Engineers in Company Cars Getting Stupid

When I started my petroleum engineering career in the early 1980s oil was still booming, the beginnings of the next bust still a couple of years away. One of the best perks enjoyed by many oil and gas professionals at that time was the use of a company vehicle and my first company had a great policy.

Newly-hired drilling and production engineers were immediately assigned a personal company car to travel to field offices, well sites, and drilling locations. They were able to take the cars home each day. They were also allowed to use the car for personal use, at company expense, up to two hundred miles from the office. I knew several engineers who sold their personal cars after receiving their company vehicles, saving a ton of money by avoiding car payments, maintenance, insurance, and buying gas. The two-hundred-mile limit allowed them to drive as far away as San Diego for a weekend trip, and gasoline purchases would be reimbursed through expense accounts.

For reservoir  and geological engineers, who did not get to the field all that often, the policy was different. REs and GEs had to complete two years of employment before receiving a company car with the same privileges, still a nice benefit. New reservoir and geological engineers who did not yet qualify were still able to get the occasional use of a company car. When someone went on vacation or was out of the office for even a few consecutive days, they were required to give their cars to another employee who did not have one.

All of the managers had company cars, and the policy applied to them as well. When Harold, the regional vice-president, was out of the office his practice was to give his Ford Crown Victoria to the most senior technical professional (geologist or engineer) who did not yet have a company car. Occasionally I would be notified by Harold’s secretary that he was going to be out of the office and that I should come to her desk and get his keys. I was nervous and paranoid about driving the VP’s car, commuting to the office each day and parking in his assigned (and covered) parking spot close to the building. I rarely took Harold’s car anywhere but home and the office, afraid of picking up a ding in a grocery store parking lot or, worse, damaging the car in an accident.

engineers in cars

My fear and paranoia about damaging a company car was not unjustified. In my first solo trip to the field for a rare daytime logging job, I checked out one of the pool cars. The drilling site was located near the foothills south of Bakersfield. After turning off of the highway I traveled through a fruit orchard and then came to a long stretch of dirt road, very smooth, dry, and hard-packed. It had obviously been graded recently and was in terrific shape. I could see that I had a few miles of perfect road ahead and no one in sight so I increased my speed. I had left the orchard behind so I had no worries about kicking up a big dust tail (I had been warned that the local farmers would get angry if you dusted their valuable fruit trees). Soon I had increased my speed to about 75 miles per hour. The national speed limit was 55 back then so I was excited about going this fast, a rare opportunity for speed without fear of consequences.

As you no doubt have guessed from the title of this post, this was an incredibly stupid thing to do. I’m driving along and suddenly horrified to see a ditch a few yards ahead cutting across the road. It was a small drainage or irrigation channel about three or four feet across and maybe a foot and half deep. As a driver familiar with seeing “DIP AHEAD” signs all across the land during my previous automotive journeys, I experienced a half-second of surprise and then I was airborne.

As canyon jumps go it was really not that impressive. I was not Stevel Knievel flying a rocket-bike across the Snake River, or jumping a motorcycle across eleventeen buses and a Roman water fountain at Caesar’s Palace. It was just a freaking four-foot drainage ditch. Still, in not-so-classic Dukes of Hazzard style I did manage to get air under all four wheels while simultaneously keeping all of the fluids inside my body. (For the small chance that a millennial might be reading this: please use the Internet search app of your choice for clarification of my obscure cultural references.)

The General Lee (corporate model: Olds Cutlass, brown, four-door) bounce-landed on the far side of the ditch. I had been traveling just fast enough and the road was sloped up just enough that the rear wheels barely cleared the far edge. I still cringe when I think of the horrible sound and the huge jarring thump when the car bottomed out. I hit the brakes and tried to maintain control. Everything worked somehow and the car stopped. I got out to take a look, shaking a little and waving my hand to clear the swirling dust away from my face.

I was stunned to see no signs of damage. My engineering brain kicked in, and corrected myself: No external signs of damage but the suspension system must have taken a beating. I looked under the front and back of the car as best I could but saw nothing obviously wrong. Whatever was broken, I was not going to be able to diagnose it visually, but I knew  the car had to have been disabled.

No cell phones in 1981, and the pool car had no radio. I’d have to wait for someone to come along, or walk back to the highway to flag somebody down. I finally decided that since I had been able to control the car when I brought it to a stop, maybe it was still drivable. I probably couldn’t make it any worse, so I slowly put the car in gear and crept forward and heard…nothing. No metal on metal shrieking, no rhythmical thumping. The car moved forward and I tested the brakes. Everything seemed okay, so I crawled along at a very reasonable three miles per hour for a bit, then I goosed it up to ten.

I continued on and was proud of myself for detecting each of the next three drainage ditches in plenty of time to cross them ever-so-gently, keeping my speed very low all the way to the well site. I had been lucky, and a Lesson Had Been Learned. On my return trip to the office just before I reached the highway I saw a sign on the left side of the road. I twisted around to read it: CAUTION UNEVEN ROAD SPEED LIMIT 20 MPH. Rookie mistake, I had missed it entirely.

A few months before I reached my two-year employment anniversary and would be assigned my own car, the company changed the policy. In a cost-cutting measure reservoir engineers now had to be a “Senior” engineer to qualify for a car (a promotion that typically occurred between three and five years of service). I continued to occasionally get the use of Harold’s car, and I was extraordinarily careful with it. I also made sure to get it washed and fill it with gas before returning it to him. It was the right thing to do, of course, and I thought a few brownie points might help.

A couple of years later I thought I might be getting close to that Senior Petroleum Engineer promotion and would finally get my new company car. Instead, Harold’s secretary called me to his office so he could deliver the news that I was being laid off. Oil was going bust again.

(Adapted from “Plugged & Abandoned – A Semi-Professional Memoir”)

Photo:  The hazards of early driving in Toronto, as represented by this Model T which met a muddy fate just east of the Ford plant. Crowd looking over fence at wrecked automobile in ditch, south side of Dupont, east of Christie, circa 1910. Photo by William James. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 61.