Chris and the Hyundai Genesis at a drive event near Quebec City
Chris and the Hyundai Genesis at a drive event near Quebec City

This week we’re in Ottawa, Canada, for a chat with motoring journalist Chris Chase. Interviewing Chris was an opportunity to find out more about the motor industry in Canada and what it’s like to work in the media there. Turns out being a motoring journalist in Canada is not too different from being one in Ireland. His advice for anyone wishing to pursue a career in this industry can translate across oceans and borders too.

I think I first came across Chris on Instagram back in 2016. I loved his ‘Car by the River’ photos where he would take a photo of each test car in the same sweet location by the Ottawa River. It was cool to see models I test too appear on his page in a another location on another continent in a different territory spec. When you’re a car geek, these little things are interesting! Like why has the Mazda MX-5 got reflectors on the wheelarches! Why are you calling the Honda NSX an ‘Acura’! And what’s a Scion?

Here’s what Chris has to say on cars, journalism and the best routes for road trippin’ in Canada!

1. Can you introduce yourself in a couple of sentences?

I’m a 42-year-old (soon to be 43) journalism school grad lucky enough to spend some of my working time writing about cars and the auto industry. I consider myself a more casual car enthusiast than a lot of the people I know from the 15 years I’ve been doing motoring journalism. I love fun, fast cars, but the ones that most attract my interest are the entertaining cars that a person of average means can afford to buy and own, and that are easy to use for every-day driving.

2. How did you start your career testing cars? 

In 2004, I began writing car-related news and feature articles for the local daily newspaper and used car articles for a website called CanadianDriver.com. My editors at those publications gave me a great opportunity to get started in the industry, and then let me take a crack at writing new car reviews. The first car I tested was a 2006 Hyundai Sonata. To that point, it was one of the nicest cars I’d ever driven. Suffice it to say things went uphill from there.

3. Can you explain the ‘Car by the River’ concept to our readers and how it came about?

Looking back through my Instagram feed, my first actual Car by the River post was in December 2014. I started using that label a few years after I realised I had made a habit of taking photos of the cars I review by the Ottawa River; it’s one of the most scenic backdrops in Ottawa, where I live. I often end up driving along the water on my way home from picking up press vehicles, so it’s an easy thing to stop at one of the public parking areas to take some pics. I wish the origin story was more exciting, but there you are.

 

4. How are things in the Canadian new car market at the moment?

Not great, but I’m sure Canada’s hardly unique in that respect. Sales were down significantly in the first quarter of 2020, and they’ll almost certainly drop much further as the coronavirus pandemic wears on. According to one piece of analysis I read, it was the worst first quarter for car sales since 2010, when the industry was recovering from the recession of 2008/2009. Some brands are reporting April 2020 sales around 80% lower than in April 2019.

The other part of the story is that there’s a lot of vehicle manufacturing in my home province of Ontario. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, General Motors, Ford, Toyota and Honda have factories in the southern part of the province near the Great Lakes and the U.S. border, and many of them have suspended production to prevent an oversupply of new vehicles. There’s a huge number of third-party suppliers of vehicle components that have also lost a lot of work.

I’m curious (morbidly so, perhaps) to see how long it takes the country’s auto industry to recover when the worst of the pandemic has passed.

5. What car did you learn to drive in? 

A 1986 Honda Civic with a 5-speed stick. About a year after I learned to drive, my parents traded that car in for a Dodge Caravan minivan. My dad offered to give me the Civic with the caveat that I’d have to pay for any work it needed to pass a safety (what you call the NCT in Ireland). For some strange reason, my 17-year-old self said no – one of the many reasons I wish I could go back in time. I still miss that car. It was super simple and would have been great for learning to do maintenance and repairs. If any of your readers are young new drivers, my advice to them is to never turn down a free car!

6. Have you ever been to Ireland or driven ‘on the wrong side of the road’?

I’ve not been to Ireland, though my wife and I want to go for our anniversary in 2021 (we’ll see how that goes, considering the pandemic and all).

In 2011, we spent a few days in Cornwall on England’s west tip. We rented a Vauxhall Astra in Penzance that we used to tour around the region. It was nerve-wracking the first couple of days thanks to the narrow rural roads and getting used to driving from the right-front seat. There were some funny moments, like having to stop to let a flock of geese waddle across the road, and terrifying ones too, such as rounding a blind curve to find a lorry bearing down us from the other direction. I got really good at reversing to make way for other vehicles on that trip. I finally felt like I was getting the hang of it all on the fourth day – the day I took the car back to the rental agency.

Chris with the Hyundai Accent back in 1998, which he owned for about 10 years
Chris with the Hyundai Accent back in 1998, which he owned for about 10 years

7. Favourite place in Canada for a road trip?

Some of my favourite roads are not too far from home, in the Laurentian Mountains in Quebec, where there are lots of secondary and tertiary routes with fun curves and big hills. In the winter, a bit of snow cover practically turns some of these routes into rally stages.

