I am often not home for my Anniversary. Comes with the territory, I'm afraid.
I was also not here for the 25th Anniversary of Wheels earlier this week. Hey - somebody had to fly to Croatia to drive the new Bentley Continental GTC Convertible, and then to Maranello for the Ferrari 458 Spider, and I drew the short straw.
I hope you did catch our special section celebrating that milestone.
For various reasons of space, etc., a piece I had done as an overview of the changes in the motoring world over that time frame did not make it into that section.
So at the risk of violating the blog rule of being short and concise, here it is:
A lot has changed in the car business over the 25 years of Wheels.
Companies have been born, others have died.
Some have married, some have divorced, and in some cases re-married again.
Two of the domestic Big Three - General Motors and Chrysler - had to file for bankruptcy and succumb to government support to get out from under the so-called ‘legacy’ costs, largely due to the failure of the US government to adequately protect the health and retirement prospects of its own citizens.
A long story which I have told in these ‘pages’ (dead-tree and electronic versions) before, but don’t have room to go into again.
The other domestic - Ford - managed to dodge bankruptcy, but only by putting a 15 percent mortgage on every paper clip in Dearborn.
All three have recovered nicely, however, and have brought out excellent new models to counter the inroads the Japanese industry has made in the interim.
Only to find that another Oriental power, Korea, in the form of the Hyundai / Kia conglomerate, is poised to eat everybody’s lunch.
Already, Hyundai is the Number One seller of cars in Canada; lucky for the domestics that no Oriental company has yet been able to figure out how to build a competitive full-size pick-up truck.
But: Competition improves the breed, so let the best car company win.
Aren’t we lucky to live in interesting times?
Without doubt, cars are better than they have ever been. They don’t build them like they used to? Give thanks to your SuperPower of Choce for that.
I’d give credit to the Japanese manufacturers and to the market research firm J. D. Power for much of this improvement; the former for building better cars, the latter for quantifying just how much better, and for pointing out - to the manufacturers and to the customers - who was doing better, and who was slacking off.
The difference between the best and the worst is now orders of magnitude smaller than it was.
Thanks to emissions regulations and American Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirements, engine technology has undergone a geometric increase in complexity - as futurist Amory Lovins put it, we’ve gone from driving cars with computers in them to driving computers with wheels on them.
The most remarkable aspect of all this is that engineers are not merely nibbling at the margins of efficiency of internal combustion technology; given that smart people have been beating on this technology for roughly a century and a half, it’s nothing short of amazing that they’re still finding double-digit improvements, in power, economy and emissions - all simultaneously.
We’re still only using about 30 to 35 percent of the latent energy in a fossil fuel, so presumably there’s lots to be gained yet.
Has all this technology necessarily been the best way to achieve these goals? For sure it has made cars much more expensive to buy, and to maintain.
But this is the road we’ve come down, and it is a one-way street. We aren’t going back to points and condenser.
Everyone seems to think that electrification will continue to grow. But continue to grow from what?
Toyota especially has been beating the gasoline-electric hybrid drum for ten years now, and while there have been successes in some world markets, hybrid share in North America hovers around three percent.
If the Grey Cup game is 97 to three at half-time, is anyone watching the second half?
They sell more Diesel vehicles in the United States than they do hybrids, and ‘everyone knows’ Americans won’t buy Diesels…
Pure electric cars have made a few tentative baby steps into the market over the years - I drove an electric Skoda in Toronto, must have been 20 years ago, give or take.
Everybody is jumping on that battery-powered bandwagon now, ignoring the basic science that says it will never work, at least not to a meaningful level.
In contrast to the on-going improvements we’re seeing in gasoline and Diesel engines, electric cars still can’t travel much further on a single charge than the Baker Electric did in 1913.
As US energy journalist Robert Bryce puts it, “Electric cars are the next big thing - and they always will be.”
It’s the height of irony that the only electric car that actually has a chance to be practical for the vast majority of North American consumers is the Chevy Volt - and it has a gasoline engine to re-charge its batteries.
Yet, it costs almost twice as much as a conventional car of similar size, and only has a look-in to the market by virtue of government subsidies to the tune of about a third of its cost, as do other electric vehicles.
