Jason Cammisa: “If it makes you smile (or cry), buy it!”

Interview and photography by Shayan Bokaie

Jul 5, 2022

Convention dictates that we tee up this conversation with Jason Cammisa by assuming that you have never heard of the guy, that you need an introduction. This seems unlikely but, sure, we’ll play along.

Cammisa is an award-winning automotive journalist who made a name for himself at publications such as Automobile, Road & Track, and Motor Trend. He has also carved out a niche for himself as an on-screen host of shows such as "Ignition" and "Head2Head" on Motor Trend, and, more recently, on “Know It All”, “Icons”, “Ultimate Drag Race Replay” and “Revelations” for Hagerty.

Or we could just let Cammisa describe himself in his own words: "I am," says Cammisa, "an automotive journalist, car collector, terrible mechanic, stunt driver, professional idiot, and amateur Adam Sandler-lookalike."

Whatever his job title might be, and regardless of his celebrity doppelgänger, Cammisa is one of the most respected voices in the automotive industry, which is why we were thrilled that he made time to sit down with Marqued’s Shayan Bokaie for a conversation about his love of Volkswagens, his “color blind” predilection for ugly cars, and the need for more experts in this world.

Shayan Bokaie: You're obviously car crazy. Has that always been the case, or when did this kick off for you?

Jason Cammisa: I definitely was born crazy. I think the car-crazy thing started a couple years later. By the time I was two or three, I drove everyone around me crazy with my obsession for cars, screaming out the names of every car as it passed by, and just generally getting excited about cars.

And then at 14, I bought my first car, which was a Volkswagen Beetle, with my best friend. It was a car that had just been sitting on the side of the road for years, so we contacted the owner, paid her the huge sum of $200, and owned a 1972, flat-windscreen Super Beetle, even though we had no licenses or ability to do anything with the car. It sort of went downhill from there.

And so my advice to anyone who wants to become a collector is: don't become a collector. Remain an enthusiast and go buy the thing that makes you laugh or smile or cry or whatever emotion you want to feel from a car.

Shayan: Your current lineup is very Volkswagen-heavy. Tell me about your affinity for that brand.

Jason: My first car was that Beetle at 14 years old, and then 16, when I was living in Germany, my second car was also a Beetle. That was more a function of the fact that they were everywhere and they were cheap.

But I sort of fell away from the Volkswagen thing for a while until I happened upon my Scirocco. It's an 1987 Scirocco 16-valve in Flash Silver. That was a complete and total accident. I had never sat in a Scirocco and I didn't remember seeing one in person. This month, it’s 25 years that I've owned my Scirocco, and that car sort of reignited the Volkswagen thing that had been dormant. But let's be honest: a water cooled Mk1 Volkswagen has absolutely nothing in common with an air-cooled Type 1 Beetle.

Now the Scirocco is too special for me and it's too fragile. It's a 2,300-pound car with bumpers that are made out of paper, and parts are just not available for the car. So I thought, "If I ever park it on the street and somebody hits it, it’s over. My favorite toy will be taken away from me." I needed a city car that works in San Francisco, that is small because our parking spots are tiny. But we also have really twisty, fun roads where I live and even just regular roads are a riot to drive on. That’s how my Mk1 Cabriolet happened: I needed a car that I could park in the city and not worry about it.

Then I realized I could use a Scirocco as a parts car and swap an entire Scirocco into this Cabby. They're both Mk1 Volkswagens underneath, so the Cabriolet got the same 2.0-Liter, 16-valve engine that I had built for my Scirocco, basically all of the same gear, the quick ratio, power steering, the four-wheel discs, all of it. So they are mechanically identical copies of each other. And the real benefit there was that I get to drive my Scirocco in convertible, four-seat form without risking anything happening to the Scirocco.

Shayan: Do you think these 1980s Volkswagens are worth considering for someone who’s looking to get into the world of enthusiast car ownership or collecting?

Jason: I've become a car collector, but I didn't start out to become a car collector. I'm an enthusiast and I wound up with a car that I completely fell in love with, the Scirocco, but not because of any inherent value in the car or any potential upside as an investment. It was because I drove it, it made me laugh like an idiot, it cornered on three wheels, it was stupid fast, it made great noises, and I always thought it looked cool. And so I became – I love this word – a connoisseur. I became a connoisseur and a collector of this Mk1 Volkswagen product just by virtue of the fact that I loved it.

I don't want to turn a profit on it, I want to drive it. If the car was suddenly worth half of what I paid for it, I also wouldn't sell it, because it's not going to put half the smile on my face.

