He's a multi-award-winning violinist with a Grammy and six Junos under his belt. Despite his success, prairie boy James Ehnes isn't afraid to get his fingers greasy. He has played the role of auto mechanic on several occasions - working on a car that's older than he is. In fact, the 33-year-old musician owns two vintage vehicles: a 1971 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible and a 1979 Ferrari 308 GTS.
"I grew up with Magnum PI. I remember him driving around in a Ferrari 308 and I thought, 'Some day I'm going to have one of those!'"
"I had been keeping an eye out for that particular model. It was the last year that they used carburetors because of changing emissions standards. The carbureted cars have a little more power than the early fuel-injected ones and the sound of the Weber carburetor is just fantastic. I'm a musician so the carbureted cars really sound beautiful; I really appreciate the sound of the engine," says Ehnes, who grew up in Brandon, Man.; he now lives in Bradenton, Fla. with his wife. He's hardly home, though - a busy concert schedule has him on the road constantly. His Canadian schedule included the Toronto Summer Music Festival on July 21 and he will perform at the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival on July 25.
Nowadays, Ehnes doesn't drive his wheels as much as he could. "Everything about it is silly and ridiculous. There's no good excuse for why I have two old cars that mostly sit around in my garage, but I can't imagine parting with them. There's no good reason to keep them, but there's no reason for me not to keep them. They make me happy. They're my babies."
Ehnes bought the Ferrari online from a church in Kentucky in 2003. He purchased the Corvette, his first car ever, in 1999. "I just got a bee in my bonnet about really wanting one of that particular generation of Corvettes; '71 turned out to be a great year - the first year they dropped compression enough to use regular unleaded gasoline. It's not what most people think of as a practical, everyday driving car, but it certainly can be and it was for me," says Ehnes who won his 6th Juno Award - the 2009 Classical Album of the Year - for his CD Homage , as well as the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance.
"I've always loved automotive design. I always thought all the Corvettes from the time they started making them in '53, right up to my childhood were just beautiful cars."
From the Corvette grew his passion for auto mechanics. "When I first had the Corvette I didn't really have an understanding of automotive mechanics. I moved to Florida two years after buying the car and for the first time I had a garage. On the weekend I would take the car apart and put it back together again as a hands-on way of really understanding how it all works. I got really attached to it because I had taken every nut and bolt apart at one point or another and did a lot of work rebuilding things. It now runs like a new 1971 car," he boasts.
"The best thing about the Corvette is the people that you meet. It's almost impossible to fill up the tank without meeting nice, friendly people. People just can't stay away from me. They always want to talk to me or tell stories about one. I think that's a nice bit of the Corvette's personality. It's a nice part of Americana and there's something inviting about it. You see somebody in an old orange American convertible that's older than the person that's driving it and it makes you question, 'What's going on there?'"
"The other day I was preparing for some concerts on my way to Sarasota, Florida, in my Corvette. I had this 19th-century French opera blaring out of my stereo and I think that made the entire scene even stranger for people who saw it!" he laughs.
The Ferrari, on the other hand, is a bit more intimating. "If I drive the Ferrari around, I can see people looking at the car and appreciating the car, pointing and talking to themselves, but they don't come to me."
"Being a violinist, I'm very attached to my instrument, my violin. I play on a beautiful old Italian violin, so for driving around in a not-quite-as-old Italian work of art it's a special significance for me. The Ferrari is a beautiful work of art. It has a certain elegance to it. There's a refinement in it - the way it feels and the way the parts fit together," says Ehnes, who was the youngest person elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2007.
"The Ferrari takes a little more effort to drive; it doesn't have power steering. It's a very heavy clutch. But it's such a rewarding car because it's so precise. Everything works so well on it. That's the way a car should be."
Don't ask him to pick his favourite, though. "When I think of all the time I've had with that Corvette - I've had it longer, I've spent so many hours underneath it covered in dirt and grime - that has a special place in my heart. But on the other hand, the Ferrari is just such a spectacular car. Obviously they're cars, not people. I don't have any children at this point, but it reminds me of when people ask parents, 'Which is your favourite kid?' I can't have a favourite child. I love them both - they're different."
If he could add one more vintage car to his collection it would be a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California. "It's such a beautiful car and my wife would be so happy cause it's her favourite car ever!"