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Confessions of a Sports Car Bolshevik
What it was like to be young and in the front lines when Europe mounted an assault on Detroit with small, snarling, irresistible machines that changed the way we drove and thought
November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
A year into my seniority, indeed, the joys of Triumph driving had started to wane. Fast car, strong car for its price and class, but after all, only a common Triumph. Drivers of my sophistication hankered for a more challenging machine; that, or I’d overdosed on Road & Track reports on exotic sports cars. Whatever, the risk of fiscal suicide was once again brushed aside. Hugh and I could, for only a few dollars more per month, graduate to the inner circle of sports car connoisseurship. We could own a red 1600-cc 1956 Porsche 356A Normal Coupe, barely used—and by an anal-compulsive engineer owner at that. And one hasty session of breathtaking rationalizations later, we did.
Porsches were a bold enough departure from traditional sports car design of the day to seem almost Martian: rear-engined, air-cooled, soft-sprung, sinuously round and flowing of shape. Their designer and namesake, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche—former engineering chief of Mercedes-Benz, creator of the Volkswagen—was a genius. The Porsche did carry one minor P.R. liability. It was German, and Dad disliked the Germans. No, he hated them. No, he despised them, and all their works, their babies and puppies included, with every fiber of his being. A Royal Canadian Air Force press officer posted to the 6th Canadian Bomber Group in England during the war, he had seen scores, hundreds of his country’s finest young men—including his best friend—take off for missions over Germany, never to return. And now his own sons had embraced a car made in Germany, by members of that incorrigibly evil race.
Porsche the man and the car were 100 percent de-Nazified as far as Hugh and I were concerned, but we kept our new prize hidden from Dad’s sight (not to mention the fact that Herr Porsche had designed the feared Tiger tank; it was 1958, let bygones be bygones) and stifled our enthusiasm in his presence. But the Porsche relationship was even for us a strange one. In our hearts we knew it was too good a car, too fine an object to be wasted on the likes of us; our maintaining a Porsche was like Dot’s Kozy Motor Kabins hosting Count von Bismarck. We repainted it silver and botched the job. I ran it in the grueling Canadian Winter Rally and smashed it into a fence post in a blizzard in the middle of the night. No sooner had it been patched together again than I missed a shift during a time trial, cracked the bell housing, and, lacking anywhere near the price of the repair, finally surrendered. Some people just weren’t good enough for a Porsche.
The enforced demotion to a Volkswagen Beetle drew the curtains on the first act of my sports car mania. By then it was early 1960, and over those five years since the first drive in the Anglia the American automotive scene—prompted by the sports car revolution in the Euroconsciousness that followed—was halfway toward turning upside down. The once-ridiculous VW Beetle, that giant Schuco toy, was a bestseller. Detroit had been panicked into partial reform and was readying the downsized Corvair and Falcon and Valiant and trumpeting the blunderbuss Corvette as if the sports car were an American invention. Elvis had happened, and JFK was about to, and the benighted, constricted squareness that had seemingly hemmed in America forever was crumbling everywhere.
I would climb the sports car ladder from the bottom up a second time, but maturity made it a mellower journey. A bug-eyed Austin-Healey Sprite, almost immediately written off in another horrifying crash; a dip into sports sedans via two successive turtlebacked PV444 Volvos; a turbocharged Corvair Monza; simultaneous ownership of astronaut Alan Shepard’s former Corvette and an Austin Mini-Cooper S; and the first of what would become a series of Mercedes-Benzes—the marque that incarnated, I had decided, the best of the European automotive philosophy. And still does.
I long ago set aside my driving gloves, threw out my collection of vintage-car magazines, strayed from sports car clubs, and retired from my post at the barricades. I sometimes marvel at the energy and passion I poured into the cause of the sports car day after day for years. “Get a life,” indeed. But I guess you had to be there, had to experience the allure and the thrill of playing David to the Goliath, of finding something to believe in, heart and soul. I’m proud to have served in the sports car revolution. The cars are all gone now, the battles long forgotten. But the younger generation owes us a medal.