And so my advice to anyone who wants to become a collector is: don't become a collector. Remain an enthusiast and go buy the thing that makes you laugh or smile or cry or whatever emotion you want to feel from a car. Life is not about dying with the most amount of cars in terms of dollar value, it's about smiling so much that by the time you're my age, you're old and wrinkled from smiling. That’s how the VW thing started for me, but it doesn't matter whether it's a VW, a Porsche, or a Honda. Whatever it is, if it's something that makes you laugh, go buy it!

Jason Cammisa: “If It Makes You Smile (Or Cry), Buy It!”Jason Cammisa: “If It Makes You Smile (Or Cry), Buy It!”

Of course there's always a financial component to this. I paid $2,200 for the Cabby, $1,500 bucks for the Scirocco, €1,500 for the E30. I got a lot of these cars really cheap, but I never thought, "Oh, I'm not going to not drive this car because I'm going to kill its value,” or, "Hey, I'm going to go look for that car because it's going to be worth $30,000.” You play that game, you're going to lose. At the end of the day, though, you can't lose if you bought the car to have fun with.

Shayan: Let’s talk about the Ferrari. How’s that come into your life, and why a 308 GT4?

Jason: I tried a couple of times to buy a Ferrari. I thought, "Oh, I should have a Ferrari." I went through the range: I never drove a 348 but I drove a 308, a 328, a 355, a 360, and just said, “No, I don't actually like any of them."

But, for me, the GT4 was never about the way it looked, or about thinking, "Ooh, I have to have a Ferrari." In fact, a friend of ours, Derek Tam-Scott, who now hosts The Carmudgeon Show with me, showed up at my house one day with this ugly white Ferrari, and I said, "What are you doing with this pile of crap?"

He handed me the keys, and 1.3 miles later, I turned to him and said, “Whenever you're done with it, I'll take it,” because it was the one car that lived up to my mental fantasy about what driving a Ferrari would be like. So I bought it from him for a very small amount of money. And one just sold on Bring a Trailer this past week for literally four times what I paid for that car, and I have a friend whose immediate reaction was, "Sell it, sell it now!”

But that’s not why I bought this car. I bought that car because it's fun and it drives like a million bucks, so if it winds up one day being worth a million bucks, great. But that's not why I bought the car. I don't want to turn a profit on it, I want to drive it. If the car was suddenly worth half of what I paid for it, I also wouldn't sell it, because it's not going to put half the smile on my face. In fact, it'd put an even bigger smile on my face because then my insurance bill goes down every year rather than up.

Shayan: But let’s be honest: those GT4s have not always been to everyone’s tastes…

Jason: At first glance the 308 GT4 is not a pretty car. Same thing with the Scirocco: it’s kind of a weird-looking car. But the more you look at this car, the more you understand the subtle genius that was Marcello Gandini, and you really start to appreciate the packaging and the engineering and the simplicity of that design. I look at that car now and I see that the best part of that car are the curves on it that are not immediately visible. So you have to get past the initial reaction of "What is that?!” Then you can really start to appreciate that there are some beautiful angles on these cars.

Shayan: You’ve also got three E30s in your garage. Explain yourself.

Jason: I'm an idiot. I've had my E30 Touring for 20 years. I bought it in Germany when the car was 10 years old. It was always a nice condition car, it was an honest car, but I hit a deer almost 10 years ago. At the time, I thought, "Do I just sort of patch this up or do I make the car perfect?" I chose the latter, but I had underinsured it dramatically. It was worth way more than I was paying insurance on it, so we could have totaled it out. I worked with the insurance adjusters to give me just a dollar less than total value. Then I threw a big bag of money at the car because I thought the car deserved it. This turned out to be a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is that it immediately won first place in a concours, which is really nice as a reward for my work, but on the flip side, it also ruined the car, because now I've become that collector who can't drive their car.

I just realized that I can't have it both ways: I can't have a concours-winning, absolutely perfect car and then go do rallies with it. So I bought a second E30: her name is Beatrice. She came pre-named. It was originally a bronze 1989 325i sedan, mechanically identical to my wagon. So now you're seeing a pattern, right? Because the Scirocco and the Cabby are also mechanically identical.

Beatrice is a salvage title car. She looks like she fell down a flight of steps, dented on every corner. It doesn't matter. I can park that car outside and not care, but it’s mechanically, absolutely spectacularly perfect. And so, that became my track-day car. It does the track days and rallies and all the other stuff that I shouldn't probably be doing with my wagon, even though I still want to. So I had the perfect mix: I had two Mk1 Volkswagens, two E30s. Everything's great.

