(james benedict brown) on the road

Packing it in: a trip to New York City

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 19 August, 2006

Top Gear magazine recently declared that the Fiat 500 is the Sexiest Car in the World. James May explained that the car “advertises nothing about its owner, except that it’s someone who doesn’t need to try.”

While I agree in principle that the engine size of a vehicle should generally be taken as an inverse proportionate indicator of masculinity and size of sexual organs (think about it), I may have found a vehicle which challenges the Fiat 500. After all, someone who knowingly chooses a car without a crumple zone (more accurately one that is a crumple zone) is probably trying to stand out. So, I present to you, James’ submission for sexiest car in the world…


Yep. That is indeed one f-ugly car. But I think most women will agree that not much makes a man look more attractive than the potential to make babies. If you want to exude confident masculinity, driving a seven seat minivan does the job.

On Saturday morning, I meet Laura at the Papineau offices of Discount Rent-a-car. I’d normally go with the effervescently friendly staff at Enterprise, but they don’t allow their nice clean cars to go to the USA. Discount have, waiting for us, a tastefully-unstylish gold Pontiac Montana. This car used to be sold in Britain as the Vauxhall Sintra, until it turned out in independent crash tests to be the most dangerous people carrier to drive in a head-on collision. It was also scathingly reviewed as Britain’s worst car. Vauxhall saw sense, and stopped selling it. The car was heavily re-designed for the USA and Canada, and it remains on sale to this day in various disguises as a Chervolet, a Saturn and a Pontiac. The hideously ugly and frankly gargantuan snout is only excusable because it improves the chances of my legs being removed on the same stretcher as my body after a head-on crash.

We sign the paperwork, and check the car before accepting the keys. Laura needs to go to the bank, so it is I who carefully makes the first manoeuvres in this awesome beast of a vehicle. Perched high on a fully adjustable “captain’s chair”, I swing the lumbering hulk onto Papineau, and cruise the two blocks to Laura’s place. As with every American car I have ever driven, it does not enjoy going round corners, and the automatic transmission adds a two second delay to every request for power that I make from the accelerator.

Laura is moving to New York City. After six years in Montréal, she’s moving south of the border to begin a prestigious post-graduate course at Columbia University. I was persuaded to help Laura move by joining her for an expenses paid weekend road trip to New York City and to drive the van back to Montréal. I did not need much persuasion. Most of the actual packing is done: I get started by breaking by back trying to remove the middle row of seats. These recline, fold, and theoretically can be lifted out by a nimble parent to make room for their children’s junk. I eventually discover the technique to removing the seats. Lift the lever on the side of the chair, fold the seat back forward, pull the metal lever at the back and tilt the whole seat forward, then pull the small-and-easily-overlooked fabric hook. Then lean on the back chair, push with all your might, groan like a dying animal and hope for the best. After twenty minutes I manage to remove the two seats, which each weigh about as much as I do. They sit forlornly on the sidewalk, like two seated people with headrests for heads and armrests for arms, until such time as my body is capable of moving them into the house.

The rear row of seats cannot (as in some more modern minivans) be folded completely flat into the floor. To disguise this inadequacy, the floor of the trunk is raised up to the level of the folded seats. A classic General Motors’ design solution: the competition offers something we can’t, so lets just fudge it and make it look we can do it as well. Laura takes one look (she must be a natural with family cars) and discovers how to remove the whole raised floor unit, which contains some useless storage bins. With the car now as empty as we can make it, we set about loading it to the roof with Laura’s possessions. Incredibly, everything fits very neatly, and there is even some rearwards vision. Years of taking too much stuff from home to boarding school has helped me become an expert car packer.

We reward ourselves with breakfast. Laura chooses wisely: just west of Papineau on Mont Royal Est is a diner that reminds you what the Plateau was like in the sixties. The banquettes are all in brown leatherette, and the surfaces are finished in a varnished-wood-effect laminate. Above us, slanting red beams suggest surreptitiously implanted memories of an imagined holiday in Switzerland. The food comes free with a big plate of grease. Laura says goodbye to Montréal with a smile on her face.

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