By Norris McDonald
This story originally appeared in the Toronto Star on April 15, 2016, when McDonald was editor of the paper’s Wheels section.
When people ask me what kind of car I drive, I say any one I want.
A perquisite of being editor of Toronto Star Wheels is being able to borrow cars from manufacturers and take them out for test drives. I don’t do it very often — I leave the reviewing to the experts like Kenzie, Richardson and Deputy Wheels Editor Maurice Cacho — but I feel that as editor of the section, I should know what’s out there and available.
And it’s neat to be able to show off in your own neighbourhood. It’s fun to watch eyes light up when people see what’s in the driveway.
Last year, I took out five vehicles and I loved them all but I loved one more than the others. I liked it so much that I bought one.
I’ll tell you about that later. Meantime, let me describe what it was like to drive three of them.
Several weeks before the 2015 Indianapolis 500, in late May, I telephoned Richard Pickering, whose BHG Media Fleet manages the checking out/checking in of vehicles for Ford, General Motors, Infiniti and Land Rover, among others.
Asked what might be available for the run to Indy and back, as well as the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal several weeks after that, Richard didn’t hesitate: “I have a Range Rover Evoque Autobiography that’ll be a nice ride to Indianapolis for you. And would a Jaguar XJ-L V6 AWD suit you for the GP?
“Hell, yes,” I said.
Hoping to impress, I told my wife about getting a luxurious Jaguar to drive to Montreal. “Now you won’t be able to stay anywhere cheap,” she said.
I didn’t mention Indianapolis, as she’s not so fussy about the place.
But I am, having gone there just about every year since 1967. So on the Thursday before the Sunday 500-mile race, I left Toronto and headed west toward Windsor on the 401. I was wearing an old leather jacket. Remember that.
The “fully loaded” Evoque Autography I was driving was a light lime green in colour and looked every bit its price tag of $72,070, all-in. I crossed the border at the Ambassador Bridge.
So the guy at American Customs is asking me the usual questions and I’m giving him the usual answers. I think we’re finished and I’m about to pull away when he suddenly says to me: “Who owns the car?”
I have crossed the Canada-U.S. border dozens and dozens of times. I have been asked every conceivable question. Once, many years ago, the officer looked at me and said: “Got your gun?”
“I beg your pardon?” I replied.
“Got your gun?” she repeated.
“I don’t own a gun,” I said. “I’m a Canadian.”
“I just wanted to know if you had one because you have to sign it in if you do.”
Okay, but I was never, ever, asked about ownership of the vehicle I was driving — until this time.
“Land Rover owns the car,” I said.
“Can you prove it?” he said. I handed over the permission letter from Barbara Barrett, who’s National Communications & Public Affairs Director for Jaguar Land Rover Canada.
That was fine with him and we talked about the car for a few minutes but after he told me I could go I just had to find out: “Why did you ask me about the car?” I said. “Do I not look like a guy who would have the means to drive around in a car like this?”
He looked at me and at my jacket — a jacket that looks kind of “old chic,” a jacket that’s so old it looks trendy.
“That jacket doesn’t look right in that expensive car,” he said.
So now I know that the next time I cross the border in an expensive car that I should wear a tuxedo, or something. Anything but that leather jacket.
To repeat: I’m not a reviewer but I have to say a few things about the car. First, the ride was gorgeous. It was like being on a magic carpet. Second, it attracted attention. (I went into Toledo, Ohio, for gas and two guys pulled up beside me at a red light and one motioned for me to roll down the window. “Nice car!” he yelled over. “I wish I owned it!” I replied. Third is my one and only nit-pick — and it’s one that’s not necessarily restricted to this particular car: there’s just too much stuff on the steering wheel.
I’m driving west in Ohio on I-70, heading for Indiana, and it’s a nice day — not particularly hot but pleasant — and I notice that the steering wheel is getting warm. “What the . . . ,” I think to myself. It actually got really warm before cooling off.
It happened again in Indy. I was actually concerned that the car was catching fire. Jeff Pappone, then of the Globe and Mail, was hitching a ride. “Your little finger must have touched the steering-wheel-warmer switch,” he said, and he was correct. On the wheel’s lower left, under one or two levels of switches, was the wheel warmer’s on-off. “I’ll remember that,” I said to myself.
