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Why Now? An Introduction

The Beginnings

Kids obsess over things. My obsession was my small die-cast cars. Matchbox, Hot Wheels, and Majorette littered every available floor surface of my parent’s home growing up. I would spend hours creating parking lots where hundreds of cars would drive into their parking spot between the couch and the wall unit.

As I got older, my interests transformed into driving go-karts, watching motorsports on TV, and playing the latest racing video games (cue a plug for that section on this site). Demolition derbies, weekend getaways to Mosport and long road trips were the highlights of my year.

The Fateful Moment It All Changed

But it was the grade 11 Introduction to Consumer Studies business class where things escalated exponentially. We had some sort of assignment to do about consumerism that HAD to involve a magazine. I headed out to our local Shopper’s Drug Mart and perused the selves. That’s where I saw it. A shiny new 1996 Car and Driver Buyer’s Guide. Hell, this magazine had the word Buyer right in it! It’s perfect.

As mentioned, I always had an interest in cars, but up until now I hadn’t officially earned the endearing term car guy from my friends. A term hard earned by talking at nausea about Camaro’s with Corvette engines, twin-turbo Nissan Z-cars and how the Viper sucked (I had some sort of unhealthy hate for the first-generation Viper. I couldn’t explain it then, I can’t explain it now, but I’ve since seen the errors in my ways).

I took the copy of C&D home and started hacking it up so I could glue the pretty car pictures onto my assignment. See, in the mid-90’s we didn’t have these fancy-pants computers and the internet consisted of Library BBS chat rooms. We had to create a physical, real-life presentation, locked soundly between the metal grip of a three-ring binder.

After some hack and slash, I decided a little research was needed to complete my homework. I was getting a solid A in the course and I wasn’t about to slip up now (spoiler – I won the award for the highest mark in the course that year, narrowly beating out one of my best friends. He knows who he is…first place loser).

A few pages into reading these brief blurbs and specifications, two things happened. One – I was hooked on horsepower, 0-60, skidpad ratings and top speed. Two – my new dream in life was to one day write for this *checks cover* Car and Driver magazine (a dream I came closer to achieving then I ever thought humanly possible).

From here, it was game over for me. My life now revolved around cars and it would never stop. I subscribed to car magazines for decades and still have that original C&D Buyer’s guide. My summer job at the age of 19 was a dealership lot jockey. Every single form of employment I’ve had since that day is within the automotive industry.

But I Also Like to Write

Besides my unhealthy obsession towards automobiles, I developed this weird need for creative writing in my teenage years. Ask any of my high school English teachers, or even my mom, and I am the last person anyone ever expected to become anything close to resembling a writer. Yet, there I was, at lunch time, in-between classes, even during class, scribbling away at these multi-page cartoon comic strips about the fictional adventures of my friends. I enjoyed them so much (probably more so than my friends I kept gifting them to), I kept it up even after I left home for university. I would snail mail these large envelopes stuffed with pages of comics to my friend who would then force them on pass them along to my other friends back home. He ended up keeping every single one of these pieces of gold, and about a decade later, returned them to me.

After working various jobs throughout my 20s, I lucked into an automotive writing role and began a whirlwind adventure becoming a full-time writer. I won’t bore you, dear reader, with the details, but I got to drive some of the world’s greatest cars at fantastic locales and had plenty of great adventures along the way. Some of these exploits will find their way onto these pages in the future.

So back to the original question, why this blog now? Well, I was fortunate enough to land a fantastic job years ago that presented exciting new challenges, and most importantly, provided more stability for my young family. But with any addiction, I’ve never been able to kick the itch to write.

So here I am, starting a blog no one outside of immediate family will read (Hi Mom) as I expel random thoughts into the void.  I hope some will enjoy it as much as I will writing it.

Find of the Day – Low Mileage 1994 Grand Prix GTP

I remember as a young teenager how cool these cars looked. The recessed headlamps, the wire wheels, the overall shape – I was sold. Sadly, I couldn’t drive yet, but it didn’t stop my appreciation for these cars.

