Saturday, June 30, 2012


I've added something new to my stack of reading material:

It's the official Ontario government Driver's Handbook, the text I'll be studying in preparation for the written test to get my G1 learner's permit.The plan is to take the written sometime this summer and take driving lessons this fall and winter to prepare for my driving test in the spring. The timeline is actually pretty loose, and may stretch out till next summer. I am, to be frank, more nervous about this than almost anything I've ever done in life, including marriage and fatherhood.

Friday, June 29, 2012


OK, so the connection here is pretty tangential but here goes anyway: Adam Carolla is a car guy, he has "car" in his name, and here he is, ranting about identity politics, which is probably the single most catastrophic thing tearing otherwise prosperous and enlightened societies apart today:

So what's this got to do with me, cars, learning to drive, whatever you've got? Let me rant for a minute or two.

I live in the biggest city in Canada, and since I was in college I've lived in or near its core, which means that car ownership is nowhere near as crucial as it would be if I was in the suburbs, exurbs or bedroom communities, or in the sprawling apron of small towns and struggling farms currently gestating our future subdivisions beneath their overvalued and half-fallow fields. Which means that I've lived with a lot of people who've mistaken not driving or owning a car with civic virtue, in that curious way where not doing something - like eating meat or owning a pedigreed dog or planting a lawn - is the equivalent of actually doing some concrete, measurable action that actually helps other human beings.

I don't drive for a whole bunch or reasons, beginning with the lack of a car in our garage when I was a teenager and my teen priorities favouring buying punk rock records to scraping up the money to get my hands on a cheap junker. Then there's the whole thing with the golf cart, but like I said, more about that later. Working in the media and living amidst the low-wage underbelly of Richard fucking Florida's "creative class" means that whenever I admitted to not having my license I was congratulated more often than not. As if taking public transit, cadging rides and enduring the olfactory crap shoot of a taxi ride enhanced my artistic credibility, or somehow put me on a purer moral level than people who weren't wasting uncountable hours of their lives merely trying to get somewhere.

Living through the auto design wasteland that was the '80s and '90s probably made it easier to endure carlessness, but it helped to live among all these enablers. Granted, these would be the same people who, once they scaled a few rungs up the creative class ladder and/or popped out a kid or two, expressed something like shock and horror when the wife and I would tell them that we were raising our kids without a car. Once the honest reaction ("But, how do you shop for food?" "What if you want to leave the city?") was out of the way and we'd tried to explain how such an apparently freakish decision was made, they'd catch themselves and go back to congratulating us for giving our kids a "real city childhood" or helping save the environment or something similarly fatuous. Then they'd drive off in their SUV or Volvo with the Greenpeace bumper sticker to their parents' cottage in the Muskokas.

For the longest time we all pretended that we were members of a group; people who cared, people who made moral choices without effort, people who identified ourselves not by what we did but what we didn't do - drive a car. Until that point when personal and economic circumstances made owning a car desirable, even if it was done with the usual packet of qualifiers. ("It's really just for the weekends." "My parents gave it to us." "It's not like I'm some kind of gearhead - I honestly wouldn't even know how to change the oil on the thing.") And once again, the illusion of a group dissolved in the reality of being just a gang of people who made decisions, for themselves, based on their own priorities and not those of the group that they never really belonged to in the first place.

The illusion of group membership - and it's almost always an illusion - can provide you with a lifetime's worth of rationalizations for why your own personal choice, or laziness, or unexamined prejudices, are a moral virtue and not just the way you fucking roll, at least for now. Until a better option comes along. So stop wasting your time, get off the bus, and don't assume you have anything in common with anyone else. Trust me - we'll all get along a whole lot better this way.

(HT: 5FoF)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Italian Job (1969)

Peter Collinson's film The Italian Job didn't do well in the United States upon its release in 1969, which is probably why the sequel that was so brazenly set up by its producers never got made. And so Michael Caine's Charlie Croker remains stranded on the floor of the bus, halfway between his terrified gang and the fortune in gold they've just stolen, as their Harrington Legionnaire creaks and teeters on the precipice of a cliff in the Italian Alps.

At the end of the film, I have to admit that I really didn't care. It's not that The Italian Job is a bad film; I wouldn't even call it mediocre - it has style and drive and makes you walk away with a half dozen indelible images in your head, and the ending is undeniably audacious. It may be one of the ten best car films ever made, but as a story about plausible, sympathetic people it's an utter failure. It's a good thing that pop culture doesn't really care about that sort of thing, which is why we're still talking about The Italian Job over forty years since it made us believe that a Mini loaded with over two thousand pounds of gold bullion can fly.

