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  (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

 

(Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Will 'Bueller's' off day

Globe journalist's son crashes $180,000 Porsche Add to ...

First published May 19, 2010

Some moments are lived backwards. The great ones run through your mind like a favourite movie. Then there are the other kind, where you try to roll back the clock - like the afternoon my teenage son launched a brand new Porsche Turbo through our garage door.

So far, I have not managed to invent a time machine, go back, and snatch the key from his hands (and in case you were wondering, the car goes for $180,000, not including freight, tax or a new garage).

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That day began with deceptive perfection. I woke up in a sunlit bedroom next to my beautiful wife. We had celebrated 26 years of marriage just the day before. Our cherry tree was in full blossom, and in the garage, locked away like a crown jewel, was a 2010 Porsche 997 Turbo, the latest (and costliest) in a long series of test cars.

When I decided to transition into automotive journalism after more than two and a half decades of news reporting, no one was happier than my son Will. Instead of telling his friends his dad was in Afghanistan (or at a murder scene) he could bring them over to check out the latest ride.

My new trade did have its perils, which include the creeping cynicism of the professional test driver. An auto journalist's existence is like a mechanized version of Hugh Hefner's - when you are presented with an endless cavalcade of automotive beauties, you can easily become jaded.

Now I had the Turbo, the car that every driving aficionado and pension raider dreams of - 500 horsepower, leather-lined cockpit and a 330 km/h top end. Until I drove it, I'd been a little skeptical - I'd seen too many Turbos employed as male enhancement devices by hobbit-looking accountants who couldn't even drive a stick shift.

But the previous day, I had taken it to Mosport racetrack for a high-speed lapping session where it inhaled other cars like so many insects - when they saw the Turbo in their mirror, most simply pulled over to let us pass, acknowledging the Porsche as the alpha car.

I was experiencing the acme of German engineering. The Turbo had launched me up Mosport's kinked back straightaway at more than 250 km/h, then purred back to the city through rush hour traffic, as though it had been magically converted from a race car into a Honda Civic. Best of all, my Turbo was a purist's model, with a six-speed manual transmission - a factor that would play a key role in the events that were about to unfold.

It was early afternoon. Will had just returned from summer job hunting, accompanied by a friend. I was in my home office, writing and looking out at the green park in front of our house. That morning, Will and I had appeared together in a Globe Drive column called A Hockey Dad's Last Ride that commemorated his 14 years in minor hockey.

Will stuck his head into the office and asked me if he could show his buddy the Turbo. I told him to go ahead. He and his friends always checked out my cars. Their main focus seemed to be the interior and stereo systems - details I barely cared about.

I went back to my computer. My car buddies knew I'd been at the track with the Turbo, and they wanted my verdict. I told one it was like a tiger in an Armani suit - killer chassis, unbeatable power, but suave and comfortable, too.

I shut down my computer and prepared to head to the office, smiling at the thought of a few minutes in the Turbo. As I headed out the back door, I saw my son running toward the house. His eyes were the size of dinner plates. He sputtered: "Dad, the Porsche … the Porsche …"

I thought the Turbo had been stolen. Our garage has a full security system, but this is one of the most desirable cars in the world, so you never know. Will tried to speak again. "The Turbo rolled into the door…." I walked past him into the garage.

For nearly a minute, I was too dumbfounded to speak. The Turbo hadn't rolled into the door - it had launched itself through the entire structure. In a distance of approximately four feet, the Turbo had developed enough kinetic energy to blow the entire door apart. Parts of the roller mechanism were scattered through the alley. Dazed, I picked up a bent metal piece - it looked like a Crazy Bone, a toy Will had collected as a little boy.

When I parked it, the Turbo had been pristine. Now it looked like the car from Dukes of Hazzard after a chase through the southern backwoods. Stunned, I surveyed the damage. The hood was raked with gouges, the top of the right front fender was flattened, and the driver's door (which is made from aluminum to save weight) had taken a beating. Worst of all was the rear fender, which had hit the concrete door frame as the Turbo launched itself into the alley - it looked like a giant blacksmith had smacked it with a sledge hammer.

Like a man surfacing from a deep dive, I slowly returned to reality. I yelled at my son for a minute or two. Then it was time to make some phone calls. Will stood in the garage, quaking. I dialled Rick Bye, a professional race driver who manages the Porsche press fleet. The day before, he had been with me in the Turbo at Mosport, teaching me the fastest line around the track and making sure I didn't destroy his car. After decades of racing and dealing with idiot journalists, Mr. Bye has seen almost everything there is to see in the car business. But as he turned the corner into my alley, he was greeted by a new first: the nose of a $180,000 high-performance car projecting halfway into the lane, with a shattered garage door draped over it like a curtain.

Mr. Bye quietly surveyed the scene for a minute. Then he walked over to my son. "Stuff happens," he said. "We're glad you're okay. This is only a car. You don't need a lecture. You already know."

