When Thomas Mulcair, Canada’s Leader of the Opposition, talks about his first car — a new, gold-coloured 1977 Honda Civic — the word reliability keeps coming up.
“We were looking at different American cars, and we were looking at motors and the reliability, and everyone came to the same conclusion: that Honda was going to be a good car,” says the NDP leader.
“It worked out so well that I’ve owned five Hondas (Civics) over the years (he now drives a Ford Fusion hybrid). So it was good because it was a very reliable car that would start every day.”
Dressed in a courtroom-ready dark suit and tie Mulcair (carry-on flight bag stationed nearby) started his day in Halifax, flew in to Toronto to meet with members of a large union, attended a Bay St. luncheon with business leaders and will later grace a meet-and-greet barbecue and fundraiser.
The former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister, who switched to federal politics and the NDP in 2007, is busy laying the groundwork for the next election. Recent Conservative attack ads may be portraying his economic policies as dangerous, but there was nothing scary about his choice of a first car.
Although imports such as the Civic were initially derided as Japanese econoboxes, its price, dependability and fuel efficiency quickly made the bare-bones compact a popular choice.
Domestically produced in Alliston, Ont., since the late ’80s, it has become larger, more luxurious and one of Canada’s all-time best-selling models.
For Mulcair, who was newly married at the time, the economical car made perfect sense.
Purchased together with his wife, Catherine Pinhas, the $3,800 cost was financed through a loan. And although he’s no longer a smoker, he notes they convinced the dealer to throw in a free cigarette lighter, normally a $5 option.
Still finishing his legal studies and starting a family, Mulcair, who was born in Ottawa and grew up in Laval, Que., had a quintessentially Canadian concern: he needed a car he could count on.
Initially working in Quebec City and living in Montreal, he also needed a car that could handle a winter commute.
“Quebec City had a massive winter, especially back then,” he recalls. “We used to keep four studded tires on it during the winter. It was tremendous for traction and for getting through deep snow.”
“Front-wheel drive was a complete novelty at the time for the average car owner. For us, it was a great discovery that we could actually drive back and forth in fairly heavy snow conditions and go to friends’ places and always get through. That little thing was a tank.”
Driving a tank was not unfamiliar to Mulcair, the second-oldest of 10 kids from a Catholic Irish-Canadian and French-Canadian family (he is descended from former Quebec premier Honoré Mercier).
“At the time, the cars we learned to drive on were so huge. I was in a parade the other day and I saw a 1970 Chrysler Newport. That’s the type of car I had learned to drive on.
“Driver’s ed was only six hours of practical driving and 40 hours of theory,” he adds. “I can honestly tell you that six hours of practice was absolutely not enough, especially since you’re driving the Queen Mary — these were massive, massive boats.”
Mulcair attended a large regional high school, with friends sometimes 20 to 30 kilometres away. So scoring your driver’s licence was a 16-year-old’s rite of passage, especially in a large family.
“We all wanted to have our driver’s licence the minute we turned 16, which we all did,” he says. “My parents were quite happy because, all of a sudden, they had other drivers in the house to take around all the other brothers and sisters.”
The family station wagon — a 1965 Pontiac Laurentian — was lovingly called “the Black Bomb.”
The back-facing, flip-up seat was where the boys sat — usually with the carsick family dog — whenever the family piled in to head up to the cottage.
Reminiscing about the behemoths, the appeal of the Civic may have been that it was unlike all of his previous rides.
Not to forget the reliability, of course.
As there were few houses with garages in Quebec City at the time, Mulcair says it was “great to have a car that you knew would be there for you every morning.”
The 57-year-old, self-described “staid” driver says a desire for glamour never factored into his choice of wheels.
“I have the male sports gene but I do not have the male car gene,” says Mulcair, who has two grown sons: one a police officer, the other an engineer. “I have never felt that I had to drive something fancy. That’s why I was driving a Honda Civic when I was elected to Ottawa and I still have one in my garage now.
“I’ve always considered a car something that takes you from point A to point B.”
But as a former environment minister and a proponent of sustainable development, how those vehicles get from A to B is of interest to him.
“Four-cylinder cars were a novelty,” he recalls. “The standard engine on a Chrysler product in the late ’60s, early ’70s was a 383 cubic inch V8. That was the standard engine. The big one was the 440 cubic.
“If you want to lower emissions and pollution, the smaller the engine, the better chance you have of doing that.
Mulcair is a fan of electric cars — in certain circumstances.
“If you need a second A-to-B car, there’s no reason not to have an all-electric if it’s going to be staying in town with you. But the minute you’re going to be looking at a longer distance, then you’re going to be facing a challenge.”
Which is why he likes his hybrid.
Mulcair is now facing a new challenge: What to do with the Honda Civic sitting in his garage.
He bought out his son’s lease at the end of its five-year term but it may be resold back now that his son needs a second car.
For the first time in a long time, the civic-minded Mulcair may soon be without his trusty Civic.