San Francisco Hills: 1, Rental Car: 0

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My parents recently went on an impromptu weekend trip to San Francisco courtesy of $13.49 flights on Frontier from Houston to San Francisco.  This wasn’t a trip originally on this year’s “list”, but they couldn’t turn down that good of a deal to check out a city they had never before visited.  They stayed downtown one night on a hotel deal via Travelpony and then tacked on a night at the Hyatt Regency SFO for just 8,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points before heading home. 

They had a good trip, but this trip had a big “Oh $@$#” moment courtesy of a wimpy rental car and a big bad hill.  Here is their story as told by my dad, “Grandpa Points”….

I have always liked the song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. It was recorded by Tony Bennett long before he met Lady Gaga. Heck, long before she was even born. I now find some of the lyrics to be quite meaningful, especially the line “where little incapable cars, climb only half as fast and far”.  Let me explain these words new poignancy.

My wife, youngest daughter and myself were completing a quick visit to the City by the Bay and were headed to the airport to return our rental car. We were driving toward Hwy 101 going from the shoreline through town when things started going bad. There are hills in San Francisco. Big, steep hills that double as roads. These roads can be between 30 and 40% grade. That, my friends, is steep. In saner areas, there are highway warnings signs that warn you of 6% grades, trucks use lower gear. In San Francisco, there are no warning signs, no crash bags, no good luck wishes, no fonts of holy water or special “blessing of the brakes” rituals. Where was the “chain law in effect” sign?


I think the reason all the expensive 3 and 4 story Victorian style homes that line the streets have large bay windows is so the residents can watch the potential carnage and bloodshed, or, at least, the fear and panic on the driver’s faces. And I can attest on the co-pilot and passenger faces, as well.


We were minding our business reflecting on the highlights of a grand day when halfway up one of he aforementioned hills our car, in medical terms, became unresponsive. The engine was running, the lights were working, the driver was awake, but the application of pressure to the gas pedal brought us, well, nothing.

The engine revved, the car didn’t. We were in purgatory, going nowhere. We are on a steep incline and there were cars behind us. A lot of cars. I reached for a lower gear but  there was no gear lower than low. More gas and more rpms and finally a lurch occurred. We must have looked like a bucking bronco in slow motion as we inched toward the summit. We are now in a Mt. Everest expedition survival frame of mind ready to plant a flag at the top and then exit to a side street for prayer and reflection.

driving san francisco hills

We made it to the top BUT the cross street is one way and impossible to access. Oh great, we scaled Everest and Kilimanjaro is now ominously staring down at us. We didn’t really want to have a sequel to this story, as they usually aren’t as good as the first, and because our first wasn’t good at all.  Well, you can imagine what happened. When we did actually move, we were lurching like a beginner using a stick shift for the first time. Tach said 7000 rpms, speedometer said 4 mph. Occupants of car said ##@&%$## !

Warning light comes on that transmission is getting hot. Traffic light goes from green to red as we are halfway up this sheer cliff. There is no bail out option as the roads are narrow, parking places are full, and we are sharing the road with the cable cars. The language of car’s occupants now goes from XX to XXXX. And then in a micro second we went from blasphemy to begging. Dear God, if you only let us get out of this mess, I promise….


After another agonizing 2 hours, well, some 30 seconds seem longer than others, we crested the hill and turned down the cross street and took refuge in a driveway. We sat in stone silence for awhile as the emotional drama had rendered us speechless. We did not know what we would do next, but we knew what we would not do. We would not try to cross the Alps in our covered wagon. Not with winter setting in and supplies running low. We would call 911, I mean the car rental company’s roadside assistance number. No answer, leave a message. Try Again. No answer, leave a message. We left a message and awaited a call back. We are still waiting.

We called the company’s national number and relayed our plight to the representative that answered. He said that he would contact his supervisor and forward info to the local agency and that they would give us a call. We are still waiting. While staring at the non-ringing phone we were also studying both hard copy maps and phone apps looking for solutions. We analyzed that if we headed back down the hills toward the shore and followed a shoreline road that we could possibly avoid our kryptonite hills. This plan was forced into action when the rightful user of the driveway drove up expecting and needing an empty drive to park in. So we pulled out, looked for our St. Christopher’s medal and headed down not knowing if we would survive re-entry.

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We survived.

Reflecting back on the day I recalled that our little rental had exhibited some transmission anomalies while driving in some gentle hills on the way to Muir Woods. I remember mentioning that it seemed the car needed another gear, or two. I guess in retrospect it would be like a baseball general manager calling up a minor league hitter with a history of not hitting a curve ball and then being surprised that the ballplayer had trouble with major league off speed  breaking pitches. Our little car had trouble with the minor league hills and then struck out miserably with the major league hills.

I have thought a lot of our Frisco Folly in the two days since and I have reached the conclusion that the famous San Francisco chase scene in the movie Bullitt was not so much a chase as it was two drivers deciding the best way to deal with the hills was to attack them with speed, show them no mercy, hit them while they are down, slit their chests open and rip out their heart. And that is exactly what I would do next time if I hadn’t made that promise. You know, the Dear God if you get us out of this mess promise.  Well, next time, I’ll leave the driving to BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit).

A promise is a promise.

