Wednesday, November 21, 2012


They knocked down the Beach Motel the other day, and I had to be there. If you live in Toronto, you probably know that there is - or was - a strip of old motels occupying a stretch of Lake Shore Boulevard just west of the Humber River, and that they were once a good place to go if you were looking for trouble or trying to hide from the law.

Beach Motel, April 2011
Beach Motel, November 2012
They're gone now. It took a few years - thirty, to be precise - but they'll disappear beneath a curtain of condo towers, as part of a plan to redevelop what was considered a sleazy eyesore but was once a sign that Toronto, once regarded as a dull, joyless city you avoided if you could, was finally on the itinerary of places to see, connected by a lattice of freeways, highways and wide roads.

I wrote a feature about it for the city blog I work for, illustrated with photos I began shooting a year and a half ago for another (unpublished) feature I was writing for another (now defunct) city blog. The story talks about the last days of the strip, the long-delayed push to redevelop it, and the very optimistic plans the city and developers have for creating new urban density where there were once only crumbling, low-slung motels  catering to hookers, johns, and the sort of people who pay in cash and either leave early or stay on longer than they wanted.

What I didn't get to talk about was how the end of the Lakeshore motel strip marks a full stop of sorts to the first great period of the car, which began with cheap autos for the citizenry and well-paved, expansive roads built by the governments they elected. Motel, we all know, is a contraction of "motor hotel," and they were born in the 1920s, when time, money and inexpensive cars were suddenly available to people who, if they traveled at all, went by train and stayed at hotels clustered around railway stations.

The car let us explore and the motel gave us a place to stay that was (usually) cheap, clean and convenient. The Lakeshore motel strip was built just outside Toronto's city limits, on one of the main roads that led straight downtown, which made it a short drive to attractions like the Canadian National Exhibition. There remains another declining motel strip on the east side of the city that served the same purpose, and most cities developed these motel districts where the city met its rural fringe, where the land was cheap and an enterprising farmer with fields along the edge of the highway or main roads could set himself up with some extra income.

Motels became profitable and ubiquitous as they entered their postwar golden age, fed by the economic boom, hunger for vacations and leisure time, and families. Family-run motels had to either compete with or merge into chains and franchise operations like Quality Inn, Best Western, Ramada Inn, Howard Johnson's and Holiday Inn. The American Hotel Association changed its name to the American Hotel-Motel Association, and international hotel chains like Marriott got their start in the motel business.

This is the motel era that people over fifty remember fondly if perhaps sentimentally - the family sedan cruising slowly down a motel strip as the setting sun angles over the swaying faces of tired kids slumped across the bench seat in the back. Dad making his choice, pulling in and heading for the office, returning with the key and an ice bucket, driving the car around the motor court to a parking space in front of your room, where he rouses the kids out of the back seat still warm with an afternoon's sweat.

There's a tussle over places to sleep; a cot will be brought to the room if two double beds aren't enough. After trying out the Magic Fingers and cycling through whatever TV stations can be picked up, the family gets dinner at the nearest restaurant, likely one by the office, where the owner's wife runs the cash. Finally, as the headlights from late arrivals play across the curtains, the family nods off as the national anthem gives way to static.

Lake Shore Court, Miami FL, from Lileks' American Motels
"Nostalgia for old motels, like most forms of nostalgia, is selective and dishonest," writes James Lileks on the American Motels annex of his website:
"We like to imagine a pure world before the soulless hotel chains took over, a landscape of lovely neon, local charm, and individuality. No doubt this was the case, occasionally, in the 50s and early 60s, but it was only part of the story. Standardization has its benefits. Franchise outfits have their rules. Every Holiday Inn may feel the same, look the same, but you're reasonably sure there won’t be bugs in the mattress or Norman Bates peeping through a crack in the bathroom tiles."
The chains never came to the Lakeshore strip, and so when the corrosive winds of the '60s hit the place there was nothing to save them. Motels everywhere declined and closed and the American Hotel-Motel Association changed its name again, to the American Hotel and Lodging Association. The '60s didn't improve much besides car design and R&B music, so when that decade's long hangover began, the Lakeshore strip got to host it, and it became known as a place to get a hooker, or hide out from the law or your mom and dad.

When they knocked down the Beach, there weren't many people there to mourn it besides a handful of local historical preservation types taking a big, bitter gulp from the bottomless well of dismay that fuels and defeats them. In a strictly municipal sense, the death of the Lakeshore strip was inevitable, but what made me sad was the end of a kind of travel and all the local attractions - those hokey, cheesy, solemn or just plain weird places of interest - that benefited from a populace traveling at the speed limit, with bathroom stops and a guidebook and a week to kill before they were due at grandma's or Disneyland.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


By now every race geek has read about or seen the fight between Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon and their crews after Gordon crashed Bowyer and Joey Logano out of the running at the Advocare 500 in Phoenix. As NASCAR brawls go it was pretty epic, if only because of the number of bodies involved.

Judging by the online commenting, reactions are split pretty much 70/30 between folks who think this is NASCAR as usual, and those solemnly disappointed in Bowyer, Gordon and their crews for reminding us why Talladega Nights can be watched like a documentary. The only people we haven't heard from are NASCAR fans who thought the Bowyer/Gordon dust-up was the best goddamn thing about the whole race. That's probably because the keyboard on the computer they bought from their cousin Tyrell is in French or some other goddamn language - what in hell's a qwerty, anyway. Hey - I kid!

(But seriously - did Gordon's crew chief really say "If you're going to mess with the bull, you're going to get the horns"? Shake and bake!)

