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My Other Wife is a Car
Confessions of a Car Tragic
By John M. Wright
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2009 John M. Wright
All rights reserved.
Resting in the garage now, my turbocharged all-wheel drive Subaru WRX still crackles from a fast drive home but will be entirely silent in minutes, how could anyone prove she isn't animate?
For car tragics, the word 'driven' holds a treasure chest of meaning. The world is full of driven people but most car tragics are happier behind the wheel than squirming in the passenger seat. For many, indeed, their passion is the art-cum-sport of driving. I have heard of one man who raced at Le Mans in the 1970s and still goes to enormous lengths to avoid being driven by anyone else, trusting only himself, conscious no doubt of every apex, every swing of the tachometer needle.
Others, however, are happier in overalls than oversteer, dreaming Concours d'Elegance rather than Targa Tasmania. They may sneak down to the shed after dinner to finish polishing the underside of an early model Volkswagen Beetle. They care more for ignition timing than lap times.
But while some car tragics prefer restoration to driving, many others relate more closely to the racing driver standing helmet in hand while someone else does the dirty work. Think Steve McQueen in Le Mans and the unforgettable lines 'Racing ... it's life. Anything that happens before or after, it's just waiting.' Those few words conveyed the meaning of the movie (and, I suspect, much of McQueen's own life). I was about 37 and had just begun circuit racing when I first understood exactly how that idea worked. My little racer was a thirteen-year-old Alfetta complete with rust and torn upholstery but in a reasonable state of tune. The lap times I had managed were quite good. I invited a fellow driver, who had never been behind the wheel of an Alfa but was a specialist in Mazda rotaries, to try my car. After just three laps he was within a tenth of a second of my time. Although he never went quicker, he proved to me that it is about the driving, and nothing to do with 'knowing' your own vehicle. No matter how bonded I may have felt with the Alfetta, I enjoyed no privilege of ownership. My embarrassment in recounting this story now is that it had taken me so long to learn that the art of driving exists independently of brands and favourites. It also explains the adage of the famous racing driver arriving at a circuit for the first time with only two questions: what's the lap record and which is the direction of travel?
For many, the obsession attaches to a particular marque of car or even one particular model — a Ford Falcon GTHO Phase III perhaps, or an Armstrong Siddeley Star Sapphire. As I write, I imagine a doctor of about my own age in some leafy Melbourne suburb picking up a fountain pen to begin a letter to the Jaguar club magazine. 'I'm so sick of all this tosh about BMWs,' he writes. 'Why can't those ill-informed motoring journalists understand that our cars are the finest in the world?' My dear doctor, I reply in my imagination, if you owned a Rover or an Aston Martin or even a Humber you would feel exactly the same way. (And by the way, will you be free for lunch next Wednesday at the Naval and Military Club?)
Despite belonging to too many car clubs and for all different reasons, I have no patience with one-marque fanaticism, which might explain why I generally own up to ten cars at any one time and rarely double up on brands. One friend likes to apply to me Clive James's description of himself as a 'group of people'. I just feel like someone different when I'm driving my beautiful red Jaguar XJ Series III Sovereign from the person I am when the tachometer needle of my Brock Commodore touches 6800 in fifth down the straight at Phillip Island. Or when I throw my backpack into the blue Rangey and head for the Victorian high country.
How does a lifelong love affair with cars start? How young can you be? Could it be at age nine months when you instinctively grasp that the car in which you are being driven is uncool? I was born in Launceston's Queen Victoria Hospital in March 1950 and was driven home in the back seat of my parents' black 1948 Chevy. Apparently it had a green headlining. My mother thought this was a significant factor in determining my favourite colour. 'You were always happy in the back seat of the Chev,' she would say through my childhood, 'but when your father bought this car, you cried every time you travelled in it.' Mum believed it was the cream headlining that explained this emotional response. But I reckon I must have already sensed my Dad was driving into old age in a black Armstrong Siddeley Whitley.
