Carini: The Upside-Down Club

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Volkswagen

Depending on whom you ask, a rollover crash is either a great big stunt to be planned and executed to perfection, or it is a terrifying mishap that more often than not leaves a car’s occupants shaken and dazed.

Now, I was always taught to “keep the shiny side up” when driving. For me, as I suspect it was for many of you, growing up was a never-ending exercise in pushing the limits—of what I could do, of what a car could take, and, especially, of my dad’s tolerance. So when I heard things like: “Don’t go into that corner too fast or you’ll slide,” my instinct was to think, “Oh, really? Let’s try that!” And once I got that out of my system and survived it, there were always other limits out there waiting to be tested.

Once, my father told me not to leave our town—Glastonbury, Connecticut—and of course, I had to do the opposite and try it. It was about 1969, and although I was supposed to be at the library with a friend, we went up to Manchester to visit Ted Trudon Porsche to see the brand-new 914s. On our way home, we were caught in heavy snow, and an oncoming car came into my lane in front of the Paul Dodge Pontiac dealership. When I tried to avoid it, I hit another car in my 1965 Ford Galaxie. My Ford may have been a cheap winter beater with a straight-six and three on the tree, but the car I hit was a brand-new Pontiac that had just come off the truck. In my defense, it was parked in a no-parking zone.

And so it was that I had gotten into my first car crash. After that, what’s left other than to roll one over? With the experience Sam Smith recently had with rolling the Lane Museum’s Tatra, I was reminded of the rollover adventures I had with my friend, Tommy Carone. To us, for some reason now lost to time, rolling a car was the next frontier, and I decided to try it with my $50 1960 VW Beetle.

In our own delusional way, we decided to be safe about our rollover exercise, so we took seatbelts from a wrecked car in my father’s shop, and using large body washers, we installed them in the VW. We put in a single set because only one person would be in the car. Once we got back to the farm, I tried to roll that Beetle three or four times, but I just couldn’t get it to go.

Finally, I went over the edge of an embankment at about 40 mph, and I did it. It rolled one and a half times and ended up on its roof, and the windshield popped out fully intact. We took a tractor from the farm and hooked a chain around the rear axle. With me driving the tractor and Tommy pushing, we managed to right the old VW. Using a 2×4, we pushed the roof back out and popped the windshield back in place. The roof wasn’t that bad, but the fenders were rough. We thought the whole thing was a hoot, of course, and we continued to use the now-battered car.

But our experiment with the VW would not be the last time I joined the “Upside Down Club.” Soon after, I was out in a friend’s two-door Morris Minor screwing around on the farm track, and a friend behind me was nudging the bumper. I took my eye off the road long enough to look in the rearview mirror, and I dropped a wheel off the edge of the road. Over went the Morris, rolling down the bank. I wasn’t seriously injured, although I did get cut up quite a bit. And because I wasn’t prepared for it, I was shaken up.

Thankfully, not long after that crash, we managed to find another Minor, this one with a bad motor. We dropped in the much-better 1275 engine from the car I had rolled, and all was right.

Following that rollover, I continued to push the limits, but I had established some personal restrictions. The first time was fun, the second time anything but, and I vowed to never let it happen again. The lessons learned from back then have stuck with me, and, 55 years later, I’ve still never rolled another car. Now when I talk to my grandson about some of the things I’ve done, I always caution him, “Don’t do what I did,” and I pass along the advice my father gave me: “Keep the shiny side up.”

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