If you can come away from one of my videos, having spent 10 or 12 minutes with me, having laughed and enjoyed yourself, then I've won.

Jason Cammisa: “If It Makes You Smile (Or Cry), Buy It!”Jason Cammisa: “If It Makes You Smile (Or Cry), Buy It!”

And then this third E30 came up and this one is Cashmere, which is a rare color and this is one of those times where the color really did affect me. Cashmere is a metallic gold, another rare color. I saw this car and I thought, "Wouldn't it be hilarious if I bought a Cashmere E30 and it would match both of my Volkswagens and my Mercedes Cosworth?" It wound up coming up for sale by the previous owner who had spent four years trying to fix it. He was a Ferrari mechanic. He couldn’t get it to run right and he was just giving up because he needed daily transportation. I love a good challenge, I love great mechanical detective work. I really will figure out what's wrong with it. I will make it perfect. And then hopefully I will have the strength to sell it because I do not need three E30s.

Shayan: You do seem to both have a knack for, and also enjoy, the process of working on your own cars. Were you always mechanically inclined, or was there an active decision to learn these skills?

Jason: As a kid, I was always taking things apart and occasionally putting them back together. The goal was taking it apart, and then if my mother went berserk because her vacuum cleaner was in 200 pieces, well, then I had no choice: I had to put it back together.

When I bought the Scirocco, I was a college student and it kept breaking. It broke because it was 10 years old and it had 28,000 miles on it. It had barely been driven, and when you resurrect a car from eight years of slumber, everything's going to break.

I was at an impasse. I either had to figure out how to work on this car, or sell it and buy something reliable. But I enjoyed it too much, so I started working on it, which basically taught me everything I know. I've built nine engines for that car at this point, just because I'm playing around.

I really do love working on cars. No one else touches my cars. Part of that is because I love the work, and the other part is, let's be honest, no one is going to take care of the car the way you take care of a car. If I damage something, fixing it is on me. And I don't mind if I screw up, but I would really mind if someone else scratched the paint on the inside of the hood of my car just because they were careless.

You just have to learn to work on your own cars if you want a collection of pile-of-crap, worthless cars that break all the time and hate you.

Jason Cammisa: “If It Makes You Smile (Or Cry), Buy It!”Jason Cammisa: “If It Makes You Smile (Or Cry), Buy It!”

Shayan: You recently purchased your first Honda. Is this your first Japanese car, and why this particular one?

Jason: Nah, I’m not as much a Euro-snob as it seems. I’ve had a Toyota Corolla, an NA Mazda Miata, and an Isuzu P’Up. My college dream car was the original Nissan Sentra SE-R. I’ve always been in love with elegant Japanese engineering, and I finally found one that makes me laugh out loud. It’s a lightweight, mid-engine, rear-drive, independent-throttle-body, 8500-rpm 2-seater with a hellacious engine noise, manual steering and a Pininfarina-designed body.

Of course, everyone’s reaction is “ooh, you bought an NSX!” No, sir! The Honda Beat is so… offbeat. The engine makes some of the best noises I’ve ever heard — and bonus, it’s at redline in 4th at 75 mph. So you get to run through all the gears and never break a speed limit. I wish an NSX also had a sticker on the side that said “midship amusement” – and meant it. Because this thing is a riot, whether you’re laughing with it or at it.

Shayan: So far, anyone listening to this conversation could be forgiven for thinking that you’ve made your living by collecting or wrenching on cars, but you’re actually an automotive journalist. How do you see yourself in that role, and how does your enthusiasm for this hobby inform it?

Jason: My job is equal parts entertainment and education. It’s always my job to hit both of those marks. If you can come away from one of my videos, having spent 10 or 12 minutes with me, having laughed and enjoyed yourself, then I've won. But if you walk away and you say, "I never thought about that this way, or I never understood this,” then I’ve really won.

Jason Cammisa: “If It Makes You Smile (Or Cry), Buy It!”

I really want people to start understanding the difference between insight and observation. And right now, you either have people who are passing themselves along as journalists saying, "Look at this, isn't it great?”, but they're getting a paycheck from the thing they’re “reviewing.”

And then there are the people who are just pointing stuff out: "This is the wheel. Look at this, look at the glove box, look at the door, look at whatever." And I find that we're really missing experts in this world. We just need an independent review or somebody to say to me, "This is what's happening, and this is why, and this is why that decision happened." And so that's always my goal in the automotive space, and if I can do that, I've won.

More about Jason Cammisa

You can see more from Jason by following him on Instagram (@jasoncammisa).

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