Closeup/Lifestyles

A nation driven

Canadians and their cars, till death do them part

Robert Marshall May 16 1977
Closeup/Lifestyles

A nation driven

Canadians and their cars, till death do them part

Robert Marshall May 16 1977

A nation driven

Closeup/Lifestyles

Canadians and their cars, till death do them part

Robert Marshall

Heads turned as the sleek, grey sports car drifted through the morning traffic in Ottawa’s Confederation Square. Admiring glances turned to stares of surprise as the crowd recognized the man at the wheel— Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau forsaking his government limousine for a rare spin in his beautifully preserved 1960 Mercedes 300SL. Trudeau loves the car, a red upholstered two-seater with a stick shift and a speedometer that registers 160 mph. It was a familiar sight in Ottawa streets before he became Prime Minister and a family man, but in the past few years it has seldom left the garage at 24 Sussex. Its sudden reappearance recently, and the reaction of passersby, underlined a fact of life in Canada: this nation, like its Prime Minister, is in love with cars.

The affair dates back to the origins of the country. The oldest surviving Canadianbuilt car is a steam buggy designed and manufactured by a man named Henry Taylor and shown at a fair in Stanstead, Quebec, in 1867. By 1975 (the latest available statistics), there were almost nine million passenger cars registered in Canada, and just under 12 million Canadians were licensed to drive them. This year, Canadians seem determined to prove their devotion to the car as never before: if new car sales continue at their present pace, they’ll top the one million mark for the first time

in one model year. For the car sellers, the outlook hasn’t been good these last few years: recession, inflation and unemployment; rising gas prices and a well-promoted conservation ethic; bad publicity (rusty Fords, Chevy engines in Oldsmobiles, recalls). Thenalmost seems to be a conspiracy against the car. The combined effect of these factors, plus President Carter’s energy conservation program announced last month, did make a dent in April sales figures. But with purchases, maintenance and repairs taken into account, Canadians, in their adoration, direct more than one dollar of every $10 in personal expenditure toward the car, and there is no sign of that changing.

Like spring and love, there’s something about spring and cars. For many who drive, it’s hard to beat the feeling of that first great day when you roll down the window and feel the warm wind again on your left elbow. Time to get out the hose and strip off a winter’s worth of sludge. Robins, daffodils, greening lawns . . . and streets filling again with the proud owners, maybe the whole family, washing and waxing the car. Plans are being made for the summer vacation, and the car is included. It’s a time to think about the winter’s toll on the car, drop into the dealers to kick a few tires. The spring months are great new car sales

months, rivaled only by October, the beginning of the new model year.

From coast to coast, dealers affirm the Canadian devotion to the car, and despite all the arguments in favor of smaller, less thirsty machines, the Detroit monsters are at least holding their own. In the Halifax area, demand for smaller North American cars is dropping; there is a waiting list for some of the gas guzzlers. The main Ford dealer has completely sold out his allotment of Thunderbirds for the year. Eric Teasdale of Citadel Motors says customers who previously bought small cars are trading up again.

“We’re selling more big cars than ever before,” says Plymouth dealer Reg Lindsay of Woodstock, New Brunswick. “It’s the whole philosophy of Canadian life. We like luxury.” He’s had a basic ’77 Plymouth Grand Fury on his lot since last October, a big car, but with no options—no vinyl top, radio or rear window defogger. “People take one look at it and say ‘Oh, it’s got nothing on it’ and walk away.” Meanwhile, Lindsay has sold about 15 better equipped (more expensive) Grand Furies.

Winnipeg car dealers say sales are up

about 10% this year, but they can’t explain it. Murray Brothers, salesman at a downtown Chev-Olds dealer, says it must be an ego thing: “We all want a new car in the driveway.” With the transit system in Winnipeg, as in other cities, losing money, Toyota dealer Doug Brown feels the boom in car sales is just part of the lifestyle Canadians have come to expect. “In the Thirties, it was an accepted thing to go to work by bus. For one thing, few cars could survive a winter. Today, people expect to drive to work.”

The affluent Albertans still love big cars. “People haven’t felt the pinch yet,” says Jack Thompson, president of the Calgary Automobile Dealers Association. “It’s common knowledge that sizes are coming down,” and that may have touched off a buying spree. “They have the feeling that if they don’t buy a full-sized car now, they might not get the chance later.” Besides, gas doesn’t cost as much in Alberta. R. L. Polk (Canada) Ltd., which compiles North American auto statistics, says luxury and full-size cars accounted for more than 31 % of sales in Alberta last year, compared to 24% in the rest of Canada.

“People just don’t want to be cramped,” says Vancouver dealer Mike Canic, explaining the continued strong showing of

big cars. On the west coast, as elsewhere, some people who try out the compacts “are back again in two months, asking for a bigger car.”

As good-mileage fans have doubtless noticed, the comer among imports in Canada is the little Honda Civic. It’s the only non-North American machine to place in the top 10 in sales for the first half of this model year, ranking sixth behind the Chevrolet Caprice/Impala, Plymouth Volaré, Dodge Aspen, Ford LTD and Chevelle. According to Douglas Judge of Colonial Motor Sales in Halifax, the Civic is popular among people with economy in mind (along with the vw Rabbit diesel it’s rated tops in Canada at 53 mpg), but not necessarily those with a limited income. A few doctors and lawyers who have bought Civics for their wives have returned later to get one for themselves. And Judge won’t take a North American car in trade— “there’s just no market for them.”