If you're a car guy, you know you're in for something special when the camera pans down to the beautiful, dangerous roads of the Italian Alps to focus on a Lamborghini Miura, the Bugatti Veyron of its day, its handsome driver working the gear shifts with the obvious effort it took to drive a car this powerful on roads this tricky. Even back in the late '60s, a car like the Miura was rare beyond imagining, and on streets that were still filled with either boxy little runabouts (Europe) or great long sleds of chrome trim and dun-coloured paint (Canada and the U.S.), it was an alien apparition. While Matt Monro croons "On Days Like These," the film's misleadingly wistful theme, you can't wait to see more of this amazing car, and the man driving it.

Tough luck. Before the first line of dialogue is spoken the Miura and its rakish occupant drive headlong into the bucket of a front-end loader waiting at the end of a tunnel. The smoking wreck is tipped over the road's edge and down into a raging mountain stream as a black-suited line of mafiosi give the driver a solemn send-off. In our current age of Wikipedia, Google search and audio commentaries, we now know that the Miura we saw driven was sold as new after the film finished shooting, while the wrecked Miura was a junked stand-in. It still smarts, though, but we've been given notice: Don't get attached to anyone or anything you're about to see, especially if it has four wheels.

The scene cuts from sunny Italy to the slate gray skies of England, as Caine's Charlie Croker is being let out of prison, where he finds his American girlfriend Lorna (a woefully stilted performance by Maggie Blye) waiting for him in a Daimler Majestic Major stolen from the Pakistani Ambassador. She takes him to his tailor and shirtmaker, neither of whom can be bothered putting much effort into pretending that he's anything else but an ex-con, and finally the manager of his garage, who dusts off the Aston Martin DB4 he's had in storage.

The dialogue between the two men was apparently improvised, the two of them doing a piss-take on public school toffs from what we presume to be less elevated origins. It's as close as we get to a hint of character development in the film, and unlike most of the comic relief in Collinson's film, it survived editing that ended up favouring caper over japes.

The next half hour of so sets up the heist - a master plan put together by the man in the Miura, delivered to Croker by his widow, and funded by Noel Coward's Bridger, the gangland boss running his syndicate from the prison Charlie just left. Charlie intends to steal four million dollars being invested by the Chinese in a Fiat-built auto plant by hijacking the convoy transporting the gold in a traffic jam, to be caused by infecting the computer controlling Turin's traffic control system. Bridger initially turns him down, but changes his mind when his patriotism is pricked when news of a trade imbalance, caused by Chinese money, hits the front page of his paper.

There's a running joke - the film's only overreaching metaphor, really - that there's no difference between the interests of legitimate government and organized crime, underlined by Bridger's suborning of the criminal justice system to his own whims, and the Italian mafia's violent insistence that money intended for the Italian economy will not leave the country. In the "making of" documentary included on the Paramount DVD, one of the men behind the film jokes that it's the first "euroskeptic film." That's probably why it's hard not to laugh when you glimpse the name on the ferry that transports Charlie's team and their vehicles from England to the continent:

Back in the Italian Alps, Charlie splits up his team and heads off with the three "fast cars" meant to act as backup getaway vehicles along the beautiful switchback roads where the Miura met its end. It's a trio of British sports car excellence featuring Charlie's DB4, and two Jaguar XKEs - a coupe and a convertible in blue and red. They meet the same mafiosi and their Caterpillar front-end loader, who proceed to make their economically protectionist point by crushing the XKE coupe...

...then the convertible...

...before taking care of Charlie's Aston.

By this point most grown men will be weeping as hard as kids learning how Sounder or Old Yeller died, but once again Google offers relief - the DB4 that gets tossed over the cliff was a mock-up built around a Lancia Appia, and the XKEs were later restored. Since Collinson's film takes a rather cavalier approach to plot, it's only upon further reflection that it becomes apparent that Charlie, warned of the mafia's opposition to his plan by Bridger, decided to sacrifice the trio of British sports cars as a decoy. As the scene unfolds, however, all the car destruction feels decidedly gratuitous.

As the heist begins, we finally get a full-on view of the sleek but sinister black car that the mafiosi are driving. It's a Fiat Dino, a Bertone-designed coupe, and it's a beauty, with the same beautiful lines that are echoed in the Datsun 240Z or the Porsche 944. While the Jags and the Aston are classic car porn, and the Minis are the film's iconic motors, I think the Dino is the prettiest car in the film, and Peter Collinson obviously agreed - he bought the mafiosi Dino when the film was over, but it later rusted away, leaving nothing behind but the doors. It's an anecdote that probably sums up Italian cars in the '60s and '70s for most of their owners.

