Dave Barry

Classic '97: Ragtop man

Dave Barry drives a convertible while wearing a Flair Hair visor, one of the items featured in 2010's Gift Guide.
Dave Barry drives a convertible while wearing a Flair Hair visor, one of the items featured in 2010's Gift Guide. FOR THE HERALD

This Dave Barry column was originally published Sunday, February 23, 1997.

I got a convertible.

Now I know what you're going to say. You're going to say: ''Dave, you pathetic fool, you're 49 and you're having a midlife crisis. Trade that thing in immediately and get a car more suitable for a person your age, such as a 1910 Hupmobile with air bags.''

No, darn it! I LOVE my convertible! I've ALWAYS WANTED a convertible! For 33 years I've been driving boring cars, starting with my mom's Plymouth Valiant, which was a Ferrari compared with my dad's car, a Nash Metropolitan powered by a motor the same size as the one found inside Tickle Me Elmo. I am a member of the small, select group of automotive losers who purchased both a Ford Maverick AND a Chevrolet Vega -- cars manufactured when the motto of the U.S. auto industry was: ''We're Working Hard To Make You Buy An Import.''

For the past seven years I've driven a practical, box-shaped car. The auto industry calls it a ''sport utility vehicle,'' which suggests that it's sporty; this concept is reinforced by TV commercials showing such vehicles racing up mountainsides, splashing across rivers, winning the Olympic pole vault, etc.

In fact, this vehicle is a station wagon. Admit it, sport-utility-vehicle owners! It's shaped a little differently, but it's a station wagon! And you do not drive it across rivers! You drive it across the Wal-Mart parking lot!

When I went to trade in my sport utility vehicle, I was going to buy another practical car; I truly was. But I ran into a salesperson named Jerry. Jerry's former profession was -- really -- powerboat racer. Currently, in addition to selling cars, he is co-producing a kick-boxing movie. So in terms of mature practicality, Jerry is not Mr. Both Feet On The Ground. I think that, if he could have, he would have sold me an F-16 (''Dave, if you're willing to do business today, we're going to throw in the floor mats AND the heat-seeking missile package''). But I was firm, and in the end we compromised on him selling me a sporty used convertible with a 5-speed stick-shift transmission.

Immediately after I bought the car, I put the top down and took my wife, Michelle, and my son, Rob, for a ride. They both wanted to know why anybody would want a stick shift, seeing as how you have to spend a lot of time shifting it.

''Well,'' I explained, in my Knowledgeable Guy voice, ''it's actually very practical, because by depressing the clutch you can more precisely control how fast the rpms go through the carburetor, which produces your ignition.''

The actual truth, of course, is that a stick shift makes you feel like a major automotive stud. You crank up the song Little Deuce Coupe by the Beach Boys, and when they sing, I get pushed out of shape, and it's hard to steer, when I get rubber in all four gears, you sing along at the top of your lungs as you push the clutch in, put the car in gear, ease out the clutch and -- Kiss my exhaust pipe, automatic-transmission weenies! -- you back out of your space in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

One thing I'm a little concerned about is bullets. I live in Miami, where it is customary to celebrate certain special events (such as nightfall) by firing guns into the air; when the bullets come down, they sometimes injure people. It's such a problem that The Miami Herald recently printed a letter to the editor, which I swear I am not making up, from a Miami man who suggested -- and I don't think he was joking -- that we would have a safer community if people would do what he does; namely, shoot at the ground . Here is an actual quote from this man's letter: ''There are enough bullets in my yard to throw off a Boeing 747's compass, but they are all buried where they were fired, not to come down miles away.''

Unfortunately, many Miami residents are not as thoughtful as this man. So for me, the fun of driving a convertible is dampened by the nagging concern that maybe I should be wearing a steel hat.

Another concern I have is that Rob, who has a driver's license despite being only 16, which from my perspective is the same as being a fetus, wants to drive my car. I figured learning the stick shift would slow him down; I know it took me a while. My mother taught me, and I can remember the two of us yelling at each other a lot as the car, with me at the controls, would lurch forward two feet, then stall, two feet, stall, two feet, stall, and so on, causing our heads to be flung violently back and forward, back and forward, like human windshield wipers. To travel just one mile that way would have required several weeks and thousands of aspirin.

But Rob picked it right up. The second try, vroom, he was off. So of course he wants to use the convertible. My feeling is, sure! He can use it whenever he wants! The only condition is that first he has to drive for 33 years. Until then, he gets the Hupmobile.