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Ash Westerman: Thieves in the night

By Ash Westerman, 24 Feb 2019 Opinion

Ash Westerman: Thieves in the night

“The, er, ‘unauthorised loans’ of mum’s ’66 beetle were deeply covert operations that required military-style planning...”

As far as family secrets go, this one is not exactly up there with learning that Jeremy Clarkson is your illegitimate half-brother, or your dad was John DeLorean’s cocaine wholesaler, but I’ll share mine with you anyway: my mother did not teach me to drive.

Whatever; who cares, you scoff. Okay, but the point is, old Peg, now aged 88, still believes she did.

I was reminded of this recently because I’m currently teaching my 16-year-old daughter to drive, and the other day my mother came along with us as my teenage hot-shoe protégé took the wheel for a lunch outing.

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“You’re doing so well, sweetie,” mum cooed from the back seat. “And how wonderful your dad is teaching you, just like I taught him...”

A moment of uncomfortable silence followed; one I tried to quickly fill with, “Mumble, yes, those were the days, mumble, look at that tumbleweed, wow, listen to those crickets...”

See, Peg may have overseen my L-plater period, but she sure didn’t teach me to drive. My first driving lessons were far more clandestine, nefarious events that happened nearly two years before she rode shotgun with me, and the only part involving my mother was that it was her car in which they occurred. You and I may term it a series of ‘unauthorised loans’; she would no doubt call it her little ratbag son pinching her beloved Beetle.

The, er, unauthorised loans of her ’66 VW were deeply covert operations that required military-style planning, as well as several key bits of equipment: thick socks, wheel chocks, Space Food sticks (remember those?) and a tin of fuel.

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The padded socks were needed when creeping over the creaky floorboards into mum and dad’s bedroom to pluck the keys as they slept; the wheel chocks were essential because of the steep rise of our driveway up onto the street. My folks’ bedroom window was too close to the carport, so firing up the chaffing flat-four was out of the question. Instead, my two buddies and I would combine the collective strength of our barely pubescent bodies and shoulder the thing as far up the drive as we could before exhaustion hit, then the wheel chocks would go in. This operation would continue for 40 minutes or so: push, chock, recuperate with a Space Food stick; repeat, until the old girl finally rolled onto the flat of our cul de sac.

I remember starting to worry that my mate Simon was actually enjoying the theft part of the operation a bit too much when he suggested one night that we use grease paint to black out our faces. This, I told him, was a ridiculous idea, mainly because I was wearing a ski-mask at the time.

I’d loved cars for as long as I could remember, but graduating from polishing them and riding in them to actually driving; it was a leap as profound as the transition from building Lego spaceships to physically strapping into a rocket. Okay, a 22bhp rocket. But you get the point.

That Beetle took us to tennis sheds and secluded bush nooks in neighbouring suburbs on Sydney’s upper north shore where we’d play Kiss and the Clash on my tape player and, as the Beetle pinged in the night air, we’d let our boyhood dreams shoot for the stars. Most-covered topics, apart from girls, were the cars we’d own when we were licensed, the epic global adventures we’d have when we could finally break free of the shackles of school and suburbia, whether the Beetle could whip through a roundabout quicker than Simon’s mum’s Corolla. And of course the fact that we’d be mates for life.

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I never did articulate with my buddies a clear vision of what my future could look like: performance cars on tap, incredible driving on some of the world’s best roads and racetracks, epic travel, forged friendships, and, of course, the deep satisfaction of each month bolting together a snapshot of your working life that people pay money to read. Not because I was too timid to express it. No, it was because I had no idea, at age 14, that a job able to provide such a rich life could actually be mine.

I guess you could say things have turned out better than I ever dreamed. As long as mum never reads this, I’m golden.