Stories behind the story: 30 years of Toronto Star Wheels

Wheels Editor Norris McDonald looks back on 30 years of the Wheels section and does some reminiscing

  • smackdown

Thirty years ago this week — on Sat., Sept. 27, 1986, to be exact — Toronto Star foreign news editor Dennis Morgan wrote the following words:

“Welcome to the world of Wheels. Whether you believe an automobile is just a means of getting from A to B or a prized possession needing to be pampered and preened, this weekly section of the Saturday Star is for you.”

Thirty years? Where did the time go?

The main story on the cover of that first Wheels section was written by — you guessed it — Jim Kenzie. Jim was already a familiar face in the Saturday Star, having written about cars and trucks previously in sections like Life, where his stories would be lumped in among crossword puzzles, comic strips and Ann Landers’ advice column. Now, in Wheels, he had a permanent home.

And he’s still very much with us. If you look under “REVIEWS”, you will find him.

In this section, you will find him writing about the top 10 most significant cars he’s tested and reviewed during the 30 years of Wheels. Hint: you won’t find him talking about anything powered by electricity.


Other journalists in that first issue included Morgan himself, Ray Stapley, an auto mechanic who answered questions from readers, James Daw, a Business section columnist who weighed in with stories about things like the high cost of insurance, and Bill Taylor, who wrote about the lighter side of owning cars and who would also, on occasion, contribute a feature on motor sport, a subject near and dear to founding editor Morgan’s heart.

I found that out exactly 10 years earlier when Dennis arrived at the Star from England, already a veteran of the Fleet Street newspaper scene.

We quickly discovered that we shared an affection for auto racing generally, and Formula One racing in particular.

As that year’s Canadian Grand Prix was taking place the very next weekend (Oct. 3, 1976), and he hadn’t purchased a car or even had time to obtain a Canadian driver’s licence, I offered to take him out to Mosport with me.

On race day, we found a spot against the fence at Corner 10 and settled in for the afternoon.

I had a press pass (which was something else he didn’t have), so I would leave him periodically to go over to the media room in the control tower and stock up on sandwiches and soft drinks to take back.

After the race — James Hunt won it in a McLaren — I said to Dennis, “How’d you like your first Grand Prix?”

And he replied, “Look mate, that might have been my first Grand Prix in Canada, but I was at five in Europe this year before I came over here.”

Put me in my place, he did.


(An aside: Dennis had a wonderful career at the Star, finishing up as deputy managing editor, special sections. At one time, though, he was asked to be editor of the Saturday Star, the biggest edition each week of the biggest circulation newspaper in the country. Dennis said he would do it — but on one condition: he would not work weekends during the racing season. They said they were fine with that, and he took the job. But he had to have been the only Saturday editor in the history of the Star, and maybe even the newspaper business itself, who would say “adios” as he walked out of the office every Friday afternoon between March and November, leaving the responsibility of putting out that huge paper to his underlings.)

Now, back in the 1980s, unlike today, newspapers were almost licences to print money. Advertising was coming out of their ears. The Star was particularly lucky because it was the dominant daily in Toronto and surrounding area (we call it the GTA now) and if you wanted to sell a car or truck, the Star was where you had to be. Upwards of 10 pages of classified advertising of “Vehicles For Sale” was not unusual.

One day in early September of 1986, the-then managing editor of the Star, Ray Timson, called Dennis into his office and asked him to come up with three or four pages of editorial automotive content to support all of this advertising. “You’re a gearhead,” Timson said. “Do it on your own time and file for overtime. We’ll see where it goes.”

Where it went was off the charts. Almost immediately, Toronto Star Wheels became a hit with readers as well as advertisers. What was supposed to be eight to 10 pages a week started off at 16 and rarely fell below that. And it grew and grew. Last weekend’s Wheels section, for instance, was 28 pages thick; other automotive sections in other Toronto papers numbered fewer than a dozen.

Wheels quickly became not only the biggest but the best automotive section, with the finest journalists writing for it. The editors weren’t chopped liver, either. After five years at the helm, Dennis handed the section over to Richard Young. Richard, in turn, handed off to John Terauds, who then passed the baton to Adam Gutteridge. After Adam came Mark Richardson, and when he left the Star to concentrate on writing, they gave the job to me.

In the early years, in addition to the founding group of Morgan, Stapley, Daw, Kenzie and Taylor, fantastic writers like Carola Vyhnak, Max Wickens, Laurance Yap, Nika Rolczewski and Cam McRae, among others, signed on. Remember what I said about motor sport?