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  1. i’m glad everyone is ok, but that aside, this is an awesome, funny (well, now), and IMHO well-written report. Love the “minor league call-up” analogy! Next time they’re in the Bay Area, whether they have car troubles or not, feel free to have them give me a call. Would be happy to take them wine tasting and show them how you actually drive a real stick shift in SF!

  2. As a former resident of SF and owner of a subcompact at that time, I can attest to the dangers of a car climbing the steep hills of the city. Not mentioned in the story are the trials of trying to go through a four way stop. One never actually stops at the stop sign, you tap your brake to slow ever so briefly so you do not lose momentum, yet giving the crossing cars time to go through. One always recognized there was a tourist when he was stopped and waiting for someone to let him go. Residents were not being intentionally rude, rather it was a survival technique that you did not go plummeting backwards or get similarly trapped waiting for another tourist who would stop.

  3. It’s not the car!!!! It’s you!! My dad drives a ways underpowered 2003 Civic Hybrid manual around San Francisco for his job, and he never has trouble going up hills, though his 2010 CVT Civic Hybrid has trouble going up the steepest street in the city, 22nd st near the base of the windiest street in San Francisco, Vermont street. (At the 800 block. I highly recommend driving it versus Lombard) And with regards to the warning signs, there are plenty of ‘sharp crest’ signs in appropriate places.

  4. Having learned how to drive on SF’s hills, I can say with absolute certainty that ‘you ain’t seen nothin’ yet’ until you drive in some hilly cities in Europe with a stick (e.g. Lisbon). Streets are narrower and curvier, drivers are less forgiving, and hills are just as steep.

    As to your story:
    1. Driving uphill there is absolutely no reason to shift into low. However you really should when going downhill if you don’t want to kill your brakes.
    2. The moment you felt that the transmission was giving out you should have pulled over anywhere you could find space and stopped. You probably had a car with a crappy transmission. I’ve driven cars with very little power up very steep hills without problems 🙂
    3. Steepest hills: http://www.7×

    If you were sharing the road with cable cars, those were not really the steepest hills.

    4. Next time leave it to the professionals: take uber and public transit 🙂

    5. Despite this, hope you enjoyed your visit 🙂

  5. Oh and the way to properly start with a 4-way stop with an automatic is either:
    1. Hold the brake with your left foot and give it just a bit of gas and then slowly let off the brake.
    2. If you have a handbrake and it works (AND IT SHOULD WORK if you live in SF), use that to hold the car in place instead of the service brake. This also works on manual transmissions.

  6. I too have driven in San Francisco in a rental car, a Chevy HHR. Up very steep hills and down the crooked Lumbard Street. Luckily the car was up for the challenge 🙂

    I too leave San Francisco driving to BART and Muni.

    • Thanks for the gracious comment. St. Christopher was a revered and trusted saint in my youth who guided our family safely through many miles of travels. I will have trouble accepting his diminished stature. Next, I will probably hear that Pluto is not a planet.
      Thanks for being a MommyPoints follower.

  7. I’d never drive in the San Francisco Bay Area. No reason to with the public transportation options. Although we did have some fun in the Mustang convertable my brother rented.

  8. Not surprised to see Filbert between Leavenworth & Hyde rated #1. It was in my mind. Once on the way to N Beach I went over the crest on my bicycle, immediately locked up both front & rear brakes, & continued to slide down the incline on dry pavement. Lucked out w/just a sprained wrist.

  9. Currently on a quick vacation in SF area right now, was def surprised by the hills we encountered over the last few days. Coming from LA in our own car, a small Yaris, I”m very glad it didn’t have any issues. I was more concerned about going up/down them being so blind on what was on the other side!

      • Thanks. As an engineer, I was curious. Many automakers are doing lots of new things with their transmissions lately in the name of fuel economy, but sometimes drivability is an unanticipated casualty. Those cars do have a less typical type of transmission (transaxle, I suppose, technically), but I don’t think a properly functioning unit should do what it did to you. Sounds like something was malfunctioning.

  10. While tougher to operate a clutch, low gears work wonders on San Francisco’s hills. You evoke the intimidating feeling of the city’s steep grades well. Brings back some driving memories of my own on those hills.

  11. A properly running car shouldn’t have any problems with SF’s hills (I survived ’em in a 40 HP original VW Beetle in 1967). Is there an epidemic of rental car transmission problems going around? I recently had a car in Seattle that couldn’t back up hills (even though it was fine going forward….).

  12. Great story! I am a Learning Consultant and can say with some authority that your dad has excellent written expression skills! Now I know where you got your skill set from. Perhaps Little C is the next generation to possess this awesome natural giftedness.

  13. Just as an update, the car was a Ford Focus. After some research, it appears the Focus has had some history of transmission difficulties. The car we had was an automatic that just acted like a manual with a bad clutch or a rookie driver.
    Thanks to all for reading Mommy Points and we hope you all have memorable travel adventures in 2015.

  14. Summer, I just love it when your parents write on your blog! Always well written and entertaining. This post brings back memories and a recurrent nightmare. In the late 1950’s I was four years old. My Dad was a student at Stanford getting an MBA.

    My Mom would drive us into SF. I was sitting in the middle section of her station wagon. We would be stopped at the top of one of those steep hills. I was terrified we would roll backwards and crash at the bottom. It still bothers me and seems real!

  15. Stumbled across this post after googling “how to drive San Francisco hills.” It. Is. Awesome. Loved it so much I shared it on my Facebook page! Well written, Grandpa Point!

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