Year-long break in reviews was no vacation!

May 18, 2023 by
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Family reunion birthday party included, from left, son Jeff, this writer, son Jack, and wife and mom Joan at Lakewood home.

By John Gilbert
Maybe this should be more of an apology to loyal readers and followers of “New Car Picks,” because this column of automotive reviews and all activity on this website has been missing for almost exactly one year. But I’m resuming it all now, 51 weeks after the fact, and my elongated pause deserves explanation. It has been a long and torturous trail to get to where the accompanying photo could be taken (Son Jeff, left; then me, then son Jack, wife-mother-guardian angel Joan) on my birthday and family reunion last September 1.

The story starts one year ago, on May 22, 2022, when I eagerly participated in the MAMA Spring Rally at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. It is, without a doubt, the most fun and enjoyable opportunity its to test-drive the latest in new vehicles from all over the world. My older son, Jack, who assists me with photos and information, accompanied me, as usual, for the 7-hour drive from Duluth, Minnesota, to the Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake for two days of on-track, and on-road test drives of nearly 100 new vehicles.

After a morning breakfast meeting at the track, we all headed for the track in a cold, chilly, rainy day that was far from pleasant, and I cautioned my son that I wasn’t feeling great, so maybe to start with I would ride while he drove a lap. We did that, and when we got back to the paddock, he suggested that he would go get a different car after bringing the Toyota Supra back to its location, and he would return and pick me up. As I waited, the drizzle got worse, and I spotted a tent canopy nearby where I could wait and stay dry.

As I walked toward it, I realized that my shortness of breath had worsened. I hesitated, bent over, but that didn’t help. So I dropped down to one knee on the pavement. I was in that position, on one knee, for one minute — no more. And suddenly, I was in an ambulance. They gave me some oxygen and I felt a bit better, but the presence of the fantastic Road America emergency crew in the paddock, where they could be summoned immediately by a fellow who spotted me and guessed at the seriousness of my problem.

That, I realized later, was the first miracle that affected me that day. I had suffered a cardiac arrest, and if the ambulance had taken 5 minutes instead of 1 minute, I would have been dead. The mysterious thing to me, in retrospect, was that I had been given 100 percent clearance in a thorough physical examination I had undergone a year earlier.

The ambulance sped me 20 miles or so to a wonderful hospital in Fond du Lac, where the last thing I remember was being met by Emergency Room attendants, who wheeled me away. Jack followed the ambulance, and waited at the ER. Doctors found complete blockage of my main artery, down my chest, and partial blockages of two other arteries. They went to work immediately to install stents in those three arteries.

Of course, I was out so I knew nothing of all this, including the fact that my heart stopped during the surgery. They restarted it, essentially bringing me back to life. Then it stopped a second time, and the doctors restarted it again. After the surgery, I was placed in an Intensive Care Unit bed, where Jack was waiting. Suddenly, they threw Jack out of the room because my heart had stopped a third time. Once again, doctors got me jump-started. By my count, that was three more miracles — making it four in the matter of about three hours of my lifetime. As I’ve suggested since then, after four miracles, from now on, I’m playing with house money.

When I regained consciousness, I looked up and saw Jack, and also my wife, Joan, and my younger son, Jeff, all standing in a row with the ER attendant. My first thought was that it must be the next morning, which would be Wednesday, May 24. Instead, it was Tuesday, May 30. I had been out for seven full days! That gave Joan time to drive from Duluth to Fond du Lac, and for Jeff to jump in his pickup truck and drive 37 hours from Bellingham, Wash., to get to my bedside.

That probably goes as an “excused absence” for taking my first week off from writing my auto reviews, which I had written, unbroken, every week for 30 years at the Minneapolis Tribune, and continued creating for weekly and daily publications after moving “home” to Duluth for the past 20 years. I remained under the excellent care at the hospital in Fond du Lac for three weeks, until doctors could be sure all my internal components were functioning, including my kidneys, which required kick-starting through dialysis for three weeks.

Already, doctors expressed surprise that I had survived the whole ordeal, and that I showed impressive resilience in improving all my faculties through the start of physical therapy. Amazing that I needed to learn how to walk again, because my legs had turned to limp spaghetti noodles from losing 40 pounds and reclining there on my back without moving for seven days.

