The One That Got Away

For us as car enthusiasts, we’ve all had a car we regret selling.  A car that meant more to us then all the rest. A car that was just a little more special than the others.  It doesn’t have to be a great car or a classic or an expensive car.  It’s just a car that you owned that for whatever reason meant a lot to you and that you’d buy back in heartbeat if you found it tomorrow.  For me, that was my second car, a 1992 Volkswagen Passat G60 syncro.

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In the summer of 1991 I was preparing to go away to university in Canada’s capital, Ottawa which is about a 4 – 5 hour drive from Toronto and my Father insisted that I needed an all-wheel-drive car.  Ottawa and Eastern Ontario get far more snow than Toronto and he wanted me to be safe on those long drives between home and school.  The car he decided on was the Passat G60 syncro.  It’s odd that we got this car in Canada while it wasn’t sold in the US.  The previous generation Passat, called the Quantum in the US and sold with AWD as the Quantum syncro was never sold in Canada.  So this was a Passat with the supercharged 1.8L G60 engine from the Corrado and a part-time AWD system developed by Daimler-Steyr-Puch (now Magna-Steyr) of Austria that utilized a viscous coupling.  That name may not be familiar but they built the famous 4WD and 6WD Pinzgauer and they also designed and continue to build the Mercedes G-Wagon. It was the same viscus coupling-equipped AWD system used in the Golf Rallye that sent 90% of the torque to the front wheels under normal conditions and could send up to 90% to the rear wheels when needed.   The car also had forged Fuchs wheels which someone told me were magnesium but I was never able to confirm that and it was only available with a 5-speed manual.

The car had a lot of features that made it a great long-distance winter cruiser.  Heated seats and mirrors, heated windshield washer nozzles, ABS brakes, headlight washers and a gigantic 9-litre (2.4 gallon) washer fluid tank.  And those headlight washers were really useful in winter because that car had the worst headlights of any car I’ve owned.  They were dim to begin with and the accumulation of salt and snow on a night drive in the winter meant they got a whole lot dimmer as you drove so it was great to be able to clean them off while driving.  The car also had a 70-litre (18.5 gallon) fuel tank which meant I could make the drive between Ottawa and Toronto on less than a tank of gas while exceeding the speed limit the whole way.  The trunk was huge – though slightly smaller than the FWD Passat due to its independent rear suspension and rear diff and the rear seats reclined so it easily and often transported 4 us with luggage for a weekend home.

 

That car was fantastic in the snow.  Well, it was far less than fantastic in the snow with the all season tires it came with and I soon installed a set of snow tires and that made all the difference in the world.  That thing was a like a little tank and it’s why we nicknamed it “Volks Panzer”.  I drove through some very hairy snow storms and that car never set a wheel wrong, just tons of grip and no slip and I always felt very confident driving it but never over-confident and hence why I never ended up in a ditch.  And there wasn’t any noticeable change in the car’s behavior as power was transferred between the front and rear.  It was a remarkable system considering how simple and compact it was.

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FWD Passat torsion beam rear suspension

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Passat syncro independent rear suspension

That car was a cold weather champ.  Ottawa winters are a lot colder than they are in Toronto as I soon found out.  Temperatures in January and February were typically -40 Celsius (-40 F) with the wind chill with it dipping to -50 Celsius (-58 F) on a few occasions. That’s the kind of cold that just makes you angry when it hits you.  It freezes your eyelashes and the hair in your nose and makes cars refuse to start.  I had outdoor parking at my apartment so my car was constantly buried in snow but every spot had its own electrical outlet for block heaters which I soon added to the car along with an electric battery blanket.   That car never once refused to start even on the coldest days and that’s when those heated seats were really worth their weight in gold!

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There were a lot road trips made in that car between Ottawa and Toronto with friends from school. Trips home for Thanksgiving and Christmas or just for the hell of it.  Many times we went to school with the car packed up so we could hit the road right after class and get to Toronto as soon as possible.  Weekends home were always so busy trying to visit friends and family and were over in a flash so getting there fast was key.  And I’ll admit that a few land speed records were set and I have a personal-best time that will never be broken because I’ll never be young and fearless like that ever again.  And I’m proud that despite my excessive speed, I never got a speeding ticket on those trips in that car.  And FYI, radar detectors are illegal in the Province of Ontario so I had no early warning system.

