Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Battle of the beaters

A war of wheels merely revealed what our fathers already knew

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We've all owned one at some point in our lives. That car or truck that just won't die.

It's riddled with rust, smokes like a chimney and the tires are as bald as the prairie we call home.

In my case, it was a 1986 Toyota pickup. No matter how hard I drove it -- and, let me tell you, I drove it hard -- that thing just kept coming back for more. In the end it had more than 400,000 kms on the clock, it was covered in dents and the hood was held down with a bungee cord.

The amazing thing is the engine was still running like a top. I taught my friend Jay's son Matt how to do donuts with it one rainy afternoon in a mucky field a few years back. Things were going great until the driveshaft finally snapped. Matt actually yanked the engine out of it and later sold it on Kijiji -- odds are good that engine is still running strong today.

Some may believe vehicles like this are haunted -- like the famed Stephen King character Christine, that killer '58 Plymouth Fury could actually regenerate its own body panels. But alas, these seemingly sinister machines are more likely the result of being built on a Wednesday, when the assembly line is humming along at a rapid pace and all the workers have clear heads and steady hands.

Recently, my buddies and I had the opportunity to conduct a redneck science experiment that was carefully designed to determine which vehicles are the toughest.

This war of the wheels took place at our friend Ollie's farm. He's carved a short race track through the snow in the back forty of his rural acreage that has been aptly nicknamed Ollie's Oval. A flock of us were invited out to race and ultimately wreck a handful of vehicles that were destined for the shredder. We all wisely surmised that crumpled metal is worth just as much for scrap as the good stuff and, in short order ,sheet metal was being ripped apart like wrapping paper on Christmas morning.

Our competitors were vehicles manufactured in the 1990s and included a Nissan Pathfinder, a Chevrolet S10, a Ford Taurus and a Buick LeSabre. There were a few other contenders on the starting grid, including an evil Dodge Spirit, a Chevrolet Cavalier and some kind of rusty old Toyota, but they all refused to take part in the festivities (wouldn't start) so Ollie let them die a quiet death.

Safety, of course, was paramount. Airbags were disabled, batteries were carefully duct taped down to prevent fires and projectiles, and helmets and seatbelts were mandatory.

My buddy Wade and his crazy cousin Mike got the wrecking ball rolling in our friend Rob's old Buick. Rob is moving to New Zealand (lucky devil), so his worldly possessions have been carefully divided up amongst us. I got his speakers, Wade got his car.

The Buick was actually still running so the boys drove it out to Ollie's. Despite its seemingly decent appearance, the Buick's floor pan was riddled with rust and would have never passed a safety.

Wade and Mike jumped in the front seat and like an idiot, I climbed in the back. In mere moments we were airborne over a fairly large snow bank and the crash landing resulted in a flat rear tire. It looked like the fun was over before it even started, but the donut spare was yanked out of the trunk and we were back in action in mere moments. As Wade hammered the car into the abandoned Dodge Spirit, we all laughed like hyenas and I loudly and colourfully questioned Wade's sanity.

When the real race finally started, an ace driver named Ryan was tearing things up at a feverish pace in his battered Nissan Pathfinder. Ollie moved around the track like a snake behind the wheel of his Ford Taurus, picking off victims at will.

Wade, however, was tooling the big Buick around in no particular hurry like the second coming of a '70s private detective, masterfully avoiding the carnage. He's the only guy I know who can smoke a cigarette while wearing a full-faced helmet.

Some poor dude who's name I didn't catch was doing fairly well in the Chevrolet S10 truck when the Pathfinder rammed it HARD in the front end. The mayhem caused the truck's front wheels to pile up into the suspension components and, although the engine was still running, the poor guy was a sitting duck. He wisely abandoned the truck while the getting was good.

There was smashing and crashing for the better part of an hour before the clutch fried in the Pathfinder and the Taurus would only drag itself around in reverse. Ollie admirably tooled around backwards for another few minutes before finally getting stuck.

But, despite all the dents and a fair bit of smoke, the Buick was still running strong, and Wade the Wheelman was declared the winner.

Being the good guy that he is, Wade let me finally kill it. With the gas pedal mashed to the floor and some careful left-foot braking, I had that big front-wheel drive Buick drifting through the snow like a sprint car. When that got boring, I started smashing into the now-abandoned and disabled vehicles that littered the track.

The crowd went wild as I drove past the Taurus and ripped the open passenger door clean off. It was amazingly satisfying. With my one good nerve sufficiently steeled, I then proceeded to drive into the side of the Taurus head-on at about 60 km/h no less that eight times.

On my final run at it, I noticed what appeared to be fire coming from beneath the crumpled hood. I slammed the car in park and ran like hell. We later determined it was just the Buick's underhood courtesy lamp intermittingly blinking on and off, but the fun was finally over.

The remainder of the cars were dragged to the parking area with a skid-steer and will be picked up and hauled off for scrap. The Buick actually managed to make its way back to the shop under its own power. Given the condition it was now in, this was simply amazing.

Ultimately, we learned a couple of important things on this cold but ridiculously fun day. The first was that chili is not a suitable lunch prior to a smash-up derby. The second was that you can't kill a Buick.

Come to think of it, both of these lessons were made abundantly clear to us by our fathers many years ago. Some theories, however, just have to be tested.

willy@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2013 E2

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