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Jacques and the Blue Oval

I attended the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal last weekend. Although it’s understandable why some people dismiss Formula 1 as a boring spectacle created to keep wealthy people busy, it’s still incredible to see Formula 1 cars rip away from the starting line (with the exception of David Coulthard’s Red Bull car which started, stopped and started again) and to see them scream down the main straightaway. They can be vicious, angry machines.
Hometown favourite Jacques Villeneuve disappointed fans, his team and himself, I expect, by crashing after heading into the marbles with 11 laps to go. He had been driving like the 1997 world champ that he is until that point.

Honesty (I hope) meets marketing in a new campaign from Ford. Check out fordboldmoves.com for an interesting, apparently inside look at what Ford is doing to turn the company around. The first video makes for some compelling viewing. Hopefully the turnaround is as convincing as some of the people who appear in the video.

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Boardroom racers

Check out my “Boardroom racers” story in the May 12 National Post and at CanWest’s automotive site driving.ca. I interviewed CEOs and racers Greg Wilkins of Barrick Gold, Alek Krstajic of Bell Vanguard and Emmanuel Anassis of DAC Aviation.

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Mergers and more

It looks like Champ Car and the IRL are finally sitting down to talk mergers. Both series have struggled apart for too long, and who knows, they might still struggle again as single entity. NASCAR‘s success has turned the battle for sponsorship into an out-and-out war. Can Champ Car/IRL enter the fray and maybe win some ground?

Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn says the automaker will grab new market share the old-fashioned way: with an influx of product. It surely can’t be long before Nissan goes head to head with GM, Ford, Chrysler and soon Toyota in NASCAR’s Nextel Cup.

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Been caught speeding

It happened last week, on the way to work. I, so I was told by the good officer, was travelling 55 km/h in a 40 km/h zone. That’ll cost me $56. Up until last Monday, I didn’t realize that a radar gun could pick up my car from about two and a half blocks away. Who knew? Of course, I wasn’t alone. As I was waved to a stop, there was a Dodge pickup waiting to receive its penalty and as I was being “processed” the cops pulled over another car. As I left, two more cars were being pulled over. Not a bad haul for the city’s coffers — and all before 9 a.m.

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Civility on wheels?

The war between cyclists and drivers is heating up, if you believe the media coverage of the ignorant, littering driver and the self-righteous cyclist. In case you haven’t heard – or seen the photos of the scuffle posted on Web – in Toronto recently, a driver in Kensington Market tossed some garbage out of his car. A female bike courier picked it up and tossed it back in. The cyclist was then, according to accounts, pushed around by the driver who was then threatened and hassled by some passersby (some were apparently not wading into the melee, taking the driver’s side in the incident. Toronto drivers and cyclists spend a lot of time at each other’s throats, often for good reason. Drivers complain about unpredictable cyclists weaving in and out of traffic. Cyclists complain drivers cut them off and leave them very little room on road, if any at all. The media has been examining the relationship for several days now. But the bike courier has said that what really prompted her to throw the garbage back into the car was that the driver had littered, offending her environmental sensibilities. Most people would react angrily (or should react angrily) to seeing garbage flung out of a car. But how many of us would do what this woman did? In an article in the Saturday Globe and Mail she said she did it because she’s powerless to change much in the world, but she felt this was an area where she could take action. If the tension didn’t already exist in Toronto between cars and bikes, her actions would probably have been greeted with much less hostility. Still, it’s hard to say what would happen if two pedestrians on a sidewalk disagreed over where garbage should be thrown.

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A funny thing happened on the way to…

work this morning. I parked the Dodge Charger R/T I’ve been driving this week (illegally) so I could dash to the ATM. I came out to see two police officers checking out the car. One asked if it was mine. Prepared for a lecture and/or a ticket, I said yes. “Just so you know, if you park here again at this time, it’ll be towed. It’s a new car. I don’t think you want it towed.” I apologized, thanked him and went to jump into the driver’s seat when the other cop asked “How do you like it?” I told him it handled well and had plenty of power. “Look, it’s got a hemi,” the other said. “Is it fast?” Definitely, I said. “Show us how fast,” the second cop said, with a laugh. Someone call Dodge’s ad agency. I think I have an idea for a new TV spot.

