As a little boy, I dreamed of driving the cars I saw in magazines. Thanks to my oddball history as a car buff, mechanic and amateur racer, my wish came true. And my car column has now upped the pace.
I drive everything from lowly econo-boxes to some of the fastest and most desirable machines in the world. You could describe my life as automotive speed dating. I sat down one day and tried to list all the cars I've driven in my life, and gave up after 200. By now, the total might be 1,000, but who knows? Last week I drove 11 different cars on the race track, plus two more on the street.
Each car has been an experience, for good or ill. The Lotus Exige blew me away on twisting roads, but getting in and out of its tiny door slot was like worming into a machine gun nest at Iwo Jima. The BMW M3 was brilliant, but its bigger brother, the 550 GT, was a corpulent luxury sled that made me ponder the fall of western civilization.
Cars send out powerful social signals, indicating who we are, what we enjoy, and how we are likely to behave. A police officer pulled me over in a Rolls-Royce because the plate was expired, then scoffed at me when I asked for mercy. "You can afford the ticket" he announced.
So what's it like to experience all these cars? Here's a quick sampler of my experiences:
The Smart's smallness went beyond design into the realm of dogma - I felt guilty for wanting a bigger trunk, and only a decadent imperialist would expect enough room to transport both his son and a hockey bag. Then there was the transmission, which lurched between gears like a tractor driven by an inebriated farmer with plaster casts on his clutch foot and both arms. The Smart sent out a powerful message, but not the one I wanted: I got wistful stares from middle-aged women in earth-toned clothing, and pitying glances from men in Audi sports sedans. Driving the Smart on the highway was like riding a foam surfboard in a wind tunnel.
BMW 550 GT Gran Turismo
With TV screens in the back of the headrests, and a silent highway ride, the GT reminded me of a grounded Airbus. And it used almost as much gas: I averaged 17.9 litres/100 km. No wonder: the GT weighs nearly 5,000 pounds. When I pushed the GT hard on a twisting road, I pictured Kirstie Alley trying an Olympic moguls course. My teenage son loved riding in the GT. So did my wife and friends. But for me (the driver) it wasn't so great. BMW's chassis engineers had done their best to overcome the car's sheer mass, but the car's float and jounce reminded me of a mid-1970s Chevy Caprice in an Armani suit. The price was approximately $100,000. I considered that approximately $100,000 too high.
1974 Ford Gran Torino
When I drove it for the first time (back in the late '70s) it was like living out a Springsteen anthem: The 460-cubic-inch V8 rumbled, the eight-track tape player clicked through songs, and the long hood stretched out before me as I headed toward the darkness on the edge of town. That vision defined the car: through the windshield, the hood's vast acreage conjured up a snooker table, or maybe the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. But some memories are best left undisturbed. I drove another Gran Torino a couple of years ago, and the magic was gone. This time, the Gran Torino felt exactly like it what it was - an oversized, under-engineered steel box with lousy suspension.
Austin Healey 3000
I almost bought a Healey when I was 25 years old. The owner wouldn't consent to a test drive, but I was ready to buy on looks alone. The body's curves were to die for, and the leather-lined cockpit had a Battle of Britain ambience. My father took away my check book and ordered a cooling-off period. So I joined an Austin Healey club, where I learned the history of the car. Few of the member's cars actually ran, but I finally got to drive one, an experience that might be compared to landing a date with a Victoria's Secret model, only to learn that she's actually a man. The Healey drove like a truck (not surprising given the fact that the engine was cast-iron, cannibalized from an Austin ambulance.) The steering wheel was too close, and the car crashed over bumps like an ox cart. I never wanted a Healey again. And I realized how smart my father was.
On this side of the Atlantic, the 2CV looks ridiculous. But when I drove it in Brussels, Belgium, it made all the sense in the world. The car was a baguette on wheels, with a stylish minimalism that only the French can pull off. The shifter poked out of the dash like an umbrella handle, and the cabin was filled with light. The soft, long-travel suspension soaked up cobblestones and made the 2CV lean through corners like a drunken Legionnaire. Getting the 2CV up to highway speed took serious skill and patience. But that was all part of the fun. I thought it was a brilliant car. But I was 19 years old, I was living in Europe, and my companion for the weekend was a 24-year-old flight attendant from United Airlines. So I may have seen the 2CV through rose-coloured glasses. Actually, I'm sure I did.