Baby You Can Drive My Car by
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Prompted By The DMV

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Originally published on May 4, 2019, on the prompt Learning to Drive. The DMV plays only a minor role in this story, but I couldn’t resist reposting it anyway.

The driving age in NJ, where I grew up, was 17 for some reason, even though in almost every other state in the union it was 16.

The driving age in New Jersey, where I grew up, was seventeen for some reason, even though in almost every other state in the union it was sixteen. Not only that, you had to be seventeen before you could even get your learner’s permit. I turned seventeen on August 30, 1968, and two weeks later I was off to Cambridge to start college. No time to learn how to drive then. The summer after freshman year I spent in Washington, D.C. working for Planned Parenthood, and the summer after sophomore year in Boston, working for Houghton Mifflin Publishers. Never more than a week at a time in New Jersey, so still no opportunity to learn how to drive. People were starting to make bets on which I would get first, my bachelor’s degree or my driver’s license, and I think bachelor’s degree was winning.

The summer after my junior year we took a family trip to Scandinavia, so I didn’t make any other plans. The trip lasted only about three weeks, and the rest of the summer I hung out at home and finally learned how to drive. The car I learned on, a Valiant convertible, had been designated “my” car from the time my parents bought it, as explained in My First Car. It was easy to drive, with smooth power steering, responsive power brakes, and great visibility when the top was down, which it almost always was. My father was the one who taught me to drive, and while he generally was not a patient man, and often lost his temper for little or no reason, I don’t remember any yelling while he was giving me driving lessons. He did a particularly good job of teaching me how to parallel park, with very precise directions about when and how much to turn the wheel, and I am still one of the best parallel parkers I know.

While I was still on my permit,  I drove my car to Cambridge with David, my college boyfriend, who conveniently also lived in New Jersey. (He appears in several of my other Retrospect stories.) One of my best friends since childhood had just graduated from Jackson (now Tufts) and had an apartment in Cambridge with two other girls, so we went up to visit her. Well, not exactly to visit her, they were all going to be away, and she invited us to use their empty apartment. We didn’t feel the need to mention that to either set of parents. So we set off in my Valiant, and I think it might have been the first time I did any highway driving. David had already been driving for a few years, and he was a good teacher and very calm. He taught me useful things I have never forgotten, like don’t try to pass a big rig going downhill, because they go really fast then, whereas they are easy to pass going uphill. Also, if you are in the middle lane and you suddenly see your exit, it’s safer to wait for the next exit and double back, rather than whipping across a couple of lanes to get to the exit ramp. (He taught me that one with a slight quaver in his voice after I successfully executed the whipping across a couple of lanes maneuver.)

On August 4, 1971, just a few weeks before I turned twenty, I took my driving test and passed the first time. This is what my first driver’s license looked like. No picture, flimsy cardboard, distinctive orange color. My eyes are listed as “2” which means brown (the key is on the back: 1-black, 2-brown, 3-gray, 4-blue, 5-hazel, 6-green). My weight is listed as “0” which means under 121 lbs. (Then the numbers go up in increments of 20 pounds, ending at 6 which means over 220 lbs.) I renewed it several times by mail, even after I was living in California, because it never hurts to have an extra driver’s license. In the mid-eighties they added a photo to the license, so I couldn’t renew it by mail any more, and that was the end of that.

A month after getting that beautiful orange license, I went back to college where I had no need or opportunity to drive. A year later, when I graduated, the Valiant officially became mine, and my parents got a new car to replace it. I drove around Cambridge for the next two years perfecting my driving skills, and then took the ultimate highway test — driving cross-country to California.

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy

Characterizations: been there, funny, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Amazing that you (with boyfriend in tow) drove up to Cambridge while you were still on your learner’s permit. I understand not having the time to learn to drive, but, as you’ll read, I wasn’t quite as challenged as you. And my first car was a 1967 Valiant (I’m sure we’ve commented on this in our previous story). We were only off by a year. Fun story, Suzy.

    • Suzy says:

      Betsy, that was our big “aha” moment, back in 2016, when you and I both wrote our My First Car stories about our Plymouth Valiants. Then we started discovering all the other things we had in common.

      On that trip to Cambridge, I think David probably did most of the driving. It’s a four-hour trip, which would have been an awful lot for a new driver. But I drove enough to feel comfortable on the highway – and we had a fabulous time in Cambridge, alone in a whole apartment instead of just a dorm room.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Suzy, usual perfect song title title — as underscored by Marcia also using it for her drawing! And, also as usual, a great story to tell and told very well.