That car was special to me.  It was a unique model that was sold in Canada in small numbers, but it was so much more than that.  We all have our dream cars.  That 6 or 7-figure hyper car we’d buy if we hit the lottery.  But those aren’t the cars that mean the most to us.  My Passat wasn’t a dream car, it was just an oddly-styled VW sedan that never occupied anyone’s dreams.  The car itself, what it was and what it did, is only half the reason why it’s so special to me and maybe even less than that.  It’s the memories of that time of my life, of moving away from home to university and living on my own in my own apartment.  It’s the new friends I met and the hours we spent together in that car on those road trips.  It’s the music we listened to and the stories and laughs we had along the way.  It’s a reminder of the one time in my life that I was carefree and truly living in the moment and loving every minute of it.

 

 

Car Magazines

 

Car magazines have been a huge part of my life and I’m perhaps a little more obsessive about them than most people.  I appreciate the digital versions of magazines and their multi-media content, but I’m old-old school and a bit of a Luddite when it comes to car magazines.  I truly enjoy receiving them in the mail and cracking open a new issue and taking a quick look-through before really digging into the articles.  It’s a process I’ve enjoyed since I was in my early teens and I don’t think that will ever change for me.  I didn’t really get interested in cars until I was about 12 and that’s when I started going through the Road & Track and Car and Driver magazines my Dad would buy.  For me, I got more interested in cars the closer I got to my 16th birthday which was in 1987 and I’m sure that’s common to most car enthusiasts.  That was a time period that just happened to coincide with the end of the Malaise Era of velour interiors and 180hp Corvettes.  Cars were getting more powerful, more aerodynamic and a whole lot more interesting as the days of metallic brown cars with tan interiors went the way of the Dodo.  With that in mind, it’s no wonder that my interest in cars wasn’t kindled until after 1984.

I have hundreds and hundreds of car magazines in my collection and pretty soon I’m going to need some of those industrial units they use to store documents at the National Archives.  It’s great to go back 20 or 30 years and read reviews of your favorite cars to learn how they were perceived at the time they were new and to read articles about the state of the auto industry and it’s predicted future decades ago.  So here’s a selection of some of my favorite magazines from the past 30 years.

Automobile

So one day in the spring of 1986 I was 14 and looking for a car magazine to buy when I spotted the glossy first issue of Automobile magazine.  A quick look-through told me this was the magazine I should buy.  It was so fresh, so modern.  The glossy photos, the artwork, the articles, the advertisements.  It was more than just a car magazine.  It was an announcement to the world that the Malaise Era was over and everything was going to get better from here on out.  More than a magazine, I was holding 1986 in my hand!  The economy was better, gas was cheaper and dammit, people wanted more excitement from the cars they bought.  And for me, Junior High was almost over and I would be a high school student in the fall and another step closer to getting my driver’s license.

Automobile issue #1 holds a very special place in my heart.  I mean, look how well-worn my copy of it is.  I’ve read that issue many, many times and I fear that one day it will disintegrate.  It had everything to appeal to a 14 year-old interested in cars: The MR2 vs. 308 cover story, the return of the 911 Turbo to the US market, the new Toyota Supra turbo and a story about the Buick Grand National by someone named P.J. O’Rourke (I was 14.  I had no idea who he was).  It was all about power and speed which was right up my alley.  I began reading Automobile every month and looked forward to each new issue, the covers of which were absolutely spectacular during the first year or two of its existence.  Jean Jennings and Jamie Kitman quickly became my favorite writers and their columns were always the ones I read first in each new issue.  Hopefully one day I’ll get a chance to meet them and thank them for their great work.  I got to meet David E. Davis Jr. at an event several years ago and I was so glad I got a chance to thank him for creating Automobile.

Fastest Cars

Behold the greatest car magazine I ever bought.  Looking for a car magazine to buy I happened upon this in October of 1988.  I was 16.  Nothing could possibly get the attention of a 16 year-old car enthusiast more than a magazine called World’s Fastest Cars.  This magazine was epic and it’s still my favorite all these years later as you can see by it’s condition as I’ve read it and re-read it countless times.  This is the magazine that introduced me to the Ruf Yellow Bird, the car with the highest top speed of all the cars they tested.  211 mph, which was an incredible top speed at that time.  So many great cars were tested in this issue: Porsche 959, Ferrari 288 GTO, Aston Martin V8 Zagato, AMG Hammer and more.  Nearly 30 years later and the stats and figures are still burned into my memory thanks to this amazing collection of road tests.