And this here is epitome of the 1994 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP Coupe. Painted in Dark Teal Metallic with the gold wheels, this is the car I loved from afar all those decades ago. With less than 70,000 km on the odometer, this car has relatively low mileage and that 3.4-liter 210 hp V6 should have plenty of life left.

Graded: Pontiac Grand Am

Welcome to Graded. Here we discuss legendary marques, models, or trim packages and affix a letter grade to a selection of vehicles falling under that topic. The grades mean nothing and are completely arbitrary. I fully encourage you to tell me what I got wrong and how you would grade them instead. Have some fun with it.

The Grand Am may have only last 31 years and five-generations, but it was still an important model line in Pontiac’s history. For a few decades through the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Grand Am carried the affordable performance torch for the brand and was a moderate sales success.

To celebrate the semi short-lived Grand Am, we have collected eight vehicles from the car’s model run and affixed a Grade to each one. Enjoy.

1974 Pontiac Grand Am 455

AutoLobotomy Grade: B+

The original Grand Am came out in 1973 as a rear-wheel drive mid-size car. It was designed to split the difference between the luxurious Grand Prix and the sporty GTO. Although it just missed the muscle car craze, 250 NET horsepower from a 455 cu.in. V8 was still healthy. The 1974 car received a minor restyle to the front grille which I prefer.

1978 Pontiac Grand Am

AutoLobotomy Grade: D+

After a few years’ hiatus, the Grand Am returned in 1978, once again as a rear-wheel drive mid-size car; albeit smaller and lighter than before. Performance for this car was as pedestrian as its styling, and after just three model years, it was discontinued.

1987 Pontiac Grand Am SE Turbo

AutoLobotomy Grade: B+

In 1985 the Grand Am returned once more, this time as a front-wheel drive compact car. After a few years on the market, Pontiac got more serious about the car’s performance and gave it a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine that produced 165 hp – quite a lot for its time. The car was attractive, especially in coupe form.

1990 Pontiac Grand Am SE QUAD4

AutoLobotomy Grade: A-

A mid-cycle refresh of the Grand Am gave it a more aerodynamic front end. The old turbocharged engine was dead by this point, replaced by a more potent 180 hp QUAD4 2.3-liter four-cylinder. This was quite an engineering achievement at the time, and paired with the five-speed manual transmission, made for an entertaining car to drive.  

1993 Pontiac Grand Am GT

AutoLobotomy Grade: A

The fourth-generation Grand Am debuted for the 1992 model year and included sleeker styling. Top of the line GT models still included the 2.3-liter QUAD4 engine that was refined for the 1993 model year, offering better livability and reliability, at the cost of a five horsepower loss (now rated at 175 hp). This was the high point of the Grand Am lineage.

1996 Pontiac Grand Am GT

AutoLobotomy Grade: C

After a refresh in 1996, the fourth-generation Grand Am looked more modern, but had lost a lot of its performance. Despite the sporty look of the GT model, which I quite like, it had been stripped of its high-output engine. Now the GT only included a choice of a 155 hp V6 engine paired exclusively to an automatic transmission or a five-speed manual transmission attached to a 150-hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder.

1999 Pontiac Grand Am GT

AutoLobotomy Grade: B-

The fifth, and last, generation Grand Am returned some performance to the model. Manual transmissions were still only available with the less powerful four-cylinder models, but the GT did receive a larger 3.4-liter V6 making 175 hp. That was a five-horsepower increase over the Grand Am SE trim level thanks to the GT featuring ‘Ram-Air’ (which was more of a marketing gimmick). Styling was quite nice on the GT as it avoided the unnecessary body cladding of the SE models.

2005 Pontiac Grand Am GT

AutoLobotomy Grade: B

The final year of the Grand Am didn’t see many changes compared to the 1999 model other than the addition of more equipment and a cool S/C hood option. It’s a shame though that Pontiac didn’t give the Grand Am a GTP model during this final run of cars. Imagine if the 3800 supercharged V6 was dropped into this car? Heck, even a naturally aspirated 205 hp 3800 V6 would have made this car a quasi-sleeper. Oh what could have been.