Way out on the west coast of Canada – which is four or five hours from Ottawa by plane and closer to a week away by car – there’s a road on Vancouver Island between Victoria and Tofino that combines breathtaking views with lots of twists and turns, including a handful of hairpins. I only wish I’d been driving something more fun than a rented Corolla on that trip.

To get from Ottawa to the Maritime provinces on Canada’s east coast, there’s a beautiful route that goes through Quebec City and then follows the St. Lawrence River to a town called Riviere du Loup (roughly translated: Wolf River), where you make the turn into the province of New Brunswick. It’s not an exciting drive by enthusiast standards, but you get a rarely interrupted view of the St. Lawrence, which is a vast waterway with huge significance in Canadian culture and history.

What I haven’t done, but want to, is drive the entirety of the Trans Canada Highway – all 7,800 km (almost 4,900 miles) of it from Victoria, British Columbia, to St. John’s, Newfoundland. If you want to get an idea of some of what you’d see driving across Canada, look up a movie called One Week. It stars Joshua Jackson (Pacey on Dawson’s Creek) as a guy who is diagnosed with cancer and then, on an impulse, buys a vintage motorcycle (the internet says it’s a Norton Commando) and rides it from Toronto to Tofino, B.C. It’s a beautifully made film that highlights Canada’s pretty scenery.

8. What would be in your dream 3 car garage?

I always struggle with questions like this, only because there are so many interesting vehicles to choose from. My choices often surprise people because I don’t gravitate toward a lot of the vehicles typically favoured by car nuts.

My choice of classic car is the Citroen DS for its lovely design and interesting engineering. I would probably spend as much time looking at it (and maintaining it) as I did driving it because I can’t get enough of its styling.

For a daily driver, I’d have a BMW 5 Series wagon/estate from the E39 generation. I was tempted to choose the E39 M5, but I know myself, and it’s not my style. I love the wagon’s styling, and it stands in nicely as a utility vehicle without feeling utilitarian.

In the third garage bay would be a Mazda MX-5. It’s the one car that always occupies a spot on my all-time favourites list, and every time Mazda redesigns the car, the newest version is the one I want. The fourth-gen ND model arguably strays furthest from the MX-5’s origins as a no-nonsense driver’s car, but I love the combination of performance and refinement it offers. Every time I review one of these cars, I literally (and that’s not an exaggeration) want to spend the whole week doing nothing but driving it.

The Mazda MX-5 is one of Chris' favoruite cars - By the River of course!
The Mazda MX-5 is one of Chris’ favoruite cars – By the River of course!

9. What advice do you have for anyone who wants a career as a motoring journalist?

My number one piece of advice is to not fixate on reviewing new cars. While it is a fun part of working as an auto writer, it’s also super competitive and it can be hard to find an “in.”

Instead, take any opportunity you’re given. One of my first car-related pieces was an article for the Ottawa Citizen daily newspaper about a store that sold aftermarket roof racks for carrying bikes, skis and the like. It wasn’t exciting, but I got paid for it and it was valuable experience for me as a recent journalism school grad. Also, don’t underestimate the thrill of seeing your byline in print for the first time.

I did a lot of research-based used car reviews and new-car buyer’s guide articles when I was getting started, and I’m still doing that type of writing 15 years later. It’s not flashy work, but it often pays reasonably well.

When you do get your first crack at reviewing new cars, don’t expect to immediately get the keys to crazy performance cars and posh luxury sedans. Even experienced reviewers spend a lot of their time writing about economy cars and family vehicles, so you have to learn how to evaluate them based on the criteria buyers care about.

Don’t forget about industry trade publications. Many of these magazines (in Canada, several still publish in print, as well as online) pay fairly and give you the chance to write longer-form articles. If you’re a recent journalism grad, these pieces can be great portfolio builders; doing this kind of writing is also a great way to learn how the auto industry operates behind the scenes.

If you want a proper career in motoring journalism, you will most likely have to build it yourself from various freelance gigs, because full-time, salaried jobs in the field are very rare. It might be more realistic to consider automotive journalism a part-time job in addition to something that provides more predictable income (and, in my case, workplace benefits).

10. How can our readers keep up with your work?

Most of my bylined work is published at OntarioCars.ca, where I do used car-related content and some new-vehicle reviews.

I write longer-form articles for The Ontario Dealer, a trade magazine published (in print!) by the Used Car Dealers Association of Ontario. You can find it online here: http://theontariodealer.com/

I also contribute to AutoTrader.ca, for whom I write news and buyer’s guide articles, as well as the occasional new-vehicle review.

For TractionLife.com, I write car reviews, news articles and other content.

Finally, I have my own site, ChrisChasesCars.com, which I mostly use as an archive of articles I’ve written for other publications, but I don’t update it often.

Thanks to Chris for taking part in this interview for Changing Lanes!

By Caroline Kidd