    I hadn’t even realized that you were license-less for so long at college. Though, in retrospect (ahem), I should have figured that out as you were one of my few pals who never asked to borrow my semi-promiscuous car, Karmann.

    I am also beyond impressed that you had a picture not only of your first car, but your first driver’s license. Amazing to me that they didn’t require photos back then, but I also don’t recall a photo on my early licenses either.

    I fully agree with you that driving cross-country to California is the ultimate driving test. But just driving in the Boston area — and surrounded by Boston drivers — was itself a pretty good test (in anger management, if nothing else).

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks John. I have to admit that I found the picture of the car on the internet (you’ll note there is no license plate), but it is exactly the same model and color that mine was.

      I have kept all my old driver’s licenses from New Jersey and California, as well as all my old passports and college bursar’s cards. I didn’t have any particular reason, but now I realize it was so I could use them in Retrospect stories.

      Agree about Boston drivers. I always tell people that I learned to drive in Boston and therefore I can drive anywhere.

  3. Marian says:

    OMG, Suzy, your experience is familiar and fun. I learned on a 1964 Dodge Dart, which has the same body as the Valiant (doesn’t flip over on ice), so I can relate, along with all the New Jersey material. Your dad sounds wonderful. I can’t remember my first license but it must have been similar to yours. Got it in May, 1970.

  4. I loved your story. Still impressed that you drove alone to California. My father took me out 1x. As he was telling me all the terrible things that could happen at various speeds, I was thinking how unnecessary these warnings were and wondering why he was wasting my time. When he said it was time to start, I confidently turned on the car – with an actual key, floored it and went in reverse – thankfully we were in a deserted street. (I guess that showed he was smarter than I). After I slammed on the brake, he declared the lesson over – and I went directly to driving lessons. But I also learned late. I lived in Queens and there were lots of trains and buses.

    • Suzy says:

      Arlene, I didn’t drive by myself. I put up “Rider Wanted” notices, and got a woman named Maureen and her 3-year-old son Sean who went with me. I’m surprised you don’t remember – maybe you had already left for Tennessee.

      Sounds like you should write your own story. You could use what you’ve written in your comment, and either add more or just post it like that. It doesn’t have to be long. I would love to see you post a story, and you’ve already basically written this one.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    What a great story, Suzy. I can’t believe you still have your original license, although for some reason I saved old passports and report cards. You never know. Driving in Boston is the ultimate nightmare. Our son has been there for 25 years and we still encounter a breath-taking incident every time we drive there. And my husband is an excellent driver. Those roundabouts in Cambridge are really special.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Laurie. What’s amazing is that I knew exactly where that old license was! Very proud of myself for that. Yes, driving in Boston/Cambridge is pretty crazy. As I said to John, since I learned to drive there, I can drive anywhere!

  6. I really like the image of you in that convertible, determinedly swerving across lanes to hit the exit. And, unlike California, those cloverleafs back east are verrrry tight! Good trick re: passing semis!

    Very classy car to learn how to drive in. Oh, and to John Shutkin: I have a pet theory about Bostonians and their horrible driving. The streets in Boston are nothing more than widened and paved cow paths. There is no layout, unless you understand bovine logic. Ergo, Bostonians drive like cows.

  7. Glad you reposted this fun story of your first drivers license and first car, Suzy,
    I also reposted an old story originally for Good Bosses, Bad Bosses, but it’s set in the DMV so it works here. And last week I wrote about my first cross country drive – well, half way cross country!

    And thanx for those 2 very good tips, could use some parallel parking tips too.

    Good to see you on Retro, hope you write more!

  8. Equally as charming the second time around, Suzy! And quite impressed with all your summertime activities. So Houghton Mifflin started you on your flawlesss proofreading journey!

    Just how cold was the coldest top-down weather?!

  9. Khati Hendry says:

    Thanks for reposting. I liked the sentence about not feeling the need to mention the empty apartment to either set of parents–that pretty well sums up my communications at the time too. What they don’t know won’t upset them, and there was a lot in that category. Like others, I am impressed you still have that old license, hand-typed and all. These days, mine is a plastic one with embedded chip that doubles as my Canadian Medicare card and who knows what all in it.

  10. Dave Ventre says:

    Seeing your orange NJ license brought back some memories! Took my test in the giant parking lot of Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, where DMV had a sort of obstacle course set up.

    I also remember my Dad teaching me. He wasn’t an impatient guy, but since he in his working life had driven diverse vehicles including large box trucks, 18-wheelers, bulldozers, backhoes and the limos of certain Italian-American businessmen in North Jersey, he was extremely safety conscious and exacting.

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