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Peter Cheney's worn-out 1988 Honda Civic ran faithfully for more than 14 years. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
Peter Cheney's worn-out 1988 Honda Civic ran faithfully for more than 14 years. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

You can't beat a beater car Add to ...

There are many ways to measure automotive performance. With this in mind, let us consider the new Porsche Turbo S. It goes from zero to 100 km/h in 3.1 seconds. Top speed is nearly 330 km/h. And it has that dead-sexy sports car thing down cold.

Unfortunately, it falls down badly in the lumber-carrying and step-stool department.

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I learned this the hard way during a test drive. The Turbo was parked in my garage, right beneath a Skil saw that was up on a high shelf – with our old Honda, I would have jumped up on the trunk and grabbed the saw.

Not this time. The Turbo S was a brand-new machine with a $200,000 price tag and a paint finish so perfect I could use it as a shaving mirror. It was jewellery on wheels. Standing on that costly German bodywork to reach a tool was out of the question – so as a stepladder, the Porsche was useless.

There is something to be said for a car that can carry out the multitudinous, often-ugly duties that make up the fabric of everyday existence – like picking up a load of pressure-treated fence posts, or transporting a hockey player who’s throwing up in the back seat after a bad meal and a raid on a hotel mini-bar. Or serving as a ladder.

That brings me to an automotive epiphany – the truest, most valuable form of performance is a car that lets you do things without worrying what will happen to the paint job, the upholstery, or even the body itself. In other words: you need a beater.

If you’re not familiar with the term, a beater is a car that vehicle buffs use to spare their good one. A beater gets driven in the winter. It goes on trips that involve construction materials, gravel roads and bad weather. Beaters are the Untouchables of the car world, permanently consigned to the lowest automotive caste of them all.

Some cars, like the Lada Niva and the Pontiac Firefly, are born into the beater class. Others cars sink into beater-dom, in a gradual slide from shining respectability to dented disrepute. Even the finest machine can end up as a beater – like the thrashed 1960s Aston Martin that someone used to leave parked in my neighbourhood, its paint worn through to the rusted metal, its folding sunroof gnawed by squirrels and raccoons.

Most beaters begin life as members of the car world’s middle orders – they are solid automotive citizens, engineered well enough to go the distance, but lacking the style and pedigree that makes them worth saving. I’ve owned a number of them. The latest is our 2002 Honda Accord sedan, which has done yeoman duty for our family since 2007.

Both kids learned to drive with the Accord (I’ll spare you the details), and it has carried everything from two-by-fours to airplane parts to feline stool samples. A tragic accident involving a bulk container of olive oil left the trunk carpet with a massive stain that seems to expand each month. But even the trunk looks good compared to the bodywork, which has a vast collection of nasty, unexplained dents and rips that make me wonder if the Accord was used as a target for a hatchet-throwing session. (Not that I really want to know.)

Not caring is the beater’s greatest gift. Back in the 1980s, I had a friend who decided to buy a brand-new BMW 3-Series. He spent a small fortune modifying it with aftermarket suspension, a ported cylinder head and a hand-rubbed lacquer paint job. He loved it. But only for about six weeks. Then the heartache began. A rock flew off a truck on the highway and dinged the BMW’s perfectly polished hood. The trick front spoiler got cracked by a curb.

My friend had one of the coolest cars money could buy, but he hardly drove it, because every outing was a risk. And when he did drive the BMW, there were strict conditions. He couldn’t drive on gravel roads, park in a crowded lot, or go out when it rained. His car was a Faberge egg on wheels.

In the meantime, I was driving a Honda Civic that turned into a beater in record time thanks to my circumstances (two little kids, a busy job and an unprotected parking spot in downtown Toronto). The Civic was a lot slower than my friend’s custom BMW, and it didn’t handle as well, but it had some key performance advantages: I could slide into a snowbank without cringing, and blast down a gravel road without thinking about anything but how far sideways I wanted to get in the next corner.

I was free. My friend was a prisoner of vehicular beauty.

And there, as the bard would say, is the rub: To fall in love with a perfect car is to become enslaved.

And yet I still feel the sexual pull of a fine machine. How could I not? As a boy, my bedroom was papered with car posters, and I grew up to become a professional auto mechanic and lifelong machinery addict. (My knees weaken at the sight of a Shelby Cobra, an air-cooled Porsche 911 or a Lotus Exige.)

When I was young, I was deluded enough to believe that I could live with one of these masterpieces as my only car. I was a mechanic and a fanatic – surely I could protect my precious machine from the world and all its hazards. To avoid door dings, I would park in the farthest, most deserted corner of the lot. If it snowed, I would keep my masterpiece in the garage so road salt wouldn’t destroy it.

As I grew older, and the responsibilities piled up, I realized the preposterousness of that dream. As a literature student, I studied works that explored the gulf between myth and reality. Now I’d seen it on four wheels: The perfect car is a myth. The beater is reality.

Some time soon, I hope to buy a really nice car. It will look great, everything will work, and I will spend my spare time tweaking and tuning it. (As a car nut, my idea of a good time is to spend Saturday morning rebuilding the brake calipers and setting valve clearances.) I’ll do all those things. But it won’t be like it was when I was young. I will drive my car. Rocks will fly. Pieces will break. Paint will get chipped. My car won’t be perfect, and that’s okay.

Cars are meant to be driven. They are even meant to be damaged, just a little, because damage is part of driving. Even a good car needs to do some suffering. And to really live life to the full, you need a beater – the ultimate car.

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/

Follow on Twitter: @cheneydrive

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