On Friday afternoon, October 2, 2020, I got the phone call from the new owners of Wheels – who took control on that very day – to ‘make Car of the Year go ahead, whatever it takes’.
Prior to that call, we had, for the first time since 1963, resigned ourselves to the glum fact there was not going to be any Wheels Car of the Year (COTY) testing within that year.
Just as there was no Australian Grand Prix, no Olympics, and no motor shows, we had also made public our plans not to do COTY. There’d be too great a risk of disruptions, last-second cancellation, border closures, or worse.
There was the somewhat major hurdle, also, that the bulk of the Wheels team continued to live under Victoria’s brutal 112-day lockdown.
But with the COVID viper back in its den, and Victoria seemingly in recovery mode, the chance emerged to ‘save’ COTY. And so with credit to our new owners, it was restart engines, and straight to afterburners.
There were no shortage of immediate difficulties. Aside from presuming Victoria’s COVID restrictions would continue to ease, which was not a given, COTY was generally held in November and typically required three to six months of organising.
It was October... also, we were banned from leaving Victoria. COTY, in the regulators’ eyes, was not considered ‘essential work’. Oh, the temerity...
Also, as the person in charge, I had also just completed only my first issue ever of this very magazine. I had not even attended a COTY test previously. Yes, I had helped organise seven Performance Car of the Year awards at MOTOR, but new Editor Andy Enright might have had something to say if I organised a racetrack, some twisty roads and 10 to 15 of the year’s hottest sports cars for Wheels COTY...
It became obvious to us early on that it might take some Carlos Ghosn-levels of harebrained planning in order to make COTY possible. Victoria initially continued to seem too risky.
At one stage we were hoping to get ourselves from Victoria to Queensland, quarantine for 14 days and hold the testing at Mount Cotton. It looked for a bit like we might have to go via Darwin.
Then, we hit up Sydney Motorsport Park and Canberra’s Sutton Road Driver Training complex – we wondered, cutely, if we could have a quarantine bubble just for our COTY testing – before, finally, Victoria came back into view, very late in the piece. Luckily.
After we had locked and loaded the venue – the Australian Automotive Research Centre proving ground in Anglesea – the race was on to shortlist the cars. With the amount of time we had to organise everything, we simply couldn’t have the enormous fields of years past. So it made the process even more difficult of choosing who got a guernsey, and who didn’t.
We had to lean especially hard on our hard-toiling road-testers in Sydney, who over the course of 2020 were able to test a lot more cars than their Victorian comrades, to know whether a vehicle was worthy or not of getting the COTY call-up.
Of course, you know the end to this story, and it’s a happy one – we got COTY done, the fruits of which are yours to enjoy here on our website, in the March issue, and in video form (check our YouTube channel). But it will forever go down as the One That Almost Didn’t Happen. And thank you to everyone who helped make it happen, the car manufacturers who worked overtime to get us cars to test, especially.