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Peter Cheney in a 1959 Volvo 544, a car with an 80 horsepower motor and a top speed of 145 km per hour. (Peter Cheney for The Globe and Mail/Peter Cheney for The Globe and Mail)
Peter Cheney in a 1959 Volvo 544, a car with an 80 horsepower motor and a top speed of 145 km per hour. (Peter Cheney for The Globe and Mail/Peter Cheney for The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

It takes skill to squeeze speed from a slow poke Add to ...

Tired of speeding tickets? Try trading your new Porsche Turbo for a 53-year-old Volvo 544. Your 0-100 km/h time will go from four seconds to about 30 (give or take), and top speed will be slashed from 300 to about 145 (depending on wind conditions and other factors).

I owned a 544 back in the day, and quickly learned that the best way to improve its performance was to aim it down a long, steep hill – ideally, a mountain. I hunted for tailwinds and trucks I could draft. The Volvo was my tutor. Any fool can go fast in a new Lotus or a Porsche; speed arrives like a Wall Street bonus at year-end, in vast, unjustifiable quantities. But in a 544, you have to earn every last mile per hour.

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I have a bit of a thing for slow cars. Speed challenged. Velocity impaired. Gutless. As a young guy, I drove an endless series of them – 30-horsepower Fiats, two-cylinder Citroen 2CVs, and wheezing Beetles that could barely make it to the speed limit unaided.

Today, my life revolves around a lot of fast machinery. I had almost forgotten what it was like to command a machine that can’t get out of its own way. Then came an e-mail from a reader named Jim Jenkinson. He had a 1959 Volvo 544, a car almost identical to the one I used to own in the 1970s. Did I want a test drive?

A few days later, I found myself in Jim’s 544. Except for some minor details, it was exactly like the one I used to own: a simple, humpbacked machine that looked vaguely like a 1940s Ford. The engine had 80 horsepower, and the stick lever was long and spindly, like the ones you see on a farm equipment.

When it was first built, the Volvo’s official 0-100 km/h time was around 20 seconds, but that was 53 years ago. Jim’s had slowed a bit. As I headed up the long ramp on to the Gardiner Expressway, I was amazed at how little power the 544 actually had – next to this, a Toyota Corolla felt like a Top Fuel dragster.

The traffic ahead was moving fast. We weren’t. I willed the Volvo forward, focusing on clean shifts that maximized our meagre acceleration. I kept the wheel as straight as possible, so the tires wouldn’t scrub off hard-won kinetic energy.

There was an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. I remembered heading through the Rockies in my 544 back in the 1976. In a modern car, this trip is effortless, but in a 544, it was an exercise in applied physics. Every downhill slope added speed to my account. Every uphill was a withdrawal. I drove through turns like a race driver, conserving momentum by clipping the apex and making the corner arc as wide as possible.

Passing was the ultimate challenge. Getting around a truck with my feeble 544 might take hours of planning and drafting, waiting for the perfect moment when I had momentum and a clear road ahead. And so each successful pass was a cause for celebration.

Like money, horsepower makes things easy. Last summer, I blew past half a dozen cars at once during a test drive in a new Porsche 911. The 911 made the move effortless. Did it feel better than those hard-won passes in my 544? No.

As I drove Jim’s Volvo a few weeks ago, I realized that I have learned more from slow cars than I have from fast ones. It isn’t hard to rush from corner to corner in a 500-horsepower Porsche. Stringing together a perfect line in a VW Beetle or my dad’s old Mercury Comet was a lot tougher – the brakes were weak, and there wasn’t enough power to regain speed if you burned it off with sloppy cornering technique.

I’ve had the opportunity to ride with some brilliant drivers over the years – pros like Ron Fellows, Scott Maxwell and Richard Spenard. And what I noticed was that they drive fast cars as if they were slow ones, conserving momentum, carrying speed, carving corners with the precision of heart surgeons. Nothing was wasted.

Driving Jim’s 544 accentuated the process that these pros employ. In a fast car, I could squander speed like a hedge fund CEO guzzling champagne – there was always more where that came from. But in the 544, every single km/h was precious.

I remembered watching Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a film where Russell Crowe plays a wily sailing ship captain in the Napoleonic Wars. Gaining position on an opposing square-rigger took hours of tacking and manoeuvring as the captains played with the wind and their rigging, eking out tiny tactical advantages that meant the difference between life and death. They were masters of momentum and conservation. A Napoleonic war ship captain would probably make an excellent driver.

The slow car is an art form unto itself. Some of the best drives of my life have been in cars that accelerated like glaciers. And Jim’s Volvo reminded me that to be truly slow, a car has to lack more than power. It also needs weak brakes and lousy handling.

The 544 fit the bill. Putting on the brakes produced a barely perceptible speed decay. Emergency stops were out of the question – pressing the pedal was like calling down to the engine room from the bridge of Titanic to order full astern. A sharp lookout and forward planning were definitely called for.

Then there was the handling. The Volvo teetered on its antiquated suspension and skinny tires like a Victorian baby carriage. I studied each corner, making sure that I had the correct entry speed. The old Volvo demanded discipline and foresight. New cars let you get away with a lot. Overcooking it into a corner in a modern Mercedes isn’t a big deal – even a hack driver can hammer the brakes and let the electronic stability systems sort things out. But in an old Volvo, you are the stability system.

As I made out onto the Gardiner, pacing the traffic, the Volvo’s ancient heart thrashed away under the curved steel hood. I was doing 110 km/h. A teenage girl blitzed past in an SUV, cell phone clamped to her ear. She was doing at least 130, but it wasn’t much of an accomplishment.

I was going 20 km/h slower, but it meant something. I was master and commander of a small, slow ship. I had earned my speed. You know what they say: power corrupts.

For more slow pokes, check out our gallery: In pictures: Speed-impaired cars

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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