The Class of ’79 Remembers: Thelma and Louise

With thanks to 12352 Chris Willmes and the Class of ’79

Once the MARS and MARE Phase II course was done and dusted, it was time for some well-earned leave. But there was one minor logistical detail to be dealt with, i.e., shifting my HG&E from Royal Roads to RMC. Granted, your typical second-year cadet doesn’t have much more in the way of worldly goods than what will fit in a kit bag and a barracks box. But I did have one oversize item, which was the car I had purchased the previous fall. The simplest thing would have been to sell it and buy another in Kingston. But I was quite attached to this particular machine – a lovely 1972 Fiat 124 Spider convertible. So there was really no option but to drive it across country. Forty-five hundred kilometres is a long way to go solo, so I shanghaied, er, recruited fellow Roadent and MARS II compadre, Al Moens, to ride shotgun.

The Spider was my first car, and I was still pretty new (read: clueless) about the whole car ownership thing. All I did to prepare the car for the trip was change its oil and oil filter, and I had its brakes serviced. My knowledge of things mechanical was essentially that rotating and reciprocating machinery functions much better when it’s rotating and reciprocating in the prescribed amount of lubricating oil, and that working brakes could come in handy on roads with lots of curves, elevation changes, etc., etc., such as one might find in the Rocky Mountains.

My 1972 Fiat 124 Spider Convertible, in front of Nixon Block at Roads on the day we left.

The night before our departure, Al and I celebrated our graduation from Royal Roads, and our survival of our first real taste of life at sea, by having a slap-up meal at the Don Mee Chinese Restaurant in downtown Victoria. On the way back to Roads (we had been quartered in Nixon Block for the duration of the course), we filled the Spider’s gas tank. At the crack of dawn the following morning we got up, dressed, tossed our kit bags in the Spider’s trunk, and we were off! Our first stop was the BC Ferry terminal at Swartz Bay. We caught an early sailing across to Tsawwassen, on the mainland south of Vancouver. Once on the other side, we navigated the confusing tangle of Delta, Surrey, and Langley, until we finally found ourselves eastbound on the Trans-Canada Highway. I think we got as far as Salmon Arm, or maybe Revelstoke, that first day. The only incident that marred the first leg of our journey was losing a headlight to a stone thrown up by a truck. The Spider’s headlights were of the ubiquitous, seven-inch, round, sealed-beam type (halogen bulbs and rectangular headlights were only just coming into vogue in the late seventies) so a quick stop at a Canadian Tire, and a few minutes with a Phillips-head screwdriver (that and a pair of pliers were about the only tools I had in the car) saw that sorted.

The next day was another beautiful summer’s day, and we were soon under way again, top down, with the wind in our hair. (One of the great things about the Spider was that the convertible top could be lowered or raised by the driver in a matter of seconds, without getting out of the driver’s seat. Forty years on, as the owner of a Jeep – which company is owned by Fiat – I find it somewhat ironic that lowering and raising the Jeep’s convertible top is a complicated evolution that takes several minutes, especially single-handed. But, it’s a Jeep thing!)

Our destination for that day was Calgary, and the home of Lee Lamont. Lee and Al were close friends, having been in Champlain Flight together for the past two years. And I was eager to see the Lamont family farm. Back in his cabin at Roads, Lee had had a big, colourful Alberta tourism poster; in the background were the Rocky Mountains, in the middle ground were the buildings of Lee’s family farm, and beside the farmhouse, just barely visible, was Lee’s fabulous old Pontiac Laurentian (or was it a Parisienne?) convertible. That car was an enormous boat; my Spider would have fit in the trunk with ease, I’m sure. It had a three-in-the-tree shifter, and the world’s heaviest clutch springs. They fostered good manual transmission driving technique, because it was almost impossible to sit at a stop light with the transmission in gear, holding the clutch pedal depressed – you had to put the transmission in neutral and let out the clutch.

Al.

At that time, the Trans-Canada Highway was pretty much two lanes from the outskirts of Vancouver all the way to Banff. The road was winding, with lots of long, sometimes steep grades. Al and I were doing our level best to drive the little Italian sports car in the spirited manner intended by the engineers at Carrozzeria Pininfarina back in Turin. Unfortunately, there were a lot of slow moving motor homes, transport trucks, etc., etc., impeding our progress. To liven things up a little, Al and I (but mostly Al) invented a little game. I should point out that Al was a very recent convert to The Manual Gearbox Preservation Society (that’s a real thing, I’m not making it up) and I think it was his new-found delight in rowing through the gears that led him to invent the “passing game.” It went like this. We would come up astern of some slow-moving vehicle, and the Spider’s driver would edge over to the left just far enough to see if the opposite lane was clear. Clear being something of a relative term; given the serpentine nature of the highway, there was generally not too much road visible ahead. If it was clear, the driver would back off half a dozen or so car lengths, then downshift and accelerate hard. Racing up close astern of the obstructing vehicle, at the last instant he would pull out to pass. At that point, when both the driver and co-driver could see down the road, we would have a quick confab to decide whether it was, in fact, safe to pass. If we were in agreement, the driver would continue with the passing manoeuvre. Otherwise, the driver would back down and resume station astern of the slow-moving vehicle, and wait for a better opportunity. At some point in the morning of the second day, when Al was in the driver’s seat, he initiated such a pass around an eighteen-wheeler. When we pulled into the opposite lane, I could see that the stretch of road ahead was somewhat longer than most we had experienced in the last day and a half, which was a comfort to me because I am a rather conservative driver, and the more room in which to pass, the better. What was not so comforting was that at the far end of the straight stretch, I could see oncoming traffic. Al asked me, “whaddya think, chwylms? Can we make it?” I replied, calmly, but firmly, in the negative. Al said something like, “oh c’mon, chwylms, don’t be such a wimp!” And carried on with the manoeuvre. We were halfway down the length of the truck – it was a really long truck – and the oncoming traffic was looming large in the Spider’s windshield, when Al turned to me and said, “you know chwylms, I think you were right; we’re not going to make it.” I agreed, somewhat emphatically, whereupon Al stood on the brakes. Luckily, the car had excellent brakes (I was so glad that I had had them serviced before our departure) and Al got us safely tucked back in behind the truck, with several milliseconds to spare.

