An automobile is one of the most expensive and most emotional purchases someone can make, after a house and college tuition. It’s a complicated choice. You may know the color you prefer, but where do you find advice about what’s going on under the hood. How do you choose between six different SUVs when all look just about the same?
Helping the reader has been one of the guiding principles during my career in automotive journalism. It was not just enough to ride in fun cars and tell you what a great time I was having—it was about making the connection between the buyer and a car they could care about.
Later this month, I will be joining the team at Consumer Reports, test driving cars for them. It will be a new chapter in my career, but I’ll always miss my Globe byline.
This newspaper is in my blood. My late grandmother, Agnes Kennedy, worked at the Globe for more than 20 years. She started in college, left to raise 10 children, and returned to finish her career as a secretary. Suffice it to say, when I first saw my name on a Globe review, the hair stood up on the back of my neck.
One indicator that I was in the right line of work came during my first year as an auto writer. I had been given the chance to drive a Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe for a day. “Drophead’’ is apparently British for “convertible’’ and we took advantage of the lovely weather. Thanks to the top being down, I could overhear two women chatting as I drove Main Street in Mattapoisett. In an arguably Brahmin accent, one commented, “Oh, he must be the chauffeur.’’
That was to be the first of many unique experiences afforded by this line of work. I remember piloting an off-road-ready Ram Power Wagon through Hungry Valley Off Road Vehicle Park in California. I arrived before dawn on a weekday, and had the entire park to myself. It was a combination of desert floor and wooded mountains that offered rock crawling. I did not see another soul the entire day, save for a park ranger, who stopped to look at the Ram 2500-based 4×4 because his department was considering buying one.
As far as trail-ready trucks go, I saw almost no flaws in the Power Wagon, save for its monstrous size, which made it impossible to park in Los Angeles. Determining which flaws to focus on was part of the learning curve over the last five years, and John Paul, the AAA Car Doctor, provided some sage wisdom. He said the flaws to focus on are the ones that appear to be part of the design of the car, and are thus endemic to the model.
That advice came in handy one fateful afternoon, at the wheel of a 500-horsepower Shelby replica. It was a Factory Five, bare-bones, V8-powered Roadster that belonged to Factory Five CEO, Dave Smith. The Wareham-based company makes several types of build-it-yourself component cars, inspired by classics like the Shelby Cobra, Shelby Daytona, ’32 Ford Coupe, and Ford GT40.
When I carefully placed myself at the helm of the Roadster, I asked Smith if I should know anything about the beast, hoping for some advice on shift points or any mechanical gremlins. He replied, “If you don’t respect it, it will kill you.’’
Heeding this warning, I very gingerly departed, making my way in a convoy of other employee-owned Factory Five cars up Route 93 in New Hampshire. As I exited the highway, the roadster kept stalling, even when I tried putting full power on. Eventually, she lurched to a halt, and I was stranded on the side of the road in one of the most unique cars you can own.
Dave Smith pulled up and immediately started looking around and under the car for what the issue was. Dave was so cool about it, trying to take blame rather than consider operator error. He determined that the adjustable pedals were too close together and that the corner of my size 14 foot was nudging the brake just enough to make contact, which eventually locked up the brakes.
Even at that point, he was apologetic, and a few weeks later, had me down to drive the car again—this time with widened pedals.
Perhaps its fear and respect for fast cars that causes me to stick to off-roading much of the time. Those who spend a lot of time off-roading know that you can have just as much fun at eight miles an hour, as you can at 80 mph. This particular interest led me to traverse the Rubicon Trail with Jeep, in its 10th Anniversary Wrangler Rubicon.
The best part of this job has been the people I’ve met. From fellow writers in the New England Motor Press Association to enthusiast club members to upstart CEOs who are gearheads in their own right—it is the people who make these stories possible. The Mustang would not be the Mustang without the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who have owned and loved them through the decades. The owners make the car, and the stories they tell have inspired all my reporting. I hope they will inspire future stories in the next phase of my career.