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BBC Autos

Autophiles

Andrew McCarthy on cars, cabbies and the journey

About the author

After careers as a classroom teacher, preschool director and fiction writing professor, Brett now writes about the two subjects on which people are least interested in receiving advice from a childless gay man: kids and cars. Visit him at brettberk.com or follow him on Twitter at @StickShift_VF.

Actor and travel writer Andrew McCarthy

(Ben Gabbe/Getty Images)

You know Andrew McCarthy from his roles in 1980s young-Hollywood touchstones such as Pretty in Pink, Less Than Zero and St Elmo’s Fire.

But he is also a widely published travel writer, having penned pieces for The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and National Geographic Traveler, where he is the editor-at-large. Since travel is often synonymous with cars, and given Andrew is a good sport, BBC Autos gave him a ring and grilled him about harrowing Brazilian cab rides, drug-fuelled road trips and the mysterious hills of Kansas. (We also helped him select his next car.)

Brett Berk: Between acting and writing about travel, you are always up to something interesting, somewhere incredible. Where are you today, and what are you doing?

Andrew McCarthy: Right now I’m in Vail. I was speaking at a writer’s conference yesterday, and today I’m doing an event for my book, The Longest Way Home.

Where else have you been recently?

I just came back from India. I was in Darjeeling, where I was doing a story for National Geographic Traveler about looking for the perfect cup of tea. And in Calcutta, I was doing a story for The Guardian. It was just … Calcutta.

Calcutta: It’s crowded.

Well, there’s my lede.  

You must be an expert on rental cars. Do you have a go-to model?

Well, I was recently in Hawaii with my wife and kids, and we’re all still cramming into the Mustang convertible. The only problem with a Mustang convertible, if you have four travelling people in it, is driving from the airport, because the trunk on that car fits approximately one weekend bag. So everyone had a suitcase on their lap. Other than that, I have no go-to. I always end up getting stuck with, like, Ford Tauruses.

What about tips on taking cabs or hiring drivers? Any special dos and don’ts?

You’re going to get ripped off, so just be OK about it. Also, you have to be OK with kind of being adopted by your driver. It’s like family: you’re stuck with him. You were adopted by him for a reason—you don’t know what that reason is, but he’s going to be taking you around. That’s the deal. Don’t fight it.

Any harrowing cab or driver stories from your travels?

Lots of them. I was doing a movie in Brazil, and the driver they assigned me was just terrifying. He would always drive in the centre of the road, with his hazard lights on, and he would always drive furiously fast. He wouldn’t get out of the middle, so every oncoming car had to swerve out of our way. Finally, I had to ask them to change my driver. And he was heartbroken by this.

What about harrowing stories of driving yourself when you are travelling?

Actually, I was on a dirt road with no guardrail just this morning, and I was going way too fast, and sliding, and I was thinking, “What am I doing?” I could have gone right over that thing.  

Are you a fast driver?

Not particularly. But when I get going it feels good, doesn’t it?

Speaking of harrowing, let’s talk about the 1980s. You were young, you were a movie star, it was obviously the 1980s. Cocaine-fuelled road trips, ping-ponging between New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas – am I close to the truth?

On the money.

I had a ‘67 Camaro convertible back then, which ended up getting totalled. And I was going to drive that cross-country from LA to New York with a friend. But he bailed at the last minute, and instead I headed to Las Vegas alone, and just… fell in. About a week later, I was still there, and I finally called my friend up and made him come get me. 

But later, I had an alcohol- and drug-induced trip across the country. West to east.  

Fun?

What I remember of it. I actually just wrote about that trip for The Guardian. Of course, I did that whole piece without mentioning the drugs and alcohol.

How did you explain going the entire way without any sleep?

[Laughs] I just kind of glossed over that part. I do remember that we all almost killed each other in Colorado. Because… well, we had some problems there – someone took more than their fair share. Like you said, it was the Eighties.

What other cars did you own back then? 

I only had the Camaro. Then later, I had a used BMW 5 Series – another of my harebrained schemes. A friend of mine in Hawaii had this BMW and he was junking it, and I said I wanted it. And he was, like, “You do not want this car, this car is done.” But I bought his car and shipped it back to the mainland. And it was a money-pit disaster.

What was the worst trouble you ever encountered – or nearly encountered – with the police in those cars?

Well, we were pulled over on that west-to-east road trip. We’d rented a Volvo after my Camaro got crashed. And we were kind of… wired out of our minds, and we were pulled over for speeding. And there was stuff all over the car – bottles and all kinds of powders. And the cop was shining his flashlight – this was in western Kansas by the way. And he said, “You were going a little fast there.” And I was like, “Oh. Sorry. I must have gotten caught in a down-slope.” And it’s flat – I mean, it’s Kansas. But nothing happened. He gave me a ticket for speeding. That was lucky. That was one of those moments that could have been a real life-changer. ‘Brat Pack Actor Arrested in Kansas.’

You now live in New York. Do you own a car?

No.

Andrew, this is an interview for a car site. You need to own a car. We are going to figure this out right now. What are your needs? You have kids, do you have a weekend place?

I have two kids. No weekend place.

Do you like wagons? Say yes.

Wagons? Not really.

Well, start liking them, because you need a BMW 3 Series diesel wagon. All-wheel drive, room for five, fun, over 40-something miles per gallon.

How much is it?

It will probably be in the high $40,000 range. 

[Pauses briefly.] I’m going to get it. I like the way that sounds.

That was easy. When it comes out this fall, BMW will set you up.

Maybe they could sort of… comp us one?

You might have to do some promo events.

I’d be happy to.

You could drive it across India. Or re-create your cross-country road trip from the Eighties. Your kids would enjoy that.

[Laughs.] Right.