Now Mr. Bye and I were both on our cellphones. He was talking to Porsche's insurance company. I was trying to find someone who could get the garage door off the Turbo and get my garage closed up for the night - it was filled with mechanic's tools and my homebuilt airplane project. If we left it open, we'd be picked clean by the morning.

I found three companies that advertised 24-7 emergency service. That was a joke - none of them could come within the next two days. Then I remembered my contractor, Marty Edge. Six years ago, he rebuilt my house. Now he works full time for David Thomson (yes, the one you're thinking of) on his properties around the world.

Luckily, Marty was in Toronto. An hour later, he was at my garage, along with a door expert named Frank Dyer. The cavalry had arrived. I was starting to feel a little better. Frank used the remains of our ruined door to close up the opening. Will had never used power tools before, but Frank put him to work driving screws.

As the dust settled, my wife and I confronted the parenting issues that attended the disaster. What was the appropriate punishment for a boy who trashes a car worth $180,000? Friends were flooding us with stories of costly child screw-ups - like the son who flushed an action figure down a toilet, creating a deluge that caused more than $100,000 damage to their house. A colleague told me how she damaged her parent's brand-new van - she got distracted and rear-ended a truck filled with huge stones (driven by two women who were starting a rock garden project.)

I recalled a childhood friend who rolled a bowling ball off a garage roof (it seemed like a good idea at the time) only to have it land on his father's newly restored Porsche 356. Another had totalled the family Mercedes by taking it out of gear and pulling off the handbrake - he jumped out as the car began to roll, and watched helplessly as it headed down their steeply sloped driveway, across the street, and into a ravine.

Will's ride through the door was getting around. I got an e-mail from a partner in a Bay St. communications firm: "Congratulations on your son's Ferris Bueller moment," it read. " It's all over town. There must be just a touch of parental pride that he has the sense of adventure, the stones, and the good taste to give it a try. That will be a wedding day story. Hope you got photos."

Ferris Bueller had crossed my mind. There were some obvious parallels to the movie. Like Ferris, my son is a spirited, upbeat boy who loves a good time. And, also like Ferris, his coming-of-age story featured the ruination of an extremely valuable car. He had taken a four-foot, 500 horsepower ride to manhood.

We had a hard call to make. Would it be grounding for life? Let it go? Something in between? Will was a teenage boy. One of the world's hottest cars had been sitting in our garage, calling to him like the sirens of Homer's Odyssey. He had a friend to show off for. Will had taken the key, intending to turn on the stereo and navigation system, only to inadvertently fire up an engine that could launch the car to 100 km/h in just over three seconds. He didn't know how to drive a standard. The outcome had been written in bent metal.

A lawyer friend who has known Will since he was 11 called me at the office. He was laughing so hard that he cried. In his view, Will had made a standard teenage mistake that happened to involve an expensive car. "He's a great kid," he said. "Give him a break."

As I saw it, raising our boy was a lot like training a horse. I didn't want to break his spirit and turn him into a pit pony. Neither did I want him to become El Diablo. I hoped he would end up as Secretariat - a disciplined champion.

My wife and I decided that Will would have to repay our insurance deductibles and discount losses by getting a summer job. The total would be about $750. Porsche's deductible on the car was $10,000. I offered to pay it. Mr. Bye said no.

I woke up the next morning sick to my stomach. I was the car journalist whose son had trashed a brand new Porsche Turbo. That wasn't good. And I was still weighing my son's punishment. I looked in my inbox. There was an e-mail from Mr. Bye. It was a picture of a Porsche executive standing in the Siberian desert with a bandage wrapped around his head. Behind him was a new Porsche Cayenne, completely destroyed after a high-speed crash, its components littered across the sand.

Mr. Bye had provided some perspective - and some heart. Porsche is a large corporation. They would not be happy about the trashing of their expensive car. But they had sucked it up and tried to make my son and I feel better. Mr. Bye's gesture reminded me of a story about Frank Sinatra's handling of a home disaster. When Frank's daughter Nancy was young, she hosted a party at his house. On a table was a pair of priceless crystal birds. Suddenly there was a crash, and the room fell silent - one of Nancy's friends had knocked one of the birds off the table, destroying it.

All eyes turned to Sinatra, the legendary Chairman of the Board. Sinatra stood silent for a moment. Then he swept the second bird off the table with the back of his hand. It exploded on the floor like a high-priced crystal grenade.

"Don't worry about it," Sinatra announced.
 

Postscript:

  • My son has agreed to do a minimum of one week's labour for Mr. Bye
  • Initial body shop estimate for the 2010 Porsche Turbo - $11,000 plus taxes.
  • My garage door was replaced last week, along with the door tracks, opener and door frame. I spent seven hours working alongside the installer. Total cost was $2,700. My insurance deductible was $500. I lose my no-claims insurance discount for three years.
  • Later this summer, based on his schedule, my son will attend Apex driving school, where he will be trained in advanced car control and learn to drive a standard transmission.

If you have questions about driving or car maintenance, please contact our experts at globedrive@globeandmail.com.

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