In 1988, Dennis cooked up a deal in which British racing writer Graham Jones (a Canadian by birth) would join the Star to write for Wheels on Saturdays and for Star Sports several times during the week, year-round, plus cover the big races. Wheels would pay half of his salary and Sports the rest. Graham thus became the Star’s first full-time motor sport reporter and he did a great job.

Others who have covered racing over the years include Len Coates, Frank Orr, Bob Mitchell, Rick Matsumoto and Stephanie Wallcraft.

I’ve done a little of that myself, thanks to Dennis and Mark, who asked me to start writing on a weekly basis back in 2003.

As editor, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many other wonderful automotive journalists, real stars (and characters) like Lorraine Sommerfeld, Lesley Wimbush, Costa Mouzouris, Jil McIntosh and Peter Bleakney (who are all writing for the National Post these days, which is understandable considering that their editor, David Booth, also wrote for Wheels at one time).

Eric Lai and Peter Gorrie were part of this wonderful team, as was Gerry Malloy (who’s contributed his last Tech Talk article to this commemorative issue), Emily Atkins and the forementioned Wallcraft (and what finds those two were), Brian Early, Yvonne Marton, Doug Devine, Ross Fattori, John Mahler, Tim Miller (you can read his stories these days in the Hamilton Spectator), Kathy Renwald (who wrote the greatest car review/road trip stories going), Kumar Saha, Howard Elmer, David Miller, Marie Sutherland, Lee Bailie, Philip Marchand and Mark Toljagic, a guy who, bar none, wrote probably the most interesting column in Wheels for years — one on second-hand cars.

Think about that for a moment: a column on used cars in what is, primarily, a new-car section.

And that’s one of the nicest things about Wheels: there are no restrictions on subject matter.

Steve Bond wrote about and reviewed motorcycles for years, even though there was rarely, if ever, any motorcycle advertising.

For several years, we published columns on cycling by Julian Papon.

In fact, every year I was editor (except this one), we devoted an annual issue to bicycles and cycling. I always told people that if it had wheels, it belonged in Wheels (although I drew the line at power lawn mowers).

The names and faces of contributors have changed in recent months — and this sort of thing happens in the communications industry all the time, by the way — but the quality and excellence of the product remains.

Led by editorial director Jonathan Yarkony and managing editor Jodi Lai, the gang at is providing most of the columns and stories for Wheels these days, but Kenzie is still here, as am I.

We aren’t going anywhere.

And as readers become more familiar with writers like Jason Siu, Stephen Elmer and Craig Cole, I’m confident their work will quickly be seen as “must-reads.”

Much more than a newspaper section, Toronto Star Wheels, through the years, has been active in the community, which is another way we stand out from the rest.

We’ve been at the forefront of driver education and automotive career days. We continue to be the media partner of the Canadian International AutoShow. We have organized and administered car cruises in which money was raised for the Star’s Fresh Air Fund. We’ve even sponsored auto racing events, including one called the 24 Hours of Mosport.

One time, we ran a contest in which the winner would be Wheels Editor for a day.

There was also a bonus prize: platinum-seat tickets at the Air Canada Centre for a Maple Leafs game. Plus hospitality, including dinner.

Naturally, the editor (Richardson at the time) and the assistant editor at the time (me) had to accompany the winner. Mark and I suggested it should be a monthly contest, but the promotions department thought otherwise. In fact, after seeing the bill for dinner and drinks, they’ve never let Wheels run another contest.

Richardson and I had great fun for a year or so conducting weekly debates that we videotaped and posted to the home page. Originally the idea of Star senior editor Ed Cassavoy, the idea was to pick an automotive topic of the week and we would then have a knock-down, drag-‘em-out verbal fight that we called Wheels Smackdown. In addition to posting the video online, we would publish the transcript on page 2 of the Wheels section each week. It proved very popular.

We usually didn’t have a problem deciding on topics to argue about because Mark and I frequently were on opposite sides of the table on many things, not just auto topics. But there periodically would come times when we couldn’t decide who would argue the “con” side when we both were “pro” about something.

At which point we would flip a coin, or arm-wrestle, or something, to decide who would take the opposite tack. And that’s how I got myself into big, big trouble once over whether motorists should have winter tires on their cars in the city of Toronto.

Now, both Mark and I agreed that everybody should have winter tires. We are automotive journalists. Of course you should have winter tires. Everyone should. Who could argue against that?

So we flipped the coin and I lost. I had to argue that you don’t need winter tires in the city.

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So the video went online and before you could say, “How many clicks did we get today?,” we were asked to go on CFRB 1010 and repeat our debate on the radio (they played the theme from Rocky as we were being introduced). Then I got a call: “Dale Goldhawk would like you to appear on his television show on Rogers Cable. Will you do that?”

