Sunday, November 15, 2009

Review: Lexus RX350

Every luxury carmaker has one, and I really can’t stand the bloody things, they drive me mad. They take the drivers concentration away from the road so you can adjust the climate to a sane level, or turn the music down, or look at a map to find out just where the hell you are. I’m talking about the on-board computer. The large computer screen in the middle of the dash that has a dictatorship over all the on-board systems, which includes some annoying puck, disc knob or lever to actuate through the maze of menu options and controls.


Guess what Lexus is showing off in the new RX350? You guessed it, another electronic dash dictator. But this one is different. While other systems use some foreign knob or lever that requires a weeks training to coming to terms with, Lexus has designed something that’s already familiar to your hand and mind - a computer mouse. While its not exactly the same as the one connected to your PC, it is somewhat familiar, making it easier to get the job done. And while this system is a great step forward from the old confusing way of navigating the Lexus dash, and it is one of the simplest systems out there, I still can’t but wonder what was ever wrong with knobs and dials.

Not to get on a rant lets continue with the rest of the interior. The RX offers the typical luxury appointments that will keep five adults pleasantly happy and comfortable. An optional Pre-Collision System (PCS) with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control can be used to maintain a set distance from vehicles ahead and can detect obstacles, warning the driver whether a collision is highly possible. These are the good tech goodies that I do like.


Open the hood and all you’re going to see is two large plastic engine covers. Now this is usually a let down because I open the hood for a reason, to get a gander at the oily bits. I don’t want to look at a sheet of plastic; I want to see the heart of the vehicle. However, in Lexus’ defense, the engine covers do serve a greater purpose, as they act as noise insulation, keeping the cabin quiet. And for those in the market for an RX350, this is a good thing… I guess. In fact, Lexus has gone to great lengths to make the cabin as quiet and peaceful as possible, even finding ways to make the intake quieter. I didn’t know intake manifolds made that much noise?


One surprise I found with this luxury-classed vehicle was the amount of off-road oriented features. First thing you notice when looking down at the center consol (other than the mouse) is a button to lock the new Active Torque Control AWD. That’s much beefier than the viscous units found on most luxury crossovers. Couple this with advertised approach and departure angles, and suspension that feels more multi-purpose than sports oriented, and one would start to think Lexus had visions of the back woods when completing the design engineering. And while the RX may not be trail rated so to say, this shiny collection of metallic paint and chrome can handle itself quite fine in just about everything minus a full 4WD trail.


Although, with this terrain versatility, comes a mushy ride, with increased body roll in the corners. While just about every other vehicle in this class boasts about their sportscar like handling, the RX’s softness can’t match the same claims. One thing it can hold its head high for however, is its silky smooth ride. This is a trait that is engineered into every Lexus that comes off the line, and the RX is no different. Along with the silence inside the cabin, the ride feels absolutely divine; proving this is what Lexus excels at.


MSRP: $46,900

Price as tested: $62,200

Layout: Front Engine – All Wheel Drive

Engine: 3.5L V-6

Transmission: 6-Speed Automatic with manual shift

HP: 275

Torque: 257

Brakes: Four wheel ventilated discs

Curb Weight: 1,970 kg

Towing Capacity: 1,587 kg

0-100 km/h: 7.4 sec

Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 11.6/8.2L/100km

Feature: The Swiss Army Knife of Transportation

A Swiss army knife is an important piece of kit to own. It’s a single tool that is capable of serving its owner in so many ways. Anything from hunting, preparing and eating food, self-defense, hygiene, cracking a beer at a party and everything in between. However, for much larger task’s like road maintenance and repair, agricultural duties and getting much need supplies to a battlefront in rough terrain, the jack-of-all-trades has always been, and will be the Unimog.


Built by Daimler-Benz, the Unimog is one of the world’s most capable off-road vehicles. They are still pretty rare here in North America, as the vehicle was never sold here, however, the Unimog’s icon status in Europe has meant several private importers have been slowly trickling the specialty vehicles into the country for over a decade now. Very quickly the Unimog, both older and newer versions are becoming the darling of the off-road community, allowing four-wheelers to go deeper into the unknown.


The Unimog has an interesting beginning, as it’s creation mimics that of the Land Rover in several ways. After the fall of World War II, the British where looking for a vehicle that would serve both as rural transportation and take on many tasks of a tractor. With the successful Willies Jeep 4WD vehicle making a name for itself in their military, the British wanted a similarly useful vehicle of their own, creating a truck that could navigate through the rain soak rural fields, and had power take-offs to power saws, winches, mowers and just about anything that could be jimmied up to take rotational force to do a job.


It was around this same time that Albert Friedrich, previously the Head of Aeroengine Design at Daimler-Benz, was thinking along the same lines. He put forward a concept for a vehicle with a basic design that would be versatile for tasks of all kinds, possess superior off-road mobility with a four-wheel-drive drivetrain featuring portal gear axles and differential locks front and rear. It would also have a compact cab, outstanding robustness and power take-offs front and rear for attaching a multitude of working implements. This was the concept being thrown around as early as 1945, and was a hit at the 1948 German Agricultural Show, with 150 orders made. With that the project was streamlined for production with the Massrs. Erhard & Sons coming on as development partners.


The truck was given the name Unimog, which is an acronym for "UNIversal-MOtor-Gerät," or universally applicable motorized implement. An unusual name even for the Germans, but described its abilities well. The first versions were simplistic to

 say the least with a small open cab, flat bed and equal size wheels in order to be driven on roads at higher speeds than standard farm tractors. They were powered by Daimler-Benz’s 25-hp OM636 diesel engine became standard equipment in the first production, while the track width of 1,270 millimeters was equivalent to two potato rows. This was a truck aimed at the agricultural community and they embraced it, as its power take-offs allowed farmers to attach a myriad of useful machines to work in the fields and forests.