* * *
I have never rebuilt an engine nor have I raced at Le Mans, but as my darling wife Jennie likes to tell me, life often seems to be all about cars. Consider my silver Subaru. She still sits outside the garage after a recent 4500-kilometre return trip from Queensland (where we have lived permanently since August 2006) to Melbourne. A 'short' engine occupies some of the boot (try this trick with a Commodore V8!), but at least I've taken my racing bicycle off the roof. What would my WRX say if she could find human speech? 'Fair go' might be a start.
When I bought this MY00 (model year 2000) Subaru Impreza WRX three years ago, the odometer showed 152,203 kilometres. I have added more than 57,000 to that and almost every single one has entailed some pleasure, even if just a semi-conscious awareness of that pulsing exhaust note, like a rhythm in the blood. My WRX is well familiar with the main thoroughfares between south-east Queensland and Victoria's Mornington Peninsula. She has made nine return trips, a recent one to be fitted with a more powerful engine and turbocharger.
WRoXanne. Yes, I know it's a silly name. Wrexes are meant to be WR (World Rally) Blue. Absurdly, an old song line — misremembered (it should be 'Roxanne, you don't have to put on the red light') — came into my head: 'Roxanne, you don't have to put on the red dress.' Wear the silver instead.
This is not the first time I have owned an MY00 Wrex, but this time it's for keeps. The previous time, I had bought a nicely run-in one, Mica Red in colour, but it never left suburbia. You cannot truly appreciate the merits of a hot Scooby without going beyond the subdivisions. From the beginning, WRoXanne was accumulating the kays. When I took delivery of her, we lived in a townhouse where you could walk into the house from the garage. The car was parked, put to bed, game over. But it was crackling in the garage only metres away from us.
I believe that my obsession with the Impreza WRX dates back to one particular drive. The occasion was testing for MOTOR magazine's 1998 Performance Car of the Year (PCOTY), an award won by the Porsche 911 in its then new water-cooled 996 guise. Common practice in such multiple car evaluations is for the judges to spend maybe an hour or two at a time in each contender. I was lucky that day because I scored the WRX in Omeo for the twisty drive to Dinner Plain. The magnificently serpentine road was slicked with rain.
I had never had a driving experience like it at the time; how I could move that car around on the road, while rapidly making ground on two-wheel drive vehicles, including the 911. The Falcon XR8 was nowhere in this hunt. Eight years later, when I watched our poodle-shitzu cross Mr Bo Jangles lose traction on the polished floorboards and go into initial understeer before recovering into a perfect four-wheel drift, how could I help but remember the road to Dinner Plain?
It might seem strange that I waited until 2000 before I bought my Mica Red car and then until January 2006 before parting with $19,700 (drive away, no more to pay) for the Wrex I would quickly come to know as WRoXanne. The truth is I started out with mixed feelings about the WRX. My first drive was back in 1994 after I'd spent a fortune fettling my old Alfa (105 GTV 2000) for Targa Tasmania. Collecting my Italian thoroughbred from the mechanic at last, I was eager to test its expensively new-found performance. A friend was to follow me in the Wrex because I had to get it home, too. A privilege of the motoring journalist's life is access to a steady stream of brand new cars to drive for a week. I had just collected the Subaru and noticed only that it was (a) ugly and (b) seemed to accelerate quite hard in the lower gears.
At the wheel of the Alfa I was ready with full throttle through first and second gears at every opportunity. Behind me the white Subaru with its gawky grille and oversized fog lights never shrank in the mirror; it was the faster car and effortlessly so. But no Subaru was beautiful, was it? The Impreza WRX had no pedigree. It had a cost-cut feel. (Some years later I read that power windows were fitted only because they saved weight, the WRX's mission in life being to win the World Rally Championship.) The seats were trimmed in the same sort of material that haunts army disposals stores. Largely ignorant of Subaru's changing brand values, I was ill-disposed towards the marque. Why, I wondered, should I take this WRX seriously?
The first Subaru I ever drove was a truly nasty dark-brown two-door 1974 model — ugly, claustrophobic, noisy, slow and bearing no kind of comparison with anything made in Europe at the time except perhaps the lamentable Fiat 132. (Don't write an angry letter. This is only a book.) Subaru was branded in my head as inferior, a kind of pretend car.
