The highway between Lethbridge, Alta., and Helena, Mont., is seriously flat.
Watch your dog run away for three days flat. There’s also almost no traffic to speak of, so I slowed to a stop, got out, and took a picture.
Behind me, the road shimmered out towards nothingness. Ahead, the empty horizon beckoned. Above was only empty sky, wheeling above the lonely, level plains.
Turns out Hell is a pretty tranquil place. Named for the Devil’s Brigade, a joint U.S.-Canadian Second World War commando unit that terrorized the Axis forces, this road follows the original path marched by Canada’s volunteers as they travelled to meet up with their American counterparts.
I certainly had the right car for the trip: a military-green wide-body Dodge Challenger Hellcat. American brute force, built by Canadians in Brampton, Ont. The car rumbled away on the tarmac like a distant but approaching storm, eager to get on with things.
I climbed back in. I buckled up. I eased off the parking brake. Let’s get the hell out of here.
2018 started snowy for me, traipsing about the local mountains in a bright blue Toyota 4Runner. It was basically impossible to get the thing stuck, which was not the case when I visited the Winter Olympics and had a go in Hyundai’s new fuel-cell vehicle, the Nexo. Angling for a perfect picture, I drove the thing onto a patch of sand, and discovered that a lack of all-wheel drive and car-like ground clearance is a total beach. As far as I know, the Hyundai is still stuck there.
Also unstickable was the Grizzly Torque, a specially prepared Land Rover ambulance driven around the world in the 1950s by naturalist Bristol Foster and his friend Robert Bateman, the famous wildlife artist. The Landy has been faithfully restored to its original glory, including Bateman’s murals commemorating each country the pair passed through, and normally lives up in B.C.’s interior, near Spences Bridge.
I travelled up to see it, and we took the ol’ girl out for a tramp in the mud, which she appeared to enjoy. The Grizzly Torque also popped down for the All-British Field Meet this year, and you might just see it around in 2019 as well.
For a bit more military-grade off-roading, I had a go in a Citroen Mehari, a sort of all-terrain version of the jouncy 2CV, and also had a chance to drive a Mini Moke. The latter belonged to Rob Fram of RX Autoworks, our award-winning local restoration shop. Rob’s great, but his car, converted to Mini Cooper spec, was hilariously terrifying. It was like driving a 90-horsepower skateboard with no helmet.
Speaking of RX, please give a round of applause for their accomplishment at this year’s Pebble Beach concours. The team of Fram, Mike Taylor, Ian Davey, JP Parker, and Duncan Dickinson celebrated an outright win at the event this year with their stunning restoration of a 1937 Alfa-Romeo 8C2900B. If you were very lucky, you might have seen this $20-million-plus work of art zipping around the North Shore on shakedown runs. In the automotive world, winning Pebble Beach is basically the Best Picture Oscar. Watch for RX to host another open house this year, and get your own look behind the scenes.
Also worthy of applause are the efforts of Geoff Peterson and Lorne Freeman, whose Carbs and Coffee events (sometimes referred to, tongue-in-cheek, as Car BS and Coffee) have provided a welcoming environment for gearheads of all stripes on the North Shore. You could bring a Ferrari, you can show up in a DeLorean DMC-12, or you can drive up in your beige Toyota Corolla – it doesn’t matter, everyone gets along great here - and the coffee fund donations go towards North Shore Rescue!
Speaking of mountain exploits, this year also market my chance to hit two special peaks. The first was the mountain course on the Isle of Man, one of the most challenging sections in the incredibly dangerous Isle of Man TT. I was able to run the section in an Audi TT (fittingly) with the road closed, and flat out. In a car, the sudden changes in weather and steep drops were scary. On a motorcycle, you’d have to be a lunatic.
I made sure to stop and pay my respects to the King of the mountain, Joey Dunlop. As someone of Northern Irish parentage, yer maun Joey remains one of the finest figures of motorsport, and he is much missed.
The second was Pikes Peak, the longstanding hill climb race to the clouds in Colorado. This year, the electric VW ID-R set the overall record, storming to the top in just seven minutes and fifteen seconds.
Continuing in the electric vein, I also made a stop at EV West in San Diego, where they convert classics to electric power. Don’t worry, purists, they do so without cutting any sheetmetal so the originality of the car is preserved. Having a go in a Tesla-powered VW Bus was good fun, and a manual-transmission Tesla-powered 1967 Porsche 912 driven on the Angeles Crest highway was a complete revelation. The future is going to be great.
The present is pretty wonderful as well. As the year progressed I drove everything from a rally-prepped Cayenne to a perfect Datsun 510 to a Caterham Super Seven powered by a Hayabusa motorcycle engine. I attended auto shows, I went to car museums, and I drove through some of the best roads in B.C. on a classic car road trip with my kid and my dad.
Then, just when I thought things couldn’t get more wonderful, I went to Japan for a week and a half. This involved craziness like: driving a Ferrari 550 GT race car on the street, high-fiving a bear mascot at a top level Super GT race, visiting a museum with a 1973 Mustang Japanese police car in it, watching a four-rotor Mazda 787B being chased by a Nissan Group C racing car, and attending an impromptu car meet held in the centre of a four-story car park. Someone brought a 1990s Camaro IROC-Z to that one.
But in the midst of all this wheeled nuttery, that moment in the Canadian Prairies stood out to me. Everything about it radiated potential: the power of the car, the promise of the open road. Life is, after all, just one big adventure. I hope 2019 is going to be as great for all of us.
Now, let’s crank up the AC/DC and get going.
The devil makes work for idle wheels.