Production began in 1948 at the mechanical engineering factory of Boehringer in Schwäbisch Gmünd. Erhard and Sons did not have the production capacity needed, and due to wartime concessions, Daimler-Benz was not permitted to build 4WD vehicles. These laws changed with the creation of the West German Republic and the success of the Unimog prompted Daimler-Benz to take over the project completely, moving production to their Gaggenau plant in 1951.


1955 saw the first complete redesign of the Unimog, introducing the infamous 404. This truck would become a legend as its abilities and usefulness meant it wasn’t discontinued until 1980, with 64,242 units produced. However, this truck was geared more toward cross-country trucking rather than an agricultural implement. It featured a massive upgrade in power with a 2.2L 82 hp straight-six petrol engine mated to a synchromesh gearbox. This much larger 

 could climb a 70% grade, while capable of a 90% decent. It had a ground clearance of 40 cm, could ford nearly a meter of water, had a side slope angle rating of 46 degrees, with 46 degree approach and departure angles. Off-road abilities were coupled with a weight of 2,900 kg and a 1,500 kg payload. These numbers were impressive in 1955, and when the cold war started to pick up, West Germany began to re-arm the military, and the Unimog faired heavily in their plans. Over half of all 404’s built went to the German military while countries all over the world saw the potential of such a vehicle, snapping up nearly all the rest.


Over time, the simplicity, durability and down right unbeatable versatility of the Unimog continued to be a success. Exploited by both the agricultural and military industries, the commercial industry was now starting to take notice, and Daimler-Benz listened. Soon specialty vehicles could be ordered with fire fighting or ambulance kit, be configured to be a mobile workshop or weather forecasting station, or kitted for municipal and rail maintenance. The possibilities were endless, while the added go-anywhere abilities only made the choice for businesses to go mobile all the more attractive. Because of this Daimler-Benz also started to increase the production range, now building lightweight, mid-sized and heavy versions. The OM 352 diesel's now used for power introduced direct injection for the first time, raising power quickly from 70 to 80 hp to 100 hp used by a new 416 series launched at the 1969.

In 1976, the face of the Unimog changed once again with a new angular design. The new 424 was complimented by the renaming of all Unimog versions. The traditional rounded style Unimogs were designated U 600/L, U 800/L, U 900 and U 1100/L. New angular shapes were the hallmark of the Unimog U 1000, U 1300/L, U 1500 and the flagship, the U 1700/L with a 168 hp engine. The letter "L" indicated the long-wheelbase version. These new trucks feature many improvements including disc brakes for the first time.


Today, you can’t go anywhere in Europe without seeing a Unimog doing some kind of labour, whether it be hauling goods, cleaning tunnels and sign posts along the Autobahn or carrying troops and equipment. It is the workhorse of Europe. The latest design has been so popular that special editions such as the Funmog and the Unimog Black edition be created for wealthy eccentrics to play on their acreages. Travelers outfit all years and ranges with living quarters to explore the world over. They are used for absolutely everything, and have created a cult following.


Unfortunately, the Unimog is still not commercially available here in Canada, a country that would have a great use for such rugged and versatile machinery. However, it’s becoming more and more common to spot them on the roads, as importers are bringing fifteen year old vehicle into the country as they are so popular with off-roaders and small businesses that need to get equipment out into the bush or mines. Like the influx of Japanese JDM vehicles into the country, the abilities of the Unimog will be exploited.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Opinion: Who Do I Cheer For Now

As a young boy, like so many other young boys, I dreamt that one day I would own an exotic mid-engine sports car. However, while the visions of Lamborghini Countaches, Ferrari 308’s, Lotus Esprites and Porsche 959’s danced through the heads of most kids, my dream was to one day own a Toyota MR2. Yes, a little unusual maybe, but should not come as a surprise as Toyota was one of the most exciting car companies at that time. During the late 80’s, the MR2 was only one of several cars that stirred the souls of driving enthusiasts the world over. The iconic Corolla GTS, which is every bit as popular today than it, was when it showed up in show rooms for the first time. The rally bred Celica GT4 Turbo AWD that was the Subaru STi of its day. Then there was the company’s performance flagship, the Supra Turbo, Toyota’s answer to the Skyline GTR with an equally potent 3.0L Straight-six turbo. Then finally the nimble little MR2, to date still one of the most fun cars I’ve ever driven.


The excitement surrounding Toyota wasn’t just focused on the cars they sold, they were also a force to be reckoned with in the motorsports world. Toyota dominated just about every form of motorsports they touched. From the horrifically over powered Group C and IMSA Sports Cars, to Ivan “Ironman” Stewart thundering through the deserts of Baja, to the ultra competitive world of Touring Car racing, the screaming CHAMP cars, the mighty Supra warhorse battling 11 years strong in the Super GT series and finally the elegant GT-One that ripped through the air down the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans. When it comes to racing Toyota has always been feared and respected.


However, the one sport that turned the Toyota name into a legend was rallying. Here they proved to be constant contenders in three different vehicles over three decades starting with the Group 2 Corolla’s in the 70’s. Then came the lethal Group B Twin Cam Celica, giving way to one of the most iconic rally cars of all time, the Group A Celica GT4. And even when the Celica was getting old, the Corolla WRC stepped up to become one of the greatest rally cars of all time.


That’s damn right impressive for one carmaker, and thus the excitement surrounding Toyota lured me in and made me a fan. It is an excitement that made me dream of one day owning an MR2, rather than a Ferrari, Lamborghini or Porsche. And since the MR2 is not a high priced exotic, my dream became reality sooner than most, as I was the proud owner of my life long dream car at the age of 17. My love for that car was unmatched, as Sunday drives where now taken on a daily basis. A year later, Toyota’s enormous motorsports legacy led me to cage the little MR2 and go racing myself, competing in local rallies, then moving on to a Corolla GTS to compete at a higher level.