Conventional automotive wisdom used to be that the Japanese industry never invented anything, but copied very well. The Subaru imitated nothing but should have, except that Europe had never combined all these ingredients for anyone else to copy. By 1975 you could get a horizontally opposed engine with four-wheel drive and a wagon body. The turbocharger came later. The WRX wrapped technological uniqueness — brilliance — into a disarmingly plain shape. Oh yes, you could also get it as an even more repellent looking little wagon.
Somehow I held onto that negative feeling for four years, that fast though the Wrex palpably was, it was vaguely nasty. Then I became one of the judges in MOTOR magazine's Bang for your Bucks competition. By that stage I was over my Alfa Romeo obsession. I was, as it were, between lovers. Can I admit now that I was quite proud of my significantly modified 1996 Ford Falcon XR8 in that lovely Navy Blue? Rear-wheel drive was one of its advantages, but I was finding new appeal in the idea of an all-wheel drive, turbocharged four-cylinder sedan.
The horizontally opposed or 'flat' four-cylinder Subaru WRX engine may owe its inspiration to Volkswagen and Porsche, but the application is arguably more logical. It is difficult to grasp how compact and light this 2.0-litre engine is, until you pick up a short motor and load it into your boot. Then try picking up the engine from any other modern car! Both its light weight and compact size work in Subaru's favour. Whatever weight there is stays low in the front of the car with a horizontal bias, significantly reducing the centre of gravity. Subaru uses a north–south layout, so that the driveshaft extends in a straight line from the front of the engine through to the rear wheels. Horizontal opposition of the cylinders has led to the term 'boxer', because this is precisely what the pistons do; punch out from the centre of a block that is immensely strong and rigid. The engine takes up so much less space than a conventional in-line four that it does not overhang the front wheels, which makes for more balanced handling with less inclination to understeer. And the short, forged crankshaft does not require huge balancing webs. So it is not only remarkably rigid but spins much more freely. There is no denying that this is a more expensive style of engineering, but it is now an inherent part of the Subaru brand, as is all-wheel drive. (And should you upgrade the engine to a later model STi unit, you can transport the old block home in the boot.)
And so I approached the 1997 WRX with more respect. There was a chance, I thought at the time, just a chance, that I might change my mind on acquaintance with this latest model.
Inside, first impressions were of the white instrument faces, the gorgeous Nardi steering wheel (a driver's airbag not yet included), the grip of a rally bucket seat, the heart attack-red bonnet scoop. Then the invitation of steely bitumen on the way to some love shack.
Was I in love yet? (No, just getting undressed.) Nail the throttle and listen to the guttural flat four spool into tune, then almost at the speed of thought you're through first into second, the rate of acceleration slowing only slightly as you clasp third. Can the price of such knowledge really be just $39,990? With almost the urge of a house-priced Porsche 911? And a shorter stopping distance from 100 km/h? How long has this been going on? I had spent so many thousands making my XR8 go faster and handle better but I felt sure that this diminutive Japanese tin box would leave it behind on both counts, on any road, wet or dry, but especially wet. Thus you begin to reconsider the essence of automotive design.
I remembered the '94 model. Army disposal trim, little wheels, no lowdown torque, plain steering wheel and Nardi a mere name in your dreams. Charisma lay only in the go not the show, which was not enough for me with my fussiness. I was deep in my Alfa phase.
Why had no-one except insurance companies made a law against the WRX? Who could need more? Why would you want to 'chip' one or get an exhaust or do anything to it? (Then again, why wouldn't you, speed being an endlessly intoxicating drug?)
They say if you lay all the world's economists end to end they will never reach a conclusion. It's sometimes the same with motoring writers. But that year saw unanimity. All four judges rated the 1997 Subaru Impreza WRX not simply the best in its class (the cheapest class) but the best Bang for your Bucks car across the whole field.
But how did we arrive at our findings? Where did we drive the cars? I won't disclose the location of our road loop because I still remember the people coming out of their houses with angry looks on their faces, but we did use an almost traffic-free public road replete with sensational corners. And then we used the Phillip Island racetrack. Only the BMW M3 lapped more quickly than the Wrex. And it cost almost three times as much.