The gang's sabotage of Turin's traffic control system begins right on cue, and the resulting footage of the snarled streets is a fantastic document of the time - streets full of Alfa Romeos and Fiats: Giulias and 124s, 1100s and 1500s, 2600s and 500s and the odd VW Bug. To a North American, they're all such little cars, and Collinson has a lot of fun with a sequence showing their occupants blithely accepting yet another stifling afternoon of gridlocked traffic, as they eat, read, gamble and flirt in their tiny autos, a bustling society on the movie, but only just.

In typical British fashion, Italian technology and law enforcement gets set up for a few gags, the highlight being the havoc when the carabinieri decide to use a Fiat car transporter to batter down the door of the building where the gang has retreated to load their gold into the Minis. Unsecured autos on the top level of the transporter come loose and land on a police Super Giulia, prompting a broad comic reaction from the strutting officer in charge:

The final third of the movie really stars the trio of Minis Charlie's gang use to make their getaway, ostensibly piloted by three poshly-accented rally racers but really led by stunt driver Remy Julienne and his team, who give the red, white and blue Minis with their rally stripes and headlights more actual personality than most of the actors in the film.

A production backstory revealed later is how Fiat had offered massive support to the film, both in money and cars, if the producers would replace the Minis with super-charged Fiats. British Motor Corporation, makers of the Mini, were as stingy with cars as Bridger was in the story; accepting the Fiat offer would have saved the filmmakers a lot of money and headaches, but it would have sabotaged the "Limeys Vs. Wops" theme behind the plot, and they wisely turned Fiat down.

The car chase itself is a marvellous but wholly improbable thing. It begins on the grand staircase of some Piranesian palazzo and heads out onto the covered shopping arcades of the Via Roma before going down into what looks like a subway entrance. The Minis resurface on the stairs in front of the Gran Madre di Dio church, making their way to the roof of the breathtakingly modernist Palazzo a Vela sports arena and the steeply banked turns of the rooftop race track of Fiat's Lingotto factory.

They drive along the banks and through the Po River, and finally evade the police after escaping into the sewer tunnels. The DVD comes with a deleted scene where they pirouette through and around a trio of olive drab police Giulias in Pier Luigi Nervi's Exhibition Hall, home of the Turin auto show, while an orchestra plays the Blue Danube Waltz. It has to be understood that none of these locations make sense as a plausible escape route, but they're giddy fun to watch, and comprise most of the lingering images viewers take away from the film.

Equally implausible is the jump the Minis take over a long gap between buildings at Fiat's factory, made up to look like a Turinese street. According to calculations based on the weight of gold and inflation, each Mini would have had to carry nearly twice their weight in gold bars, so nearly everything about the best part of The Italian Job is magnificent, boldface and - literally - gilded bullshit. Not that there's anything wrong with that, cinematically speaking.

After watching the Minis race, drift, glide, dance and swim, we see them splash in a stream and run off through a forest glade when they make their final escape from the police. The only feat left is their high speed scramble up the improvised ramp dragging behind the six-wheeled Legionnaire bus the gang uses for their final escape. Once aboard, the gold is unloaded and the the gang makes their final run back through the Italian alps to Geneva.

Unfortunately, this is where the Minis endure the final indignity that seems inevitable for any car with an ounce of heroism in The Italian Job. As the bus swings through turns in the switchback road, Charlie and his gang shove the Minis out the back door of the bus and over the side of the sheer cliffs, first the blue Mini, then the white, and finally the red one, the de facto "leader" of the trio, which explodes into flame as it exits the bus and careens down the rocky slope.

While nowhere near as lovely to look at as the XKEs or the Dino, the Minis had ample charm and agility, and The Italian Job cemented the reputation they'd already been making on rally courses as a deft, fun little car that could hold its head up against more expensive makes and models. I'd go so far as to say that the film's enduring popularity as a Mojo magazine icon/Cool Britannia antecedent kept the Mini's reputation alive as fewer of them survived on the roads, and probably contributed to the marque's survival and BMW's decision to revive it in its slightly bigger, much heavier and far more luxurious form in 2001.

So as Charlie and his gang teeter on the precipice, I didn't find myself wishing that we came back to them in a sequel - The Brazilian Job or whatever it was supposed to be called. Frankly, if they were going to treat their steadfast, eager-to-please Minis in such a brute, cavalier fashion, fuck them. Let them hang over the edge of that cliff forever, waiting for Charlie to come up with his great idea.

