My family didn’t take the keys away. I did. After the last eye doctor appointment, I knew the time had come. At 91, I was doomed to live in a blurry world — without my car.

Like most folks, I felt that owning a car was not a luxury. It was my other home. I kept my coupons in it, my extra coins, an old scarf (this is Minnesota, after all), my water bottle, mints, my boots, the daily newspaper, a magazine (usually the New Yorker), an extra bathing suit, even another lipstick, just in case. I was proud of my car. It was my alter ego, and I drove it a lot.

It was an Audi — a big, beautiful, bronze-colored station wagon. Yes, it was old. But like all old things, it grew even more beautiful in my eyes, like the patina on a Summit Avenue staircase.

Sure, there have been other cars in my life. I still remember the first one — a used Studebaker, broken down, but all mine, paid for with my own money. One morning something rattled and shook underneath it, but I was determined to make it into downtown Minneapolis. The art directors at the ad agency where I worked guffawed at my story. No sympathy whatsoever.

“Bette, that’s the crankshaft you’re talking about,” they said.

One said, “Better get your skis off the top.”

When I left that agency for another job, the head art director presented me with a gift — a framed drawing of a tan Studebaker with a crooked shaft underneath and a blonde pulling it with her ski poles over her shoulder. The art directors all signed the print.

The next agency job was a major promotion. Since I worked in the TV department on a household product, my boss decided I should go to the Hollywood studio where they would produce the commercial. Soon after I arrived, they handed me the keys to a gorgeous red convertible, the incredible 1955 Ford Thunderbird that has gone down in auto history. Hot dog! I picked up a gal friend, and off we went, tooling down the California freeways. I’ve never been able to replace the excitement of driving that car.

I was again lucky with the next job. It was the late 1950s when I landed a great PR assignment on the Minnesota Centennial staff and with it, a brand-new Chevy, shiny blue. I worked hard for two years, driving quite a few miles, but when the big events were all over, I had to give it back. Not too bad, considering I didn’t have to pay for it.

Next, before my first marriage in 1961, I acquired a used VW Beetle. It was the cutest car ever, with just enough room for my 3-year-old and me. My husband drove a beautiful red and white Oldsmobile convertible. No wonder our marriage didn’t last!

When I married again, this time happily, my architect husband was driving a 1973 Mercedes-Benz. We drove around in style until I needed a car. I chose something new and different — a Corvair, something of a disappointment from Chevrolet. It just didn’t have enough gumption. So I traded it in for a used Mercury — basic, plain transportation.

European style

After several years of happy driving, my husband and I traveled to Italy with our daughter, then 13, in 1977. That meant renting a car. We took turns driving a Fiat. What fun!

As we approached Rome, I drove and my husband navigated. I thought the space ahead looked wide open and classical — but where were all the people? Suddenly, several Italian cabineri came running up, looking upset. I stopped and rolled down the window. “No one drives across the Piazza Navona!” shouted a policeman. “Ever!”

I refused to drive the Fiat again in Rome.

We made one more trip to Europe before my husband died in 1986.

My grief journey took a while, but I knew getting back to work would help.

I traded in the old Mercedes for a used 1993 Audi. It was reliable for a long time, until it started leaking oil. That’s when I acquired an Audi Allroad to begin the new century.

This was the car I really fell in love with. I loved the way it flowed down the highway. I drove it all over the Twin Cities and as far as Madeline Island. I felt safe in it. It was my nest away from home.

But as my eyesight weakened, my doctors cautioned that I should not drive at night. Finally, one said, kindly but firmly, “You know, Bette, I will have to call the limit for you next year.”

One week later, I handed the keys to my daughter.

No more freedom, I thought bleakly. No more spontaneous trips to happy hour.

But soon friends came to my rescue. Even better, younger friends informed me, “We don’t need a car anymore; we just call Uber. We take it everywhere. You can, too.”

I have! And I am no longer devastated.

I have fond memories of all the cars I owned. Who else can claim to have driven down the Piazza Navona with Italian police in pursuit!


Architectural journalist Bette Hammel of Wayzata is the author of “Legendary Homes of Lake Minnetonka,” “Legendary Homes of the Minneapolis Lakes” and “Wild About Architecture.” She can be reached at