First, some housekeeping: This is my last column for The Globe and Mail. Saying goodbye to a career that gave me so many great experiences isn't easy. Over the past three and a half decades I went to wars, met saints and sinners, flew an F16 fighter, did major investigations, and got hugged by soul legend James Brown.
In 2009, I decided to spend the final part of my news career writing about something I have loved since I was a boy: cars and engineering. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. Over the past seven years I have driven virtually every car I dreamed of, met some of my driving heroes and went behind the scenes at some of the coolest places in the world, including the Formula One pits, the Morgan car plant where they still make cars by hand, and the Stuttgart Porsche factory I first visited with my father, when I was only five years old.
Life as a car writer also provided some unexpected lessons. For starters, there is little connection between price and value – that $400,000 dream machine may look cool, but it probably won't be as reliable as a Toyota Corolla. Also, when you've driven one supercar, you've driven them all. No matter how much they cost, no matter how fast they are, cars tend to blur together, lost in a half-remembered haze.
Yet some rides stand out. But not for the reasons you might expect. In 2016 alone, I drove about 50 different machines, including a 600-horsepower Shelby Mustang, the legendary Nissan GTR, and the Pagani Huayra, a $2.5-million Italian exotic with a top speed of more than 300 km/h.
They were all cool. But my favourite ride of the year was in a beat-up Ford F-150 pickup truck. The paint was faded, the power windows were wonky, and the interior was strewn with food wrappers. Never mind. The old Ford came with two priceless accessories: a great road and a dog. The road ran through a green Georgia valley, then up the side of a mountain. Hawks flew overhead in a summer sky so blue and perfect that it could have been in a movie. And the dog was a very special mutt named Poncho.
Poncho is no show dog: His lineage may include the Labrador Retriever (which would explain the outsized head), the Australian Blue Heeler (which would explain the rough, mottled fur), the Bassett Hound (which would explain the sawed-off legs), and several other breeds as well. Poncho's claws were hard on the upholstery, but riding with him was a reminder of what matters most. I've known Poncho for a few years now, and he may be the sweetest, humblest dog I've ever met. He lives in the moment, as they say, and when you are with Poncho, you do as well. The ride with Poncho happened because I had traded cars with my friend Mike for a few hours. Mike got the keys to my polished red Lotus with its supercharged engine and Pirelli racing tires. I got Mike's old 150 plus Poncho. By the end of the day, I knew that I had come out ahead.
As a boy, I was deeply affected by The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, Farley Mowat's classic story about his dog Mutt. Among other things, Mutt loved to ride in cars. I thought of Farley and Mutt as I headed through the valley in the old Ford. Poncho rested his head on my lap for a while, then headed over to the passenger side window and stuck his snout out into the airstream, sampling the bouquet of pine trees, wildflowers and hot tarmac. Unlike my Lotus, the F-150 wasn't much of a handler, so I had to plan ahead for corners, managing my speed like a freighter captain heading into a tight harbour. You don't need a sports car to practice the art of driving. Poncho licked my arm. Was he thanking me for keeping the ride smooth? Who knew? It was a perfect afternoon, and I knew it would stay with me always.
Almost every day, someone asks me what my favourite car is, and which ones I'd buy if I won the lottery. The answer: My favourite car is the one that my wife happens to be in at any given moment. And that car is also the one that takes me where I want to go, starts every time without fail, and has a price that doesn't make my family suffer. Although I admire Porsche 911s, and spent several years working on them professionally, I revere cars like the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic and Citroen 2CV for their brilliant application of practical engineering, and their adherence to the inviolable laws of everyday economics.
If I won the lottery, I might break down and buy a 911, a Morgan Aero 8 or even a Pagani Huayra (the most incredible supercar I ever tested). But probably not. I already own a perfect, brand-new Toyota Prius that carries my wife and me everywhere we want. The cars I love are practical and hard working. As much as I admired the two Lotuses I was fortunate enough to own, I never cared for them as much as I did for our Honda minivan and our long-suffering Civic, the cars that carried our family through many of our greatest adventures.
None of these cars can be considered dream machines. But for my wife and I, they were. As the years have taught me, there is an intrinsic connection between engineering, aesthetics and values – utility lasts, while tacked-on design and show-off extravagance fall by the wayside. The greatest, truest style is rooted in authenticity and humanity. And having Poncho with you is the icing on the cake.