The Asphalt Jungle

Hitting The Break

Forced out of the driver’s seat like so much dead weight

As I write this, it has been precisely 47 days since I last drove an automobile. Translation: It’s been 47 days in Hell.

I was in Portugal for a BMW launch, and the afternoon test drive had gone swimmingly. That night, I enjoyed a long, enlightening, thoroughly entertaining dinner with BMW R&D chief Klaus Fröhlich. For brand purists fretting over the arrival of front-drive BMW models such as the X1, fear not: Fröhlich is an avowed enthusiast and insists that though front-wheel drive will help “deliver a more diverse range of products,” RWD will remain BMW’s core architecture. All was grand — until it wasn’t. On the way back to my room, I slipped while descending the hotel’s dramatic staircase, the same stupid, not-paying-attention misstep we’ve all made harmlessly dozens of times. Except on this occasion, I somehow managed to perform a reverse two-and-a-half gainer in the pike position — degree of difficulty: 6.1. And there was no swimming pool to catch me.

BMW’s PR team was great, and first thing the next morning I was on my way to a private hospital outside of Lisbon. The expected verdict: a badly broken right ankle. A surgeon applied a plaster cast, told me to see a physician back in the U.S., and sent me to the front desk to pay the bill. I winced as I handed over my credit card but needn’t have. Total charge, for consultations with two doctors, a suite of X-rays, a cast, and a pair of crutches: $275. Two weeks later I had surgery to install a plate and six or seven screws.

“I’m almost jealous,” said a friend. “A mandatory month or two off your feet! You can binge on Netflix! Burn through all those books piling up in your living room! Make everyone wait on you hand and … oh. Sorry.” He was right, though. I did enjoy it. For about a day. I watched a few movies in bed, guilt-free. And I read books for hours with zero interruptions, the same reason I actually look forward to long, nonstop flights to Europe or Asia. But when that’s all you can do, when making a sandwich becomes a feat of balance worthy of Cirque du Soleil, and the simple act of taking a shower requires more planning and protective gear than a space mission, well, suddenly the idea of being stuck behind the wheel during rush hour on the 405 sounds downright liberating.

When Joni Mitchell sings, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” clearly she’s referring to losing your driving privileges. I’ve tested, reviewed, and savored cars day in and day out pretty much nonstop for the past 30-plus years. In that time I’ll bet there hasn’t been a single week I haven’t forwarded an odometer. Having a steering wheel in my hands seems as essential to my existence as air, sunlight, and an evening martini. My day isn’t complete without the familiar embrace of lateral g-forces, the aria of a well-bred engine rising to fortissimo, the hot tang of brake dust and hard-working tires filling the air. Why, I’ve gone almost two months without a whiff of exhaust fumes — and it’s making me sick.

So now, when I look down from my apartment window at the cars passing below, I get … piston envy. I can feel my right foot twitching inside my inflatable plastic cast for a throttle pedal that isn’t there. I catch so much as a whisper of a passing sports car charging up through the gears, and I have to go put on my spacesuit and take a cold shower. Believe me, to satiate my driving hunger I’ve gone to every extreme. Yesterday I tried watching “Bullitt” wearing my racing helmet and holding one of my shoes over a burning candle. I don’t remember if it worked. Apparently I took a nap until the smoke detector woke me up.

The good news is, by the time you read this I’ll be healed and back on the road again. In the meantime, I see being temporarily forced out of the driver’s seat as something of a wakeup call. I mean, if autonomous cars really are going to take over, soon all of us enthusiasts could be suffering from the same driving withdrawal I’ve just experienced — permanently. So until that hellish day, I for one intend to celebrate every precious, freedom-boosting moment behind the wheel. By standing. On the gas.