One of the most positive stories of the past two and a half decades is that despite more people driving more cars greater distances than ever before, we’re killing fewer and fewer people.
It’s still way too many - it’s about the equivalent of a 9/11 disaster every year in Canada; more like a 9/11 disaster every month in the United States.
But it is progress in the right direction.
By far the greatest contributor to this improved result is seat belts. Ontario made usage of them mandatory in 1976, the first province to do so.
And our traffic deaths plummeted.
The US was far behind us, and some states still do not have what is called a ‘primary’ belt usage law - the cops can only ticket you for not wearing a belt if they’ve stopped you for something else.
This is particularly bone-headed, because apart from impaired driving, nothing else really matters in automotive safety as much as wearing a belt.
As a result, the US traffic death rate is far worse than it should be.
We kill about 2,700 people on our roads annually. In the US it’s not the 27,000 which the ten-to-one population ratio of our two countries would lead you to expect; it’s closer to 40,000
Canada has a national belt-wearing rate somewhere in the mid-90 percent range; it’s still mid-70s in the US.
Virtually all of that death toll differential can be attributed to the difference in belt wearing rates.
It’s a proper scandal down there which no-one seems to give a damn about.
The easiest crash to survive of course is the one that never happens. This would appear to be obvious to everyone except those who actually write the regulations: we’ve had mandatory belts in cars since the late-1960s, and mandatory air bags since, oh, must be mid-1980s.
But Electronic Stability Control (ESC) systems, proven to prevent as many as 35 percent of all crashes?
They just became mandatory this very month.
What is wrong with the people making these regulations?
Traffic safety has always been a three-legged stool - the car, the road, the driver.
We’ve made the greatest strides in the car. Not just better belts and air bags all over the place, but stronger bodies, designed to crumple in a controlled way to absorb the crash energy before it is transmitted to the occupants.
You can walk away from some crashes today that would surely have killed you 25 years ago.
In addition to ESC, we now have ABS brakes standard on just about everything, better tires, better brakes, smarter control systems, all designed to prevent that crash from ever happening.
The main progress we’ve made in road design is that increasingly, we drive on divided highways.
It is one of the more interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive facts that our fastest roads - freeways - are statistically our safest roads. This because the hardest crash to survive is a head-on, and that’s pretty rare on a controlled-access freeway.
The second-hardest crash to survive is the Tee-bone. You’d think this basic fact would spur the introduction of more roundabouts to our urban driving landscape - it’s pretty hard to Tee-bone someone at a roundabout.
Sideswipes and some rear-enders yes, but they’re far less dangerous.
Ontario has a few roundabouts now, with more being built all the time.
But you still see way too many ‘conventional’ intersections being built, and as far as I’m concerned, ONE conventional intersection is ‘way too many’.
I also wish our urban planners would look into other possibilities in other jurisdictions. OK, maybe they do look, but they don’t seem to learn.
We never see anything like the ‘flyovers’ they have in Munich, where through traffic goes up-and-over the intersection; only right- or left-turning vehicles have to interact at ground level.
Very nearly the ‘separation’ of a full cloverleaf at a fraction of the cost.
If they aren’t going to turn Eglinton and Don Mills - historically, one of the most dangerous intersections in the country - into a proper roundabout, a ‘flyover’ system would seem like an ideal if partial solution to the problem.
Many European cities - even Montreal - use short tunnels in particularly congested spots to accomplish the same thing. There has been talk of burying the Gardiner Expressway which would be a great idea, if terribly expensive.
Boston just went through a tremendous upheaval burying their main urban freeway, so maybe it isn’t the answer.
Still, we’ve got lots to do.
What have we done to improve that third leg - the driver?
Apart from the introduction of graduated licencing in a few jurisdictions - the statistics make this an absolute slam-dunk; what’s keeping everybody else? - there have been no initiatives to improve driver education, or make driver's licences harder to get.
All we do is punish certain driving behaviours, and make no effort whatsoever to improve those behaviours.
By ‘certain behaviours’, of course I mean speed limit violations.
Has there ever been a more spectacularly unsuccessful ‘vehicle’ (you should pardon the expression…) for behaviour change than this?
We’ve been issuing tickets for speeding to the near-exclusion of every other traffic violation for approximately ever.
And what percentage of cars on the road still exceed the speed limit?
