Wednesday, December 19, 2012

December 19

Today is one of those grim dates on the calendar. Some are universal, like December 7, and others are more privately held days of gloom. I suppose I have now grown accustomed to terrible news in late December. It happened in 2009 with Saab. It happened once and for all time—from my perspective—on December 19, 2011.

So much has happened since that fateful day. We at Charles River Saab put together a “We are Many, We are Saab” date at the store. We made the decision to stay in the Saab business. Then it was decided that we would maintain the business and close the Arsenal Street, Watertown location and move the operation to Boston Volvo. We had a wonderful going away party. Then it was over. It all happened so fast.

By the time the move was done, I knew that my time with Saab was coming to an end. I took a position, in mid-July, with Singer Subaru in southern New Hampshire. While we worked so very hard to relocate all of the personnel from Charles River Saab, some of those moves did not work out and I do have regrets in that regard. Still, there were some positive outcomes.

Charles River Saab within Boston Volvo continues to thrive and serve the Saab community in Boston. We pulled off a great Swedish Car Day 2012 and though we anticipated it being the last such event, it will live on. There are still lots of Saabs in my driveway, but my life, and that of all my Saab friends, is very different than it was a year ago. I am very happy with my new position, but wonder if I will ever revere Subaru the way I grew to love Saab.

Life goes on. December 19 will always be a grim date, but it only graces our calendar once each year.

A Merry Christmas and Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year to all.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


I am leaving Charles River Saab. With the closure of the Watertown location, which some mistook at first as the end of Charles River Saab, there was some interest in my services, and for the most part they weren’t considered. After all, I have been with Charles River Saab for 23 years, and Saab for 28. What else would I do? However, an offer came along which was too professionally enticing for me to turn down. In deference to my future employer and his staff, I will not announce my location until I am installed there. As I am in the twilight of days with Saab, and this blog will then become an internet artifact, I thought I might take the opportunity to recount my own Saab story. Sorry—this is a long one.

Saab Awakening

This old-school sign at Porter Chevrolet

While I always have loved cars, they were never intended to be a vocation. My first love was music; I attended conservatory and intended to be a cellist in a symphony orchestra. All was moving well in that direction until, in early 1984, I had a need for both health insurance and money (the freelance work which had been plentiful for me and my wife had dried up, and I recall trying to get $10 from an ATM only to find out my available balance was -$8.93), and needed them fast. Since I knew about cars, and there weren’t many companies hiring anyone in those days, I answered an ad in the Boston Globe and landed a job at Porter Chevrolet-Honda-Saab (now the site of Cambridge Honda) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was only going to be temporary, I assured myself. Hah!

I started at Porter, a third generation family run dealership, in February 1984. Initially I sold only Chevrolets, which was the litmus test to move on to other products. Soon thereafter, my wife, Susan, started working at Porter, too. That dealership’s Chevrolet business was booming as one of Howard van Bortel’s “$49 Over Invoice” flagship stores. We both sold lots of Chevrolets, and soon Susan was shipped off to the Honda store up the street, and I stayed in the main building selling Chevrolets and Saabs.

Prior to being permitted to take a Saab customer, I had to be trained by someone from Saab. That is when I first met Ralph Skinder. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Ralph worked for Saab for many years as a trainer. He rather looked like Ronald Reagan: distinguished, with a reassuring smile and a shock of black hair neatly groomed and perfect posture on his sizeable frame. Ralph was very deliberate with his speech, and gave me a “walk-around” on the four-door 900T in the show-room. While I knew about some of the unique features of Saab, Ralph could put them into the context of why those characteristics were not just unique but just plain better than what everyone was doing. Does anyone else remember the discs of sheet-metal samples which were a showroom staple for Saab? While you could sense the build quality in a Saab, to show those samples to someone really reinforced why Saabs had such structural integrity. By the end of the walk-around, I wanted to buy the car. Some time later, I did.

I did great selling Saabs. My first was a 1984 900T EAG (934A) to a widow from Arlington, who came in wanting a 900S but bought the turbo when she realized how slow the S was when trying to go up “Belmont Hill” near her home. There were many others to come, and given that I had to swap cars with other dealers to get a particular car desired by one of my customers, I spent a lot of that year driving all around New England to other Saab dealers, many of them miniscule. I will always remember my foray to Voorheesville, New York to the old New Salem Saab, probably before Darryl was born, to pick up a 1985 913M in Cirrus White, and then stopping off in Albany to surprise my grandmother. All went well in sales, and in the last quarter I became the top Saab salesperson in the store. By the end of December, however, I was about to leave.

It was announced, apparently in response to the stupid big numbers I was putting up, that the Saab pay plan was going to change. This didn’t surprise me, and shouldn’t surprise anyone who was in the business in those days. Coincidentally, I had been shopping at Foreign Motors (then selling Toyota, Fiat, Alfa and Renault) in Watertown (on Arsenal Street!) for a Corolla GTS for Susan. She had wanted a CRX, but the wait was interminable, and her “deal” as an employee was to be able to buy the car at $1000 over MSRP instead of the $1500 retail customers paid. I got into a very heated negotiation with the salesman at Foreign Motors, then the sales manager and finally the general manager, who finally looked at me and said, “Kid, you can’t shit a shitter. You’re in the business, aren’t you?” When I replied in the affirmative, he told me no deal on the car (Susan eventually got a 1985 CRX), but he wanted to hire me, so when the new Saab pay plan was put forth the next day, I gave notice and took the position at Foreign Motors. But I never went.

