Almost 20 years ago, I got a letter from a 12-year-old boy.
"Dear Mr. Leno, I'm in trouble and I need your help. I told kind of a fib. I told everybody you were my uncle. That you and I go driving around in your Lamborghini at weekends... Well, my friends didn't believe me and started making fun of me. I wonder if you could help me out? Is there any chance you could maybe pick me up one day and give me a ride to school so all my friends could see that you really are my uncle, even though you're not?"
Here was a kid after my own heart. This just made me smile, that this kid had fabricated this fantastic story. I thought: OK. Let's do it. I called his parents and I arranged to pick him up for school one day. I drove to school and waited until the opportune time when the buses are all unloading. Then, of course, we in the Lamborghini pull in and all the doors go up and... "all right have a good day at school."
"OK, thanks Uncle Jay," and the kids all go "Wow! He really is his uncle; he really does drive him in a Countach!"
That story always kind of makes me smile. I'd like to think that maybe that story got that young man interested in cars.
A study recently found that, if forced to make the choice, kids today would choose an iPhone over a car.
So, 20 years after the Countach school run, it was time to try to inspire a new generation. I thought, well would kids be impressed by a high-performance car today? Especially when it doesn't even look like a high-performance car?
A few weeks ago, Jeremy Hart, a friend of mine in London who makes films with me, suggested a twist on the same idea. To take two boys to school, but divert from the school run to do a hot lap of the Top Gear track at Dunsfold. It seemed a great idea.
The car I had for Dunsfold was not a Countach. Not even a supercar. It was the new 350-horsepower four-wheel-drive Volvo V60 Polestar. I think you'd say this is the ultimate sleeper car. If you want to fool your insurance agent so you don't pay a high-performance car premium, this is the car to get. Because as soon as he sees it's a Volvo, he'll go: "Oh! That's quite sensible. What engine has it got?" To which you reply, "I don't know... it's a Volvo station wagon. Built like a tank. Strong."
"Yeah. No problem." Little would he know....
So I collected the kids, sons of friends, and off we went. The parents knew what we were doing, but the boys had no idea. They sat in the back with their iPads. You know how disinterested kids can be, especially early in the morning. They live in their own private world, so they didn't catch on until we had turned in to the old airbase and they saw the Top Gear sign. That's when I think it really hit home what was about to happen.
I pull onto the Top Gear track and the meek school-run wagon turns into a monster. All the famous corners from the show flash past. From the back seat, there are whoops of delight and a few moments of silence. To reassure you, at no point were any children actually injured in the making of this film, (youtube/bf2kgsuV2pA). Although it may appear full-on, their mom was actually a willing participant. Maybe because when she heard it was a Volvo she said, "Oh OK, it's a Volvo -- I guess it'll be OK. I mean, how fast could a Volvo go?" (249 km/h, for your information.)
This is no ordinary Volvo. The Polestar's power is plenty and there is a lot of torque, but not overwhelmingly so. It isn't one of these peaky things you have to put your foot down and rev the heck out of it to get it to do anything. It feels like a good, old-fashioned American V8 -- but it might rev a little happier. Of course, it's four-wheel drive, so the grip is unbelievable. And the suspension is quite comfortable. Firm, but sure-footed. The steering felt very direct. The brakes were more than up to the task. It handled very, very nicely.
In fact, Volvo had a great ad about 25 years ago when it had the five-cylinder turbo out and it put this station wagon and a Lamborghini Countach in the same shot. And they kind of morphed into one another. That's sort of what this is. Because truth be told, this Volvo wagon is probably faster around the Dunsfold track than my Countach would have been.
I think the point of a car like this is, if you're a sports car guy and you had to sell your MG or your Corvette or whatever you have, because you now have a family, a growing family, especially one with two kids or more, this is sort of the perfect vehicle, isn't it?
I always like station wagons, especially the American station wagons. I was never a minivan guy. You really can't do anything with those and SUVs always seem a bit cumbersome to me, with their centre of gravity too high, whereas the fun thing about a station wagon is, it's really a hot sedan until you hit the back of the back seat. And then you just have a little cargo area, then it's a station wagon. So the nice thing is, you have all the handling and performance of a sedan with the carrying capacity of the station wagon. That's what I like about it. It's really just like a sedan with a cargo box on the back. You just have a little more room to carry a few more things. And it's a nice car to drive. It's a fun car to drive.
I think years ago, Volvo was the safe car, and that was its claim to fame. But these days, all cars are pretty safe. So you need something to liven up that sort of staid, boring image it had for a while. It was just a school-run car, whereas this gives it a bit of cachet and makes it kind of sexy. I love the fact that it's a bit of a sleeper or Q-car.
A number of years ago, Paul Newman drove a Volvo with, I think, a Ford V8 in it, and he used to blow everybody's doors off. People were astounded that this Volvo was so fast. I think he built a couple of them. I think talk-show host David Letterman has one. They were great fun and it was just the idea that you took a car everybody thought was a little boring and you made it really exciting.
Well now Volvo has done that. It has taken what Paul Newman put together and just made the ultimate hot station wagon.
So will this make petrolheads out of the boys I drove to school? I have no idea, but cars are being challenged by gadgets as a top priority for kids. When we were young, the only way you could get away from your parents was to get on your bicycle and pedal -- which was way too hard -- or the first day you got your driving licence (which was the day I was born) you literally got in your car and could just go wherever you wanted to go. Now, with iPhones and iPads kids can go places and do things we couldn't even dream of without leaving their bedroom. Escaping home physically is less urgent, it seems.
Cars are also less relevant culturally. When we were growing up, cars were in the movies, they were in the music. When was the last time you heard anybody sing a car song? I mean, when we were kids there was Little GTO, Little Deuce Coupe.... They were all songs about cars and where they could take you or what you could do with them.
Getting kids into cars is a greater challenge than ever. I think it's important for kids to be interested in something. If it is cars, then great. But you throw everything at them, you give them a camera, you give them a musical instrument, you give them a broken engine to fix, you give them a bike. Just something that inspires them. I think it's just a matter of opening up young people's eyes to all the things that are out there. And automobiles and motorcycles and engines are just some of them. I hope this might just inspire a handful of kids to get interested in automobiles.
--Postmedia Network Inc. 2014