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2 decades of writing about Wheels

It's been 20 years since the founding of the Wheels section? You gotta be kidding me.

  • 4x4 off-road safari. Egypt. Sinai desert

Twenty years?

It’s been 20 years since the founding of the Wheels section?

You gotta be kidding me.

Seems like it was just yesterday when I had lunch with Star editor Dennis Morgan (now retired) at The Keg at Markham Rd. and the 401, during which he described his plan for launching Wheels.

At the time, my car column was buried in the Monday Star‘s Life section, where my mom could hardly ever find it.

Under the plan, my musings, plus Ray Stapley’s “Why does my car go clunk?” repair and maintenance column, would move from Sunday to the new Saturday car section.

Those two entries, along with eight pages of classifieds, were originally going to be it. Morgan’s vision changed all that.

I remember a colleague asking me if I was upset that I’d be sharing the Star‘s automotive coverage with other writers.

What? Complain about a move from the back of the Life section, to “above the fold” — newspaper slang for the top half of the page — on the front of a section in the week’s best-selling edition?

I would have shared that with anybody. Even him.

The Wheels section single-handedly changed the face of automotive journalism in this country. No longer were daily newspaper auto sections simply “spring car care advertorial” productions. The same journalistic standards that applied to every Star section would apply here.

Before long, Wheels was without doubt the most important automotive publication in the country, a status I think it inarguably retains. It also made Canadian auto journalism markedly different from that in the United States.

Down there, specialist “buff book” car magazines are where everyone looks for automotive information and where car companies funnel their advertising.

In Canada, it’s more likely auto sections in newspapers — all because the Star started Wheels, and the others had to follow suit.

Our current editor, Mark Richardson, has asked me to review some of my favourite Wheels experiences over these 20 years.

Shooting from the lip (who, me?), I’d say that my top experience did not stem from a particular press trip, a particular car or a particular story.

It came a few years ago from Greg O’Neill, a Canadian and former GM of Canada staffer who at the time was sales manager for Mitsubishi in the U.S.

He told me that, in his view, Canadians pay more attention to their automotive journalists than Americans do. The reason? The newspaper/magazine dichotomy I just mentioned.

O’Neill figured the average non-enthusiast car shopper up here isn’t likely to ever come across an auto magazine, let alone read one. Joe or Jo Average know those publications are aimed at car freaks, and feel they probably wouldn’t understand most of the content, anyway.

But a vast cross-section of consumers check out the Saturday Star every weekend. Not all read Wheels religiously, of course, but when they’re in the market for a car — bam, there we are.

Our broadsheet does about 700,000 copies a week, with between 36 and 40 pages the average size of a Wheels section lately.

Fold that into quarters, and you pretty much have a major American car magazine.

Except we come out weekly, so monthly circulation is more like 2.8 million.

That’s double what Car and Driver does — and we’re serving a vastly smaller market.

By any measure, our reach is astonishing. As I see it, we started proper auto writing in daily newspapers in Canada.

Most important story?

I’d have to say the battle over photo radar.

A series of articles brought myself and Wheels under the watchful eye of OPP Insp. Colin Brittain, who headed this dubious program.

Following an easy debunking of statistics proffered by the manufacturer of the equipment that was to be used for this “experiment,” I wrote that in the following week’s section I would suggest ways to defend yourself if you were charged with a photo radar speed violation.

According to the story I heard, Brittain made it clear to Star management that if I counselled people to break the law, the full weight of the provincial police etc., etc.

You can bet that piece received a thorough reading before it went to press — as written.

I later heard that when defendants in such charges brandished copies of my column, the prosecutors simply withdrew the charges.

My information had come — I was led to believe — from an unknown lawyer in the Solicitor General’s department.

When the usual in-house mock trials were conducted for the upcoming legislation, this individual acted as defence counsel — and invariably beat the charge.

He or she felt the law was simply being used as a tax grab, felt that was inappropriate and felt that Wheels offered the best way to expose the law for what it was.

Photo radar became an important issue in the provincial election that saw Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservatives defeat Bob Rae’s New Democrats.

In the Law of Unintended Consequences department, Harris later told me that because of our stance on photo radar, I was responsible for getting him elected.

Gee, don’t blame me for that.

The best press trip? That’s tough; there have been so many. But one that stands out is a Land Rover Discovery drive north to south across Mongolia.

Talk about being in a different country. In the north are “reindeer people” who live in teepees like the Plains First Nations did hundreds of years ago. Mongolia is said to have the highest literacy rate in the world.

It was there that I experienced my most surreal moment in 20 years of writing for Wheels:

I got out of the Discovery in the middle of the Gobi desert and entered a low, circular ger — the typical home of the nomadic tribes that herd camels, goats and sheep for a living.

I spotted a Chinese-made transistor radio on a chest of drawers, the only piece of furniture. Out of the radio came the not-so-dulcet tones of Leonard Cohen singing “Bird on the Wire.”

Favourite car?

It’s impossible to pick just one, but my list includes a Ferrari F430, my Targa Newfoundland Mini Cooper S and an Arrows Formula One race car (okay, only one lap).

Regrets?

Publishers take the term “freelance” too literally.

My concept of “expensive-lance” journalist just hasn’t caught on the way I hoped it would.

Still, I had a real job before the Star.

This is better.


wheels@thestar.ca; jim@jimkenzie.com

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