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Last Car Standing puts beaters through roughest ride of their life

New TV series gives old cars a last shot at glory (before impaling them on a giant spike)

Published April 18, 2013

“I really don’t like this car,” says Deb Watson. “It squeaks, it groans, it grinds and it’s ugly.”

Still, is that any reason to throw her husband Bill’s 1994 Volvo 850 turbo wagon into a fight to the death against a ’91 Honda Accord, a ’96 Dodge Stratus, a ’96 Chrysler Sebring ragtop (described by its owner as “a coffin on wheels”) and a ’97 Cadillac Catera?

“In a heartbeat,” says “Turbo Bill,” a Hamilton photographer who paid $1,500 for the wagon four years ago.

The Discovery Channel’s new series Last Car Standing, airing Monday, takes the network from Canada’s Worst Driver to the GTA’s worst car.

Make that the best worst car — decided by putting a bunch of beaters in a makeshift gladiatorial arena on Lake Shore Blvd. and really beating up on them. And then gleefully impaling the losers on a giant “Spike of Shame.”

Having driven the worst part of the course in a non-beater Suzuki Sidekick, I can safely say that in my hands the little 44 would be first on the spike.

Last Car Standing is the brainchild of Guy O’Sullivan and Blair Ricard. They’ve already taken Canada’s Worst Driver into its ninth successful season — with more to come, promises O’Sullivan, a former British Broadcasting Corp. director and Top Gear veteran.

Each episode has five vehicles in categories from subcompacts to minivans to luxury sedans. The Watsons’ Volvo competes in mid-size. They’re fitted with five-point seatbelts and driver and co-driver (there to yell advice, encouragement and occasionally abuse) wear crash-helmets. It’s “Turbo Bill’s” 56th birthday, so he also gets a party hat.

First come timed laps of a very tight circuit hemmed in with concrete blocks. Slowest car goes to the spike.

“Bill was nailing it,” Deb Watson, a nurse, recalls. “I was just hanging on and holding my breath.”

And yelling at one point, “Oh my god, Bill, you’re kickin’ it!”

Next, the four survivors drive up a ramp, with an increasingly heavy weight hooked to the car. By it reaches 870 kilograms, someone’s ready to cry, “Uncle.”

And everyone else cries, “Spike! Spike! Spike!”

Then there’s the nastiest dragstrip you ever saw — the three remaining cars accelerate up and down it both in forward gear and reverse. Over vicious speed bumps.

Two of the three go on to the timed “beater-buster” circuit, which is what I drive. Followed by O’Sullivan, driving it properly.

It starts with an impossibly tight U-turn in reverse — fenders will be bent.

Then a blast of water to take you by surprise and, as you’re grabbing for the windshield-wiper switch to drive between a row of parked cars, their doors start swinging open at random. I hit at least two. Oh, all right, four. It’s worse than Queen St. during rush hour.

Over a stretch of dirt with more speed-bumps and on to a teeter-totter with the aim of balancing the car for three seconds. Then through a concrete slalom and over logs stuck in the ground endwise at uneven levels. A real suspension-killer and tire ripper.

Another slalom through a mud bog and on to something that makes the teeter-totter look like the child’s play that it originally was. The gimbal is a large circle with a centre balance point. Balance on that? Can’t be done.

Actually, it can. O’Sullivan keeps the gimbal in equilibrium for several seconds. “Well, I do this a lot,” he says, to spare my feelings.

Finally, competitors have to shove a large block through a hole. That’s if they have any steering left.

Each week’s survivor can opt for a $10,000 automotive makeover — you’d probably need every penny to make your car roadworthy again — or go on to the final, against the other class-winners.

The big prize is a $50,000 restoration. Sort of, “Pimp my poor, tormented grocery-getter…”

Safety is a big deal, O’Sullivan says. “There’s always an element of risk. We manage it, try to stay ahead of it. One car did catch fire but we extinguished it very quickly.

“And yes, the cars do hit things but not in a way that’s likely to hurt anyone. It’s ordinary people driving their own cars and that can be a bit unpredictable.”

Canada’s Worst Driver, he says, “is all about the driver and this is all about the car. That said, if you’re a crummy driver in a great car, you’re not gonna do it.”

The reaction of losers watching their cars being spiked ranges from cheers and laughter to “one woman who was sobbing. I don’t want to make light of it. She’d bought her vehicle new, raised her family with it and… it didn’t make it. She was apologizing that she hadn’t taken it all the way through.”

How do the Watsons make out? I know but if I told you, I’d have to kill you. The show is under tight wraps. They wouldn’t even let me take a picture of the spike. Shame.

wheels@thestar.ca

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