 

Autocar

Back in 1989 my Father subscribed to the British magazine Autocar & Motor which was expensive as hell because it was both British and a weekly publication.  This magazine changed my life.  First of all, getting a new magazine issue every week was, to a young car enthusiast, the greatest thing since sliced bread.  More importantly, it introduced me to European cars in a way no other magazine had.  My eyes were suddenly opened to Ford and GM cars I’d had no idea existed like Cosworth-tuned Fords and RWD Opel/Vauxhall models with inline-6 engines.   I loved reading the road tests of all these cars that were forbidden fruit to us in North America.  But like most British magazines, half of every issue was advertising and it highly biased towards British-made cars to the point of hilarity.  This is a magazine that proclaimed the Vauxhall Calibra was a BMW 850i for a fraction of the price and though it was a very attractive design at the time, comparing it to the 8-series was laughable.

Car

Car magazine became my favorite in the 90s and it was my go-to magazine for years and it continued the European car theme for me that started with Autocar & Motor.  For the first several years that I read it their photography was absolutely spectacular – the cars were photographed in a studio with wonderful lighting and was really a step above most magazines.  In one issue they put a R34 Skyline GT-R on a rotisserie and photographed the underside so you could see the flat bottom.  Who does that?  And they had great columnists too like the legendary LJK Setright and if you’re not familiar with him, you’re missing out.  And Jamie Kitman wrote a column in Car for a while so I was thrilled to have 2 of his columns per month to read.

Motortrend Classic

What a great shame it is that Motor Trend Classic is no longer published.  This was an exceptionally good magazine – the layout, the photography and the articles were top notch.  Probably the best US car magazine ever, in my personal opinion.  Every issue had a great variety of classics from  50s classics and muscle cars to modern classics from Europe and Japan.  No matter what kind of car enthusiast you were, there was something for you in each issue and you were drawn into the other articles so you’d wind up learning about interesting cars that you may not otherwise have read about.  I miss this magazine terribly.

Octane

And lastly, Octane.  This is another magazine I’ve been buying since issue #1.  While I still subscribe to Automobile, Car and Driver and Road & Track, so many of their road tests are about cars I’ve already read about online before the latest issue arrives.  And to be honest, I’m really sick and tired of reading about the latest McLaren model as they seem to release one about every 2 weeks.  And I certainly do not need to read yet another road test of the Ford F-150 Raptor.  Octane, like Motor Trend Classic, has a good variety of articles and cars each month, though with a predominantly European focus.

I know the days of print magazines are numbered and I for one will certainly miss them when they’re gone.  I just hope that good writing and quality work continues to be part of automotive journalism.  There are a lot of online automotive websites that are very popular these days and while they produce interesting work, many of these sites would benefit greatly from professional and experienced editors.  I for one get tired of reading articles full of spelling mistakes and research that seems to be drawn solely from Wikipedia.  The digital medium is great but the quality needs to be there in order take automotive journalism into the future.

 

 

How it all began.

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 Me in my Dad’s 1957 Oldsmobile 98 circa 1984.

My father’s influence is the reason I’m passionate about cars.  He passed along his automotive passion to me from about the time I was 10 and that continues to this day.  I’m now 45 and every conversation I have with my Dad, who turns 75 this month, involves cars in some way.  He’ll call to invite my family for dinner and that will generally turn into a 20 minute update on the latest automotive news.  In fact that’s exactly what happened not 30 minutes ago.  I have friends who don’t have great relationships their fathers so I think I’m lucky that we’ve had this common interest that’s been such an important bond.