All that enforcement hasn’t effected the smallest change in our behaviour.
We put enforcement policies in place to stop bank robberies, and they work pretty well - not many people rob a bank.
Speed limit enforcement? It’s utterly pointless, other than the points which accrue against your driving record.
You might think that the factors which cause crashes would be enforced proportional to their frequency in the crash statistics.
But last time I looked, the percentage of tickets issued for speeding was vastly higher than the incidence of ‘speed too fast for conditions’, the only speed-related factor available to police officers on their crash reports.
Shouldn’t they be ticketing the behaviours that DO cause crashes?
Maybe I thinking too much like an engineer here...
Again, this is a broken record (parents over 40: you may have to explain that one to your kids…) to regular readers, but I’ve seen no progress in 25 years towards getting Canadian drivers to grasp the simple concept of Drive Right, Pass Left.
It’s 'right' there (hohoho...) in the Highway Traffic Acts of most jurisdictions; all we need to do is get our cops to start charging drivers for doing this, the Justices of the Peace to convict, and the Ministry of Transportation to stop designing highways where the driving lane keeps disappearing, which actively encourages this improper, dangerous and illegal driving behaviour.
It would also increase the throughput of our highways at zero additional cost, because we’d start utilizing all the lanes we’ve already paid to have built.
Right now, the only person in the right lane is usually me…
Again, what’s wrong with the people who design, maintain and police our highways?
There is an election coming up; I only wish some of these issues would be being discussed during the campaign.
I haven’t heard a word…
The next 25 years?
I have no crystal ball.
But we will have even more technology in our cars.
Theoretically at least, with GPS we almost have the ability now to know within a few metres where every other car is on the road, and to have our car steer clear of it.
Ford has shown some interesting warning systems that could be implemented fairly inexpensively; it would be more expensive but still technically possible to go from warning the driver to intervening on his/her behalf, as Volvo already does to a small degree with its ‘City Safe’ system.
There have been a couple of experiments - by Google among others - using radar- or sonar-based drive systems which eliminate the human factor entirely.
Not sure I’ll live long enough to see that, nor am I sure I want to live in that world.
As long as I can get into my Miata and steer it down a twisty country road, I’ll be a happy camper.
I happened to be at the corner of Islington and Rutherford Road the other day, scouting a location for the photo shoot for the cover of the 2012 Kenzie Car Calendar in support of Smartrisk.
It was about 3:30 in the afternoon, and rush hour ("hour"-singular, hahahahaha...) had already started.
So I figured heading south to the 401 then going west to get to Halton Hills would be pointless.
Instead, I’d just skip across Rutherford, which becomes Bovaird, which becomes “old” Highway 7, which becomes regular Highway 7, into Norval, Georgetown and home.
Maybe pick up some ‘peaches and cream’ at Allison’s, God’s Own Corn Patch, on the way.
A nice little drive in the country at the end of the day.
Where the heck did everybody come from?
And where the heck were they all going?
Rutherford is three lanes in each direction between - oh, maybe Martin Grove and Hurontario (old Highway 10 - why do they keep changing the darned road names?...).
And they were all jammed, bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go.
There must have been a crash or something. Surely, this wasn't normal.
A woman in the car in the adjacent lane had her passenger-side window down.
“Is it always like this?” I asked her.
“Every day!” she replied.
It continued like this until well past Hurontario.
Yes, there was some construction at this intersection - seemingly, only on the right-turn lane heading north (idiotically, they were not converting it into a roundabout - what is WRONG with these people??...)
So that shouldn't have been an issue.
Is the GTA just growing that fast?
I guess so...
In case you are among the three or four people in the world who have not seen the video of the Ferrari Enzo going for a swim in Marystown Newfoundland last week, here ya go.
Among the many amazing things about this incident is the incredible calmness of driver/owner Zahir Rana after the fact. He had just very possibly toasted his million-plus-dollar car (subsequent investigation suggests that fixing the damage to the car - salt-water and electronics really do not play nice together - will run into six figures, none of them to the right of the decimal point...) yet all he can talk about is how it's just a car, no-one was hurt, how wonderful the entire event was, and how much he's looking forward to coming back next year.
