A car accident made me rethink my life and become an automotive journalist

This was the early 2000s and a quintessential era for modern street racing. Even if it was just as illegal back then as it is now, the laws around it were not as strict.

By William Clavey

Jan 21, 2021 7 min. read

Article was updated a year ago

Join the Conversation (0)
I was nineteen years old. Having had a driver’s license for only two three years, I had already blown the engine in my first car: a 1991 Honda Civic Si. The timing belt had snapped while I was attempting to rev its tiny 1.6-litre engine to redline for the millionth time.

This was the early 2000s and a quintessential era for modern street racing. Even if it was just as illegal back then as it is now, the laws around it were not as strict.

When I wasn’t busy roaming the streets in search of a new duel, I’d spend my evenings watching The Fast and the Furious DVD in repeat. My bedroom walls, also known as the basement in my dad’s house, were heavily decorated in Super Street posters. The room’s floors had transformed into layers upon layers of Car & Driver, Motor Trend and Sport Compact Car magazines. After the Honda died, I needed another car to roam the streets at night. And quick.

A Mother’s Lending Hand

Of course, being 19 and a bit of an idiot, I had no money saved up to replace my poor old Civic. But I did have one thing going for me: good grades and a decent job, which were enough to convince my mom to cosign for a new car loan.

I had my eyes set on a 2002 Mazda Protege5. It was all the talk 20 years ago. More importantly, for a young adult such as myself who was looking for something with a bit of sportiness, a lot of practicality and some form of tuning potential, the Protege5 compact station wagon was the ideal platform to fulfill my wildest street racing fantasies.

But then, my father barged in (my parents were divorced). He decided that the spunky little Protege would not be my next car. “That Mazda is too expensive. We need to find you a car that has the lowest possible monthly payments” - he told me with commanding authority.

The Lanos

My dad came home with brochures he had gathered after bouncing from one dealership to the next. Father had given me three choices: a Hyundai Accent, a Kia Rio, or a Daewoo Lanos.

Needless to say, I was disappointed. But my dad had somehow convinced me that the Lanos would be the smarter choice because of its hatchback configuration and attractive price. And to be fair, among the trio, it was the best-looking option.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what I’m talking about. While today’s dominating South-Korean car brands are Hyundai, Kia and Genesis, another player was slowly trying to penetrate the North American market at the turn of the millennium. That player was Daewoo.

Daewoo’s automotive division, which only stayed in Canada between 1997 and 2002 until it was absorbed by General Motors, had a lineup of just three cars: the midsize Leganza, the compact Nubira, and the subcompact Lanos.

And to its defense, the Lanos offered a lot for its price. Build quality was surprisingly good and its styling had been penned by none other than Giorgetto Giugiaro from Italdesign. What’s more, its 1.6-litre, single overhead cam “E-Tec” engine pumped out 106 horsepower, which was on par with the competing Hyundai Accent. It was also a similar engine configuration as my old Honda.

Roaming the Streets…in a Daewoo

But none of that mattered for a young adult like me. And it didn’t take long before I started modifying the Lanos with aftermarket air intakes, exhausts and body ornaments. Equipped with a manual transmission, my Daewoo would be my weapon of choice against Chevy Cavaliers and Nissan Sentras. And to my astonishment, that little thing did quite well!

Being 19, however, also meant that I was irresponsible to a great degree, and foolish. Speeding tickets kept piling on, to the point where my driver’s license got suspended for an inability to pay. But I kept on driving anyway. Well, I was young and foolish. To make matters worse, I was carrying a $10,000 car loan with mom’s signature on it. On top of it all was a $3,000 collection of speeding tickets and I was street racing at night with a suspended driver’s license. Once more – young and foolish.

The Crash

I eventually secured a job and a few paychecks later I was able to give the municipal court a large down payment on my fines.

Each morning, on the way to my job, I’d end up parked at an intersection next to a pair of dudes that rode in a Honda CRX. That intersection would then lead us to a 90 km/h speed zone which would eventually merge unto a 100 km/h highway. It was, at the time, the best possible scenario for a street race.

Just like the ending scene in The Fast and the Furious, once that streetlight turned green, we’d ignite our front tires in an attempt to get onto that highway before the other guy. Except, unlike the Toyota Supra and the Dodge Charger Paul Walker and Vin Diesel drove in the movie, we were behind the wheel of dinky subcompact economy cars. We thought we were heroes.

I still clearly remember the morning of the crash. It was a sunny September’s day with a fresh autumn breeze in the air. I recall being proud of the new clothes and shoes I was wearing that day, paid for with my hard-earned money.

As I pushed my little Lanos to the limits of its drivetrain, I remember wanting to get a head start on the Honda before entering the highway off-ramp. This would then allow me to catapult myself onto freeway speeds before he could.

But that morning, I pushed the car too far.

The little Daewoo’s rear tires lost traction and led to an exaggerated over-steering manoeuvre that had me suddenly facing a telephone pole. I quickly turned the wheel back towards the road. As the car’s tires went from grass to tarmac again, the car lifted towards the driver’s side and began an aggressive barrel roll sequence across the road.

I was then upside down. To my left, all I could see was dirt and water. I unbuckled my seatbelt and crawled my way through the passenger door. The Lanos was squished from the weight of its roof, all four tires standing upright towards the glaring sun.

During my ride in the ambulance, a police officer was interrogating me about the speed I was going at. I remember telling him that I didn’t know how fast I was going and that I had lost control of my car. Meanwhile, the paramedics ripped apart my brand-new jeans and polo to investigate my bruised-up body.

The Aftermath

I only stayed in the emergency room for a whole morning. I was indeed fine, but the doctor had given a week’s leave off work to rest.

When I went back to my Lanos to pick up any personal items I could have left in the car, there was nothing left of the little Daewoo. The car looked like it had been eaten alive by a giant shredder. Because Daewoo had left the country, the insurance company couldn’t replace the car. Instead, they gave me a check for the total amount of the loan. I paid it off and kept the remaining money.

Inevitably, I ended up facing the dreaded father-to-son speech, which felt even worse than the crash itself. I remember feeling ashamed for disappointing the people I loved. These people had come close to losing a loved one. I remember my dad looking at me in the eye and telling me: “Son, this is life giving you a second chance. What do you plan on doing with it?”

As I looked at the ground in shame, I recall focusing on the cover of a Ford Mustang Cobra vs Chevrolet Camaro SS comparison test on the cover of one of my Car & Driver magazines. I looked back at my dad and said: “Dad, I’m going to write in one of these magazines someday. And you’re going to be proud of me.”