We lost a second headlight to an errant stone that day, which somewhat delayed our arrival in Calgary. A more worrisome mechanical issue was that the car seemed to be getting a little reluctant to start, after stopping to fill the car with gas. However, we put all that in the back of our minds when we got to Lee’s place. He and his comely cousin took us out on a pub crawl that evening. And the next day they took us out to the family farm. This being Alberta, there were horses, and they (Lee and his cousin, not the horses) asked Al and I if we would like to go horseback riding. Al and I looked at each other; neither of us had had any previous equestrian experience, and these were big horses, not little ponies. But we two sailors weren’t going to let little things like that stand in our way! Especially with Lee’s cousin having already leapt onto the back of a horse, and was waiting for us to make up our minds. “Where are the saddles?” we asked, naively. “Oh, you don’t need a saddle; you just hold onto the reins, and grip the horse with your thighs.” Okay, that was fine in theory, but how to get onto the horse without stirrups? Somehow we managed, with a total lack of grace and panache, but fortunately, this was some decades before the invention of digital cameras and smart phones, so there is no embarrassing digital record. Anyway, we had a great time riding, despite frequently falling off (sometimes perilously close to road apples), but eventually getting the hang of it. More or less.

The next day we awoke in agony; our thigh muscles were on fire from the unaccustomed demands imposed on them the day before, squeezing the barrel-shaped bodies of the horses. The driver and passenger accommodations in the Spider were quite comfortable, but rather snug, and caused our thighs to protest when we squeezed our legs close enough together to fit them in the narrow confines under the dash. And, lack of saddles notwithstanding, we were saddle-sore, too!

The rest of the trip passed in a blur; I think we drove from Calgary to Winnipeg in one go, and from Winnipeg to Sault Sainte Marie in another. We had had glorious, sunny, top down, summer weather the whole time. We drove wearing just shorts, baseball caps, and running shoes, which was a serious tactical error on my part; with the reddish-blond hair and blue eyes of my Irish ancestors, I just have to hear a sunny forecast and my skin starts to turn pink. With all the wind blowing through the car as we drove at high speed with the top down, I didn’t notice that I was getting seriously sunburnt. It was only when Al remarked that I looked like a lobster that I realized the extent of my self-inflicted injury. So we completed the journey with the top up.

We were both in a hurry to get home to our families, so we didn’t slow down and enjoy the spectacular scenery as we drove across the north shore of Lake Superior. We may have stopped for a few minutes in Wawa, and again in Sudbury, to admire the giant Canada Goose on the outskirts of the former, and the Big Nickel in the latter. Another reason that we didn’t stop more often to smell the roses, figuratively or literally, was that the Spider was getting harder and harder to start as the trip wore on. This was later determined to be an issue with the breaker points in the ignition; they were pretty much toast. But as we were both pretty clueless about what was going on under the hood of the car, we just crossed our fingers every time we started it, and hoped that the car wouldn’t completely refuse to start before we got home. We could have had the problem fixed in pretty short order in any competent garage, but I think maybe we were worried that we wouldn’t have enough money to pay for it. Anyway, the Spider did make it, and the day after I got home, a friend of my dad’s, who was an auto mechanic, replaced the points and condenser, set the timing, and the car started up as readily as when it was new!

In retrospect, our whole approach to the trip was incredibly laissez-faire. Basically, we threw our kit bags in the trunk of the car, filled the gas tank, and took off on a forty-five hundred km road trip like we were just driving downtown. Did we even have maps? We had no cell phones, no credit cards, and we were driving a car that was hardly the epitome of reliability even when it was new. If I was going to drive across the country today, I would have the car fully serviced, and if I was driving an older vehicle like the Spider, I’d be carrying spare points, plugs, a tire repair kit (the Spider didn’t have a spare tire), oil and oil filter, etc. , etc. And tools, too! Or else I’d sign up for the premium CAA service. Or both.

But it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

Chris Willmes

3 Comments

  • Dana Joseph Vanier

    August 25, 2021 at 2:17 pm

    I too had a Fiat 124 spider convertible in Chilliwack CFSME 4th phase and final year that I drove to and from Kingston, solo. A great experience and similar for me too.

    Kudos to the Pininfatona designers with the aforementioned convertible top, one hand operation from the driver’s seat. I remember driving through Banff with the top down and it started to snow.

    One star to their body designers, “it you listen closely you hear it rust” was my brother’s comment.

  • Tim Greenwood

    August 27, 2021 at 11:31 am

    Great memory Chris. I remember your spider well. It was the first time I’d ever seen one and I can remember how jealous I was it was such a cool car. The Italians certainly do know how to design classy motor vehicles, mechanical/body issues notwithstanding . . .