I used a wax-covered buffing pad to wipe away the tears that fell onto my dad’s 2003 Infiniti G35 sedan. A few weeks ago, I detailed the car of my bed-ridden, cancer-beaten dad so it would be ready to sell after he passed away.
My best friend and father, Steve Nelson, died this past Saturday at the age of 67. After a fifteen-month-long fight with throat cancer, he passed away peacefully in our home in Riverside, Illinois, surrounded by friends and family who swapped stories about the romantic smartass that managed to charm anyone and everyone with his off-color humor.
He’s the reason I am where I am today. While my old man didn’t wrench or race or even know that much about cars, he did love cars. He learned to drive in a three-on-the-tree ’50 Ford Custom just few blocks from his childhood home on the south side of Chicago. He claimed he set a quarter-mile record in his first car, a 1965 Ford Mustang with a straight six, during an indoor drag racing event (!) at McCormick Place, the convention center here in Chicago.
He didn’t talk much about his dark days when he owned not one Chevy Vega but two of them, plus a Renault Le Car. Instead he liked to remember the Gordini—the wacky rally-bred Renault 17 Gordini—that he bought just before he met my mom. (Apparently she married him anyway.) A Volvo P1800 led to a Volvo turbo wagon, which he blew up while racing a Saab on Lower Wacker Drive, and then an 1987 Honda Civic Si led to a 1993 Acura Integra LS, which he gave me when I turned 16. But his favorite car was his 1991 Mazda MX-5 Miata, which I’m going to restore over the next few years.
My old man read every issue of Automobile Magazine since its debut in 1986, and he even had a letter, directed at David E. Davis, Jr., published in the seventh issue: “Just a note to tell you how much I enjoy your new magazine. Production values are extremely high and almost warrant the $2.50 cover price. After seeing you walking into Hermès on Michigan Avenue in Chicago last week carrying a Gucci shopping bag in one hand, it is easier to completely understand why such a high cover price. They’re paying you too much money.”
I campaigned tirelessly to become an automotive journalist, cold-calling every magazine in the country, but it was my dad who got me the break I needed, miraculously getting in touch with Automobile Magazine’s then editor-in-chief Jean Jennings, and convincing her to take a look at my writing. My dad read every story I wrote, watched every video I stood up in, and constantly told me how proud he was of me. I owe everything I have to that man.
I had just about finished detailing the Infiniti G35 when my dad, thin and fragile, came out of the house and shuffled toward me. He hadn’t been outside in days, but he needed to see what I had done to his sport sedan (161,000 miles on it now), an anniversary gift from my mom after a trip to their favorite place in the world, Paris. He balanced himself on my shoulder as we slowly walked around the car. In his usual way, he let me know that I had “missed a few spots.” He thanked me and gave me a hug, and as I went to put the car back in the garage, he told me to give him the keys. “I’ll drive one last time,” he said.