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During a white-knuckle drive in a rear-wheel drive van, Peter Cheney found a new appreciation for his front-wheel drive car.Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail

If you want to prove your skill and courage, there's always the high wire, the bullring and the Formula One world driving championship.

Or you could try piloting an old Chevrolet Safari van with rear wheel drive and no snow tires from Toronto to Thornhill, Ont. in the middle of a winter storm. I recently did this, and can tell you that it's a tremendous skill builder, provided you live through the experience. (On this last point there is no guarantee.)

Like many survival stories, my drive in the Safari was the product of bad weather and unfortunate scheduling. I had an appointment with a chassis engineer who was going to mount and balance new tires on the wheels of my sports car. Since the wheels and tires wouldn't fit in my car, I had borrowed a friend's van, an old-school Chevrolet with a cargo space the size of a bachelor apartment.

My trip was 25 kilometres each way, and I estimated it would take 30 minutes. Then it snowed. The Safari was rear-wheel drive, the tires were well-worn all-seasons, and the load was light, which meant there was almost no weight over the rear wheels. But I've been driving for decades. How bad could it be?

I got my answer as I pulled out of the parking lot. Pressing the gas pedal produced virtually no acceleration, and a weird howl emanated from the Safari's rear end. The tires were spinning. A lot. I feathered the throttle, hunting for traction as oncoming traffic bore down on me through the snow. The Safari began to move, but barely. Even the lightest accelerator pressure resulted in spinning tires and a howl from the cavernous rear end. I was gripping the road by only the most tenuous margin, like a gecko trying to scale a sheet of oiled glass.

A few minutes later, I was up to speed. The road ahead was a white blur, and the van's steering wheel had the lifeless feel of a 1970s Atari video game controller – the front wheels had almost no traction, and I was operating them through a power-steering system designed back in the days of vinyl roofs and opera windows.

I'd been planning to head north on Bathurst St. to Highway 401, but that was now out of the question, given the Safari's limited grip – I'd never make it up the hill north of St. Clair. In my own car (a front wheel drive Honda with new Pirelli Winter Carving tires), the hill was nothing, but in an unloaded, rear-wheel-drive van the hill might as well have been the north wall of the Eiger. Entire sections of the city were now a no-go zone, and I began recalculating my route based on grade percentages.

Like most drivers, I've been spoiled by automotive progress. Front-wheel-drive is now the dominant automotive platform – it may be dull, but it works well in snow, since the weight of the engine presses down on the front tires to increase traction. Driving the Safari took me back to a previous automotive age.

I began learning the art of winter driving with my father in the 1960s. In that era, almost every car on the road conformed to a standard Detroit platform – a front-mounted engine powering the rear wheels through a spinning steel driveshaft. My father was a master of this layout. As I learned, success was based on both driving skill and advance preparation – my dad put studded winter tires on all four wheels, and placed large bags of sand in the trunk. The sand pressed down on the rear wheels, increasing grip – and if you got stuck, the sand could be shovelled under the tires for emergency traction.

My father made it look easy, but driving a car like our Mercury Comet on icy roads was a demanding exercise. The light rear end would come unglued at the least provocation, and the sandbags in the trunk were a mixed blessing: they added traction, but if the car swung sideways, their mass turned the slide into a game of crack-the-whip.

As I headed north in the Safari, I remembered my dad's rear-wheel-drive winter teachings. I pretended there was an egg between my foot and the accelerator pedal, since only the lightest acceleration could maintain the rear wheel's fragile grip. I held the steering wheel as if it were a baby bird, working to maintain traction at the front.

I was amazed at how bad the Safari was in the snow. Then I remembered the last time I'd driven an old-school Detroit vehicle in winter. That was in 2003, at the funeral of Jack Bone (the man my mother-in-law married after the death of her first husband). Jack's car was a 1985 Caprice Classic, one of the last great American land yachts, with bench seats, fake wood trim, and a solid rear axle.

I loved the Caprice, but it was brutal in snow. Jack's funeral was in January, and he was buried at the top of a hill that overlooked the city. I decided to drive his car to the service, but only if I could fill every seat with a mourner – without their added weight, we'd never make it up the hill for the interment.

If anything, the Safari van was even worse than the Caprice. I had no grieving relatives in back for added traction – my load consisted of four lightweight alloy wheels, plus a set of Pirelli racing tires. It wasn't enough. The van skated on the road, slewing at the least provocation. My 25-kilometre trip turned into a 40-kilometre odyssey as I hunted for routes with the flattest possible grade.

By the time I reached Thornhill, I felt like a pilot who had nursed a crippled bomber home from a long mission. As I unloaded my wheels with the engineer, I wanted to kiss the ground. My trip in the old Safari van had given me a new appreciation for the modern car, and for the modern winter tire. But in a strange way, I had enjoyed the journey. I remembered a line by Ernest K. Gann (a pilot who wrote a book about flying called Fate is the Hunter): "Anyone can do the job when things are going right."

When I got home later that day (resolving to never again drive a van in the snow without winter tires), I remembered yet another Gann quote: "A pilot may earn his full pay for that year in less than two minutes. At the time of incident he would gladly return the entire amount for the privilege of being elsewhere."


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