Tim’s father’s father was the only one of his grandparents to drive a car. As a boy, growing up hearing stories of him driving his flatbed Chevy or riding his Harley with a sidecar, Winton doesn’t understand why his grandfather now drives the car he calls Betsy—a 1954 Hillman Minx which, in Tim’s eyes, is the ugliest car in the world. The car is a part of the family: the most embarrassing member.
Young Winton’s attitude towards Betsy, a practical albeit ugly car, and his confusion that his grandfather would forgo the more glamorous vehicles of his past, implies that as a child, Winton is drawn to beauty rather than practicality. He’s also embarrassed by the idea that his family would value such an ugly thing.
The car smells, at best, like “an abandoned cinema.” It has a tiny engine and signal arms to alert other drivers to the turning direction. Winton will later have fond memories of the car, but in his youth, he finds it shameful. While others’ old cars could be stylish and glamorous, this one doesn’t have any of those perks, and he’s embarrassed to be seen in it.
The image of an abandoned cinema as a derogatory description of Betsy implies that Winton finds something depressing about a cinema without an audience or films. This reflects the status the cinema holds in his life. Recall, for instance, that 2001: A Space Odyssey was hugely influential to young Winton.
It’s not that Betsy is odd that Winton is embarrassed by her. Tim’s used to oddness in his family. But the car is the last straw, and when his grandparents move into a care facility, Tim’s parents adopt the car as their own. This means Tim’s dad now drops him off at school in Betsy. Winton’s attempts to distance himself from the car fail when his friends come over and laugh at their own faces in the convex hubcaps. But despite his and his siblings’ pleas to get rid of the car, his father still thinks of Betsy fondly—partly because it winds Winton and his siblings up so much.
In this scenario, Winton’s embarrassment becomes the butt of his father’s jokes—but it’s a friendly kind of teasing that suggests the family unit is generally solid and harmonious. Winton’s insecurity about Betsy also suggests that he’s still at a stage of his life in which fitting in with others seems particularly important.
One day, after eating at a Chinese restaurant, Winton and his family get into Betsy to make the six-hour trip back to the city. However, shortly into the trip, Tim’s father has to make an urgent toilet stop. After he gets back into the car, Winton and his brother begin to smell something horrible. They realize their father has trailed unpleasant debris into the car via his loose singlet. At the end of this trip, their father gets rid of Betsy discreetly and discusses her disappearance in vague terms.
Just as Winton’s embarrassment makes him feel desperate to get rid of Betsy, ultimately his father’s embarrassment surrounding the unpleasant scene drives him to finally retire the car. It’s a scene that demonstrates how shame and humiliation can overpower practical thinking.
Looking back, Winton suggests he was too quick to judge Betsy—after all, she survived several eras of human life and represents something lasting which is rare in a time of “instant obsolescence.” But he admits that if he saw her today, he’d burn her immediately.
Though Winton tries to appreciate Betsy for her impressive strength, he retains much of the disdain for her that he had as a child, which suggests that his aesthetic preferences haven’t changed much over his life. It also suggests that his childhood embarrassment is still a potent driving force.