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Red alert

Dear future mayor of Winnipeg:

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If you drive a red car, expect to see red lights in your rear-view mirror in the not-so-distant future. According to a recently leaked police memo, traffic officers have been directed to pull over anyone spotted driving a red car. It is your responsibility as a motorist to present proper identification. You will also be sternly questioned regarding why you opted to choose such a flashy paint colour.

OK, I just made that up, but imagine if it was true.

Well, if the buzz on the street is accurate that’s exactly what it’s like for thousands of owners of classic, special interest and modified vehicles who dare to drive in Winnipeg.

Throughout the summer of 2010, I have been bombarded with emails, voice messages and face-to-face accounts from members of Winnipeg’s car culture. The common complaint is they have been targeted for simply opting to drive a vehicle that is different from the others.

 As I mentioned last week, throughout the summer I’ve pretty much taken the high road on this topic and suggested in the past, perhaps naively, that if folks in the hobby stayed away from Portage Avenue on a Sunday night they would be left alone. As it turns out, that is simply not the case.

Ron Baxter proved that when he shared his story with me last Sunday.

After recently getting a small repair done on his absolutely beautiful 1938 Ford, Baxter was travelling down Sargent Avenue on a weekday afternoon when he noticed a police car behind him. The officer activated his lights and Baxter proceeded to pull over. This roadside inspection resulted in a $173.30 ticket that identified four items on his car that must be repaired or it will be taken off the road. When Baxter protested, the officer told him to deal with it in court. He intends to. When the officer was all finished picking the car apart he handed him the ticket and, according to Baxter, he then stood back, looked at the car and said, "You’ve got a sweet ride."

"I couldn’t believe he said that after everything that had just happened," said Baxter, who feels he was targeted simply because his car stands out in a crowd. Baxter also mentioned he believes people who have cars like his drive them more cautiously than people with everyday cars because they have put so much time and money into them. How much time and money? Baxter, who chose "MONEPIT" for his personalized licence plate, has spent more than $50,000 building this car, not including the countless hours of labour he personally put in. It’s also important to note Baxter is not a young tough with a score to settle with the police. He is a 63-year-old retired Winnipeg Transit employee. It’s also worth noting the officer who pulled Baxter over was driving one of the newly decorated police cruisers with the motto "Building Relationships" plastered down the side of it.

Now in fairness to the officer, who was doing his job to the letter, there are a couple of laws to which Baxter’s car does not adhere. One is the absence of bumpers. But he’s been driving the car without bumpers for four years. Why is such a trivial infraction suddenly so important? Make no mistake about it, I’m abundantly aware of the hypocrisy that exists in my argument there are instances when the police should opt to turn a blind eye and let us enjoy our hobby. But seriously, with all the stabbings and shootings, car thefts, home invasions, domestic violence... what’s the harm in letting a few small infractions slide? Surely police resources can be put to better use. Is the city safer because a traffic officer shook down a 63-year-old man who just wanted to enjoy an old car the officer himself admitted was a sweet ride?

I anticipate a negative response from a few readers, but before anyone accuses me of being anti-police, it is important to note I am a former Manitoba Justice employee who spent 15 years working at both the Headingley jail and the Winnipeg Remand Centre. My brother, Allen, is an inspector with the RCMP and my sister-in-law, Jenny, is an RCMP sergeant. Many of my friends are either active or retired members of law enforcement and I am well-aware of the significant challenges associated with this career choice. Until you’ve wiped off your face after being spit on by a repugnant criminal with total disdain for the law, I suspect you’ll never know just how severe those challenges are. That said, on many occasions throughout my career I opted to let the small things slide in pursuit of the greater good. It never made sense to me to spend my shift in the back office of a correctional facility filing reports regarding model inmates who had broken an institutional rule and kept one too many apples in their cell. I preferred to spend my time on the job in the cell blocks keeping a close eye on gang members who were terrorizing others and encouraged those under my charge to take the same approach.