Not for long, as it turned out. I was up around Kingston a week or so later, en route to the 2015 Grand Prix of Canada, driving the absolutely snazzy, head-turning, Jaguar XJ-L V6 along the 401 and it’s June now and here we go again: my hands are getting warm on that steering wheel.
“At least I now know how to turn it off,” I thought, as I went searching for the wheel-warmer switch.
Now, you can really feel like a somebody when you pull off the highway and onto Blvd. Rene Levesque in downtown Montreal. You notice that more than a few people are taking a second look at the gorgeous black Jag you’re driving. Of course, your mind can play tricks on you, particularly when you realize that many of the approving glances are coming from young women. You then have to snap yourself back to reality by remembering that you’re a grandfather.
One negative to staying downtown during the Grand Prix is that it doesn’t really pay to drive anywhere. All of the action is within walking distance of the major hotels and, being one of the working press, I was shuttled to and from Le Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve the whole weekend. So when I pulled into Le Centre Sheraton Montreal Hotel and tossed my keys to a valet, that was the last time I saw the Jag until I left that wonderful city on the Sunday night, after the race.
So I only drove the car back and forth from Toronto to Montreal. Like the Range Rover, its ride is so smooth and graceful that you feel like you could get in, turn it on, and drive away forever. My only complaint is so minor that it’s hardly worth mentioning but the headrests are three-sided — presumably to protect your head and neck in the event of a sideways collision — and my peripheral vision would sometimes pick up a side, giving me a start because it registered in my brain as an unfamiliar object. I learned to live with it, though, which I’m sure would be the case with any proud owner of this otherwise magnificent car.
As the summer rolled along — and, by the way, you can only borrow these vehicles for a week at a time — I got itchy to try something different. I had edited stories, and heard great things, about the new-for-2015 Ford F-150 pickup truck that was significantly lighter — because of its aluminum body — and allegedly easier on gasoline than other, similar, pickups. So I called Richard Pickering and asked if he could get me one and a week or so later there was one in my driveway.
Now, my absolute, favourite, all-time vehicle among the many I’ve owned in my life was a 1982 Chevrolet Beauville Van.
This was back in the days when vans were vans. You felt like a bus driver. You sat up nice and high and could see over top of all the other vehicles on the road or in parking lots. It had bench seats and when they were all installed you had seatbelt seating for 11 people. (I once picked up my oldest son and 10 of his public school friends at a bus stop and drove them all home; that’s the sort of thing you could do with that van. I pulled my racing car and trailer around Ontario and some of the northern states with it. There was the time I took an entire team of reporters and editors from the Kingston Whig-Standard to Toronto to cover the provincial Conservative leadership convention.)
If you wanted to take out all the benches, it could go from a passenger van to a cargo van in mere minutes. (Once, I took out the third bench to make room for a 467 c.i. big block Chevrolet racing engine. That van could do anything.)
It had a V-8 engine that inhaled gasoline but it went like a rocket. I always said that when I win the lottery (not, if, when) I will call up General Motors and tell them to build me one, price being no object. I do not mean I want one restored; I mean I would want them to build me one, brand new, from scratch.
I drove around in the Ford F-150 for an afternoon and I promptly cancelled my imaginary order. That ’82 Chevy van had met its match. I was in love with the 2015 Ford truck.
As in most families, vehicle purchases, like house purchases, are joint decisions. My wife was not impressed when I told her I wanted to ditch our current car (a GM product that I quite liked — until I drove that truck). So I had to do a sales job.
One day, we were on Mavis Rd. in Mississauga. Press fleet vehicles are, by definition, meant to impress and the Ford F-150 I had been driving had every bell and whistle imaginable and was worth — ballpark figure — $77,000. Sometimes when you’re in a mall, you’ll see chairs in the middle of the aisle that will give you a back-and-bum massage when you sit in them. Believe it or not, the Ford truck had that feature as an option so I turned on my wife’s seat.
“Oh-h-h-h,” she said. “That certainly feels nice!”
I told her that it was standard on every Ford F-150.
“Well, if you really want to buy a truck like this,” she said, “then it’s okay with me.”
Which I did, just before Christmas, from Whiteoak Ford in Mississauga, which is near where we live. A 2016 Supercab 4X4 model, ruby red, about the size of an aircraft carrier. And it’s fully loaded. But not quite.
It doesn’t have the massage option on it. We’ve had it for a couple of months now and she hasn’t said anything.
Do you think she knows?