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Auto show or bust: Routine trip becomes challenging drive for Mazda, Fiat

Published February 22, 2013

Last summer, after meeting a very personable, 6-foot-6 Newfoundlander named Matthew Guy, it wasn’t long before we were having delusions of grandeur — fantasizing about a project we could undertake, a race we could enter or a road trip we could map out.

Over one of our many weekend drinks, while tinkering with a mechanical project, the topic of attending the Canadian International AutoShow in Toronto floated to the surface, like an air bubble in one of our bottles of brew.

We’re both freelance journalists living in a semi-rural area of Nova Scotia. It isn’t like we could take a drive to Oshawa or Oakville, leapfrogging from one automotive headquarters to another, to shake hands and introduce ourselves. The auto show would provide that opportunity. We absolutely needed to go.

But, we agreed, it had to be done in a special way: a road trip. And not just any road trip; a challenging drive from Truro, N.S., to Toronto along the Trans-Canada through four provinces, a distance of more than 1,600 km.

We promptly lined up our winter chariots — a Mazda MX-5 and a Fiat 500 Turbo — to create a difficult, but very memorable, journey west. How hard could it be?

Driving 1,600 km through multiple provinces isn’t completely foreign to me. Over the years, I’ve made the journey from Nova Scotia to Ontario and back. But, this was very different. The cars, even with winter rubber, weren’t meant for extended road trips in snowy, frigid conditions — the exact reason that attracted us to the idea in the first place.

I piloted the Mazda, while Matthew took the reigns of the Fiat, mostly due to his lanky frame not fitting in the Japanese roadster.

Starting out, the weather was absolutely perfect, with positive temperatures and nary a cloud in sight. At one point, I even dropped the roof to enjoy some sunshine and my last breath of East Coast salty air. This was all to be short-lived, as northern New Brunswick weather can be a very unforgiving mistress.

It started with a flurry followed by steady snow. Just as we were getting used to the cars wiggling around a bit, Mother Nature pitched us a curveball: faster-falling snow and a dash of freezing rain. I could have seen better through whale-bone sunglasses.

Semi after semi passed us by on Highway 2 along the New Brunswick-Maine border. Each pass brought a wall of road slush, temporarily paralyzing our sight, while our white knuckles reflected against the windshield. We pulled over at a Tim Hortons in Perth-Andover, N.B., to re-evaluate our plan.

“My back wheels are everywhere,” explained Matthew with his deep-serious voice. “I’d sooner stay in this Tim Hortons all night than drive in this garbage weather in the dark.”

I sat there, head in my hands, defeated, thinking about our warm hotel room waiting for us in Lévis, Que. Did I really want to sleep in a chair at a doughnut shop? Or did I want to conquer this mission as intended?

“Let’s just plod along,” I nudged. “Keep it slow and we’ll do just fine. And, if we reach the Quebec border tonight, I will consider it a win.” I wouldn’t really consider it a win, but it was enough of a push to get Matthew back into the Fiat.

Torture would be an apt description of the next three hours. I didn’t care though. We were going to make it to Lévis and I was going to enjoy the luxury of dry feet and a warm bed.

The concentration needed to keep the MX-5 in a straight line was exhausting. The slightest, jerky adjustment to the accelerator would break the rear end free and make it swing about. The Fiat was even worse, or so Matt led me to believe across our two-way radios.

After a few more rest stops, some caffeinated beverages, and more than 200 km of driving no faster than 70 km/h (sometimes as slow as 30), we finally approached Rivière-du-Loup and caught a break in the weather.

Four hours of absolute focus had turned my brain into mush and I went into autopilot for the rest of the leg to Lévis. The only memory I can recall is of my head hitting the pillow, dry feet, and being able to close my tired, dried-out eyes.

The next morning, I felt rejuvenated, and I shot out of bed ready to conquer the rest of the trip.

After the meteorological hell that was the previous day, the second leg was easy. Some traffic, a little snow, stereotypical Montreal driving behaviour, and the constant presence of OPP in Ontario kept us on our toes.

But, we made it. We triumphed over the worst road trip I’ve ever taken. Seeing the Toronto skyline was our oasis in the desert. Although I will never trade this trip for the world, it is also one I won’t be repeating anytime soon.

Yet again, that’s what everyone tells themselves when experiencing a morning-after hangover.

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