The Toyota heyday was here and strong, alas it would not last long. Toyota’s feared fleet of exciting performance driven vehicles began to fade. First the Corolla GTS, then the MR2, then the GT4 soon followed by the Supra and finally the entire Celica line itself was cut soon after the millennium. The vacuum left was filled with mass produced cars built for the masses. Cars void of any soul or character, they were designed not to stick out in a crowd, but to appeal to the mass public as a whole. Its as though the ambitious and innovative designers and engineers of the 70’s and 80’s had their leashes tightened as the bean counters took control in the corporate greed to sell sell sell, instead of supplying car loving drivers with proper equipment for a culture they love so much.


Fair enough, things change with times, but Toyota didn’t stop there. No, after stealing away our cars of pleasure, they then pulled a 180, declaring that they wanted to be looked at through the eyes of North Americans and thought of as a domestic carmaker. As a dedicated Toyota fan I had firmly planted my loyalties to the import side of the foreign vs. domestic brand wars. This would be Toyota’s first knife in the back. Then, to back up this claim, they entered NASCAR, a sport worshiped by the evil domestic lovers, known for being the domain for American Iron only. Yet Toyota stepped back thirty years in technological development to fight for the enemy in the roundy round championships. Knife number two.


In the late 90’s the Corolla and GT-One were the class of their particular fields when Toyota took certain success, and sacrificed it to jump into the horrifically expensive, nearly unwinnable series dominated by teams that have been winning for decades. It was a huge risk, but now F1 was the only form of motorsports left that I could cheer for Toyota. Despite Toyota turning their back on people like me, I still remained loyal, always watching a cheering the red and white cars for every fought after position. Despite year after year of constant disappointments I keep cheering for the company that hates me. Like a beaten dog, I keep returning to my master. And then the unthinkable happened. Late last week, word came that Toyota was leaving F1. Who do I cheer for now?


Like that beaten dog, I still have hope for Toyota. Talk of re-entering the WRC or the Le Mans Series have begun to resurface, but so far its only talk. But still I hope that Toyota will give me something to cheer for. As for my dream car today. Do I now want a Ferrari 458, a Porsche GT2, a Lamborghini Gallardo, a Lotus Evora, an Audi R8, a Koenigsegg CCX, or an Ascari KZ1? No, I want a white, 1989 Supercharged Toyota MR2 with T-Tops.  

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Trail Report: The Canol Road

”We made it further than anyone else has with a 4WD vehicle, that’s what I’m most proud of,” comments Kris Maksyniuk soon after arriving home from the North West Territories. “Exploring the north Canol road was the experience of a lifetime.”

Sixty-seven years ago, the same promise of an “experience of a lifetime” was posted outside a hiring office in Edmonton. It called for workers to travel north to Norman Wells, NWT to build a road and oil pipeline from the oil fields to Whitehorse, YT. Seven months earlier the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, launching the U.S. into World War II. The weakest coastline vulnerable to invasion was the desolate and wild coast of Alaska. Japan had already taken the islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian chain, making for the perfect jumping off points for a full-scale invasion.  Realizing the seriousness of the situation, both the U.S. and Canadian governments agreed to build both the Alaska Highway and the Canol (short for Canadian Oil) Road to supply a defensive force.

In the summer of 1942, the U.S. Corp of Engineers and their equipment were dispatched to rails end in Alberta, 460 km north of Edmonton. From there, they were barged almost 1,770 km to the town of Norman Wells. On the other side of the McKenzie, Camp Canol was set up on an oil field that has some of the world’s finest oil, oil so pure it flowed through pipes in the lowest arctic temperatures.

Along with the Corp of Engineers, 25,000 workers toiled through extreme conditions. Massive cost over runs and missed deadlines came as a result of workers not having heavy winter clothing. Much of the building materials shipped in were burnt just to keep the workers warm. After two years of construction, a 10 cm diameter pipe stretched the entire 925 km from the Canol oil fields to the refinery in Whitehorse.

In April 1944 the taps were opened and 3,000 barrels of fine crude flowed per day. However, poor workmanship meant the pipes were constantly breaking, resulting in several oil spills. Then, one year after the opening of the line, the entire project was abandoned as the Japanese were on the cusp of surrender. A salvage team was sent in to dismantle the pipeline and bridges, closing the north road off to the public. The south Canol road is still in use today as Highway #6 linking Ross River with Johnsons Crossing on the Alaskan Highway. From Ross River to the NWT border the north Canol is still used by mines near the border, but is not well maintained. From the NWT border, the road rises into the MacMillan pass and has been decommissioned since the forties.

This is the bit that Kris Maksyniuk, Dave Fraser and other Land Rover enthusiasts saw as a great challenge; a road that hasn’t been traversed by any 4WD vehicle (not including ATV’s) since its demise over sixty years ago. By February ‘09, preparations were being made to tackle this ambitious endeavor. Sixty plus years of weathering and several river crossings meant the route would be extremely challenging and unpredictable. The biggest hurdle to overcome would be fuel. With the last fuel station in Ross River, the trucks would have to be equipped to drive over 425 km of rough terrain to Camp Canol, then make the return trip.

Another obstacle would be the Twitya River, the deepest and widest river to be crossed. The rivers not suitable for fording at the best of times, so Kris put his engineering skills to good use and fabricated an inflatable raft that could be torn down and loaded into the Land Rovers. And so, August 15th bright and early, Kris and Dave left Vancouver for the MacMillan Pass and a 6,500 km round trip to the Canol road.

The first leg of the trip was rather routine, taking the crew to Prince George, Dawsons Creek then jumping on the Alaska Highway to Watson Lake, Yukon. In Watson Lake they then took Highway 4 north to Ross River.  Watson Lake is also where you will find the famous Sign Post Forest, a collection of street and town signs nailed up by travelers from around the world. Not to be out done, the expedition members erect their own bit of history to the massive forest of signage. Then it was off to Ross River and the beginning of the north Canol Road. Filling fuel tanks and auxiliary jerry cans at the final fuel point before heading for desolation, the team made it’s way to the cable ferry that crosses the Ross River, only to find that the operator had gone home early for the night. So that night was spent camping in the village.

