Starting on a hill with snow in a manual FWD car takes some self-training, but it can be done.

        I am afraid the problem is a lack of do-it-yourself-ism nowadays. Oh, you’re not an expert, so Don’t Try This At Home. Horse hockey!

  13. An old friend, Joe, a mechanic, worked on foreign cars, when he drove a car for his driver’s test, he didn’t turn his head to look back when he began to drive, he used his rear view mirror, the highway patrol officer along for the ride ordered Joe to stop and he failed the test right now.

    There is a headrest on seats these days and you have to contort yourself to turn your head to look back.

    To digress, Donald Trump was going to declare himself a dictator after a successful coup, give a speech at the US Capitol somewhere and then give his political opponents the whatfor. The insurrectionists were even armed, according to the socialists.

    Read all about it:

    Lots of kool-aid drinkers over at the World Socialist Web Site, whatever those crazy socialists want to do, they can do it. The Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, worked farms in the states. Farmers defined the IWW more succinctly, I Won’t Work.

  14. My “new” Excursion came with an after-market stereo thingy with a touchscreen (&^$$#%^!!!) and a….back-up camera (**&^%$$!!!). I thought it might be cool having a back-up camera just for those instances where the mirrors need “assistance”. It was a novelty to fool with the first few times I drove the truck- but after the first few times, I’ve basically forgotten that it’s there. Nice to have for the rare instance when it might be a real help….but, as I don’t want to maneuver with my attention focused on a screen, I continue to actually use the mirrors and windows. Using the camera would be yet another distraction which might hinder me from avoiding all of the other distracted drivers who are busy not driving their beeping blinking cell phones as they text on their smartphones.

    How long before people start mounting these cameras on the front, and start using them instead of looking out the windshield?

    Back-up cameras: The future has arrived! It ain’t so great.

    • Hi Nunz!
      Most of my working career I drove a bucket truck so I got to be good at backing up with only the side mirrors; just have to do a walkaround to make sure nothing is directly behind you when you start out. Still do that driving my car, no way in hell do I need/want a camera.

      • The bucket truck I used to drive didn’t even have a rear-view mirror. The side view mirror skill came in handy this week while I was towing a travel trailer.

  15. My ’20 F-150 has “pre collision assist”. Sorry Ford, I do not need any “assistance” to get myself in to a “pre-collision”!!! I can do that all by myself!!! Word of caution on the b/up cameras: Gotta be sure the colors are real. ‘Frinstance on my F-150, when it’s red, its game-over!. IOW, if you’re in the red zone, you’d better already be on the phone with State Farm! (Rather than red meaning STOP! to avoid bumping into anything…)

  16. In fact, back in 1971 when I took my “drivers test”, parallel parking was the HARDEST part of the test. The rest was just 15 minutes of driving around downtown. “Here’s your license. You can now legally drive on multiple lane highways at 70 mph.” I don’t just look behind me when I back up, I look behind the car before I get in. Just in case there’s a kid taking a nap there, or some such. Working out of a pickup most of my working life, I learned to use mirrors. Often the bed was so loaded as to prevent seeing anything by looking back. In fact, driving a car, I still almost exclusively use mirrors for backing up. You can get much closer to an obstacle with mirrors, even lightly touching it. I’ve even learned to use the “objects are closer than they appear” mirrors. Although it took a while. Much of this is due to a spinal cord injury that makes turning around and looking back a painful if not impossible action. I still distinctly recall an incident about 40 years ago, when I was backing a truck with a load in the bed that prohibited me from “looking back” up to a building, when the man on the ground, my elder, kept saying “come on back’, until I backed into a tree that did not show in my mirrors, and ruined the tailgate which was down.

  17. ‘When you put your car in reverse, do you look back – or look down?’ — eric

    What a great lede to an essay!

    Until the late 1960s, back-up lamps weren’t mandatory. At night, in an unfamiliar dirt driveway, my dad backed our 1958 Chevrolet station wagon into big longleaf pine, leaving a permanent dent in the middle of the chromed-steel rear bumper.

    Back-up lamps might have prevented that arborial snafu. But chances are, auto makers soon would have offered them on their own, as an obviously useful feature.