Winged Car Wednesday – Ford Sierra RS Cosworth

From 1986 until 1989 Ford UK made a special version of the brand’s mid-size Sierra, called the RS Cosworth. As the name implies, Cosworth produced engines for these special edition lift-backs and sedans – a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that made between 204 hp and 224 hp depending on the year and trim level.

The most identifiable aspect of the RS Cosworth is the large wing that bisected the rear window and included a center mounted support pillar. The 1987 RS500 Cosworth took things a step further by adding a secondary lip spoiler on the trunk’s leading edge. Compared to the latter Escort RS Cosworth, the Sierra’s wing sits lower down in comparison to the roof-line.

Out Run – Sega Icon

In 1986 Sega released a follow up of sorts to the company’s highly successful Hang-On game from the previous year. Utilizing the same processor technology of that acclaimed motorcycle game, Out Run was born and became a massive hit for Sega.

Like Hang-On, players drove through various stages as quickly as possible, accumulating a score before time ran out. Out Run featured various stages, each with its own background – much like Hang-On.

Besides the obvious fact that players drove a car, the games did differ in other ways, such as the set-up of the course map. Players were not stuck with the same map and same stages every time they played the game. Instead, Out Run had a bit of a choose your own adventure aspect to it where players picked a fork in the road at the end of each stage

This accumulated in one of five different finish lines, each with its own little ending movie which was a nice touch. Players could select which song they wanted playing through the car’s stereo – a unique novelty at the time.  The game also featured hills and dips – aka elevation changes – something not seen in Hang-On.

Master System Icon

When initially released for the arcade, the game was offered in a variety of cabinets, with the most deluxe version including a sit-down car complete with steering wheel, gear shifter and pedals. Regardless of which cabinet was on site, players flocked to Out Run in the arcade and made it a huge hit.

But equally as massive was its success on the home console. Out Run was thee racing game for the Sega Master System. The two were synonymous with each other in the late 1980s. If someone owned a Master System, chances are they owned either Out Run or one of the game’s numerous sequels.

Smooth gameplay, crisp graphics, and replay ability kept gamers glued to their picture tube televisions. Variety was also a key factor. With the aforementioned forks in the road, players could alter their route each time they played, keeping things fresh. This was a feat few video games achieved in 1987.

Ferrari Indoctrination

Of course, Out Run’s car choice didn’t hurt either. What adolescent kid didn’t want to own a Ferrari Testarossa Spyder after playing the game? It was the first time I remember playing a video game with an actual real-life road car as its star. And even if Out Run wasn’t the first game to do this, it definitely sticks out in my mind as the most memorable.

It was just me racing a Ferrari down a scrolling road with my passenger’s hair blowing virtually in the wind.

It would be hard to argue that Out Run is the most well-known racing game Sega ever produced. It introduced an entire generation of kids to racing games, hooking some of us on the genre for life.

Irrational Love – Wagon Racecars

Warning – another automotive nerd is about to go on a diatribe about the coolness of station wagons. Yes, this tired cliché is about to get one more installment. So then, please finish rolling your eyes and let’s get on with it.

Long before the Minivan, SUV or Crossover, it was Station Wagons that ruled the earth. These long box cars were the masters of utility. They could do it all, capable of carrying three rows of passengers, 4’ X 8’ sheets of plywood, or a month’s worth of groceries.

But every once in awhile someone gets the crazy notion that maybe a Station Wagon would make a fantastic racecar. Yes, the sensible shoes of the automotive world, in the heat of battle, burning rubber and swapping paint. It’s an idea so crazy, that it works.

Multi-Sport Athlete

Even in racing, Station Wagons can do it all. They have been participants in nearly every form of automotive competition from drifting to destruction derbies. For decades American rear-wheel drive wagons found their way onto drag strips, living life one quarter mile at a time. But that isn’t the only place they have flexed outright velocity – there are also fantastic land speed wagons.

