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The Road Makes Kids Love Cars

July 2, 2018

I told my daughter we were going for ice cream. I didn’t tell her it was going to take two days of driving, in a car slow as cold mud, along some of the prettiest coast in the country.

WE WENT TO GET ICE CREAM. This was a reasonable act and also slightly insane. She was four years old and my firstborn. I was thirty-seven. I wondered if she would be into cars but didn’t have any evidence. So I decided to gauge her in the simplest way possible: taking a weird, affordable classic on a quick errand.

 

From our home in Seattle to Tillamook, Oregon. Two hundred and thirty miles if you avoid the interstate.

 

Tillamook is home to Tillamook Creamery, a dairy on the Pacific Ocean. I told her we were going for ice cream. I didn’t tell her it was going to take two days, in a car slow as cold mud, along some of the prettiest coast in the country. The car was a 1972 Citroën 2CV. I borrowed it from my friend Greg Long. Greg has three grown sons, none into cars. When asked to use his Citroën, he didn’t blink.

 

“You had me at ‘convert my kid to a car person.’ I’ve failed three of three and so must support early intervention.”

Funny how some things just don’t need explanation.

 

My daughter’s name is Marion. Seeing the car in our driveway, she paused.

 

“Looks like a bug.”

 

“People call these things tin snails,” I said.

 

She jumped up and down. “A snail bug! I love ice cream! It’s pretty. Does it go fast?”

 

“No. It’s very slow. Some old cars don’t go fast but feel fast, which makes them fun.”

 

She took a moment to process this.

“I’m gonna go tell Mama. She needs to know.” She ran into the house and came back 10 seconds later, dragging her sister, Vivien, who is two. Vivien’s eyes lit up.

 

“She should ride in it,” Marion said. “I can ride with her, because she might be scared.”

“Yeah. I am scared of tigers,” Vivien said. Raised eyebrows. She then turned on a heel and scampered back to the house, as if to say, I have had enough of that. Marion gave chase, arms in the air.

 

“It isn’t a tiger, sweetie, it’s just an old car that goes very slow! Come back!”

 

I briefly pondered the incomprehensible nature of children.

“Old and slow” is 2CV in a nutshell. You could also call it the French Volkswagen Beetle—an affordable bolide that put thousands of people on wheels after World War II. The name stands for deux chevaux-vapeur, or “two steam horses,” after the car’s original tax category. (2CVs offered 375 cc and 12 hp when production began, in 1948. Greg’s had a staggering 602 cc and 29 hp.)

 

Early 2CVs were so simple, they didn’t have shock absorbers. The body is a steel pup tent, all exposed welds and tubing. The engine moans like an industrial generator. The dinky suspension gives sailboat quantities of heel in even a slow lane change. The sum combines the operating cost of a small toaster with the ride of a Fifties Cadillac.

 

Married to that distinctly French notion that driving can be a space between spaces, a breather from daily life.

 

Some people pooh-pooh 2CVs for being slow and funky. Those people can go sneeze up a rope. Few things are as goofball joyous as driving a 2CV balls-out while being outrun by drivers in the slow lane. Like a Spec Miata, it’s a sort of sack race on wheels, where the car’s limitations are half the point. And so obvious, even kids pick them up.

 

She asked about speed a lot. (Reality check: This is a person who once took 40 minutes to eat a sandwich, because she said it was her friend.)

“Why can’t we pass that car?”

 

I thought for a second. “We don’t have enough room to get up to speed. And the wind slows us down.”

 

“I would like to go faster than the wind,” she said, matter-of-fact. A pause to look out the window, thinking.

 

“This is the funnest day ever in the whole world for me.”

 

“Why?” I got my hopes up.

 

“Because I get to sleep in a hotel! This car is weird. We’ve been driving a long time. When do we get ice cream?”

 

Western Washington: inlets, weaving valleys, stacked firs, mountains poking through the clouds. Logging mills with shorn trees long as a school bus. In the port town of Shelton, Marion sang a song about her toes. She sang it to a small stuffed sea turtle she had brought along. I had that moment where your stomach goes all tingly and you want to hug someone until they pop.

I never pictured myself as a parent. The process sweeps you up in a flush of hormones and universal emotion. Also this looming curiosity as to whether your kids will be into the same stuff you are, so you can share it.

 

Four-year-olds are an interesting window for that. Old enough to not be a blank slate, but young enough that they don’t know how to be anyone but themselves. All base instinct and direct questions.

 

Large parts of a 2CV’s interior are made of cardboard. The door tops suck into the slipstream when you open the dash vents. From the outside, the car looks half Victorian pram, half garden shed. People in traffic either eye you warily, as if you were selling timeshares, or they laugh and nudge a passenger, because Look, Helen, can you believe that’s an actual car? I bet that guy is fun to drink with.

 

In retrospect, it makes sense that Marion mistook the Citroën for a Jeep. Somewhere in the Washington woods, when a late-model Wrangler passed us in traffic.

 

“Daddy! Look! That’s the car we’re driving!”

 

“No, that’s a Jeep.”

 

“Okay. I know. It’s the same car but different.” I was reminded how little kids cut the world into broad categories—Good and Bad, Fun and Boring. It also occurred to me that Marion had never talked so much about cars.

 

 

 

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