After Joan drove me home on June 13, 2022, I resumed therapy and dialysis, and I also started writing again, preparing sports columns and my automotive reviews for the Duluth Reader. I did not, however, resume installing my personal auto reviews on my “New Car Picks” website — which means I left the website in limbo while I continued to gain strength and try to push myself to get back to my acceptable functions.

I was able to resume test-driving fleet cars delivered from Chicago, with my trips to dialysis sessions and various doctors’ appointments joining my appointed rounds. It was fully six months before my kidney functions improved to where I could come off the 4-hour sessions three times a week for dialysis, and as my physical lab tests kept improving, I was able to walk more and push myself more, although now, a full year later, I still have more to go.

During the time when I was out for the week following surgery, I had no idea that the officials at the Midwest Automobile Media Association had offered major assistance to my family. The MAMA officials and all the hundred or so media members had checked out of the Osthoff Resort on May 24, but they found a way to secure a suite where my wife and two sons could stay every night while they were spending full days with me at the hospital. Joan, in fact, was angry with me for not remembering that, before I told her that she and the boys might have discussed all that in my presence, but I was out and had never heard about it.

Since then, my reluctance to get back to normal and make my annual trips to the Chicago and Detroit Auto Shows my have caused some manufacturers to stop sending me test-fleet vehicles — which I now need, more than ever — and my invitations to attend the new vehicle introductions that have always been a valuable source of technical answers have ceased. But the column are running regularly in the Duluth Reader (and, and as of now, they have revived the New Car Picks website.

So Jack and I are driving from Duluth to Elkhart Lake on Tuesday, test-driving an assortment of the newest models from all participating manufacturers, and driving back to Duluth. It will seem like the strangest feeling to attend the event that I think is the highlight of the whole auto year, but it also will set a personal standard of returning to normalcy.


Comments are closed.

  • About the Author

    John GilbertJohn Gilbert is a lifetime Minnesotan and career journalist, specializing in cars and sports during and since spending 30 years at the Minneapolis Tribune, now the Star Tribune. More recently, he has continued translating the high-tech world of autos and sharing his passionate insights as a freelance writer/photographer/broadcaster. A member of the prestigious North American Car and Truck of the Year jury since 1993. John can be heard Monday-Friday from 9-11am on 610 KDAL( on the "John Gilbert Show," and writes a column in the Duluth Reader.

    For those who want to keep up with John Gilbert's view of sports, mainly hockey with a Minnesota slant, click on the following:

    Click here for sports

  • Exhaust Notes:

    More and more cars are offering steering-wheel paddles to allow drivers manual control over automatic or CVT transmissions. A good idea might be to standardize them. Most allow upshifting by pulling on the right-side paddle and downshifting with the left. But a recent road-test of the new Porsche Panamera, the paddles for the slick PDK direct-sequential gearbox were counter-intuitive -- both the right or left thumb paddles could upshift or downshift, but pushing on either one would upshift, and pulling back on either paddle downshifted. I enjoy using paddles, but I spent the full week trying not to downshift when I wanted to upshift. A little simple standardization would alleviate the problem.

    The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution has the best paddle system, and Infiniti has made the best mainstream copy of that system for the new Q50, and other sporty models. And why not? It's simply the best. In both, the paddles are long, slender magnesium strips, affixed to the steering column rather than the steering wheel. Pull on the right paddle and upshift, pull on the left and downshift. The beauty is that while needing to upshift in a tight curve might cause a driver to lose the steering wheel paddle for an instant, but having the paddles long, and fixed, means no matter how hard the steering wheel is cranked, reaching anywhere on the right puts the upshift paddle on your fingertips.

    Even in snow-country, a few stubborn old-school drivers want to stick with rear-wheel drive, but the vast majority realize the clear superiority of front-wheel drive. Going to all-wheel drive, naturally, is the all-out best. But the majority of drivers facing icy roadways complain about traction for going, stopping and steering with all configurations. They overlook the simple but total influence of having the right tires can make. There are several companies that make good all-season or snow tires, but there are precious few that are exceptional. The Bridgestone Blizzak continues to be the best=known and most popular, but in places like Duluth, MN., where scaling 10-12 blocks of 20-30 degree hills is a daily challenge, my favorite is the Nokian WR. Made without compromising tread compound, the Nokians maintain their flexibility no matter how cold it gets, so they stick, even on icy streets, and can turn a skittish car into a winter-beater.