I’ve loved cars since I was a kid. I can still vaguely remember taking my classic red ‘Power Wheels’ Jeep apart with some stubby Robinson-head screwdrivers, pretending I was a mechanic fixing things that had gone wrong, or tuning it up to go faster.
The shelves and walls of my bedroom were filled with, predominantly, ‘50s American classics…’54, ’55, ’56, ’57 Chevrolets being the mainstay. A large cabinet in our foyer proudly displayed shelves of ‘50s Chevy models of all brands, models and size. I still have that cabinet, and all the models that filled it. It sits in a corner of our rec room...overfilled now, still with models from when I was a kid.
My love of cars has never changed, but my taste in cars has.
It all started in the basement of our first house. My brother and I had a massive dinky car city set up in an unfinished room, covering the bare concrete floor. Sadly, I have no pictures of that magical space, but I can still remember it vividly in my head. We would spend countless hours down there, the warmth of the wood stove in the room next door keeping the place cozy and comfortable, despite the cold cement. Hot Wheels, Matchbox, Majorette, Road Champs, Maisto…dinkies of all makes and models littered the room. Not in a haphazard way, but thoughtfully and carefully placed. That room was a city to us…literally AND figuratively. Building playsets scattered across the imaginary landscape. There were many garages and car dealerships, several Truck Stops, two airports, a Port, a race track, two military bases, police stations, a restaurant, construction sites…a Hospital…a Fire Department. A Police Impound yard sat prominently in the center of town…a tractor supply garage sat next to a farm on the outskirts, just across from the National Park/Camping area, which in-turn was a hop skip and a jump away from the new Housing Development going up near the mountains (i.e. the couch…)
I guess you could say we had some pretty creative imaginations…
Sure, there were race cars, supercars, concept cars and all sorts of high-powered performance machines spreading through the streets, but there were also a fair share of ‘normal everyday rides’ too. Ford Transit tow trucks plied the streets rescuing broken down Pontiac Firebirds. Citroen Xantias and Ford Sierras sat in dealer showrooms next to Mercury Sable station wagons and Pontiac Trans Sport ‘dustbuster’ vans. As a Canadian growing up in a vehicle market featuring predominantly American vehicles, these little plastic and metal models offered a window into another world…Buicks and Dodges shared the roads with odd newcomers to the car world in my head…the likes of Renault 12 Taxis, FIAT Coupes, Citroen , Scania…brands and models I’d never heard of as a young kid, making them all the more intriguing. As I grew out of that imaginary world on the rec room floor, I never lost the imprint these oddball wonders left on me in that basement city.
Those were the days in the late 90’s when the internet was starting to become a thing and I would spend what time I could find at my babysitter’s house on sweet sweet dial-up, and at school at recesses and lunches when I could. We had no internet at home, but computer games like Need for Speed SE, Test Drive Off-Road 2, Need for Speed 3: Hot Pursuit, Need for Speed 4: High Stakes and Screamer slowly replaced my time downstairs. Mod cars downloaded to floppy disks and safely carried home and self-tweaked config files for them let me personalize and add to my digital car collection in such games.
Books at the local library on foreign cars were few and far between in those days, so the internet opened up a way for me to learn about all these strange cars I’d never known as a child…their odd designs and the names stamped on the bottoms gained meaning and understanding!
The odd copper-gold Corgi dinky I usually parked near the Shell garage in the basement city? A Citroen Dyane! “WHAT? It only has TWO cylinders? How can it do anything?” And yet it was capable and it and it’s 2CV brethren sold well and were highly regarded by those that loved them. This seemed mind-blowing to little old me that grew up gorged on classic American Inline-6s, V6s and V8s…
That odd white hatchback race car with the massive clamshell REAR bonnet that sat proudly in the pits at the race track near the Port on the outskirts of town? Well…it shouldn’t have been there….as a Peugeot 205 T16, it should’ve been plying the gravel roads of the National Park with spectators lining the corners. How would I have known back then? Another moment of clarity gained!
As time ran on…passing through Jr. High, High School and into university, I was a changed petrolhead. I still have the classic Americans that birthed my love of autos. I respect them for their design and engineering. Gorgeous things in their own right…but they are not what tugs at my heartstrings the most these days. You could say I dove off the deep end completely when I first started watching Top Gear in my dorm room in university 2005. As examples: Jeremy’s review of the new FIAT 500 Abarth in 2007 hooked me on that brand and FIAT’s classic philosophy of wonderfully driving cars small cars with neat styling…even if they weren’t historically the most reliable or rustproof. Hammond’s plucky little Opel Kadett ‘Oliver’ surviving the punishment of Africa with almost no modifications grew my love of no-nonsense classics as well.
The latter nudged me on the course I now find myself. I still deeply respect performance and luxury machines for their engineering and capability…but they aren’t what excites me. Sure, they are EXCITING, but they are something of a pipe dream to most people. Amazing machines…but not for me. I came to realize I love the cars of the everyman, the underdogs - especially those that were forbidden fruit to us here in North America…my ties to foreigners from the city in the basement reaching back again. The cars that are simple, sturdy and, in some cases unloved; those are where I find my home. This applies to my daily driver philosophy as well. I ‘downgraded’ from a 2002 Subaru Impreza wagon to a 2009 base stripper-model Hyundai Accent and, as much as I loved that Subie, I think I love the plucky Accent more (as many of you likely already know, and undoubtedly question).
Nowadays my love lies in classic FIATs, Citroens, Peugeots and Japanese Kei cars. I find enjoyment in Eastern Bloc metal (and Duroplast) as well. Designing a 0-60-in-3-seconds supercar with a huge budget is all well and good, but developing something on a shoestring budget that is built to survive and last in the wilds of Siberia is a far more challenging task. I enjoy the creative engineering of those cars far more than the svelte carbon fiber of a Lamborghini...
FIAT’s weight and cost savings by producing almost every single classic FIAT 500 with a fabric soft-top (except for the two-year-only 1958-1960 Nuova 500 Sport and the Lombardi FIAT 500 My Car!). Not only was this a ‘sporty’ thing for buyers to enjoy on sunny days, but in post-war Italy were metal supply was short, this saved material but also made the cars lighter for the performance of their tiny twin-cylinder engines!
The Trabant’s now-legendary use of the first recycled material in cars…Duroplast…and their as-simple-as-bricks engineering. As Jason Torchinsky once said, “It’s going to start and run sorta-shittily every single time you twist that key…because fuck you. Trabi doesn’t quit.”
The way many Polish engineers adapted vehicles like the FSO Warszawa (a license-built GAZ Probeda) into so many different vehicles to meet the Communist nation’s needs in the dark post-war times…the ZSD Nysa and FSC Zuk vans, for example. The license-built FIAT 126p taking up the reins as that country’s ‘everything’ car. The FSO Syrena sticking around into the early ‘80s with its archaic pre-war-DKW-based 2-stroke engines because…well, that was all they had.
I’m glad fancy and performance cars exist. They fill a niche and offer a glimpse of what the automobile can do when pushed to its limits. They provide people with thrills and excitement, from ‘cheap’ muscle cars like the Mustang to bonkers hypercars like Koenigsegg. But, me? I’m more down to Earth. You’re more likely to find me daydreaming about the cheapest Wartburg 353 on OLX that I could import, or contacting the local Transportation Minister on adding a specific ‘Autocycle’ class to the upcoming Motor Vehicle Act re-write that would let me import and register a Piaggio Ape TM.
Slow, simple, crude and basic doesn’t mean they can’t be fun – I wouldn’t have it any other way.