Canadians’ attachment to their cars comes in varying degrees, from those who feel just strongly enough to change the oil

once in a while, to the fanatics who can’t spend enough time cleaning, polishing, repairing and decorating their beauties. Then there are the likes of Jack Boxstrom. “Friends come to my farm (near Toronto) and make fun of me—‘Oh, Jack’s out in the bam playing with his cars.’ I have about 15 or 16 in the barn and room for another 25.” Boxstrom manages a far-out rock band. Rough Trade—when he’s not racing, driving or working on one of his cars. His collection includes vintage racing cars, a Model A Ford, a vw convertible, a rare Cadillac, and it is still growing.

But some people don’t love cars. In fact, some car lovers don’t think too highly of car makers. Phil Edmonston of Montreal, NDP candidate in the Verdun by-election, is founder and ex-president of the Automobile Protection Association, a car owners’ pressure group. “I don’t like cars. They’re inefficient, they’re antisocial, they’re an ecological insanity,” says Edmonston, but he accepts that they’ve become a part of our social fabric.“I was in the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s and people used to say, ‘Look, Phil, racism will always be here, you can’t legislate it out of existence.’ I say recognize that it is there, but contain it. Don’t let it manifest itself in antisocial ways, violence or ways that create injustice. The same with the car: recognize the need, but contain that need through sound urban planning.”

“The car is a necessity rather than a luxury; one of the essentials of modern-day living.” That’s the gospel according to Tom Whellams, executive vice-president of the Automotive Industries Association of Canada (distributors and parts manufacturers). Most Canadians would agree. Only the United States has surpassed this country in handing itself over so completely, body and soul, to the automobile. Maybe our grandparents did walk 25 miles to school, in a blizzard, without shoes ... it ain’t going to happen again if we can help it. The country, urban, suburban and rural, is locked into an automobile (and creature comfort) mentality. Homes, businesses, recreation areas—more and more parts of Canadian life are becoming accessible only by car, and the trend is so far advanced it is hard to imagine it being reversed. Canadians have geared their lifestyles to their love of rapid, independent mobility. There could be a crippling, worldwide fuel shortage as early as a decade from now, but you wouldn’t know it in this nation of car owners and car lovers. But why should things be any different? Especially since the Second World War, Canadians have been weaned on the car. Toy cars. Midway rides. Soap box races. Go-carts. They all provide a personal experience at an early age. That’s reinforced by the Image of the Car, from advertising, movies, novels: Power! Success! Sex! Remember the amazing chase scenes in Bul-

They don’t make ’em like they used to

litt and The French Connection? Against such forces, it’s natural that the word “car” doesn’t instantly trigger thoughts of pollution, dwindling oil reserves, despoilment of the environment and other downers (like the 5,109 traffic deaths in 1975).

In fact the car remains a status symbol on wheels. The most expensive automobile available (or almost available) in Canada is Rolls-Royce’s two-door beauty, the Camargue. It sells for $92,000 plus, but before you rush out to buy one bear in mind that, with a worldwide waiting list, they reach Canada at a rate of about one a year, and this year’s, arriving in about three months, is spoken for. (No name; Rolls-Royce doesn’t talk about its customers.) A few Canadians have opted for some of the great, hand-built European sports machines instead, for instance, the Lamborghini Countach at $65,000, or Ferrari’s 365GT4 at just $55,000. In British Columbia, the Mercedes-Benz is all the rage: busy Vancouver dealer Curt Hasse calls the car, with its various models selling from $13,500 to $47,000, “one of the biggest status symbols on the market.” The Mercedes has long been popular among rock stars and movie queens in California, and the appeal has moved north. One Vancouver businessman who, with his brother, owns three or four Mercedes told his dealer: “I wouldn’t think of moving up the ladder without one.”

Some Canadians and their cars: Margaret Trudeau—vw Rabbit; Premier Ed Schreyer—Chevrolet (closest thing to a workingman’s car); Julie Amato—white MGB (“1 really love sports cars”); Pierre Berton—Mercedes-Benz; car crusader Phil Edmonston—1966 Cadillac; John Diefenbaker—Buick (campaigning in 1957, he overhead a comment, “Here come the Tories in their Cadillacs” and he has refused to own a Caddy); comedian Billy Van—London taxi; Barbara Frum—an aging Jaguar (“I love it”); millionaire investor/ broadcaster / physician Morton Shulman—a year-and-a-half-old Chevrolet. Toronto radio announcer Wally Crouter used to drive a leased Rolls-Royce, but he gave it up recently—every time he took it out it would be damaged by vandals. “It seems that a car like that stirs up strange feelings in people,” says Crouter.

And a final word on a nation’s romance with cars. It used to be the back seat of a Ford. Now, if you want to make out on the road, your thing is a van. Not any old van, but the new, tarted-up version: the sin bin, the shaggin’ wagon. Carpeted floor to roof, with stereo systems, air conditioning, and fancy paintwork, they’re the sexiest thing on wheels. Prices are in the $10,000 range, and in some areas there is a waiting list— mainly young, single males with high-paying jobs and macho egos—two to three months long. The vans eat up gas at a rate of about nine miles to the gallon, but what can you expect from a mobile bedroom? -ip