I don’t blame individual officers for what happened to the car hobby this summer; it’s clear someone in charge, either from Manitoba Public Insurance or the Winnipeg Police Service, or a combination of the two, has directed the rank and file to scrutinize classic, special interest and modified vehicles. While it is surely the right of every police officer to inspect a motorized vehicle to ensure it is safe, is it right to target vehicles simply because they are different-looking? As one reader noted to me in a recent email, "It’s as though the powers that be won’t sleep until we all drive beige Toyotas."

Last month, the Fabulous 50’s Ford Club of Manitoba hosted the province’s largest free car show at the Garden City Shopping Centre and more than 1,000 classic and special-interest vehicles attended. If the value of each of these cars averaged out to $10,000, even my remedial math skills can calculate there was more than $10 million worth of Manitoba metal shining on that parking lot. These folks did not have their cars restored on Mars and they didn’t get the parts from Venus; they spent their hard-earned dollars supporting local businesses that cater to the hobby. On that day, they also generated more than $10,000 in support of special-needs children.

As mentioned last week, I have full confidence in the Manitoba Association of Auto Clubs and the hard work they are doing on our behalf, and fully support Bob Chubala and his executive in their rational approach to this problem, but after considerable thought I have come to the conclusion we need to approach this situation from several different angles. In addition to individual protests to all levels of government, I also feel folks in the car hobby need to be pressuring the businesses and charities we support. Those who benefit from this hobby have a responsibility to ensure it continues to flourish. We opened up our hearts and wallets and now we need their support.

When I began writing about cars and the people who love them more than 10 years ago, I never imagined it would one day result in full-time employment as an automobile journalist. It’s a dream job and until this summer it was all love and roses, but lately it just hasn’t felt right. One friend put it best when she basically told me that by doing nothing about this issue, I had abandoned the very people that helped me find my calling. Maybe some won’t like what I have to say and perhaps my opinions are squeezing the borders of responsible journalism, but I just can’t sit by and watch something that is so near and dear to my heart die a slow and painful death at the hands of a group of bureaucrats who have no idea just how vital this hobby is to our community.

Last Sunday, in just three hours, nearly 200 local auto enthusiasts attended the Pony Corral Sunday night cruise on Grant Avenue and signed the hood from a 1958 Chevrolet I swiped off of one of the memory machines in my rural backyard. Folks started lining up to sign the hood the moment I took it out of the back of my truck. Many also took the time to offer kind words of encouragement and to say thanks. Craig Young made the 100-kilometre trip from Gull Lake to sign the hood and my longtime friend, Ted Hector, from Thunder Road Motorcycles stopped in to sign it on his way to a vacation in British Columbia. I also spotted Fabulous 50’s Ford club vice-president and Piston Ring executive Adrien Poirier roll up in his old Ford, hop out of the car and boldly sign his name. At one point, I received so much positive feedback I actually had a lump in my throat.

The question on the hood was short.

‘Future Mayor: The cruising community in Winnipeg generates thousands of dollars each year for local charities. We also spend countless dollars supporting local business. We would like you to know that we are not happy with the scrutiny our hobby has endured in the summer of 2010 and would like to know what, if anything, you plan to do to improve the relationship between the Winnipeg Police Service and local auto enthusiasts?’

It’s a simple question and if you’re elected mayor you’ve got an entire winter to answer it. My advice is you recognize the folks who participate in the car hobby are tax-paying members of your community who should be treated with the same level of care and respect as any other beige Toyota driving Winnipegger.

Cruising season is officially over for another year and that’s all you’re going to hear from me on this topic for a while but heed this warning: If what occurred in the summer of 2010 is repeated again in 2011, the mayor can expect to see me camping out under my signed 1958 Chevrolet hood in front of city hall demanding he or she help build relationships instead of tearing them down. If that doesn’t get their attention, then perhaps it’s time to get my friends in the hobby to sign the entire car and drop it off on the mayor’s driveway. And yes, it has bumpers.

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