Prior to the start of Targa, Zahir told me that the FIA-approved roll cage he had custom-built in Germany for his Lamborghini Gallardo arrived the day before the transport truck which was to bring his cars from Calgary to Newfoundland was leaving, and he didn't have time to install it in the Lambo.
Even then, let alone in retrospect, he agreed that this was probably a Good Thing, that getting a feel for the rally before committing to doing it for real was the right way to do it.
Although this was Zahir's first rally, his little swim showed that he has learned the first rule of rallying - although the car did go off on the left side of the road, he did get it rotated 180 degrees so the co-driver's side actually hit the water first.
Which is perhaps the most amazing aspect of that little video - the enthusiasm of co-driver Roland Linder. He can't wait to come back too.
As I've been telling you for ten years, until you experience Targa for yourself, you just can't fully understand it.
Start planning your budget for next year...
On a press preview for a Mitsubishi something-or-other a few years ago, a representative from the Rockford-Fosgate audio company was describing the wonders of the sound system in this particular vehicle.
It generated some unconscious number of watts of power. If you cranked the volume up to 11, the car would probably go 50 km/h without the engine even running.
It made me think of the very clever feature in Ford’s high-end stereo systems which automatically switches the volume setting to the middle of its range every time the ignition is switched off and back on again, so Mom and Dad won’t be blasted into the back seat when they fire the car up after Junior has last driven it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I own a tee shirt which reads “If it’s too loud, you’re too old.”
My rock ‘n’ roll band (“The Compleat Works on their Mid-Life Crisis Tour”, free plug, and yes, we are available…) has been known to crank it up.
But I suggested to Mr. Rockford-Fosgate that any car equipped with a sound system this powerful should have an interlock that prevents the volume from being turned up more than half-way unless all the windows are rolled up.
How many times have you sat at a traffic light beside some slammed Honda Civic, the kid driving it is sitting on the floor, with some misogynist gansta rap bellowing out, the bass causing your eyeballs and ears to start bleeding - because the kid has the damned windows open?
OK, I understand he has already lost his hearing (seriously; this IS becoming a genuine problem amongst our young people.)
But does he need to inflict that crap on the rest of us?
I’d make up a big sign reading “Thank you for sharing!”, but I doubt he’d get the sarcasm.
It’s not just that what he’s listening to happens to BE crap. If I’ve got Bob Seger or The Eagles turned up to at 11, I try to remember to roll my windows up because maybe there are musical cretins out there who don’t appreciate true artistry. It’s not my job to educate them.
I confess; most of the passengers on the Boston - Toronto flight the other day were getting pretty cranky about me drumming along on the tray table to Clapton’s Greatest Hits. But as soon as it was pointed out to me, I stopped.
What’s it going to take to get the backward-baseball-cap crowd to do the same?
I'm not sure where the expression '- 30 -' comes from, but it's the traditional newspaper way of saying 'this story is over.'
And when it comes to Targa Newfoundland 2011, our story is over.
Despite heroic efforts on the part of our crew, we just couldn't solve the electronic gremlins that afflicted our little car.
Fellow competitor Andrew Comrie-Picard commented that this was the first time our team had ever had a 'mechanical' at Targa.
He's right - in nine events, with three different MINIs, they've always been as reliable as a brick through a plate glass window.
Sure, we had a couple of flat tires in Year Two (2003), and I threw the car into the woods at 160 km/h in Year Seven (2008). But neither of them was the car's fault.
The worst issue we ever had was one year - maybe Year Three, 2004? - when our tire pressure warning system was giving us 'false negatives' - saying we had low tire pressure when in fact we didn't.
The Check Engine Light and intermittent non-starting issues this year presumably were symptoms of a deeper problem. And when the electronics decided we were 'tampering' with the system, it turned on the security lock-out function, and we couldn't even do any further diagnostics on it.
We had access to another John Cooper Works Edition Cooper S for parts, but the security module from that car did not fit our car. The MINI Challenge car is a very special unit...
At least, that's the best explanation for which I have the technical competence to deliver.
I'm sure when the car returns home and a full examination is done we'll discover the problem. But in a parking lot in Gander Newfoundland in the rain at 3 a..m. - well, there's only so much you can do.
We're off now to watch the Gander town stage which is always a hoot - to drive anyway.