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The fighting family

Car companies were making news today, but not for their products – for their advertising. First it was DaimlerChrysler Canada and its announcement of its “You can be a millionaire” promotion. It works like this: Buy or lease a Chrysler, Dodge or Jeep until Jan. 3 and you can win $1 million. Unlike Wendy’s similar promo, if you win you get the whole amount in one shot, not in installments. To advertise the promo, DC hired William Shatner to appear in ads as an ironic rich guy extolling the virtues of the simple life. The ads I’ve seen are pretty funny, but I can’t help thinking it wasn’t that long ago when Shatner was seen as a slightly unhinged version of Capt. Kirk (captured perfectly in The Fight Club, when Ed Norton told Brad Pitt if he could fight anyone, it’d be William Shatner.) Mercedes-Benz knows how to fight, but for market share. In Canada, it just doesn’t have the profile of its closest rival, BMW. Which would explain it’s hiring of a new ad agency, ACLC, which last held the Honda Canada account (until it lost that to Grip Ltd.) While MB has intriguing products, like the new B-Class and R-Class, both of which should appeal to Canadian drivers, and its brand is a household name, its Canadian marketing has been relatively staid. DC, on the other hand, spent years shaking off a boring image and now it’s showing its aggressive side with the million dollar promo. I don’t think that’s what the Daimler-Benz folks had in mind it merged with Chrysler.

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Born to drive

A green Mustang showed up on a my street recently; a welcome break from the Honda CRVs, Nissan Pathfinder, Ford Escape, and Toyota Matrix that are anchored next to the curb regularly. The 1966 Mustang belongs to my neighbour and it originally was owned by his grandfather. It appears to be in pretty good, but not perfect, shape – which is fine by me. As much as old cars that have been perfectly preserved against age and wear seem perfect in every respect, to me they always look too sterile, as if the only time they’re driven is onto an auction stage somewhere. Cars, as we all know, were meant to be driven. This Mustang looks like it was driven and that it will continue to be driven. Only a few houses around here have driveways and garages are rare so the Mustang, I presume, will remain parked on the street when not in motion, vulnerable to the elements like the rest of the cars and trucks. Besides the fact that you don’t see too many mid-Sixties Mustangs on the road, or parked for that matter, one thing that struck me about this car was its colour. It’s a pale, metallic green very similar to the metallic green worn by some of the new Mustangs. Apparently Ford flipped through its archive of paint colour books and found one that could be pulled from 40 years ago and tweaked a bit for the early 21st century. Around the same time the Mustang arrived on my street, I was told a story about some cars that were found in the garage of a man who had recently died. One was a mid-80s Lincoln Continental and another was a Corvair. I instantly enquired about the state of the Corvair, but found out both cars had to be junked because neither had been driven in years. Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of the Continental, having seen many on the road that were well past their prime (if they ever had one). But the Corvair would be an interesting car to own, and of course, to drive.

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Environmental drivers

With much of the country experiencing higher than usual gas prices and auto and business pundits alike predicting the death of SUVs, the focus is again on cars and their effects on the environment. Some people predict drivers’ environmental consciences will kick in and we’ll see a return to car-pooling while others expect more of us will leave the car at home and take public transit to work or wherever we need to go. While both of those options are perfectly acceptable and reasonable, they don’t address the bond people have with their cars. Owning and driving a car represent personal expression and freedom and because North Americans have had it so good for so long with cheap gas (compared to European drivers) we’re not willing to give up that freedom easily. Hybrid cars are touted as the solution that will let drivers be true to their inner Jack Kerouac while giving the environment a break. But, hybrids are still a bit more expensive than regular cars and I’ve yet to see what long term maintenance costs are on a Toyota Prius or a Ford Escape hybrid, to name just two. Still, if we all just bit the bullet and bought one, couldn’t we all breathe easier?

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A Magnum in Calgary

On a recent trip west, I was able to spend a week driving a Dodge Magnum AWD in and around Calgary. I’d been intrigued by the Magnum since it debuted, mostly because it was an attempt to combine the functionality of a station wagon (just try to get any auto executive to utter those two words) with the style and power of a performance sedan. It’s certainly a roomy and comfortable car and has a strong and aggressive look that makes you want to drive it. The hemi-powered car I drove also featured a top-of-the-line sound system and a navigation system that, although fairly easy to use, couldn’t keep up with a rapidly expanding city like Calgary. My one complaint (other than the colour, which was a washed-out beige/vanilla that was too bland to be distinctive and smacked of focus-group testing gone wrong) was that I couldn’t hear enough of the engine. Sure, when I pushed the throttle hard during a pass on the highway I’d hear a strong rumble from under the hood. But in normal driving, the Magnum sounded like any other big car. It could be the engineers at DaimlerChrysler did too good a job sealing the Magnum’s cabin from exterior noise. Or they deliberately tuned down the hemi’s exhaust to make it more genteel. Either way, I think they missed an opportunity to make the Magnum stand out from the crowd. Heavy duty car enthusiasts can tell a car by its sound from many blocks away. I’ve seen and heard so many Infiniti G35s lately (are they really that popular?) that I can now pick one out as it approaches from behind me because of it’s throaty exhaust note. Obviously, I wouldn’t want Chrysler to make the Magnum sound like another tuned and burping Honda Civic, but it needs to sing a better tune in order for it to sound as good as it looks.