Summers In the Bathtub

Last week was our countdown to school's end. Sixth and fourth grades have entered the family history books, and my kids are busily looking for symbols of summer that clinch liberation from tests.

They peruse yearbooks and talk beaches. But I can't help thinking that the best herald of summer would be a quick spin in the Bathtub.

The Bathtub was a car. It arrived with my stepfather, Frank. In the mid-1960s, its toaster-size, Mini-Minor body resembled a go-cart. We kids couldn't find the steering wheel. It had no roof.

Frank swore that it drove - if only in summer, what with the permanent air conditioning. We concluded he was crazy, till we hopped in and the Austin 1100 cc engine sent us pressing up against the vinyl back bench.

The "why" of the car was unclear. Its cerulean blue shell had cost Frank $25, top dollar considering he had to add a new (and too powerful) engine, windshield, seat frames, and even a steering wheel, which took the form of an elevator trim tab wheel from a World War II B-25 bomber. This actually doubled as a car lock because you could unscrew the small wheel and pocket it when out on the town. It caused trouble too, as we kids would demonstrate this feature to friends and then forget to screw the wheel back on tightly, only to have Frank discover a problem while rounding a bend at high speed.

We adored that car. We zipped by boorish V-8s and parked in pocket-sized spots that Cadillacs could only dream of. The drain plugs on the car's floor, simplifying cleanup after a rain, were a popular talking point. We added towel racks and vinyl tiles in the back seats, and Frank put a faucet on the hood and hung a soap dish on the dash.

Getting in and out of the car yielded some undignified moments because the doors were welded shut. My mother liked the Bathtub nonetheless because, without a roof, it was the perfect vehicle for moving tall things. We kids delighted in stares prompted by, say, a large tree in the left-front passenger seat and Frank at the right-hand drive using a steering wheel too small to see from the road. (He claims the Bathtub was the original sport-utility vehicle.)

Frank, too, had to maintain his composure when he got stopped in New Jersey by a policeman who couldn't tell who or what was driving the car. Nor could he find the steering wheel, as Frank was wont to unscrew it and hide it any time he was stopped - which was fairly frequently, given the car's novelty and capacity for high speed. Frank politely informed the officer that he had the car programmed for Kansas City, so it was a hands-free operation. This was 1967.

I tell my kids that the Bathtub was more fun than a flying carpet, better than the best-equipped, another-face-in-the-crowd SUV. It was actually quite uncomfortable and might never pass inspection in these by-the-book days. But it was hard not to have a grand time as a family in it. That feisty little vehicle taught us the joy of being wildly different, of the car as a continual work in progress.

More important, its yearly emergence was the perfect sign that school was over, warm temperatures had arrived, and our fair-weather love affair could begin.

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