I live in Toronto, the city that has declared war on the car. This is the home of the $50 parking spot, the year-round speed trap and gridlock so miserable that it makes Los Angeles look like the wide-open spaces.
So why do I like driving in Toronto so much? Because I have created my own urban race course, which I think of as the Ghetto Grand Prix. It's like a cross between the Monaco Formula One race and the Monte Carlo Rally, but with lower speeds, greater complications, and some really weird pit stops.
Those stops include The Healing Butcher, The Dancing Crossing Guard and The Car Crypt. We'll get to those in a minute. But first, my theory of urban driving.
As I see it, we play the hand we're dealt, and the automotive gods decreed that I would live and drive in the heart of downtown Toronto. Most would say that Canada's largest city is to driving what Kingston Penitentiary is to personal freedom – the roads tend be straight, and many of them are potholed and cut up with street car tracks. Then there's the growing army of police, who now write close to a billion dollars worth of tickets every year.
But I have found a way to make a driver's hell into a vehicular paradise. My goal is to experience the laws of physics in action, have some fun and come back with my car and driver's licence unscathed.
It begins each morning at 7:45 a.m., when I warm up the engine and prepare to drive my wife to work. Some mornings we take our old Honda. On others we take a test car, which can be anything from a pickup truck to Porsche Turbo. Lately it's been my new Lotus, which is great but unnecessary – in the Ghetto GP, any car will do.
My wife and I burble south just below the speed limit, drinking coffee from a travel mug. By the time we hit Bloor Street, the engine is up to operating temperature, just in time for the day's first driving highlight: Spadina Circle, a constant-radius curve that sweeps around an old government building.
You don't have to break the law for it to feel fast. My goal is to arc through the circle without touching the brakes, and click off a perfect downshift as we come out the other side, right in front of the Scott Mission, where a line of homeless men line up along the sidewalk each morning for the soup kitchen.
Some of the homeless guys are regulars, and a few of them wait to see what car I'll come through in. (Yes, you can be a homeless car buff). The Mission favourites so far have been the Lotus and a Porsche 911 with a sport exhaust (a couple of the guys actually cheered when I passed in that one).
As we continue south, we find ourselves in the heart of Chinatown, where we face a set of moving chicanes: delivery trucks, taxis and slow-moving tourists who may change lanes without warning. It's like the start of an F1 race, but with wontons and pedestrians. (Driving Spadina for 28 years without a scratch is one of my proudest vehicular accomplishments.)
Next up is King Street, a straight stretch that's complicated by heavy traffic and street-car tracks that offer all the traction of oiled Teflon. Accurate car positioning is key: you need all four tires on clear pavement, or you risk a slide that could end with a T-bone crash into a street car. I like this, because it adds some challenge to a street that would otherwise be deadly dull.
After I drop off my wife, I have a couple of options. Sometimes I head down to the waterfront so I can run through the curves on Unwin Avenue (there's a pair of 30-degree kinks, then a 90-degree left hander followed by a 90-degree right). It's a public road, so I have to keep the speed down, but nailing a couple of perfect heel and toe downshifts makes it feel like the Nurburgring. I run the road both ways, then stop by the lake, listening to the wind, the birds and the clicking of my car's brakes and the engine as the heat comes out of them.
Next up is a short drive north on the Don Valley Parkway, which has all the charm of a dental waiting room, but delivers me to the Bloor Street off-ramp: a long, perfect turn that lets you pull some lateral G and feel the tires gripping. Then it's on to the Bayview ramp and Rosedale Valley Road. Beautiful.
The Ghetto Grand Prix is about more than roads. It's about where the streets can take you. If it's between 8:20 and 9 a.m., I like to head up Dufferin Avenue to watch Kathleen Byers, aka The Dancing Crossing Guard. Kathleen has worked the crossing at Dufferin and Bank since 2004, dancing in her orange vest to keep warm. She keeps a boom-box stereo on the sidewalk, loaded with Madonna tunes.
Up on Bloor Street, I always stop at Gasparro's Meats, a family butcher shop run by Vince Gasparro and his sons. This store has a special place in my heart, because Vince and his boys got my wife to eat red meat again. Long story, but going to an old-school butcher shop and being around Vince's family made Marian feel better about beef, and I always think of Vince as The Healing Butcher. (I know this is strange, but life is like that.)
Driving in the city is an ongoing lesson in physics, architecture and sociology, Corners get repaved. Oil gets spilled. Buildings rise and fall. And the losses can hurt. One of the key stops in my Ghetto Grand Prix used to be McBride Cycle, an old motorcycle store on Dundas West. This was a true gearhead paradise – wooden floors, sagging beams, and a shadowed workshop packed with tools and high performance machinery. I went there for years, and no matter how bad my day might have been, it was always improved by the sight of the motorcycles and the scent of fresh gear oil.
And then one day McBride was gone, killed by falling motorcycle sales and a family dispute that racked the business. Today, it's an empty lot, ringed with a chain link fence and pocked with weeds. The only signs of the store I once loved so much are some shattered pieces of brick and scattered bike parts that serve as artifacts of a small, lost civilization.
But there are compensations. One of them is my friend Gus, who works on old Jaguars in a back-alley shop that's an eclectic monument to the days when Britain ruled the road. Then there's Gentry Lane, a car dealership on Dupont Street that sells classic cars. It's also where I bought my Lotus. Given that Lotus is one of the smallest car manufacturers in the world (it only makes 2,000 cars a year), the odds that there would be a dealer less than two minutes from home are slim to none. And yet there is, and I've been going there since the 1990s.
Since I know the owner, I get to go in the shop and work on my car, which is pure gearhead therapy. But my favourite part of Gentry Lane is the basement, which I think of as The Car Crypt. I never know what I'll find there. There could be a 1950s Porsche Speedster, a Miami-Vice era Ferrari, a Renault Alpine, or a Smokey and the Bandit Pontiac Trans-Am.
Magic. And it's all part of the Ghetto Grand Prix. It may be slow, but you can do it every day. And that makes it the best race of all.
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