Expert Reviews

Final Drive: A Year in Review(s)

Countach. Rampage. Autozam. Citroen DS. GT4. Beetle. Ferrari. Lotus. Defender. Falcon. Lagonda. Delorean. Century. Spirit R. It's been a wild, weird year, spanning everything from a tiny gullwinged kei car with 65 hp to a brand new be-decalled McLaren to the original Mercury Marquis from the original Hawaii 5-0.

Well, that's me: Mr. Bad Idea.

Now, were this any ordinary best-of clip show, I'd just round up some of my best Final Drives from the past year and call it a day. That'd work just fine: do you know anybody else dumb enough to write an entire feature up on a collector-grade Dodge Rampage? Or drive four hundred miles across Ohio just to look at an old brown Toyota wagon?

Well, that's me: Mr. Bad Idea. Thing is, there are a bunch of silly things I've done this year that have not surfaced on previously, for one reason or another. Here they are then, my five best drives of the year that you maybe haven't heard about yet. We'll start at the end, with a touch of frost.

Porsche Boxster Spyder

It's fitting, I believe, to start with a car that is itself slightly wonky. When Porsche announced that they were going to stick the base 911's 3.8L flat-six into first the Cayman and then the Boxster, every dyed-in-the-wool Zuffenhausen enthusiast leapt to their feet in applause. Then they announced the cars would be manual only and the pack really started foaming at the mouth.

I've driven both, and despite the giant Subaru STI-like wing on the back of the GT4, neatly obscuring vision like a poorly-placed park bench, at least that car's a dedicated track special. The Boxster Spyder, on the other hand, is a very fast version of probably the most exhilarating Porsche, but one fitted with the dumbest convertible roof this side of a British Leyland product.

It's powered – but only partially. You have to get out of the car to put it down. And, should you want to load something in the rear trunk, you have to open the roof. Total weight savings? Half an Olsen twin. Meanwhile, Mazda's little MX-5 boasts one-handed simplicity that weighs even less and can be folded at a traffic light.

Did someone say British? First Drive: 2015 McLaren 650S

But why does the Spyder still make the list? Because of everything else. I cracked open that top with cold-numbed fingers a few weeks back, scraped the ice off the windshield and headed West towards Port Renfrew, up the coast of Vancouver Island. At this time of year, the tourists are all huddled away over their hot cocoa, but the sun was out and after ten kilometres, my pulse was thrapping in my ears like a metronome gone mad.

Over the sun-soaked ridges the Spyder danced, then dove into frost-coated hollows in a frenzied skittering, sliding and twitching and scuttling sideways. No radio. No cell signal. No room for anything but the howling fury of that big-hearted six on ice-rimed roads amongst a lichen-bearded forest. Chapped lips bled from the grinning, the coppery taste somehow appropriate for this pure-white apex predator. It was an exhausting drive, but somehow purifying to the soul.


Autozam AZ-1

Of course, you don't need anything like that level of power to have a great deal of fun in a car. Case in point: the 65-hp Autozam AZ-1, Mazda's version of a fun-sized Ferrari F40.

Built by Suzuki, intended for Mazda's sub-dealer Autozam, and honed on the UK B-Roads, the AZ-1 came out at exactly the wrong time. The Japanese economy was slumping, and their idea of a premium little coupe with gullwing doors and fizzy handling went flat. People bought sensible little boxes instead, thus the AZ-1 remains rare.

Few are rarer than this, the Mazdaspeed version, and to find one in Canada was pretty tricky. By searching various car-related forums, I came across a Calgarian who had once owned one, and now had a selection of Pike Factory Nissans. He in turn was aware of one out West, and after much emailing and cajoling, I was folding myself into the cramped cockpit, buttoning up the doors, and trying not to fondle the owner’s leg as I shifted into first.

Some cars don't live up to their reputation, and some you can't wipe the smile off your face. Despite the fact that turning on the air-conditioning in the AZ-1 sapped so much power that the car felt like it had just driven into a pool of treacle, it was a far livelier experience than you'd expect from 65 hp. It too could dance, a hyperactive little flea of a thing with a short attention span and an appetite for the corners.

Aston Martin Lagonda

There are cars that make a statement, and there are cars that seem to be making that statement in Klingon. This 1980s Lagonda is one such vehicle, a bizarre, multi-faceted design gleaming in the sun and searing the retinas with its eerie mint-green paint. This makes no sense. Somebody divided by zero and broke the universe.

Despite a reputation for being as stable as a North Korean dictator, the Aston Martin Lagonda is probably the wildest thing I've ever driven. The most weird thing about it? Everything works! The owner just so happens to be an electrical engineer by trade, so he took apart much of the inner workings and simply rejigged them to work. It's reportedly never broken down in a decade of ownership. Tell that to your average Aston Martin owner and they'll attempt to shoot you in the face with a British Army Service Revolver, which will somehow jam.

Quick but not fast, the Lagonda drove a bit like a Jensen Interceptor, but the experience was mostly about one's brain dribbling out of one's ears at the sight of the incredibly complex dashboard and crazy white-and-green upholstery. Best thing about it? The owner was utterly unafraid of working on his car himself, up to and including teaching himself how to do paintwork, fibreglass, and adjust four carburetors simultaneously.

Citroen DS21

They call her the Goddess. The Dee-Esse is a wonderful-looking machine, and I'd of course long heard those in the know expounding on the wonder of that oleopneumatic suspension. Thing is, I'd never driven one: but then an opportunity arose.

Mon. Dieu. There's simply nothing else like it. It's like somebody stuffed a beanbag chair full of brie and then attached wheels to it. It's like a hovercraft capable of cornering. It's like finding a castle filled with taunting Frenchmen in the middle of an Arthurian quest. It's wonderful and bizarre.

This particular example belonged to a eclectic owner who also had a Tatra T87 – a rear-engined V8-powered machine known for being favoured by the elite of the Third Reich. The DS had something of the same odd aerodynamic shape, but the main shock was just how easily the car handled the bumpy rural roads. We followed an Audi for a while, and the driver's head was bobbing around so much it looked like he was auditioning for Night At The Roxbury II. We glided onwards like an expensive courtesan, wafting like a cloud over the ruts and bumps.

Mercury Marquis

The last car on the list isn't the best – in fact, it might be the worst. A rusting hulk from a time when men were men and cars were the size of the Edmund Fitzgerald, this bloated lump of American Iron had an engine as big as four Honda Civic powerplants, but the power output of one and a half.

But there was a story here. The car, a 1974 Mercury Marquis four-door hardtop, was the hero car from the original Hawaii 5-0. Not only that, but it was also the stunt car for the show, as only one was used for all car chases, jumps, and other hijinks. Not only that, but it was still on screen after four decades, featuring regularly in episodes of the reboot of Hawaii 5-0.

Not only that, but the car belongs to a stuntman who doubled for both Jack Lord's Steve McGarrett and Tom Selleck's Magnum, PI. He told me a great, unrepeatable story about diving with Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and we all went out for a spin in the battered old warhorse.

Some cars are interesting. Some cars are odd. Some, like this one, start out pretty ordinary, but gather tales to tell as the miles roll on.