There are looks of pride, shame, excitement and contentment, but some looks defy categorization. They are so packed with emotion that they speak one thousand volumes without a single word spoken. Such facial expressions are often found in cliche places: weddings, lottery winning photos, sky diving videos and the like. But there is one place I’ve regularly observed such faces that doesn’t require vows, parachutes or lucky numbers: the interior of a sports car.
I recall an article written by one of my favorite authors, Peter Egan, pertaining to the topic at hand. He spoke of his first encounter with a Ferrari. The tale is full of emotion and much better recounted in his original words, but I’ll do my best to paraphrase it to the best of my recollection – I read this article sometime in the mid 1990s.
Peter was very young and his obsession with sports cars was still formative – though not new. The sports car that stole his heart was the commensurate Ferrari that consistently comes to mind: a rosso red stallion, screaming to life on all 12 cylinders – just as Enzo intended. Although Peter went on to drive plenty of Ferraris later in life, the article he wrote spoke of a different, more meaningful encounter. This first magical experience was not enjoyed from the driver’s seat but rather from the passenger’s. A well-to-do Ferrari owner offered Peter a ride around the block, knowing how much this would mean to a wobbly kneed youngster.
Peter went on to describe the experience: the first time he heard an Italian V12 rip from behind his head – the sound conjoined with shocking acceleration. I can only imagine the look on his face. This first Ferrari encounter shaped the way Peter looked at cars, and no doubt had a direct impact on his eventual career path. Were it not for the generosity of this Ferrari owner, perhaps we would have missed out on decades of quality automotive journalism from one of the best authors in the business.
The moral of the story rings loud and clear: if you are so privileged as to own a fine automobile, the automotive Gods oblige you to share the experience. I’m not suggesting you toss some snot-nosed teenager the keys to your M5, but I am suggesting you invite him to join you for a brisk drive, or perhaps to a day as co-pilot at the racetrack. The passion and enthusiasm we share for cars is highly contagious, if only we share our experiences with those around us.
My personal path to automotive affection was one forged through many great co-pilot experiences and spontaneous test drives. Allow me to recount a few of the drives that shaped my love of cars.
My first encounter with a BMW came at age 16. A close family friend owned a spotless E30, 318i. It employed a 5 speed manual and had a wind-open sunroof that let the sun rays warm my face one special summer day. Jim was quick to throw me the keys, knowing I was eager to indulge in the avocation of manual gear changing. I still remember my first moments in that car. All of the windows rolled down, the summer breeze felt warm across my chest. The hairs on my arms stood at attention – however warm the temperature – out of sheer excitement and anticipation. Clutch in, I turned the ignition and heard the BMW inline-4 fire to life. It was masterful at the time: I recall the engine note had a certain aggression to it that my VW never offered.
First gear in the cog, I slowly released the clutch while feathering the throttle… and stalled it. This failure to get underway rested heavily across my shoulders – I must have rehearsed this maneuver one thousand times in my mind, besides reliably driving my manual VW. But once underway this mental negativity melted away with every passing kilometer. The light and neutral handling was an epiphany. I felt as though the entire car was wrapped around my body and its quick reactions made it feel as though an extension of my body. Revving through the gears did not feel abusive as in anything American I had driven, but rather well within the comfort zone of the car. In fact, the car seemed to enjoy my exploits. After only 30 minutes in the E30, I was forever sold on the roundel. I learned that day that driving can be more than a modality of transportation: it can become invigorating entertainment – if driving the right machine.
Next up was a spur of the moment drive in a heavily modified Volvo 740 wagon. Walking by the car, I noticed there was something different about it – it was definitely packing something more than the average Volvo wagon. My peripheral caught a single 3 inch exhaust pipe jutting out just below the rear bumper. The tires were wide, fat and sticky-looking despite being mounted on stock rims. Being a resident of the area, I felt comfortable ringing the door bell and inquiring about the car’s peculiar details. Five minutes later an enthusiastic owner was showing me around the car, with special attention to the custom hand-made air-intake scooping air from the lower fascia. In ten minutes time I was pasted to the passenger seat with the turbo boost gauge showing healthy double-digits, the Volvo’s tires screaming for grip as the proud owner rowed through the gears. The look on his face was priceless, nevermind mine.
Working front-house at a restaurant in Barrie, Ontario, I welcomed a man into the restaurant – but noticed a crisp baseball cap atop his head bearing the letters “AMG.” Knowing the significance of these letters I quickly scoured the parking lot for the accompanying machine. Not far from the entrance was a brand new E55 AMG sparkling in silver. Approaching his table I asked, “Is that your AMG out front?” “Why yes!” he replied as he tossed me the keys, “Take it for a spin around the block.” Before he could change his mind I was charging for the door with keys in hand and beginner’s license in pocket. I recall feeling the heft of the car, but also noticing its glassy smoothness. I’d never ridden in anything so capable of glossing over undulations in the road surface – it felt like I was driving above the road. Turning a corner I got on the power, expecting massive wheel-spin but there was none – barely even a hint of acceleration. With foot now planted I unwound the steering wheel until the stability control system let every horse loose. A powerful surge of acceleration quietly swept me forward, lightening the steering and straining my neck. After carefully parking it and returning the keys I allowed my pulse to settle. For a 16 year old, that car was a serious rush. I had in some way lost my horsepower virginity.
The above experiences each played their part in shaping my love of cars and respect for their performance. They also taught me the importance of sharing such fine automotive specimens – should you be lucky enough to own one. Do you drive a car capable of changing someone’s lifelong automotive perspective? Do you know someone who would be ecstatic at the mention of a blast around the block? We often take for granted what we’ve become familiar with. The M3, 911 or even the Ferrari in our driveway may feel conspicuously average most days of the year. But for the right person, one drive will forever change the way they look at cars. Who knows? Someday they might just fill the shoes of Peter Egan.
Of course, Peter’s personal account of his first time in a Ferrari must be read to be fully appreciated; I’ve tried my best to find it online but to no avail. If you happen to know of the article I’m referring to, please feel free to link to it or state the issue and page number in the comment section. If I recall correctly there was a showdown between the Lotus Esprit V8 and Ferrari F355 on the cover – both in bright school bus yellow.
For what it’s worth, excited in-car facial expressions are not limited to humans..