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What it's like to borrow millions of dollars' worth of cars

What it's like to borrow millions of dollars' worth of cars

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Jessica Walker

This is The Harper Spin, a weekly column from seasoned auto critic Jason H. Harper. He’s raced at Le Mans, crushed a car in a 50-ton tank, and now, he’s bringing his unique style to The Verge.

One of Murphy’s Laws states that if something can be borrowed and it can be broken, you will borrow it and you will break it.

As an automotive journalist and car reviewer, my entire job is to borrow really expensive shit and not break it. Deceptively simple, but in direct confrontation with the pessimistic-leaning laws of nature. Mr. Murphy has been right far too often.

So what’s it like to have a job which requires you to be a serial borrower? And what happens if — when — you bang one up?

Does it keep me up at night on occasion? Why yes, it does indeed

This is not idle conjecture. As the auto critic at The Verge, I’ve driven some $3.6 million worth of consumer cars since January alone. And around $4 million more in vintage racecars. There was the restored Porsche 911 "Reimagined by Singer," a lavender coupe that had been commissioned by the owner for some $640,000. (He hadn’t even driven it yet, and I tested it slippery conditions in the rain.) There was the $200,000 new-generation Audi R8 I pushed to 183 miles per hour, and the $281,000 Bentley SUV I got stuck in sand. And the irreplaceable and highly historic collection of Mazda racecars I recently tested at Laguna Seca.

Does it keep me up at night on occasion? Why yes, it does indeed.

So far this year, my borrowed metal has miraculously escaped dings, scrapes, scratches, bangs, backing-up whoopsies, collisions, rear-endings, bent rims, scraped rims, blown tires, and intersection T-bones. I’ve also avoided major mishaps on the racetrack, which can include catastrophic brake failures, catastrophic suspension failures, and general catastrophes — things like driving off the track, spinning off the track, sliding off the track, possibly coupled with slamming into walls, slamming into barriers, and / or slamming into other cars.

You get the idea.



You may also note I’ve said, "so far this year." I’ve been doing this car-reviewing thing for more than 15 years. And there have been dings and scratches and cracked windshields, and various things done to bumpers — usually at slow speeds, oddly and thankfully. Last year I splintered the carbon fiber front splitter on a Corvette Z06 within an hour of receiving the car. I never did figure out how it happened either, but every single journalist claims the same thing. ("It must have been the garage attendant" is the most common refrain, I think.) The front-end piece was valued at $1,995.

And yes, almost all of the regular consumer cars are fully insured by the car companies themselves, as was the case with the bumper piece. So thank you, Chevy, and mea culpa. But in the case of Ferraris or individual owners’ cars or that special Porsche modified by Singer, we here at The Verge might take out an additional insurance policy.

It’s a weird profession. Here’s a little background.

Movie studios arrange screenings for critics, and restaurants often put together an early seating for friends, family, and influencers. But car companies have no choice but to give critics the actual car for a short period of time. I love my colleagues, but we’re the biggest group of juvenile knuckleheads you’ve ever seen. I’m not sure I’d even lend out my son’s Little Red Wagon to any of us.

The first time someone gave me a car worth more than $100,000, I called my grandmother

Car companies will sometimes invite a bunch of media outlets together for a car launch, a scenario where they can keep a close eye on the vehicles and, frankly, have a better chance at controlling the brand messaging. They mandate where and how the vehicle will be driven.

But the preferable situation is when we’re simply given a car for a short period (often a week), so we spend a lot more one-on-one time with a car and drive it where and how we please. For this reason, most car manufacturers maintain a press fleet — a dedicated number of vehicles which are kept in major cities in places like LA and New York. They are maintained and delivered by separate companies dedicated to the task.

Want some funny stories? Get a car PR person drunk and then ask them about automotive journalists. About the contraband that’s found in cars and the "it wasn’t me" stories that are as believable as the car who eats homework. But then, you’ll also find a community that is really passionate and collegial and collectively love their jobs. Ultimately this group of lovable reprobates has no choice but to act as responsibly as possible — otherwise we’ll find ourselves reviewing autos for the Des Moines Penny Pincher.

The first time someone gave me a car worth more than $100,000, I called my grandmother. She was horrified. Not that a car could be so expensive, but that anyone would lend me something of such high value. Driving it around New York City left me feeling both thrilled and anxious. So many moving objects, and in my mind they were all bent toward the Mercedes’s delicate front grille.

But, then, I sorta got used to it. If you don’t ding up the $100,000 car, or leave French fry grease stains on the quilted interior, you will be given an opportunity with a car that costs $150,000. Eventually the gatekeepers will invite you to drive the company’s halo car, like the Porsche Carrera GT, and then, eventually cars in the millions, like a Pagani Huayra.


But then I started driving racecars. The thing about a racecar is they often aren’t insured or insurable. And they are meant to be driven at the edge. If you’re not driving a racecar near the limit, you’re inherently not driving it as it was designed. Kind of a conundrum. Take great care with it — but drive it like you stole it. I once got an invite to test-drive the No. 2 Audi R18 prototype which had won the 2014 Le Mans. It was a grand experience. But I was pretty sure that, if I had done something stupid, my career would have gone with it. "Oh, you’re the guy who wrecked the Le Mans car!"

Lately I’ve also had the opportunity to drive vintage sports cars, both of the production and racecar variety. There was the kind owner who let me take out his gorgeous Aston Martin DB5, or BMW’s invite last year to drive the historic and incomparable M1 at Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion. One has to wonder, is this not akin to the Peter Principle, in which you will continue to be promoted until you rise to the level of your own incompetence?

So many chances to screw up

So many chances to screw up. Because, yes, sometimes you do. Like the unfortunate time with the Rolls-Royce Phantom. I was giving my dad and his girlfriend a chauffeured ride, and ended up on a dead-end road. I backed into someone’s gravel driveway to turn around. What I didn’t realize, and couldn’t quite see, was that a portion of the driveway was terraced down earthen steps. I backed off one of them and the car went bang! We were left high-centered, and one of the side skirts on the car was torn.

It was really, really quiet on the ride home. I "fixed" the silver skin with duct tape, and then went to make the call to the PR rep. I took pictures and made a diagram for the insurance company, and offered to pay the deductible (gulp). Not necessary, I was told. "These things happen."

I felt like a heel. Still wince at the thought. My pride had also take a ding. But, I suppose, it was better than an accident at 60 mph or a big incident on the racetrack. Because whether you blame the Peter Principle or simply Murphy’s Law, at some point the pessimistic-leaning laws of nature are gonna catch up with you.

Just make sure that when they do, you’re not stuck telling the owner or PR rep that their car was just towed away by AAAA Wrecking service and the balled-up remains can be reclaimed at the county police impound lot.