Getting dirty seems to also be a specialty. If there is a motorsport that involves gravel, mud or snow, a wagon is surely ready and willing to go. Rally has seen its fair share of wagons, especially those coming from Subaru. But even longer, more grueling off-road races like famous Paris to Dakar rally has had wagons entered, like the Peugeot 505 shown below.

BTCC

The largest and most prominent showcase of competition wagons is easily the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC). In 1994 Volvo decided to enter the famed series and created an absolute legend; the 850 Estate racecar. This is probably the most famous motorsports wagon in history. Who cares if it achieved no real success during its one season of competition, bettered in every way by the Swedish sedans that came after it? The Estate was a winner in my heart.   

Exactly 20 years later Honda brought along a wagon of sorts for competition in the BTCC. Ok, the Civic Tourer wasn’t a traditional station wagon, but it was close enough. Unlike the 850 Estate, the Civic Tourer achieved a bit of success during its one-year run, winning three rounds of the BTCC that year.

Two years later the longest-running wagon in BTCC history enter competition; the Subaru Levorg GT. For four years, the Levorg competed diligently, achieving high levels of success that culminated in the driver’s championship in 2017. Sadly, this rear-wheel drive wagon was withdrawn from competition this year, gone but never to be forgotten.

So that brings us to the future. What is going to be the next, great racing station wagon?

Find of the Day – 1996 Mitsubishi L400 Super Exceed Space Gear

The world needs more off-road vans, and thankfully, this Mitsubishi L400 Super Exceed Space Gear is here to save the day. Powered by a diesel engine, the four-by-four, right hand drive multi-passenger vehicle is lifted high off the ground and fitted with a multitude of off-road hardware, including a set of meaty BF Goodrich tires.

So if your entire family of six wants to travel deep, deep into the brush, here is your reasonably price ride. The middle and rear seats even fold to make a sizable rear bed should a nap be required on your travels.

Find of the Day – 1981 Lancia Zagato FI

For sale at the small sum of just $3,500 CAD is a 1981 Lancia Zagato. Those familiar with the front-wheel drive Lancia Beta will know that the Zagato was the convertible version of the car, featuring a removable targa panel and a fold down soft top rear portion.

The 1981 model is of special note as the 2.0-liter engine received fuel-injection and bumped power from 87 hp to 108 hp. The car for sale here may have wheels not to everyone’s liking, but that is an easy change to make.

Friday Fun – $2000 Moab Challenge

Alright folks, we are back with another Friday Fun Challenge. This week, we are heading to Moab, Utah (virtually) to tackle the 4-wheeling trails. But we aren’t heading there in shiny new, fully capable off-roaders. No, we need to make this interesting.

Your mission is to find a used vehicle currently for sale with an asking price no greater than $2,000 USD ($3,000 CAD or £1,500). It can be whatever you want, but it has to be for sale now and the listed price can’t be any higher than the amount of $2,000 USD.

So what’s it going to be? A big V8 brute? An off-road specialist? Something completely out of left field? Have at it and let us know!

My Pick

I am going to go with an agile, purpose built off-roader that offers a bit more comfort than a Jeep Wrangler. My pick is this diesel, right-hand drive JDM 1991 Mitsubishi Pajero. It has the less desirable automatic transmission, but does have ‘Super Select 4WD’. Plus, there are already hitches mounted front and rear to help drag the Mitsubishi out of the inevitable messes I’ll get myself stuck in.

Or, if I want to change the difficulty level to expert, maybe I’ll grab this 2001 Pontiac Aztek. It is all-wheel drive and all of those exterior stick-on pieces have to make it more capable, right?

TOCA 2 Touring Cars – Total Engrossment

TOCA 2: Touring Cars is one of those rare occurrences of the right game at the right time. Released at the tail end of 1998, it fully took advantage of the racing game frenzy that had been set off by Gran Turismo the year prior. But TOCA 2 was not a Gran Turismo copycat – far from it.

