Rearguard Actions and the Threat from Behind

Noise, Vibration & Harshness

I got rear-ended for the second time in eight months two weeks ago, a high-speed surprise that ended the life of my beloved 1966 Lancia Fulvia and left me feeling like some over-the-hill quarterback who’s been sacked one too many times. Pardon me for saying, but this shit has got to be stopping.

The first assault from behind came last winter as I pulled away from a stoplight in Tarrytown, New York. My Chevy Cruze test car had reached all of 15 mph when suddenly, ka-baam — the most giant thud I’d ever heard, accompanied by the rudest shock to my central nervous system since Car and Driver declared the AMC Matador coupe the best-styled car of 1974. Headrests spared us neck injuries, but our brains were shirred like eggs, and the ensuing headache was mega. The Cruze fared well, with only a misaligned bumper to show for its violent encounter, but the Honda Civic that slammed into us going 35 mph was a steaming ruin: air bags deployed, radiator punctured, bumper pulverized, hood and fenders mangled. Its apologetic operator, a young fellow on a first (and, I’m guessing, last) date, responded to my inquiry as to whether he’d been texting with the startling admission that no, he’d dropped a quarter and bent down to pick it up. As I explained to him, whether you’re an inexperienced driver or an education-slashing governor, idiocy in service of thrift doesn’t make it any less idiotic.

Well, all’s well that ends well, but then there I was headed westbound on the Tappan Zee Bridge the other night with my old friend, South African car nut and sometime Formula Ford racer Mark Cohen, when we suddenly came upon one of the bridge’s not infrequent accidents — a tractor trailer, a sideswiped car, and a state trooper camped out in the right lane (no flares, flashing lights, lane-closed signs, or other warnings that traffic needed to divert immediatement, on penalty of fiery death). At the last moment, I spotted the stationary truck, braked, and moved one lane to the left, just in time to see through the Fulvia’s wonderfully panoramic greenhouse the guy behind me in a nondescript, white cab-over box truck not braking while moving into the same escape lane I’d chosen. Next thing I knew, my Fulvia was transformed into a speeding rocket sled, jettisoned across another lane of traffic and into a central concrete divider, scraping it hard and then bouncing into the center lane to be hit again from behind by a Con Ed minivan before we miraculously steered back into the far right lane, coming to rest several hundred yards beyond the aforementioned accident.

We got out. Gasoline was puking from a punctured tank, the trunk was accordioned up to the rear seatbacks, and two of my fingers were bleeding. But, as traffic sped around us, Cohen and I could only thank our lucky stars that we were otherwise intact and feeling OK. (Three cheers for the three-point belts installed sixteen years earlier.) The Con Ed driver stopped and solicitously inquired after us, while the truck driver, who’d obviously mislaid his Amy Vanderbilt pocket guide to road etiquette, pulled over, looked at us, then split. When the police appeared a few moments later, I suggested that they might want to find our hit-and-run assailant, but they said — self-defeatingly, I thought — that they never would. In fairness, it’s the Wild West meeting the bumper-car derby out on the Tappan Zee some nights, and with no fatalities to lend interest, why bother? As we waited to be towed off the bridge, along with the pitiful remains of my once-pristine Lancia, yet another accident occurred that required official attention.

Although the Fulvia was my absolute favorite car of the many I own, I am trying to be philosophical about its passing. An exquisite machine, it brought me much joy. It is gone now, yes, but in the end, it was just a car. One that did its job, giving its life so that my friend and I might live another day. I can certainly think of machines I own that mightn’t have fared so well. Less certain is my once-resilient attitude. As the veteran footballer who’s had his coconut rocked too often and the cat who’s used up the twelfth of his nine lives know, this almost getting killed business grows old.