Day six into the journey and the expedition proper could start with the crossing of a now open river ferry. The expedition made its way up the north Canol, witnessing legacies from the build project still waiting at the roadside. They stopped at the sight of dozens of old Ford, GM and Studebaker military work trucks, parked in rows just the way they were left sixty years ago, ravaged of parts, each truck with “Canol Project” painted on the doors. When the road was completed, the resources required to pull out the equipment was not cost effective, so everything was left in the depots where they stood, a testament and vision to the resources exploited in the name of oil.

Moving past the first depot of derelict vehicles, it wasn’t long before the expedition stumbled upon another, just as full of antique equipment, with small tree’s growing through cabs and engine bays. These depots are very common and the expedition would stumble on one or two every day. After a stroll through the bone yards, the trucks were back on the road and had reached roads end at the NWT border. From this point on the road would be completely unpredictable, and all bridges would be out, and it wouldn’t take long before the road became difficult. The true challenges now lay in wait, as the Land Rovers would make their way into the spectacularly mountainous MacMillan pass.

Fifty kilometers in, the group came across the first decommissioned bridge, the broken and twisted timbers laying in ruins in the streambed. Sitting in the middle of the stream next to the bridge sat a Studebaker dump truck, several oil barrels and a couple lengths of oil pipe. Whatever grease or oil that was left in the truck, barrels or pipe had long since washed down stream, the lingering metal hulks withstanding the death grip of rust. A solemn reminder of the economical and environmental damage war places on the earth. Blood may not have been shed here, but carelessness and disregard during the panic of wartime self-preservation has the ground soaked with the pollutants of the war machine.

By day seven, the terrain had slowed the crew down to crawl. It was the tall brush, muskeg, river crossings and swamps that were slowing progress, and not the predicted washout of the road. The brush was so thick that the doors couldn’t be opened at times, requiring the team to dismount and cut their way through the hindrances. Unfortunately, this tactic was eating up precious time. If they were going to make it to Camp Canol they would have to pick up the pace, so the axes and saws were stowed and the ruggedness of the Land Rovers front bumpers were tested as they simply pushed their way through.

Then came the Beaver dam. The dam flooded the lower valley turning it all to swamp, the road included. With the aluminum ramps out, towropes muddied and winches screaming in pain, the expedition took half a day to get through the gooey mess.  It was also decided that a workday schedule be implemented. The team would break camp everyday at 08:00, travel for twelve hours, then set up camp again at 20:00. Time was of the essence.

The next challenge that awaited the expedition was a landslide in a narrow part of the valley. The only way through meant driving down the river. However, the river was quite deep in this section, so with one side up on the bank and the other down in the water with crewmembers hanging off the side of the trucks for balance, the Land Rovers inched around the obstacle one by one.

As the expedition crawled deeper and deeper into the MacMillan pass, they were getting quite a bit of attention from bush pilots and outfitters flying into Norman Wells. On the eleventh day, one helicopter that had circled a couple times before, landed in a clearing next to the expedition. The pilot was concerned about the group, wanting to know if they were all right and knew where they were going. Once all was explained, the pilot confirmed that this was indeed the farthest anyone had made it up the trail with a truck; a small victory for the team.

However, the ultimate goal of reaching Camp Canol was quickly slipping away. The final day of pushing through the bush earned only 3 km in total distance. The slow pace meant that the return trip would take them past the three weeks of vacation time booked. Also, a couple of trucks had now reached the mid-point in the fuel reserves, so even if they did trudge on, they would never make it back to Ross River. So, after the final decision was made, they planted a pole with a sign marking the expedition, and the farthest point a 4WD vehicle has made it up the historical road.

Despite not achieving the ultimate goal of pushing through to Norman Wells, both Kris and Dave are immensely proud of the accomplishments they achieved. Needless to say, a return to the Canol has already been discussed. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Photos: 2009 Pacific Forest Rally

Road Trip: Col de Turini

About The Route:

Places To Stop: The village of Moulinet, famous Inns at the top of the Col, West side hairpin complex, and south side hairpin complex.

Total Distance:  22.68 km (stage)

Altitude: 1,607 m

Starting Point: Coordinates 43°9899N - 7°3214E. We began in the town of La Bollène-Vésubie. Following the D70 east we wound our way to the Col, Following the traditional route south along the D2566 to the stage finish in Sospel, via the village of Moulinet.

Finishing Point: Coordinates 43°5241N - 7°2657E

Road Type: Hairpin riddled, narrow tarmac rally stage

Warnings: This road requires the absolute in concentration, nearly all corners are blind and everyone is out to best their time. Reflexes must be top level to keep the shiny side up. Serious drop-offs if the stone barriers don’t do their job.



Imagine if you will, the chance to drive the Col de Turini. An exciting, once in a lifetime chance yes, but what if you were given a high-powered sports car, and you had the Col all to yourself, free to take rage on the most famous and historical of all World Rally Championship stages. As we all know, the Monte was not run this year as Mr. Mosley cut back the calendar to save travel funds. Well, I just happening to be in the region to run some of Europe’s most famous Alpine Passes and I thought it would be a shame to come all this way and not tackle the great Col de Turini. As we all know, the Col is the staple, and more often then not, the deciding stage in the Monte Carlo rally.


