Neither Keith nor I considered the car we were driving stolen; the Texas Highway Patrol thought differently.
We were sitting in a holding cell in a small town just outside of Austin when Keith, with his usual optimism, said: "They have to let us go. We didn't do anything wrong."
In truth, we did a lot wrong; though like Keith, I was hoping it wasn't technically illegal.
We both were wrong on that count.
I think the reason there is no longer availability of "Drive-Away cars" is because of people like Keith and me. As recently as the early '80s, you could go to a brokerage house of automobiles waiting to be transported from one place to the next. You would fill out some paperwork, give a $100 deposit and you would be given a car and an allotted period of time to drive it to its destination. You were responsible for gas and tolls, but when you dropped the car off, you would get your deposit refunded.
There were only a few restrictions. You had to drive more or less direct, you could not exceed the ample time allowed for your trip, and you could only have passengers or drivers who were on the paperwork and who had signed a waiver.
The vehicles you would be driving were usually much nicer than the cars I owned at the time. I used drive-away cars for many years all over the country. And I almost always broke the rules.
To be clear, I was a responsible driver. I never drove drunk or recklessly, but I did often take massive detours and carry unlawful passengers. To be truthful, I knew that wasn't allowed, but I didn't consider that it might be illegal.
Keith and I were heading to Houston to visit friends and then to fly to the Yucatan. I picked up an almost-new Chrysler New Yorker in Denver and was given about four days to make the 1,100 mile drive. The first step was to hitch hike to Denver to pick up our new ride. Ideally, Keith would have accompanied me, but since he was unemployed, with no obligations or responsibilities, he was too busy that day. So I went down alone, which of course meant Keith would not be a legal passenger.
"No matter" he said, "We'll keep a low profile and drive very carefully."
With both of us driving, we made it almost to Houston in about 24 hours. The way we figured it, the car was ours for the three remaining days to see the sights. There was a girlfriend of Keith's who lived in Corpus and a concert in Austin we wanted to attend.
Traditionally, I worried about everything; Keith never worried about anything. Because of that, I did most of the driving, since Keith was somewhat of a lead-foot. A soon as we were about 100 miles south of Houston (well past our destination), I cautioned Keith that we had to be especially careful.
About an hour later, Keith was pulled over for speeding.
This was sometime in the late 70s, both Keith and I had long hair and Boston accents, and Keith was driving 75 in a 50 mph zone. Considering all that, the Texas troopers were really nice.
Then they asked to see the registration and drive-away car paperwork.
The two cops sat in their car studying our paperwork for about 15 minutes. Keith said: "We'll be fine. We have another day to get the car back to Houston." I didn't bother to argue, but I knew we were in trouble.
Both cops got out of the car together and approached the vehicle on each side and made the awful pronouncement: "This is a stolen car!"
I willed Keith to keep his mouth shut but it didn't work:
"It is not stolen," he said. "We're just borrowing it."
Most cops aren't stupid. They knew we weren't car thieves, but they also knew we had at least broken our drive-away contract and probably some laws as well.
When Keith said: "We had planed to deliver the car sometime tomorrow. What's the big deal?" - that's when I knew we were going to jail.
On our way to jail, I whispered to Keith: "I beg of you please let me do the talking."
My friend agreed, but only after saying, "Yeah, well don't screw it up."
The cops did in fact have better things to do after calling the car's owner, who said he was more concerned with getting his car that evening than pressing charges. We were fined exorbitantly for the speeding ticket, and I was instructed to drive directly to the car's owner's home. In the meantime, they were going to hold Keith. When the owner got the vehicle, he was asked to call the jail and the cops would release my friend. The plan was once out of jail, Keith could hitch-hike to Houston where we would meet.
The vehicle's owner was a lot nicer than I thought he would be (seems he had used drive-away cars when he was younger). He actually gave me my half of my deposit back and agreed not to call the jail to get Keith released until early the next morning ...
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8 and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.