It'll be bittersweet to watch others do it.
I'll be flying home tomorrow, so this will be my last on-site blog posting, although I will be returning Saturday for the Gala Awards Banquet.
Won't be taking any hardware home from this one, so I'll show you again what we reaped last year...
It was an eventful day to start the Tenth Anniversary Targa Newfoundland.
Several serious "offs"; I'll direct you to the Targa Newfoundland web site for more details on those.
Our electrical gremlins returned with a vengeance. The car started fine this morning, and ran to and through the first stage without problems.
OK, other than the slow driver...
But in the second stage, the dreaded Check Engine light reappeared, and we lost what felt like about half of our power.
The light went out again, the power returned, and it was OK the rest of the morning.
OK, other than that slow driver...
The car started fine again after lunch, but following a 40 km transit stage, the car would NOT start. We bump-started it, but began getting various other warning lights. We tried jamming the battery from the big X5 Diesel tow car into the MINI - again it started, but only ran briefly.
So we missed the last two stages of the day.
Crew members from Bob Pacione's team and the Soldier On team jumped in to help. On one side of modern technology, these gallant warriors were downloading wiring diagrams via satellite phones, accessing diagnostic web sites through computers plugged into portable battery packs - all pretty amazing.
Then again, if the car had a points-and-condenser ignition, we probably would have got going again!
As it turned out, the last stage of the day was washed out due to some of those 'offs', so we're 'only' one stage behind. We won last year's Open Division missing two stages.
But the competition is much tougher this year!
Still, it's a long week, and it's way too early to give up.
As I type, crew chief Alain Lauziere is heading to St. John's on a parts chase. We'll let you know tomorrow how successful he was.
I have updated yesterday's blog with the link to the web site where you can learn more about Darryl Deagle, a Targa Newfoundland veteran who died this year in a tragic parachute jumping crash, and about the Registered Education Savings Plan that has been set up for his 10-month old daughter Sophia. That link is here.
I mentioned earlier that Targa generates loads of tourism dollars for the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
It also generates loads of money for various charities.
For the last two years, the official charity of Targa has been The Autism Society of this province.
But many cars run to support their own charities, most of them involving children.
There’s a special fund-raiser going on this year, to build a Registered Education Savings Plan for 10-month old Sophia Deagle.
He father Darryl was a high-spirited, push-the-boundaries type of man, who initially came to Targa as crew chief for an MG-B which crashed heavily in a Prologue practice run.
But the Halifax native/Moncton resident was intrigued by the entire event, and for the next four years, he was co-driver for Jim Turner of Newburgh New York, most recently in Turner’s 1990 Mustang GT.
In addition to Sophia, his wife Crystal, and automotive speed, Deagle’s other love was parachute jumping.
Not the normal jump-out-of-a-plane-and-pop-your-chute stuff, but a relatively recent wrinkle called the ‘wingsuit’.
In these suits, you become as close to a bird as I guess it’s possible to become. You jump out of the airplane, spread your ‘wings’, and fly.
Deagle was an expert at this, having completed over 80 jumps. He was also an instructor, sharing his love of the sport and his knowledge of its techniques with others.
This past August 13, on a ‘normal’ flight, he found himself blown off-course. As he approached a landing, he saw that he might come in contact with a fence. He tried to bank into a turn, but lost the ‘current’, and crashed to the ground.
Turner says that Deagle was about 200 feet up, apparently not high enough to deploy the auxiliary emergency chute. He died instantly.
Rick MacLeod of Sault Sainte Marie, a long-time Targa campaigner, has known his share of adversity - he contracted Multiple Sclerosis several years ago, but continues to compete in Targa, raising funds for the MS Society.
He is also the father of three young children, and realized that little Sophia was going to need a lot of the help that Daddy was not going to be able to provide.
Hence, the Sophia Deagle RESP drive.
To learn more about Deagle and to contribute to Sophia's RESP, visit Darryl Deagle's web site here.
Today was ‘Prologue’ day, three short practice runs to get the cobwebs out (of car, driver and co-driver). They don’t count in the results, but the speeds the cars attain in these runs help the organizers determine the starting order for tomorrow’s first day of competition.