After the competition I placed an order for a Subaru Impreza WRX only to cancel it just weeks later. I was reflecting on the kind of use to which the car would be put — suburban commuting with maybe 20 kilometres of 100 km/h driving in a straight line at either end. The seats would be good for a rally but not for the daily grind. The ride would be hard. I would never be able to exploit the car's performance. Space would always be at a premium.
Then came PCOTY and the drive from Omeo to Dinner Plain. I was back on the phone to long-suffering Nick Senior, then PR manager now general manager of Subaru Australia, and former motoring journalist. (On the light plane to the Hunter Valley in 1990 for the Lexus launch, he calculated the fortune I had lost on cars. Hell, that was in 1990, when I hadn't even bought the Rolls-Royce!) I ordered the Mica Red car, although I shouldn't have wavered from my original impulse to choose World Rally Blue. And, would you believe, when I got it, all those original misgivings returned. It was a long way to Omeo. The best corners I encountered were roundabouts, tackled enthusiastically when there was no other traffic nearby. But I didn't know then that the time would soon come when I would be driving 50,000 kilometres per year.
My Subaru Impreza WRX is an invitation to the Mount Panorama of the mind. But, brilliant as it is, it is not and never would be the only car to call my own. You see, for the true tragic, one car is never enough.CHAPTER 2
Flash Harry: chasing Jaguar tales
night would fall about the time we joined the road out of town driving home from grandparents in Launceston to Exeter, at seventy miles per hour in our English saloon
'seventy', said my mother 'is how fast an African cheetah can run flat out, when it's hunting (or being hunted) like lions and tigers' four years old, I had yet to hear of Tasmania's luckless 'tiger'CHAPTER 3
You still wore your red dress from church – we drove right through our first sunday afternoon
arrived home late for tea and your father didn't take to me; but, when the youth group met in the lounge room
and I sat with my hand in your hair I could have talked about God or anythingCHAPTER 4
headlights redefine Australia and I am remembering beginnings (Tasmania parents up front in our 1950 English car
me behind, craned forward into the perfumed aura of my mother, at home she played the piano – oh, her quick hand – but both parents played the car
To say that the Elephant Grey Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire 236 provokes strong memories is an understatement. The way I feel when I slip into its green driver's seat, look at the beautiful wooden dashboard, slide the choke control across to full, turn the key, push the starter and then hear that smooth old straight six start up — oh so smoothly! — is beyond a simple adjective. Memories of my parents come back to me as I recall an era when the country was closer to the city, roads were quieter, there were mile posts, and the Armstrong Siddeley was one of the finest and most exclusive cars money could buy. (We used to call it 'the Armstrong', never 'the Siddeley'. But aficionados only ever abbreviate the double-barrelled name to 'Siddeley'.)
On 31 July 2008 Jennie and I embarked on the Armstrong Siddeley Outback Tour in Athol Bo Diddley, our rare 'Baby Sapphire'. It would prove to be the case that my experience would be more enjoyable than hers. On more than one occasion Jen asked various other participants what exactly was the appeal of driving huge distances in an uncomfortable old car. She obviously had a point. But to have taken our BMW X5 would hardly have been in the spirit of what was only really an adventure because it was undertaken in vehicles in which such a journey might have been demanding even when they were new.
Excerpted from My Other Wife is a Car by John M. Wright. Copyright © 2009 John M. Wright. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
2 Flash Harry: chasing Jaguar tales,
3 Teenage crime,
4 Gentlemen's carriages,
5 Stars in my eyes,
6 In search of the best affordable BMW,
7 Candy apple,
8 Fiat fantasia,
9 A personal Alfa-bet,
10 Driving to Bathurst,
11 The Shire of Monaro,
12 On not owning Falcon GTs,
13 Other favourites — not by marque,
14 Luxury export to the US,
15 Visions of Rianna,
16 A Chiko Roll in the Kimberley,
17 Seamless seems less,
18 Confessions of a used car salesman,
19 Dear Edith,
Afterword: Insider trading,