What if you’re an enthusiast who, due to various circumstances of life, is unable to own an enthusiast’s car? Maybe you’re a student who can’t afford much besides school right now. Or maybe you can only have one car and the significant other, kids, and dog won’t all fit in your Miata. Or maybe you’ve fallen on hard times and had to sell your BMW to pay the bills for another few months. You’ve had to pick up something cheap, or practical, or unexciting, or possibly all of these in one big boring beigemobile. What’s an enthusiast to do? I say if you can’t be with the car you love, love the car you’re with.
Years ago, when my marriage collapsed and our house in Massachusetts got sold, I moved in with some friends in Maine. I had a company car that I lost when I left that job to move, so a friend of a friend gave me her 1991 Honda Civic wagon for free because it wouldn’t start. I replaced the battery and it worked fine. It was the front wheel drive version, not the sought after Real Time 4 Wheel Drive version, but although it seemed as boring as oatmeal, the little Civic was just what I needed – good, practical, reliable transportation. Fortunately, being an EF Civic, it also handled quite well, despite a bit more body roll than a typical Civic due to the taller, heavier body, so it was actually fun to drive in a “slow car fast” kind of way. Another friend gave me an 8-ball shift knob, which I put on just for the wrongness of it. The same goes for the genuine Civic Type R badge, despite the car having absolutely no performance upgrades whatsoever – unless you count some weight reduction in the form of rust around the wheel wells. A friend visiting from the UK told me I should put Mini Cooper hood stripes on it. I considered the natural contours of the hood lines, grabbed a roll of black duct tape, and added the stripes, right then, right there, and they stayed until I got rid of the car. I’m quite sure they added 20hp, in addition to the 50hp the Type R badge gave me. I never raced this car, but I still had a lot of fun with it. My general philosophy was, “It was free, so who cares?” which is why I did all of those ridiculous things to it. But it was also the car that moved me from a part of my life in one state to another, both figuratively and literally.
Later on I got a job as a courier, and picked up a 1996 Dodge Grand Caravan AWD for the job. This is about as non-enthusiast a vehicle as you can get. But it was comfortable, and much better for my work than the company’s pickup trucks. It got my ham radio, XM radio, helper springs on the rear suspension to improve cargo capacity as well as handling, and a rumbly Flowmaster muffler to replace a rusted mid-pipe. It also got a can of NOS. Seriously – I kept an empty can of NOS energy drink in one of the rear cupholders so I could show people my minivan with NOS.
To practice for the inevitable emergency blood bank delivery in the middle of a Maine blizzard, I took the van to Boston BMW CCA’s IceCross events. I ran in class X – all wheel drive with all-season tires. I was up against BMWs, Audis, and Subarus that were far more maneuverable, and 4×4 trucks and SUVs with knobbier tires and better ground clearance. At the final event of the season, the ice was thick but it was relatively warm, softening the top layer. I had enough traction to give the 3.8 liter V6 full throttle on the straightaways, then drift through the corners as quickly as I dared. The ABS said screw you and gave up at random times, but despite that I managed to win class X that day – in a minivan, of all things. Nobody was more surprised than me.
Later on I moved back to Massachusetts to find better work. I was on the road a lot, and I needed the newest, cheapest, most reliable car that I could easily find parts for. I ended up with a 2003 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. With a stiffer, performance tuned suspension rather than the civilian version’s couch-on-wheels handling, this was at least the enthusiast version of the car, but it was still a lump of body-on-frame American iron that weighed as much as two Miatas.
Having watched a bunch of police pursuit videos, I wanted to see what the car could really do. So I took it out to a couple of autocrosses, and even a time trial event at an outdoor go-kart track. I didn’t take it at all seriously. I slapped “car 54” magnets on the doors, threw an amber flashing light on the roof, and cranked the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage as I ran through the course. And I had a blast doing it. It was among the slowest cars out there, but also one of the most popular. Everyone else wanted to see what an ex-cop car could do, too, and many were surprised at how well I could hustle that beast around. One competitor, a driving school instructor for a living, shot video of my car on the kart track specifically to show his students that police cars aren’t slow, and you shouldn’t try to outrun them.
Whatever you drive, you can find ways to have fun with it. Even if you never touch a track or autocross course, you can have fun with your otherwise boring daily driver, and make it more interesting. It may never be as quick or as fun as a true enthusiast’s car, but you can personalize it and have fun with it. To me, having fun is the most important part.
Top photo by Nicholas Crovo