As a sequel to the original TOCA, the game was centered around the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC); specifically, the 1998 season. A storied racing series steeped in decades of history, BTCC was in one of its golden eras in the late 1990s, thanks to fierce competition between several manufacturer backed teams and a roster of legendary drivers.

With everything already going for it, Codemasters could have just mailed in the effort behind TOCA 2 and probably still had a sales success. But instead, the company crafted one of the greatest racing games of its time.

Realism Aplenty

Released for the original PlayStation and PC, the game included all the real cars, drivers, and tracks from the 1998 season (minus of course some privateer teams). Icons of the sport were in-game like Alain Menu, Jason Plato, and Rickard Rydell.

Each driver was assigned to their proper team and car. Those who grew up watching BTCC in the ‘90s will remember many of the cars fondly. Included was the Audi A4 with its classic grey paint job and giant angled red rings down the side. The Renault Laguna, winner of the 1997 championship, and Volvo S40, winner of the 1998 championship were also there. The manufacturer’s championship winning Nissan Primera as well as the Vauxhall Vectra, Ford Mondeo, Honda Accord, and Peugeot 406 rounded out the group.

The Main Championship mode took place on real life circuits like Silverstone, Thruxton, Oultan Park and Brands Hatch. It even followed the actual 1998 BTTC schedule as far as I can remember. This meant two races per weekend event and a one-lap qualifying shootout. Throughout the season points were collected for both the driver’s championship as well as the manufacturer’s championship.

More Than Just BTCC

But TOCA 2 was expanded to include other cars outside of the main BTCC entries. There were support series cars such as the Ford Fiesta and Formula Ford. They could each be raced through their own Support Car Championships. The Fiesta races were a great way to get familiar with the game’s dynamics in slower, more controllable cars while the Formula Fords required more precision to drive.

It was also possible to do challenges on various fantasy tracks piloting high-performance machinery like the AC Superblower, Jaguar XJ220, Lister Storm, and TVR Speed 12. It was a bit random to include these cars compared to the core purpose of this game, but maybe it was a way to broaden the overall appeal and add a little variety.

Great Gameplay

As mentioned, the actual racing action of TOCA 2 was fantastic for its era. The car reacted properly to a player’s inputs and driving the proper racing line around the track was necessary to achieve the greatest amount of success. It was still possible to overcook a corner and slide through it unscathed, but that usually slowed down overall progress. Weather conditions, such as fog and rain, existed and not only looked realistic but also affected vehicle performance.

And while on the topic of realism, the in-car view was quite detailed with a working steering wheel, side and rear-view mirrors, sponsor decals and a gauge cluster displaying speed, rpm, and the current gear. The damage modelling was equally advanced for its time. Whichever part of a car crashed was damaged, disfigured and/or fell off the car completely depending on the level of the impact. Not many games had a proper damaging model at this time, so it was a huge bonus for TOCA 2.

It was also just another part of the overall immersion that made this game such a hit. It really felt like I was behind the wheel of my Audi Sport UK A4, battling door hand to door handle with David Leslie, Tim Harvey and Derek Warwick. Trying hard to score maximum points without making costly mistakes. Each round I would eagerly check the championship standings to see how my team was doing; more interested in the manufacturer’s standings then my own individual standings. Although many games have since come along dedicated to a single racing series, few have captured the same magic that TOCA 2 created.

Winged Car Wednesday – BMW 3.0 CSL ‘Batmobile’

Racing homologation has given us some of the greatest cars of all-time. Here is one of them, the BMW 3.0 CSL. Built for competition in the European Touring Car Championship, the ultimate version of the car arrived in 1973 with a 203 hp 3.2-liter straight-six engine and all the aerodynamic bodywork one could ask for.

Up front there was a large air dam and fins running along the fenders. In the rear was the famous ‘Batmobile’ wing that actually came from the factory uninstalled, stored in the trunk since driving with it on public roads was a big no-no. But did that stop people from mounting it themselves? Thankfully not.