Oh, they did a remake of this film a few years back, but I'm not going to bother writing about that. Fuck remakes.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


A little while back, Jalopnik's "Question of the Weekend" was "What is the Ultimate Island Car?" Being a smart-ass Canadian, I commented that, being from Toronto, I had never seen a dune buggy in real life. Since divine punishment obviously extends to snark, this showed up in the parking lot at the bottom of my street a few days later:

Kudos, by the way, to whoever bought/built/acquired this thing, which I assume is only nominally street legal here, and is probably loathed by at least half of their neighbours. As winter lasts five months, spring only long enough to double our wardrobe budget, and fall barely a fortnight, it's worth applauding anyone who is willing to celebrate summer with as much intensity and doomed panache as possible. A dune buggy is like a Muskoka cottage on wheels - imprudent, impractical, and a monument to human optimism and the pursuit of seasonal hedonism at all costs. Bravo to you, dune buggy owner, whoever you are. (golf claps)

Friday, June 15, 2012


Portugal beat Denmark in the Euro Cup the other day. I don't know about where you live, but my street went absolutely batshit, and if you went for a stroll here, you could see something like this:

Look, Toronto isn't Los Angeles, so lowriders with hydraulic suspension aren't exactly a common sight. Even more interesting is how something considered peculiar to Chicano culture has crossed over the Portuguese-Canadians who can only take these things out maybe five months of the year, tops.

Frankly, I love it. Ridiculous, imprudent, impractical - it's all of this, but besides, what the hell else are you going to do with some no-handling sledgelike '70s or '80s Detroit coupe? Drive the fucking thing? Hell, no. Parking as performance art - that's the way to go.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


Spotted in the parking lot of the Portuguese sports bar at the bottom of my street:

Yes, it's a Porsche 944. Because sooner or later Porsche had to make a car that looked half as nice as a Datsun 260Z.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


I was getting off the bus the other day (yes, my life is that lame) and I saw one of these parked in the forecourt of a service station literally right next to my old high school:

Yes, it's the latest - but probably not last - generation of the Ford Thunderbird, launched in 2002, a hardtop and finished in turquoise, or "Thunderbird Blue." I think it's a beautiful car, but I'm aware that not everyone agrees with me. The owner certainly loves it though - enough to get herself a set of vanity plates.

How do I know the owner is a woman? Well, no man would pay for those plates first of all, and the eleventh generation T-Bird is famously a "chick car," in no small part because of this:

When Suzanne Somers played the Woman in the White T-Bird in American Graffiti, the T-Bird was in its sixth generation for Ford, a truly awful iteration of the model that banished the fifth generation of the car, with its brutal, gaping front grille that was echoed in muscle cars like the Dodge Challenger. Somers, of course, cruised through the film in a first generation T-Bird, the one with the iconic porthole window that Ford brought back for its last redesign.

The '60s T-Birds were awesome-looking cars - as beautiful as the cars made from the '70s through the '90s were gruesome - but it was the Somers T-Bird that Ford were keen to evoke, in the recent heyday of the "retro" design craze that produced the PT Cruiser and the Plymouth Prowler. This brief trend in car design is looked back on with an embarrassed mumble these days, a failure of vision from an industry suffering through a crisis of both economics and confidence, and the eleventh-gen T-Bird left Ford's productions lines in a fog of particularly vicious scorn after a brief moment of launch year celebration.

Frankly I would have loved to have seen it play out for a few more years, or at least until car designers had exhausted the '40s/'50s' design vocabulary and begun to revisit some of the better moments of the '60s. We might have been spared the endless parade of fantastically dull sedans and coupes on the streets and in the showrooms today, for instance, if automakers were moved to take a few design cues from the early '60s Chrysler Imperial, for instance, or any of several model years of the Beatles-era Ford Falcon. Don't we all stop for a moment when we glimpse one of these cars in a parking lot or car show and wonder what it would be like if they had decent handling or safety features that amounted to a bit more than "roll into a ball and hope you don't get speared by a piece of javelin-like chrome trim"?

My affection for the recent revival of the T-Bird comes from one of several reasons why I want to learn to drive - one that resides firmly in the "fantasy" folder. Very simply, I long to be one of those jaunty old dudes chauffeuring my wife around in a stylish but largely unthreatening sports car, signalling their empty nest status by taking to the roads in a car that has effectively shed rear seats but still has enough trunk space for groceries.

It's not an overambitious dream - and certainly not an uncommon one, judging by the sales of BMW convertibles and the Audi TT - but it won't happen until I get off the fucking bus and into the driver's seat.


Spotted on the street near my house:

Just because you can put rims on anything, does that mean you should?