And so I’m on the radio and television, insisting that you don’t need winter tires on your car in winter in the city. It is the worst thing in the world to stake out a position that you have doubts about in the first place and then have to defend it. I’m sure — in fact I’m positive — that this has happened to others in our industry. It was one time for me and I’ve regretted it ever since.

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Never again.

Toward the end of Smackdown, Mark and I had pretty much run out of things to discuss and so I went through a period where I would debate cars in the city vs. no cars in the city with now-retired City Hall columnist Christopher Hume. I like and admire Chris but it used to drive me crazy when he’d start his columns with statements like, “Many cities in the world restrict traffic in their downtowns,” and I’d say, “Name one, other than London.” We’d get on camera and it would go from there. It got a little heated on occasion, but was always great fun.

There are many stories and memories locked in the Wheels section vault. Here’s one of the best.

In 1991, a young Toronto woman went with her boyfriend to the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. She had never seen an auto race before, much less a Grand Prix. But she fell instantly in love with the atmosphere and the scene and the excitement. Naturally, she decided to become a Formula One journalist.

I will not embarrass her by naming her. Let’s call her Sylvia Barber. She had some talent, with the emphasis on “some.” But she had nerve. A whole lot.

She started applying for passes to cover Grands Prix. When asked who she was working for, she fudged. But things in F1 were a little easier and less formal in those days and she usually was successful. She attained some legitimacy by selling a piece to Autosport magazine, which identified her in a footnote as being a Canadian Formula One journalist.

She soon was a regular in the F1 paddock and pits. She was part of the scene. But one day, the FIA in Paris assumed responsibility for issuing credentials for all F1 races and started to ask questions. The jig was up; she had to get an assignment.

She tried newspapers across Canada but — as you would expect, seeing as she had no journalism training or experience — was rejected. One day, she walked into the Toronto Star Wheels department and asked the editor, who shall go nameless, if he would sign her application for an FIA credential request in return for a couple of stories. As Wheels didn’t have anybody writing about racing at the time, and since it wasn’t going to cost any money, the editor said sure, why not?

The year this happened was 1997. It was the year Canadian Jacques Villeneuve won the world driving championship. (Can you smell trouble ahead? If not, you should.)

Now, Rick Matsumoto was the Star’s Sports section’s full-time auto racing writer at the time. Rick went to all the CART Indy car races — Canadians Paul Tracy, Greg Moore and Patrick Carpentier were all driving in that series in those days — but he didn’t cover F1 except for the Canadian and U.S. Grands Prix.

When it became apparent that Villeneuve would, indeed, win (or lose) the world championship at the Grand Prix of Portugal at the Estoril circuit that fall, the Star’s Sports editor decided — pretty much at the last minute — that Matsumoto had better be there.

He instructed the sports department’s office assistant to call the FIA in Paris and get Rick a credential.

Several hours later, the assistant reported that the FIA had said it would be impossible to issue Mr. Matsumoto a pass for the race in Portugal because North American newspapers were only allowed one credential per publication and the Toronto Star’s pass had already been picked up by the Star’s motor racing correspondent, Sylvia Barber. In fact, the FIA said, Ms. Barber had been representing the Star at F1 races all season.

The Sports editor went apoplectic. People who were in the newsroom that day swear they can still hear him yelling, “WHO IN THE WORLD IS SYLVIA BARBER?” He didn’t say that exactly, but you get the drift.

Word got through to the Wheels section, which was in another part of the building in those days, that something had hit the fan because some impostor had been calling herself a Toronto Star reporter at Grand Prix races all season.

Now, a Canadian was about to win the world driving championship and the Star’s regular auto racing reporter wasn’t going to be able to cover it because this impostor had already made off with the pass.

The Wheels editor immediately went to see the Sports editor and ’fessed up. When everybody calmed down, the Wheels editor then called the FIA in Paris and explained the situation.

Matsumoto got his pass and soon flew to Portugal in time to cover one of the greatest stories in Canadian motorsport history.

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Sylvia got the last laugh, though. When Jacques won his title, she ran up to him and handed him a little Canadian flag, which he waved from the podium. It was there, in all the pictures in all the papers that Monday, following the Sunday race.

Jacques Villeneuve

In the end, she might not have been an F1 writer but she provided the prop that said “Canada” in pictures that went all over the world.

And when told about the fuss that had broken out over her back at the Star office in Toronto, she said:

“Tell the Sports editor that my name is Sylvia Barber. And don’t anybody ever forget it.”

With the telling of this story many years later, it’s clear that nobody has.

Norris McDonald

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