It might have been epic, but it wasn't anywhere near as important as the 1979 fight that saw two good ol' boys lunge and flail at each other on the infield at Daytona. I'm talking about the fisty contretemps between Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison that made front page news across America, mostly because it happened at the conclusion of a race that was the first 500-miler to be broadcast in full, to a largely captive audience in a third of the country thanks to a snowstorm.

The prelude wasn't terribly different from the wreck that took Bowyer and Gordon out of their race - Yarborough and Donnie Allison were fighting for position when Cale's car lost control and collided with Allison, taking them both out of the race. Donnie's brother stopped to offer him a ride back to the pits, but there was bad blood brewing between Cale and the Allisons and they decided to turn the vast bowl of Daytona's infield into the late night gravel parking lot outside a roadhouse. And America got to watch.

Hell, it was such a big deal that someone wrote a whole book about the era - Yarborough and the Allisons, Dale Earnhardt, Darrel Waltrip and Richard Petty, and how nobody knew it at the time, but this was the moment when NASCAR went mega, expanding outside of its southern fan base and making the France family even richer than they were. All thanks to Cale and Bobby having a messy little slap-up in the muddy grass at Daytona. (It's a pretty good book, too.)

If you were going to compare NASCAR with F1, you might want to contrast Bowyer and Gordon with the aftermath of the first turn crash at the Belgium Grand Prix this year, where Romain Grosjean took out two of the race leaders before they'd finished a single lap. Here's a picture of Lewis Hamilton having very strong words with Grosjean just afterward:

Note: At no point did anyone call anyone else an inbred peckerwood.
I believe this was preceded by Hamilton pointing at his head in the universal gesture for "Are you out of your fucking mind?" This was followed by a very tense minute as Hamilton and Grosjean walked silently back to their pits. Silently. I can only imagine that Fernando Alonso might have been even more miffed, especially as Grosjean very nearly took off his head. Which he needs.

The first U.S. Grand Prix is running this weekend in Austin, and everybody is acting like there's never been a grand prix race in the United States before. (Like at Sebring or Riverside or Watkins Glen or Long Beach or Detroit or Dallas or Indianapolis, say.) Jalopnik in particular is making a big deal out of educating Stateside race fans with a primer informing them that while the rules might be a bit complex and the cars aren't supposed to make contact, you can still enjoy it anyway if you edumacate yourself a little bit and accompany it with a healthy snack.

Which is all a bit of an exercise in snobbery until you realize that, yes, NASCAR fans do tend to get a bit rowdy, drink perhaps a little too much beer, and relish crashes a bit more than is probably wholesome. But you can't blame them when you're faced with at least a couple of hours of "accelerate - shift - accelerate - shift - turn left - turn left - turn left" for the vast majority of the season. If drivers and crew monkeys want to liven that up a bit by making things physical, then at least you might have one of life's great questions answered: Can 5-Hour Energy Drink beat DuPont in a fight?

Buy on amazon
Buy on amazon

Friday, November 9, 2012


Saw this the other day, idling at the kerb a block or so from my kids' school. Yes, it's the mid-90s Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, and even if this wasn't a kinda sketchy neighbourhood undergoing a long, slow gentrification, it would stand out.

First of all, they don't make them like this anymore. Like the Crown Vic LTD I shot the other day (in the same neighbourhood,) it's a land yacht (225" in length) that looks like a vast shiny barge in an era when the Chrysler 300 (198.6") is pretty much the biggest sedan you can buy. It's a car made for a man who doesn't mind if he takes up a bit of space - especially when he's parking. (Very poorly, in this case.)

You can't help but imagine the sort of person who drives this car, especially when they leave it running a couple of feet from the kerb. I imagine a man with an impressive paunch contained in an expensive shearling coat, sharp crease in the slacks, Florsheims. A guy with a big place in Aurora who follows the landscape gardeners around when he's home, bugging them about the Japanese maple they damaged five years ago.

Imagine my surprise when a scruffy dude in jeans and dirty trainers came out of the store opposite the car while I was on the other side of the street angling to get another picture with my cell phone. He looked like the sort of guy who should have been in a rusty Ford Ranger with bits of lawn mowers in waterlogged cardboard boxes in the back. All I could think was that the mob isn't all that picky about their bag men these days.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


On Thursday it had gone to join Stutz, Oldsmobile, Packard and Morris in the graveyard of dead marques, but by Friday it had risen, Lazarus-like. Lancia, which once produced some of the most interesting cars in Europe, was apparently a victim of Sergio Marchionne's re-organization of Fiat-Chrysler, killed in the interest of making the 500 the new Mini and Alfa-Romeo the new Aston-Martin. But then someone from Chrysler said that Marchionne was misunderstood, and that the good news was that Lancia would live on.

The bad news was that they'd all be Chryslers.

The other day I was begging Marchionne to make good on his promise to bring Alfas over here, and maybe a few Lancias while he was at it. I linked to Lancia's website, but only later nosed around and realized that they looked like perhaps the most boring cars in all of Europe. Probably because they're all Chryslers, without a single broad-shouldered 300 among them.

There was a lot of wailing and groaning on the car blogs, but mostly because of a lingering fondness for cars like the Integrale and the Stratos, which is a bit funny because very few people can own one of the former, and almost nobody will ever even see the latter. And to be honest, most of us here in North America only know about Lancias because of Top Gear:

They were, even among Italian cars, uniquely trying to own. But Clarkson and Hammond are right - even broken, they're better cars than almost anything you can drive today.

Friday, November 2, 2012