All the great names in rallying have attacked this particularly sacred strip of tarmac. Paddy Hopkirk, Rauno Aaltonen, Sandro Munari, Timo Makinen, Marku Allen, Ari Vatenen, Tommi Makinen, Colin McRae, and Seb Loeb have all taken stage wins here to win the Monte. It is a stage that separates the men from the boys with several deadly characteristics. With an altitude change of 1200 meters, drivers are usually sent out on slicks with only a few studs punched in around the outside of the tire. That’s because the road at the bottom of the mountain is usually free of ice or snow. However once drivers start to reach the top of the Col, a fresh dusting of the slick stuff is most likely waiting for them. Changing surface conditions is then matched to the roads topographical limitations, as it’s literally carved into a rock face. This means a very narrow and winding road that’s all too inviting to destroy at the hint of a mistake. Sounds like fun, so off I went to experience the Col for myself.

With a new 2009 BMW Z4 sDrive35i turbo as my weapon, I made my way up the D2565 (a particularly spectacular bit of road in itself) leading to the town of La Bollène-Vésubie, and the beginning of the Col. Much like the Eiffel region that is home to the Nurburgring, there is a aura of speed and motorsport excellence in the region. Here, drivers begin to push vehicles limits and put more emphases on the perfect cornering line. Having a mid 80’s Fiat Panda cutting a blind corner with the rear tire lifted into the air like an angry terrier, becomes a regular sight. The D2565 is a great road, but as soon as you turn off onto the D70, the fact you are on the legendary stage is clear. 

The tight and narrow road is absolutely riddled with corners. Rising out of La Bollène-Vésubie and up the rocky cliff gorge, the road is little more than a one lane ledge with a sheer rock wall on the left side, and a bottomless drop off the right side as it charges steep into the mountain. It wasn’t long until I hit the first hairpin complex, a stack of switchbacks that climb the rocky cliff like a ladder, so popular with the camera helicopters. On I drove, with no traffic in sight, rubber scars littering the road surface where S2000 cars have left their braking too late, or spun their wheels leaving the hairpins. The endless onslaught of corners continued on into the beautiful Turini forest that covers the higher altitudes.


Finally I had arrived at the top of the Col, a legendary piece of real estate where 35,000 mad and drunken French and Italian fans pummel each other with snowballs and roman candles in anticipation for their competing countrymen to rocket over the Col in a fit of snow spraying glory. There are three Inns here on the Col and the Restaurant des Trois Vallèes, is a particular good place to grab a bite to eat and a drink, while being surrounded by Monte Carlo Rallye memorabilia.


After some sentimental time on the Col, it was time to head down the D2566 towards Sospel, France. This is where things got interesting. Pulling off the Col and diving down into the forest of the south side, I noticed a sign at the side of the road with the words, “Route Barrière.“ Obviously the road was under construction, but I wasn’t going to let a little sign stop me from exploring this historic route. So on I went.

The rest of the road down is just as spectacular as the road up, with fewer hairpins to upset the rhythm. While I may have seen a couple bikes on the way up to the Col, I had the entire road to myself on the way down. The reason why would soon become clear. Passing through the sleepy village of Moulinet there was yet another construction sign, this time in the middle of the road. I’d come too far now; I might as well see it to the end. On I drove, past another spectacular hairpin complex, hoping to break through to Sospel, then on to Monte Carlo to find shelter for the night. With only five kilometers to go to Sospel, the road block I hoped wouldn’t exist appeared. I now had to go all the way back the way I had come in. Then I realized that not only was my glass half full, it was overflowing. I had a natural roadblock and no side streets for 7km. I had Turini all to myself.


With the BMW Z4’s turbo glowing, I hustled my way back up the stage, the sweet sound of the straight six echoing off both the rock wall and the cliff face on the opposite side of the gorge. Up through the hairpin complex and on to Moulinet. Turn around, and do it all again down hill, the back end of the Z4 breaking loose under the force of braking required to get the car through the tight corners. The rock walls only inches away reflected the light emitted from glowing brake discs. By the time I made it back to the bottom, the brake pedal was almost non-responsive. The concentration and skill needed to navigate a car through this lethal bit of road gave me a new respect for the men who attack this stage in absolute anger. It really does take an exceptional person too not only conquer this road, but to do it in icy conditions on slick tires. This is why Col de Turini is the greatest stage in the WRC.

Lap after lap, I had lost track of time. I would not be able to make it back to the Col in time to get a room, and the closest city was two and a half hours away, the long way. I cruised back into Moulinet, hoping to find some sort of accommodation, finding the entire town partying in the town square, all 250 souls. Making my way into the square to practice my grade nine level French, I couldn’t even get out a word before I had a glass of champagne and a pastry in my hand. With alcohol in my system and the nature of the road, I would be staying there for sure, whether in the car or a hotel. After asking if there was a hotel open in town, the locals told me not to worry, and my glass was refilled and a fresh pastry supplied. I was given a fully equipped apartment in town by one of the locals and was asked to rejoin for the celebration back in the square. That night I filled myself with champagne and pastries, talked of stories about the rally, and leaped over the massive bon fire burning in the square, as is tradition, making for a truly surreal experience.


The next day I was up a little later than I hoped, for obvious reasons. Walked down to the café for a much-needed espresso, and a chat with the locals I had come to know the night before. And with that it was back into the Z4, and back up the Col, headed to the next great Alp pass on my schedule, the Grand St. Bernard Pass. But nothing can compare to the experience I received on the Col, a once in a lifetime event.


History: The Bubble Cars

They may not be high performance machines that left their names on the record sheets of famous motorsports events. But there is no questioning these cars significance to automotive history and their legitimate status of classic automobiles. They are the Bubble Cars and they brought mass transportation back to war ravaged Europe.


Europe was left in quite a state after the most bloodiest and destructive wars to ever explode on the Earths surface. Germany was raised to the ground by allied bombers, and it would be years until some of the most basic of services would be returned to the general public. Its economy was in shambles and fuel was in extremely short supply, only to become scarce once again in the 60’s during the Suez crisis. It was these set of challenges that brought about these little Bubble Cars, designed to be economical, yet provide their owners with sheltered transportation. I say sheltered transportation because these cars were little more than scooters that could be driven in, rather than ridden on.


