The Oddly Simple Joy of the Pandemic Drive

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

Like a lot of people, I’ve been driving less on average since the pandemic began. This presents a problem when part of your job requires testing cars.

I like to get a minimum of 60 miles on a vehicle I’m testing. Before March of last year, that was easy to do even though I work from home and live in a dense, urban part of Chicago in which most retail establishments I’d drive to are a short distance from home. That’s because I’d have to trek to O’Hare for a press junket, or to the suburbs for an event being held by an automaker, or to those same suburbs to socialize with family and friends.

That, obviously, got taken away for me as it did for everyone. So in order to properly test cars for review (housekeeping note – a bunch are coming now that I’ve finished some behind-the-scenes projects that were major time sucks) – I’ve had to do something I did before the pandemic on occasion and just carve time for a drive.

I usually get up on a weekend morning at a time that was once unthinkable to a younger me, cook up a nice breakfast, and head out on one of two drive loops I know (sometimes I explore a third area) that combines urban streets, freeway, and curving roads (Chicago isn’t Southern California, but there a few decent roads in the metro if you know where to look). I do it even with vehicles that aren’t particularly fun to drive or really meant to be pushed, just so I have a better sample of a vehicle’s behavior than I would if all I did was run to the market.

To be clear, I’m not doing some buff-book “at the limit” shit. I keep my behavior in check as best I can (I’ve already received one speeding ticket this year), and I intend to return each car to the press fleet in one piece. I just want to push things enough to better understand any given car’s dynamics.

The hour or two a week I spend on this has been a lifesaver, in terms of mental health.

That’s because it’s one of the few things I can do outside the home that is very low risk in terms of catching COVID. And it’s one of the few things I can do that reminds me of Before Times normality, even if there’s hand sanitizer in the cupholder and a mask on the passenger seat.

Not to mention that driving is fun. Commuting sucks, but actual driving is fun. Even if I am just doing a relaxed cruise, I usually enjoy the process of moving a two-ton hunk of metal from point A to point B.

Yes, driving can be fun. But I touched on how going for a spin reminds me of normal life from the Before, and that is, I think, the biggest thing for me right now.

So little of life is what we thought of as “normal” now. I rarely see friends and family in person. If I go to happy hour, it’s not at a bar – it’s on Zoom and I don’t leave my house. I wear a mask in public for my safety and the safety of others, and I worry that any trip to the store could get me sick. I miss restaurant meals.

But I can drive. I don’t have to wear a mask alone in the car – though I keep it with me in case I need to run into a store. Yeah, the bottle of hand sanitizer also reminds me that the world is weird right now, but otherwise, I can pretend, just for a time, that we’re not in a global pandemic.

The rest of the time, I am reminded the world is in the midst of a global health crisis. Every hangout that’s on Zoom instead of in person, every live sporting event I watch that has no fans, every time I see masked people on the street (or whenever I put mine on), every time I see that a favorite bar or restaurant is “temporarily closed.” Every time I check the news, even. Every waking hour I am reminded that we’re in a pandemic.

Except when I’m cruising the Edens Expressway, music blasting, on a trip to nowhere special. Except when I’m hitting an on-ramp just hard enough to get some tire squeal. Except when I’m working through some corners on a twisty road.

Eventually, the car is parked and it’s back to reality. But for a couple of hours each week, I take a trip back in time 10 months to when the world, flawed as it is, wasn’t in the grips of a deadly virus. If I couldn’t do that, well, let’s just say I never thought I’d understand Jack Torrance in The Shining so well.

Go for a drive.

[Image: GM]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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  • 0grayscale1 0grayscale1 on Jan 08, 2021

    For years now, every time I come back from a drive in my car, my wife always notes that I am in a much better mood with a smile on my face and a bit more spring in my step. This is even more-so now during the pandemic. Top down, feeling the environment, rowing through the gears, hearing the exhaust note, feeling the g-forces; going for a drive is like a mini-vacation for me each time.

  • Southerner Southerner on Jan 08, 2021

    You miss restaurant meals? Well come on down, my friend. Florida is open for business! No shortage of dining options here. So grab the Missus, the young'uns, Beethoven and Buffy and have yourselves a good ole time on a real road trip.

  • Charles The UAW makes me the opposite of patriotic
  • El scotto Wranglers are like good work boots, you can't make them any better. Rugged four wheel drive vehicles which ironically make great urban vehicles. Wagoneers were like handbags desired by affluent women. They've gone out of vogue. I can a Belgian company selling Jeep and Ram Trucks to a Chinese company.
  • El scotto So now would be a good time to buy an EV as a commuter car?
  • ToolGuy $1 billion / 333.3 million = $3 per U.S. person ¶ And what do I get for my 3 bucks -- cleaner air and lower fuel prices? I might be ok with this 🙂🙂
  • VoGhost Matt, I'm curious why you write that inventory levels are low at 74 days. Typically, 60 days is the benchmark for normal inventory.
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