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I started to get interested in cars back in 1981 when, seemingly out of the blue, my Father decided that buying a 1955 Packard Caribbean convertible would be a really great project.  A most ambitious project considering he had few automotive repair skills and had become a father for the 4th time.  And let’s not forget what wonderful shape the economy was in back in 1980.  So suddenly an old, non-running car was taking up most of our 2-car garage in suburban Toronto.  It was a complete car though with no major rust issues, despite residing in Canada all its life, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever.  I didn’t even know what a Packard was at the time.  I just knew that it was an awesome car and I couldn’t wait for the project to get started.  In fact I was so eager that one day after school I grabbed a wrench and removed a few parts from the engine bay and set them aside.  I don’t know what parts they were, only that they were rusty and therefore I should remove them.  When my father got home from work and saw what I did, he sure was mad and I got chewed out.  I don’t even know why he was mad, perhaps because he worried he didn’t know how those parts went back in the car.  And he wasn’t even impressed that I was eager to get started working on this great project.  That was the last time I ever worked on that car.  And for the next 2 years, my father didn’t do a whole lot to the car, discovering that restoring a car from a defunct automaker meant parts were hard to find and expensive.  Luckily he realized he’d bitten off more than he could chew before he got in too deep and puled the ripcord.  And thus, the Packard was unceremoniously removed from our garage and onto a trailer on its way to a new owner.

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 My father clearly didn’t mind my sister working on the car

A great thing happened though during our ‘Packard Years’.  My father was well and truly bitten by the classic car bug and started going to every classic car show in Southern Ontario he could find, and I always went with him.  I have 3 younger sisters and they were all into horseback riding while my father and I are allergic to pretty much everything you’d find in a stable.  hence why we spent our time at car shows while my Mom and sisters went to horse shows.  And everyone was happy.  Neither hobby is cheap and I think it created a sort of détente between my parents when it came to spending money on either hobby.  I’m sad to report, however, that my family has owned more horses over the years than classic cars.  A great injustice in my opinion.

So I spent a lot of time a local car shows with my Dad and that’s where my automotive education began.  My father’s knowledge of cars from the ’20’s to the ’60s is encyclopedic and so I learned a lot from him.  He’d take the time to explain different cars to me, what made them special or rare and the memories he had of them growing up.  And I soon discovered that I absorbed this information like a sponge and committed it to memory instantly.  Why the heck was I not able to do that in school??!!  I loved going to those car shows so much and I have such clear memories of them and we’d soon be taking our own classic car to those car shows.

At some point in 1982 with the Packard sold, my Dad was again scanning the pages of Hemmings for his next classic car.  This time, however, it would be a running example that needed work but was complete and drivable.  After giving it much thought and a lot of searching, he had settled on buying an Oldsmobile.  His father was a Buick man and my mother’s dad was an Oldsmobile man and my father set his sights on a 1956 Oldsmobile as my mother’s dad had a ’56 98 sedan when she was growing up.  I think that was his way of enticing my Mother to go for the idea, not that it was a big deal to her.  Her father had always got a new Oldsmobile as a company car every 2 years and she had no recollection him having a ’56.  And in the long run it didn’t matter anyways as finding a ’56 Olds convertible in decent shape that fit my father’s budget proved impossible.  And so he expanded his search and started searching for a ’55 or ’57.  After corresponding with sellers via mail, a running, rust-free 98 convertible that needed cosmetic work was located in Dayton, Ohio and suddenly we were making a family trip to Dayton in March 1983.  I loved the car as soon as I saw it and quickly calculated how long it was to my 16th birthday because I wanted to cruise around in it with the top down.  The car was in pretty good shape, though a little rough-looking, and my father’s intention was to drive it all the back to Toronto.  The car would certainly need some work in the coming years of course.  The interior was complete but the front seats were badly cracked from sun exposure and the chrome bumpers and trim had definitely seen better days.  but the car was well optioned with the J-3 triple 2-barrel carbs option, power seat, power antenna, Wonder Bar radio and power windows.  And remarkably, it made the entire 8 hour journey back to Toronto under its own power, though it was seriously burning oil by the time we got there.  But that was soon sorted out by rebuilding the engine and overhauling the mechanicals so that it was drivable and the cosmetic stuff got sorted out over the years that followed.  From then on, it was the car we took to car shows in Ontario and the U.S. and we won a few trophies with it too boot.

I’m going to leave it off here for now.  I have to save stuff for future posts you know.  I’ll be back regularly with more ramblings about me and cars and I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far.  Thanks for dropping by.