Several manufacturers starting building these interesting little automobiles soon after the war. Companies like Messerschmitt, who were temporarily banned from building aircraft, turned to mass-producing microcars with the guidance of aircraft engineer, Fritz Fend, who had been working on the idea for some time. Under Fends direction, the first vehicle to enter production at Messerschmitt's Regensburg factory was the KR175. The KR stood for Kabinenroller, which in turn means "scooter with cabin." And that’s all they were, nothing more than three wheels, a light metal skin and was powered by a 173 cc (10.6 cu in) Fichtel & Sachs air-cooled single cylinder two-stroke engine mounted in front of the rear wheel, just behind the passenger's seat. Fend designed the car with a transparent acrylic bubble top, much like those found on the fighter planes of the day. It was a trait carried on through the Messerschmitt evolutions as well as many other microcar manufacturers. It was this feature that coined the fraise “Bubble Cars,” carried on by future models such as the BMW Isetta, whose entire bodies took the shape of a bubble or teardrop.


Messerschmitt would go on to build the KR200, a updated three-wheeler with a 191 cc engine producing a whopping 10 horsepower to move the 230 kg car all the way up to 90 kmh. At a cost of only 2,500 DM the 200 became a great success, selling 40,000 examples and spawning competition from rival aircraft builder Heinkel as well as BMW, Fuldamobil, Citroen, Velorex, Iso, Peel, Trojan and Reliant.

Needless to say these cars have turned into cult classics. Their miniature size couple with the massive amount of character they exude has made them much sought after by collectors and admirers alike. The problem is not many survive today despite being mass-produced fifty years ago. But one car that was produced in such great numbers and was so stylish for its era, has long since represented this class of automobile has to be the iconic Isetta.


While many think it was BMW that designed and built the Isetta, it was actually the Italian firm Iso SpA that conceived the car. Iso was building refrigerators, motor scooters and small three-wheeled trucks when company owner, Renzo Rivolta decided to try his hand at the microcar sector. Designed with the traits of the companies other businesses, you’d think that a car designed to look like a fridge riding on two scooters would be a design monstrosity. Quite the opposite, the Isetta was an instant darling unveiled to the press in 1953. Unlike the Messerschmitt, where the driver sat in front of the passenger, the Isetta was a side-by-side, while the entire front face represented the only door. With the steering wheel, controls and instrument panel connected to the hinged door, access was made easier to the bench seat. However, in the event of an accident, and providing the passengers still had legs, the canvas sunroof would act as a secondary escape route. 

Under the rear parcel shelf was a 236 cc two-stroke two cylinder that provided 9.5 horsepower to the two narrow rear wheels via a chain. While the cars top speed was only 75 kmh, but weighing in south of 500 kg, the car was capable of getting 70 mpg. It was all going great for the little Isetta, but with the introduction of the Fiat 500C in 1954, the cars popularity began to slip, and Rivolta began to license the car out to just about anyone who would listen. In 1955, BMW produced the first German made Isetta, dropping in one of their own 247 cc four-stroke, one-cylinder motorcycle engines that upped the cars power to 13 horsepower. Other than the engine the car was identical to the Iso version, so much that parts were interchangeable. But the BMW version was a massive hit and garnered much better sales. BMW would go on to update the car, calling it the Isetta 250, as it featured a new 250 cc engine and updates to the suspension. A 300 and longer wheelbase four-seater 600 versions were added to the line-up as sales toped an unprecedented 161,000 units by the cars demise in 1962.

But the Isetta, along with all the other Bubble Cars live on thanks to dedicated fans and collectors. With cars with a background like these you’d think they would be only obtainable by wealthy collectors. However, excellent examples are known to sell between $10,000 and $20,000. The hard part is trying to find one.  

Road Trip: The Stelvio Pass

About The Route:

Best time to Go: Weekdays during May, June, September and October

Total Distance:  41 km

Altitude: 2760 meters

Starting Point: From Bormio, Italy take route SS38 northeast through the Stelvio National Park on to the village of Stelvio itself.

Places To Stop: At 9.4 km, a nice pullout to view the West slope hairpin complex and tunnels. 20.3 km, the peak with a small village of restaurants and tourist kiosks, as well as one of the most spectacular views of the Northern hairpin complex.

Road Type: Very narrow mountain pass with rock retainers and a mixture of smooth and rough tarmac.

Warnings: Tunnels are dark and narrow so flashers and horns needed; bikers are suicidal as well as oncoming farm tractors.



It is in a constant state of trying to take your life. The Stelvio Pass, or Passo dello Stelvio, has so many different threatening driving situations that your life can be taken any number of ways. It is a living entity that will haunt your dreams if not handled with the proper respect, yet requires a level of aggression to concour and enjoy as adrenaline flows through your veins. It is a truly terrific creation that the ass kissing bureaucrats of Ottawa would have heart attacks at the mere mentioning of building such a spectacle in Canada. So what better place to test the limits of BMW’s new Z4.


My journey starts in Munich where I went to talk to BMW’s head of Chassis and Brake testing, Andreas Lichte, about what car gave him the most pleasure to drive and what road would he most enjoy driving it on. Lichte has been testing BMW’s since 1991, and for him there is no greater road than that of the Stelvio Pass, a route well used by BMW to test their braking systems and suspension components. If they can survive the Stelvio, they can survive anything the average motorist can throw at them. Lichte’s prime choice for this road was the all-new 2009 Z4 sDrive 35i, BMW’s premier sports roadster/coupe. And so, I left BMW’s test fleet facility with a Z4 in hand, heading for the Italian-Swiss boarder to experience the Stelvio.


