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Peter Cheney’s Lotus, impractical but the object of his affection. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
Peter Cheney’s Lotus, impractical but the object of his affection. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

How do you justify buying a car that goes too fast? Add to ...

No one needs a car that will do 300 km/h. But I have one anyway, even though I spend most of my time on roads where the highest speed limit is 100.

Normally, I don’t devote much thought to the sheer absurdity of this. But some interesting recent messages from readers sent me on a philosophical quest. One was from a guy commenting on a story I wrote about the new Corvette. As the reader put it: “Supercars are the assault rifles of the road.” (I suddenly envisioned my Lotus as an AK-47 with headlights.) Then came a reader who noticed my car on display at the Toronto car show. “This is not meant to be some doofus comment,” he wrote, “but how can we justify the purchase of a car at over $100k? ... I’m not trying to be some Occupy guy.”

Now I was thinking about the semiotics of the supercar. What does a fast, expensive car mean, if anything? Does driving one mean you’re a pension-raiding, pedestrian-crushing Enemy of The People?

Until last year, the most expensive car I’d ever owned was a Honda minivan. The fastest was a modified VW Beetle I built back in the 1970s, during my tenure as a working mechanic. Now I am the owner of a vehicle that is (at least in the view of some) a rolling assault rifle and symbol of social oppression.

First, let’s look at the assault rifle issue. There are no practical reasons to build a car that will do more than three times the speed limit. But there are no practical reasons for poetry, music or love, either. Beautifully engineered cars are inspiring, and the heart wants what it wants – when you behold the molded carbon and carved titanium surfaces of a car like the Pagani Huayra, you are encountering an automotive Mona Lisa.

But there’s a difference – unlike a painting, a supercar can kill people (starting with its owner). Last August, a multi-millionaire property developer died in England while showing off his new Pagani (which had a top speed of more than 350 km/h).

It was sad, but not that surprising. I’ve seen plenty of drivers crash their powerful dream rides – in the 1970s, a customer at the garage where I worked offed himself when he spun his Porsche into a rock wall. Last summer, there were a slew of crashes at the racetrack where I go to practice – one was a brand-new Lamborghini owned by a young entrepreneur who totalled it on the first corner of his first lap.

Killing yourself is one thing. What about the risk fast cars pose to others? The guy who made the assault-rifle comment had a point – given its acceleration and speed, a supercar would appear to be a more lethal weapon than the average passenger vehicle.

But is a fast car actually more dangerous than a family sedan or an SUV? The laws of physics are the same for every car on the road – a moving object has kinetic energy that is proportional to its mass multiplied by the square of its speed. If you avail yourself of a supercar’s speed capabilities, your risk (and the risk to others) will increase exponentially with each extra km/h. But what if you drive a giant SUV – the sheer weight of your vehicle makes you the vehicular equivalent of an atomic weapon. If you run into something at highway speed, your kinetic energy has to go somewhere (like into the destruction of a smaller car).

Used properly, high-performance sports cars actually have some safety advantages over the average vehicle – they stop faster, and have much higher evasive capabilities. The value of this was driven home to me a couple of years ago when a car pulled straight out in front of me as I cruised along a Toronto street with my daughter’s boyfriend in a Porsche Boxster Spyder. If it weren’t for the Spyder’s powerful brakes and instant handling, we would have been part of a major collision.

But fast cars do have a loaded-gun quality to them – illegal speed, after all, is only a touch of the pedal away. (Every time I drive my Lotus, I thank the Driving Gods for not letting me have it until I was in my fifties).

And I think it’s time to change vehicle-licensing requirements. What we need is a graduated system like the one used in aviation – a private pilot’s licence lets you fly a single-engine airplane in clear conditions, but if you want to fly in clouds, further training is required. You also need training in each type of aircraft, and high-performance planes require what’s known as a Type Certificate. How hard could it be to classify cars based on power-to-weight ratios, and demand that drivers take advanced training to operate advanced machinery? (We could also ban anyone from owning a fast car until they’re 60 years old, but then I’d have to put my own car away for a few years. So I’m against this.)

So what about the morality of expensive cars? How can we justify Rolls-Royce and Ferraris in a world where there are people who don’t have enough to eat? It’s a great question. The absurdity of economic inequality and consumerism is often forgotten, because we live with it every day. But sometimes it hits you in the face.

For me, that happened when I went off to cover wars that affected some of the poorest people in the world. After spending time in the mountains of northern Iraq with dispossessed Kurds in 1991, it felt surreal to return to Toronto and watch shoppers roll up to Holt Renfrew in their Range Rovers. My wife and I were raising kids in a little apartment and driving a dented Honda Civic back then, but after seeing the Kurds, I did not feel hard done by.

A few days ago, I watched an amazing documentary called The Queen of Versailles, which portrayed the lives of timeshare tycoon David Siegel and his wife Jackie as they built the biggest house in America – a 90,000-square-foot, marble-bedecked monstrosity modelled after Château de Versailles.

In this film, the Siegels consume like emperors gone amok. Their lives are a cornucopia of private jets, fur coats, servant armies, and hangar-sized closets stuffed with designer clothes and $35,000 handbags. Their automotive fleet was so vast that I lost count, but there were at least two chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royces (what else would you have if you’re building a house modelled after Marie Antoinette’s?).

What I found interesting was that the Siegels didn’t seem to enjoy their possessions much. Instead, they were overwhelmed by the crush of material things, especially after their finances went south in the 2008 economic crash – the swimming pools filled with leaves, creditors hounded the family, and the Rolls-Royces were rented out for weddings.

It was one of the saddest, most pathetic things I’ve ever seen. The Rolls-Royces were just a couple of status symbols, lost in the dizzying vortex of the Siegels’ economic downfall.

As I watched the documentary, I felt sick, and I suddenly had the answer for the reader who asked how you justify a car that costs more than $100k. You justify it by working your whole life to get it, by driving it every day, and by working on it yourself. Otherwise, you are on the road to Versailles.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

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