Just about every year, somebody Blows Up Real Good or crashes Big Time in Prologue, being caught out by Newfoundland’s tricky roads, an overflow of adrenaline, or a bloated ego.
They ignore the warnings given to them by the organizers, by fellow veteran competitors, by their spouses - by just about everybody.
I initially didn’t think anybody had gone off in anger this year, but at dinner, I heard that someone did come to grief at the end of the first Prologue stage. Don’t know how serious the damage was.
There were a few ‘mechanicals’, but little major carnage that I could see.
Problem - in the first Prologue run, I could feel our MINI Challenge car running just a bit flat, not giving me the power it usually does.
During the transit stage after the hot run, I noticed a ‘check engine’ light on the dash. It probably came on during the stage, but you're a bit too busy at that time to notice much of anything but the road ahead.
A few km down the road, I could feel the power come back in, and the light went out.
Obviously, some sort of transient condition.
We didn’t have time to do much diagnosis out on the course, so we ran the other two practice stages as is.
As soon as I launched for Stage Two, the light came back on and the power dropped off, and things didn't right themselves until we were done Stage Three, and the car was running cool again.
We took the car to Frank Howard’s sparkling-brand-new MINI dealership in St. John’s, and dragged tech Justin Crank away from his own car - he is also competing in Targa - to see if he could figure it out.
As I type, he and our own techie Kevin Abe are investigating. It may be a duff spark plug, maybe just a bit of bad gasoline.
Even if we’re down a little on power, we’ll be there tomorrow.
But as I said, for now, I gotta get some sleep!
When Belleville-based public relations consultant Doug Mepham and myself completed the five-day Targa Tasmania car rally back in the spring of 2001, we mused on the impossibility of doing anything like that in North America.
Have the police close down public roads and tell you to drive faster?
But Doug dropped a bug (actually, my Wheels story on Targa Tasmania) in the metaphorical ear of St. John's Newfoundland motorsport enthusiast Bob Giannou, he took the idea to the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, and eighteen months and a huge pile of work later, we had our first Targa Newfoundland.
Next week, we'll be running our tenth.
Targa Newfoundland is, among other things, the most fun you can have in a car with your clothes on.
On top of the thrill of driving performance cars 'the way they were meant to be driven' to use one of the event's mottoes, you see some of Canada's most spectacular scenery (although often at a pace which prevents you from enjoying it much) and meet without doubt Canada's most colourful and friendly citizens.
Many of your fellow competitors - from Newfoundland, from RoC (Rest of Canada), from the US, from Europe, from the Turks and Caicos Islands, from Australia, from darn-near everywhere - become life-long friends too.
We even had one wedding at Targa.
Not to mention (although I will) that Targa brings some six to ten millions of tourism dollars to the province, at a time when most everyone else has gone home - the timing of Targa coincides with the year's last ferry back from Argentia near St. John's to Nova Scotia.
For the ninth year in a row, I'll be competing in a MINI (Mepham and I did Year One in his 1971 Volvo 123 GT, the same car we ran Tasmania).
For the seventh year in a row, my navigator will be Brian Bourbonniere from Lawrencetown Nova Scotia, without doubt (in my mind anyway) the best co-driver in the event.
The guy reads my mood through my breathing in the headsets in our helmets, fer cryin' out loud.
We'll be in the same MINI Challenge race car which took us to victory in the Open Division last year (our third such victory in six years). Crew Chief Alain Lauziere has fixed the transmission mount which allowed our driveshaft to part company with the hub on the second-last stage of last year's event, so when we win again this year (ahem...) it won't be by me carrying the steering wheel across the finish line.
If for no other reason than due to our less-than-conventional finish last year, you now must actually DRIVE across the line to qualify for a placing.
Hey - we don't make the rules; we just bend them.
And then they change them.
If you are a motorsport participant at any level, Targa Newfoundland must BECOME your Bucket List for next year.
Yes, it is that cool.
But compared to a season of racing just about anything else, in just about any other series, it's cheap at twice the price.
If you can't get down this year to see the event for yourself, you can follow our team's progress on this blog. I'll be posting as often as the somewhat dodgy Internet access in the hinterlands of The Rock and my sleep schedule allow.
To follow us and everybody else, check out Targa's own website.
We'll also let you know when the TV Special will be airing - probably some time in January 2012.