After the long drive I finally arrived in Bormio Italy, stopping off at a large pullout at the base of the mountain on highway SS38 to mount in-car cameras and check the car over. Despite the low season, it came as no surprise of the Stelvio’s popularity as I was soon joined by several other high performance rides, piloted by drivers from all over the world. A TVR Chimaera driven by some Brits, some Aussies in a Mustang, a couple Frenchmen in a Renault Clio Sport RS, and several Germans sporting the best of Zuffenhausen and Ingolstadt, while I held up the pride of Munich in the Z4, sporting a small maple leaf on the back. With the glorious roar of V-8, V-6, Inline-6 and a screaming four-banger power, the multinational train of performance cars raced up the western valley. With a group like this however, a leisurely tour over the pass was never a possibility as we all competed to get to each look-out before any of the others, get our pictures than jump back in to do battle on this amazingly challenging stretch of road.


As our little convoy worked its way up the narrow west slope, dodging oncoming bikers and a tractor of all things, we appeared out of the last of six tunnels carved into the rocky cliff-side. Ahead was the first hairpin complex towering so high above it was blocking out the sun. Our narrow rocky run that demanded absolute confidence in the dimensions of the automobile now dives into a series of tight switchbacks that climb up onto the alpine highlands. Bouncing back and forth between 2nd and 3rd gear as I zigzag my way up the slope we break out onto a long stretch full of high-speed bends through a beautiful green meadow. A nice calm before the perfect storm that was to come, and come it did, as our little competition came to a full and complete halt at the top of the pass.

Just meters beyond the mass of tourist kiosks on the peak trying to rid you of your money, lays one of the most spectacular sites of the automotive world. Standing in shock, with a cold sweat rolling off my brow, a dropped jaw and a little bit of drool hanging off the corner of my mouth as I gaze upon the engineering masterpiece that is the Stelvio East slope. What I saw was mile upon mile of excitement written in tarmac, stretching as far as the eye can see. Mile after mile of driving glory on a slope so steep some of the hairpins aren’t even visible from the lookout. Jumping into the drivers seat, my hands have a slight shake in anticipation of the route ahead. But the Z4 is an extremely capable beast, and Mr. Lichte used this very stretch to hone its performance.

Nerves quickly fade as I plummet the car down the mountainside, there is no room for error now. One slip up now and I either tear off the side of the car on the stone barriers, or launch it through a hairpin, to spend eternity rolling down one of Europe’s tallest Alps. With the adrenalin flowing and sweat beginning to form, I was not the only one heating up. A third of the way down and the distinctive scent of well-worked brakes began to fill the cabin, the technical difficulty of the road challenging both driver and machine. Carving around banked hairpins with the cobble stones from the old road showing through, the driving ecstasy seemed never ending as the road continued to fall down the alp into the Stelvio valley.


Cruising through the thick forest into the village of Stelvio, a stop was required to take in the magnitude of what I had just accomplished. To a driving enthusiast, the Stelvio pass has a character all to itself, giving drivers extreme challenges of steep slopes, narrow roads, a great mixture of slow and fast corners, spectacular views and a route that is more enjoyable than most racing tracks.


History: The Yenko Stinger

Like so many times before, some of the best cars designed, were born to take the fight to a rival manufacturer. In 1965, Don Yenko saw the potential that the newly redesigned Corvair had in competitive road racing. It was this year that Yenko’s love of motorsports, accessibility to GM products and a “get it done” attitude set into motion a series of events that would produce some of the worlds most sought after domestic machinery.


Working for his fathers Chevrolet dealership in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, Don already had a lot of experience racing Corvettes in SCCA competition. However, in 1965 when the Corvair was redesigned, Yenko saw that the rear-engine compact could make a formidable racer if given some modest upgrades. The problem was that there were several smaller, lighter and highly competitive vehicles coming out of Europe like the 356 and TR4. While special editions like Carroll Shelby’s potent Shelby Mustang’s were consistently outperforming Yenko’s Corvettes. Even the new Corvair couldn’t compare to such competition. So Yenko took a page out of Shelby’s book and decided to build enough factory supplied, dealership built special edition Corvairs to qualify for the SCCA’s rule that 100 production examples must be built to qualify for homologation.

With that, Yenko submitted the required homologation forms on October 11, 1965. He then ordered 100 Corvairs from Chevrolet that were delivered the 2nd week of December 1965. With the performance shop at Yenko Chevrolet working at breakneck pace, all were modified for SCCA inspection in only one month. They  were all painted white, as was mandatory for SCCA racing as white was the USA’s national racing colour. All came equipped with heavy-duty suspension, four-speed transmissions, quicker steering ratios, positraction differentials available with 3.89 and 3.55 gears and dual brake master cylinders. Power was available in four stages of tune with 160, 190, 220 and 240 horsepower engines built up from the Corvair’s 164 cubic inch, flat-six. Fibreglass body panels and spoilers were also available. On paper, the Corvair had become a formidable competitor.


Yenko was hoping to have the Stinger homologated into E-Production, and on January 7, 1966, he received a telegram from James Patterson noting the Stinger was approved for the 1966 season in the D-Production Class. The little British built Triumph TR4, a very quick car in racing trim, at this point in time had dominated D-Production. The TR4 had won the D-production title four consecutive years leading up to 1966. In its first race in January 1966, the Stinger was able to compete with the TR4, losing out by only one second. With Jerry Thompson at the wheel, the Stinger would go on to win the Central Division Championship and place fifth in the 1966 Nationals. Dick Thompson, a highly successful Corvette race driver, had won the Northeast Division Championship, and Jim Spencer had won the Central Division Championship, with Dino Milani taking second place. The Stinger had now proven a great success not only as a great racecar, but made Yenko a household name when it came to GM performance. This made the Stinger a step off point for a great line of Yenko branded performance vehicles.