    In a 1999 paper on vehicle lighting, authors Moore and Rumar recall that:

    “The U.S. continued with state lighting regulations until the U.S. federal government passed the Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was created in 1968. Within a few years, U.S. federal government regulations were established for lighting.”

    Imagine that, comrades: federalism in auto design. States in the driver’s seat, not Pete Buttitwitch.

    Federalism is still okay, if you’re California and its fellow travelers, clamping down on emissions more strictly than the fedgov. But if you’re a state wanting to set auto designers free, local autonomy is b-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-d-d.

    Nullify the fedgov. Then back over it to make sure it’s dead.

    • Thanks, Jim!

      Another of my pet peeves – as regards these “safety” features – is DRLs. In part because I ride motorcycles – and it annoys me that I am much less visible now to cars because most of them are burning their headlights in daylight, which makes my bike’s headlight less obvious in daylight.

      So much ofd this stuff is little more than virtue-signaling idiot-proofing. Often, it is something worse!

      • Forget that, how many times are you on the road at night and someone forgot to turn their headlights on because they got the DRL’s running.

        If you ain’t careful, you won’t see them from behind, and that can spell trouble. I’d ask how people aren’t aware, but then I remember that George Carlin quote about stupid people

      • It’s a pet peeve of mine as well, given where I live, with a rural parking lot only yards away from a nice body of water and docks. The unschooled pull up around sunset, presumably to watch, only to bury their face in the digital devices while leaving their lights on (and engine running to keep the AC going). So instead of a peaceful night on the lake the rest of us by the water are getting lit up by some idiot that doesn’t even know how to dial back to the fog light setting.

  18. Every car with the backup screen I’ve driven all has a statement written by corporate lawyers basically telling the driver not to trust the camera & turn around to look.

  19. Oh my gosh being a helpless female from CA never was good at parallel parking and never even tried driving in snow. But had so much fun learning to drive my boyfriend’s Fiat 124 Spider. Very proud of that and even went on to teach my little sis how to drive my Datsun. She almost stripped my gears but we laughed our heads off. Do todays kids even want to be independent. Driving used to be a rite of passage that kids could hardly wait to do.

    • Amen, Rebecca!

      My niece is coming to visit this summer and I intend to fully indoctrinate her in the Dark Mysteries of the manual transmission… perhaps even the high art of the double clutch….

      • My former brother in law, who was older than me, asked me if I would teach his son to drive a manual. I asked him why he didn’t. Because I don’t now how! It was a Sunday morning, so I took him up to the school parking lot. In an hour he had the basic clutch mechanics down, leaving only practice and experience. This is a very rural community, without much, if any early Sunday traffic, so I invited him to drive us home. I swear, he almost went into a nervous breakdown at the thought of the idea.

        • Been teaching a few people myself how to drive

          Most of them got it mostly, just first gear. Hopefully they want to learn more, I’d hate to see my friends and family not knowing the lost art of manual, especially as my Bronco is basically a beginner’s friendly manual

        • My brother was kind enough to let me take his around a parking lot the day before I bought mine.

          I then drive mine home.

          Yes I stalled it a few times, but I got it home.

          Mostly what it takes is patience, and humility.

          Yes, you will screw it up. In front of others. It’s just part of the process.

          If you aren’t willing to go through this you will never learn.

          This is much more broadly applicable than learning to operate a clutch.

  20. This article might just explain why newer drivers can’t drive worth a f@ck, whilst older drivers and their cars don’t seem to have much trouble driving even with the older tungsten headlights from 40 years ago. But is it a coincidence that the generation who can’t make change, generally lacks a work ethic and cowers behind a conformity rag doesn’t even know how to drive?

    • Landru,
      If they could exert complete vehicle control with their cell phone, they would be right on top of it. Perhaps that’s where we are headed.

      • We don’t need to worry about some alien “Borg” race coming to Earth to “assimilate” us…we’re all but there already!

      • They plan that in the future, you will just tell your (leased) car where you want to go and if you have enough SCPs (Social Credit Points), it may even take you there. Of course, if you are not “of The Body” (proper mindless obedient drone) this service will not be available to you. Not to worry though, everything your owners have decided you might need will be within walking distance from your pod.


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