At Car Talk Plaza, a New Blogger
This is just the latest example of cars being very good to me. As I write, I'm just back from driving the Think City electric car in Finland (and seeing them practically hand-built next to Porsches). Would I ever have seen Finland if I didn't write about cars? That's me below with a Think, and note the snow on the ground. It was cold, and the eco-friendly Finns use little pebbles on the roads instead of salt.
I started writing about cars basically by accident, when a colleague decided to give up the “Wheels” column at the local newspaper that employed me to change the world with investigative journalism. I figured how hard could it be? The writers in Road & Track seemed to be having a good time, and I liked tinkering around with cars. I can’t say I “restored” all that many of them—my $50 cars were generally sold for $50. But my girlfriend had given me a pair of genuine-looking mechanic overalls, so I was like the guy who played the doctor on TV.
I still write that column, and cars have taken me to places I’d never otherwise have gone. I also learned, as did Tom and Ray, that cars can be great fun—to drive, to write about, and even as a subject for yakking on the radio. Here are a few highlights from decades in the business, which in recent years has taken on a decidedly green tinge. Don’t ask me for exact dates, because I was at Woodstock, man, and my memory isn’t all that linear. These are snapshots from good times:
- Talledega, Alabama, sometime in the 1980s. My friend Jim Henry and I drove a then-new Saab 9000 around the oval NASCAR track at 160 mph—the limit of that family car’s endurance. We had a Talledega Night all our own. I still like the Saab 9000, but am saddened by the company’s current travails. Saab is back from the brink, and let’s hope it survives to thrill the next generation of journalists.
- Southern California, circa 2006 or 2007. The surfers were out at Point Mogu as we put one of the very few General Motors Sequel fuel-cell cars through its paces on the back roads near the Naval Air Station. Hydrogen power for passenger cars seemed a real possibility then, though it has since lost ground to battery EVs. Soon after, in New York, I drove a Sequel alongside GM VP and hydrogen cheerleader Larry Burns in a successful effort to get one to go 300 miles on a tank of hydrogen. Burns has now retired, and the company needs another visionary to get fuel-cell cars on the road.
- The Palisades Parkway in New Jersey, a few weeks ago. A remarkably trusting Ferrari handed me the keys to a new California (the company’s first hardtop convertible, and its first front-engined V-8), and pointed me toward one of my favorite driving roads. I’d never embraced the Ferrari mystique, but then I’d never really driven one (a ratty Alfa Spider was as close as I’d come to Italian car glory). The Ferrari was nearly as vivid as the twin-turbo Callaway Corvette I piloted in the ‘90s (with Reeves Callaway riding shotgun.)
- Weston, Connecticut, circa 1975. My beloved aunt Katie gives me her admittedly somewhat tired BMW 1600 (the precursor of the legendary 2002). She’s my hip aunt—I used to borrow her Bob Dylan albums. After a youth with Dodge Darts and a Chevy Nova, I suddenly had an inkling of what performance driving was all about. (The Ferrari was the advanced course).
- Atlanta, a month ago. I am the very first journalist behind the wheel of the fancifully named Wheego Whip Life, a little EV with a Chinese body and American guts. It is sleeting…in Atlanta! The city practically closed down, but I still had my drive, sliding around a bit but having huge fun. Then we went back to CEO Mike McQuary’s office and checked out CDs, because he also runs a record company. Wheego has only five employees.
- Columbia, South Carolina, maybe 1990. Armed with a blurry magazine classified, I have taken an Amtrak train hundreds of miles south to buy a 1963 Dodge Dart convertible remarkably similar to one celebrated by Click and Clack. The vendor rolls up the garage door on a complete nut-and-bolt restoration. Even the correct decals were in place. I bought it, for $2,900 if memory serves, and drove it back home. I still own it. I think it's prettier than Tommy does, but then I had one in high school. Red-blooded scholars like myself had only two things on our minds back then, and the Dart kept me from getting too frustrated about the lack of the other one.
- The German autobahn between Stuttgart and the Italian border, early 1990s. The car was only a pokey Volkswagen Polo, but the highway had no speed limit at all and anybody moving at less than 90 mph was eating Mercedes exhaust. We didn’t even slow down when the fan belt broke. Here's a handy video guide to driving on Germany's express highways:
- Cranston, Rhode Island, sometime when the Beatles were still a going concern. I have just been issued a legal driving license by the clueless state of Connecticut, and in a state of non-chemical intoxication I drove 100 miles or more to this gritty New England milltown, then promptly turned around and drove back. Now my daughter is 15, and clamoring for her own chance behind the wheel. Uh oh. Why did my parents trust me back then? How did I survive all those $50 cars with bald tires, leaking exhaust and holes in the floor?