After the success of the Stinger, Yenko turned his attention to Chevrolets brand new pony car, the Camaro. GM would not allow a power plant greater than 400 cubic inches be placed in the Camaro, and with Mustang’s and Barracuda’s available with larger power plants, Yenko saw yet another opportunity. Buying up SS Camaro’s, Yenko dumped in the Corvette based 427, creating the Yenko Camaro. More cars would come including the Yenko Nova, Chevelle as well as the Stinger II, based on the Vega. They were all cars with a performance level the Chevrolet were too scared to build, and legends they would become with Yenko Camaro’s fetching nearly $300,000 USD at auction. But these Yenko’s were aimed towards the red light racers. It was the Stinger Corvair that built the name of Yenko, proving the cars worth on street circuits all over North America doing battle with formidable opponents. The Stinger truly was the start of something special.

Road Trip: San Bernardino Pass

About The Route

Best time to Go: Weekdays during May, June, September and October

Places To Stop: Old hotel and restaurant at the passes peak, a view of the Zapporthorn as well as a high alpine lake. Excellent exploring opportunities, here and throughout the alpine area region.

Total Distance:  48 km

Altitude: 260m-2,066m

Starting Point: Beginning in Castione, Switzerland, head north on highway #13 Blue. The highway follows the Mesolcina valley over the mountain, and on to Hinterrhein, Switzerland.

Road Type: Flowing smooth road surface with a variety of changing topography.

Warnings: Watch for cyclists and Hikers as this area has many trails. Pass closed in the winter due to the amount of snowfall.


Review: Our next great road was suggested to us by the Head of Testing for the new Mercedes S-Class, Uwe Hörnig. Mr. Hörnigs favourite strip of tarmac is the San Bernardino Pass in southern Switzerland that links the Hinterrhein and the Mesolcina valleys, offering great challenges to both driver and car while driving through some of the most beautiful scenery and spectacular countryside in the Southern Alps. The San Bernardino is part of an extensive route that Uwe and his colleagues test the new S-Class; a course that features a wide variety of road conditions to ensure the car meets Mercedes high standards. When asked what he would drive the San B. with access to the Mercedes fleet, Hörnig replied that the S-400 Hybrid would be his choice. He noted, ”The S-400 Hybrid makes driving easier, more comfortable and, above all, safer without a shortage of driving pleasure. New technology and lithium-ion batteries means the car is as close to standard weight as possible while at the same time being both powerful and fuel efficient.”

With Mr. Hörnigs advice in hand I made my way to southern Switzerland to experience for myself what the San Bernardino had in store. Now, when he mentioned that he would have chosen the big S-Class to drive a narrow alpine pass, I had the distinct feeling that he must have been getting the evil eye from a Public Relations person to plug Mercedes latest offering. However, his choice started to make sense as I lumbered into the alpine of the pass. The San Bernardino really does offer a great amount of variety in terrain, and its smooth and fairly wide lanes (for a Alp pass) changed my way of thinking. Having driven the Grossglockner and other technically challenging passes with my hair on fire, the engine bouncing off the rev limiter, tires screaming in pain at the loss of adhesion and eyes dried out from the concentration required to safely navigate such roads open to oncoming traffic is a magnificent experience. But it’s also extremely taxing on you both physically and mentally. A great Alpine pass can also be enjoyed by simply cruising through at a sane speed and the San Bernardino definitely calls for an easy cruise to soak up not only this great road, but the spectacular scenery as well.

The beauty of the San Bernardino is that it’s a two-headed beast. There is the new autoroute, (A13 Red) which is a faster direct route through the valley, and slips into a 6.6 km tunnel that bypasses the summit. Unlike many pass upgrades, this route is still only a two-lane highway, still fairly windy and offers great views of the towering Alps above. However, it will be the old route (13B Blue) that I will be talking about here. The pass has been used since the Roman era, with several sections of an ancient path visible to the curious and energetic hiker. But it wasn’t until 1823 that a proper road was built, with a painstaking rebuild in the 1990’s.

Starting at the south point of highway 13B in Castione, the road is quite tame, and slow for that matter as it meanders up the valley through farmland and several small villages. Once you get past the sleepy villages, the road begins to breath some life as it rises into the forested highlands. It all starts with a couple of hairpins, then the road begins to climb into the hills, cutting a path through the thick forest while adhering to natures law of following the terrain. It is here that you get great views of the A13 as it does its best to break those rules, crashing through mountainside and using bridges to keep every thing on the level. After quite a while of this very pleasurable driving, I came across the village of San Bernardino itself. It’s a deserted ski village rammed full of ski lodges, hotels and restaurants, all but shutdown here in the summer.


After San Bernardino the pass starts to climb into the alpine. Here tree’s become extinct, the terrain becomes tundra, and the road blossoms into a winding mess of gloriousness. Above the tree line, you can see well down the road, allowing speeds to become interesting without fear of the unknown around a blind corner. Also the lack of stupidly steep drop-offs means one can start to use the entire road, even dipping a wheel off if one so inclines. It  ‘s a fluid road that winds around a glaciated landscape with glaciated knobs, mires and small lakes. The San Bernardino’s Alpine section is a driver’s dream, like a racecourse that has been placed atop a mountain. It really gives back in ways a Canadian driver could never imagine. Of course there are still a good number of hairpins thrown in to keep everything interesting, but perfectly placed sporadically along the route. The summit represents both a cultural and drainage basin border with locals speaking Italian in the south and German in the north.

 Like most passes, falling down the other side reveals a much different environment. In the case of the San Bernardino, the terrain became much steeper, and the road slows with tighter turns and narrower passages. From the wide open alpine, 13 blue falls down a steep rocky gulley. The hairpin lovers will love this section as the road slowly steps itself down the mountain, hugging the side of the cliff. At the base of the steep cliffs is rich farmland, full of the stereotypical Swiss cows. Take a rest break at the bottom, and listen to the echo of hundreds of cow bells bounce off the valley walls for an equally impressive scene as the road above.