Gaining Traction

locking hub 0220

When I was growing up, my family had cars, regular ol’ automobiles, every last one of them propelled by rear-wheel drive. As a teenager, I learned some of this from my dad, but also by checking books out of the library, so I feel fairly authoritative when I tell you this means that while the engine was (usually) in the front, the power was sent to the back wheels. The two in the front were mostly along for the ride.

We had good cars. We arrived (perhaps driving over Monarch Pass in a storm) in Gunnison in May of 1969 in a Ford station wagon. At some point my mom’s car was a navy blue VW Bug, and we would load upwards of seven kids in this car (Tia and Kris tucked into the tiny storage space by the back window) and head to downtown Gunnison, where people would pause to see just how many children were going to continue disgorging.

Somewhere along the way my dad got in trouble for spending $4,000 — $4,000! — on a used van, where it was much easier to stow upwards of seven children, although passerby still occasionally stopped to gawk as so many mostly-blond kids spilled out behind two adults.

What we never had, in our assemblage of vehicles, was one that offered four-wheel drive. We should have, especially once I started driving the van and people had to get me unstuck from both snow and sand, but we didn’t. We left that to the Barils next door, who had a Scout and then later a pick-up.

But this was the olden days, barely past the “horseless carriage” characterization, and four-wheel-drive was a strenuous technology. To put their vehicles in four-wheel, the Barils had to stop the car, put it in neutral, apply the brake, and then get out of the car and manually rotate a piece in the hub of the two front wheels. If you were already stuck, you found yourself doing this in a deep pile of snow or mud. And the hubs themselves could be full of slush, or ice . . . Four-wheel drive was not for the faint of heart.

It was either my 21st or 22nd birthday, after my grandparents had already sold me their Ford Maverick (purchase price: the promise to always wear my seatbelt), that they traded me, taking back the Maverick in exchange for what was probably a five-year-old pick-up truck (plus the promise to always wear my seatbelt). But mine was the only two-wheel-drive truck in all of North America, I think.

I loved my truck (don’t tell the Maverick, which was a perfectly good car, but the truck was sooooo much cooler), and not leaning much in the way of off-road despite the Barils’ best efforts, it didn’t matter to me that it was rear-wheel-only. The main problem with a truck like that in Gunnison is that without a lot of weight pressing down on the rear tires, it’s hard to gain traction on snow and ice. I learned early on not to park it diagonally on a side street when it was snow-packed (and in those days, it was always snow-packed, even in July), and instead of investing in sandbags like a lot of pick-up drivers, I just threw my very heavy summer tires into the back.

Eventually, for whatever reason, I added a second car to my collection, this one a not-terribly-used (although it had been wrecked into a ditch, I found out well after the fact) Geo Tracker. Which came with four-wheel drive. An upscale version, no less: no getting out of the car to try to turn hub locks.

I did have to bring the Tracker to a complete stop and either engage the clutch or shift into neutral, and then shift a second lever from 2WD to 4Hi or 4Lo (almost never used). Even then, the process wasn’t complete: I had to back up a certain number of yards before driving forward. I don’t know why, but that’s what the instructions, which were printed on the visor, said to do, so that’s what I did.

I kind of think every car Lynn has bought (she moved onto her third while I was still driving the truck and the Tracker) has come with all-wheel drive, and I don’t really understand the difference, since my dad isn’t around and I haven’t checked books out of the library on this subject in probably 40 years, between that and four-wheel. A car only (usually) has four wheels, and if all of them are engaged in propulsion, you have four-wheel drive. Maybe because it’s always that way, and you don’t make a conscious choice.

Lynn’s Jeep Renegade — and if you look around, this bad-ass, bad-boy brand of vehicle is now driven exclusively by women — does offer some dial I’ve never really studied, with options like “snow” and “mud.” I assume if you encounter these conditions, you turn this dial, and the vehicle does something with the drive train to offer more effectiveness in whatever condition you’ve set.

At long last, about 24 years after the purchase of my “new” car, the Tracker (10 years younger than my truck), I bought another car — in true family tradition, a regular ol’ car with rear-wheel drive. Or maybe, as I contemplate this without any desire to do five minutes of research, it comes with front-wheel-drive, since that seems to be the mode du jour. Either way, only two wheels are propelled; the others are pushed (or pulled) along for the ride.

But then it turned out I needed a truck more than I thought I would, and while the truck I ended up with is very used (240,000 miles used), it’s newer by 22 years than my previous truck. And it comes with a four-wheel option. But get this: I turn a switch. In the cab. While driving.

I don’t have to stop; I don’t have to be in neutral. No backing up, no hubs. It’s a brand new world out there.

So on a day like yesterday, I could start in four-wheel long enough to get up the incline out of Riverwalk (sometimes that’s more work than it sounds), then switch to two-wheel for the highway, then switch back when hitting side streets in Gunnison. I can park diagonally on those side streets with impunity. In a truck, with no weight in the back.

What is the world coming to?

I suppose we’re not too far away from the day when you won’t have to push anything at all. You will just tell your car how many wheels to engage, and the car will make it so. Maybe Tesla, which doesn’t understand the first thing about what a truck is supposed to look like, never mind the public failure of glass that might have been bullet-proof but not safe from rocks, will lead this innovation. Or some other company: I watched an actor in a Superbowl commercial park and unpark his car while he wasn’t even in it. (Too bad for the company I can’t remember which one it was, despite the millions they spent producing and airing this spot.)

And that’s probably too much innovation for the likes of me. Although I have to say, I’m much happier switching on the fly, and just as glad that I’m not wading into snow and mud to turn hub locks. Sometimes progress can be a good thing after all.

No matter what Elon Musk tells you, this is not a truck.

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