Paul Carter, then the service manager at Porter (who in 2003 I hired at Charles River Saab as technician when he desired to get back in the business), approached me and said he had heard I was leaving. “How would you like to get rewarded for the quality of your work instead of the quantity?” he asked. Sounded interesting, I replied. He offered me a position as a service advisor, and I started right away, and sent my regrets to Foreign Motors.

From 1985 to 1989 I was a service advisor, and in 1986 was appointed “Customer Service Manager,” which just meant that I hired and trained the advisors, and took all the complaints. Because that dealership grew so quickly with its Chevrolet business going from under 100 cars a month to a peak of 600 in 1986, the service department was out of control. Susan joined me in service, and she soon took over as head Honda-Saab advisor, while I had a hand in the department as a whole. Though the days were long, the time passed oh so fast because the pace was relentless. It was in those years that I discovered Charles River Saab, then on Watertown Street. Our parts department at Porter was not the best, and when we needed Saab parts, we often purchased them from Charles River. So, when it came time for me to price out a repair and check parts availability, rather than call our own department, I started calling Charles River and getting price and availability directly from them. The advantage of working at a store with so many problems in those days was that I learned an awful lot very fast. Maybe too fast.

Besides Paul Carter, there were other Porter alumni would eventually find their way the Charles River Saab, including Dennis Collins, Stephen Lopes and Jim Carfagno. Jim, who worked as a valet at Porter, talked his way into a service assistant position at Charles River two years before I arrived. Funny story. Many of you know Jim as he has been a service advisor and head of the Gold Team at CRS for years. In many ways, Jim has been the face of the service department as the most consistent presence there. Anyone who has worked with Jim in the past twenty years knows that he is always the first at the store, usually there about an hour before we open. In fact, many of us know that if Jim were to hit a snag on the way to work, say, a flat tire, which might set him back thirty minutes, that he would be unable to handle the change in routine and just turn around and go home. He just needs to be to work that early. Well, it wasn’t always that way. During a time at Porter he was working directly for Susan, and she has never tolerated tardiness. Jim had a habit of arriving late to work, which was unimaginable since he lived a quarter mile away. After a couple of warnings, Susan sent him home without pay. Interestingly, it cured him of his perpetual tardiness. Permanently. He has NEVER been late to work at CRS in my 23 years here.

The Early Charles River Saab Years

Rendering of CRS c 1987

In late 1988 Porter sold their Saab franchise to a Buick dealer in Somerville, at the site of what is now Chambers Motor Cars. That’s a long story. I remember as boxes of parts left the building and the laid-up cars were towed away. One day we were a Saab dealer, the next day we weren’t. I didn’t stay Saabless for long, though. In January, I got a call from David Winthrop, the service manager at Charles River Saab, inviting me to be interviewed for a service advisor position, or as he referred to it, an “ASM” (Assistant Service Manger) post. Though a service advisor, I would also be heading a team of five technicians and we would operate somewhat autonomously within the confines of the larger department. I had been recommended to David and Felix Bosshard by Steve Olesnevich, District Service Manager for Saab. Steve had an interesting calling card: Bazooka Bubble Gum—he’d leave pieces on your desk to let you know he’d been by to see you.

After two interviews at Charles River, the second one with Felix, I was offered the position, despite having botched the “Here is a scenario, how would you handle it” question he posed. There I was. 1989. One baby, another on the way. Not yet 29 years old. I was going to work for THE top-dog Saab dealership. Life was good. Was I excited? You bet!

It was in 1990 that I truly became a member of the Saab community. We had purchased a few cars in the 1980s, and at the time I started at CRS I was driving Sue’s CRX and she was driving my Civic Wagon (I loved that car) as the family hauler. While the Wagon was fun to drive and never broke, we recognized that it had the structural integrity of Styrofoam cup and wanted something safer to carry the two kids. Thus, through some patient waiting as I watched trade-ins come and go (and I almost bought a Volvo 240 Turbo Wagon along the way), the perfect car came into our possession—1984 Saab 900 turbo, four door, five speed, textile interior in Slate Blue with 100,000 miles.

I was the secondary driver, and I treated that car much too gingerly. I knew I’d have trouble paying for repairs if something of substance failed, such as the pinion bearings or timing chain guides, which were common repairs in those days. I recall once travelling to Connecticut to visit family in that car with Susan at the helm and peering over at the speedometer to see she was moving along north of 80 mph. In light of being on I84 in Connecticut, a highway resplendent with speed traps, I suggested to her that perhaps she was going a bit fast, to which she replied, “This car just doesn’t like going 65.” Not sure a state trooper would have understood the rationale, much as I almost did.

Meanwhile, I had become the ASM (Assistant Service Manager) for the Red Team. Other Red Team ASMs have included Robin Bosshard, Mariel Burgos and Seth Wonkka. In those days, we had three five-man teams, each headed by an ASM and Team Leader (foreman) and four other technicians. Each team worked like a small service department, and we had our own dedicated cadre of customers. It wasn’t a perfect system, but I’ll go on record and say that of all the models I’ve ever worked in, the team system was best. It is the only system which rewards productivity and at the same time ensures that the right technician is working on the right car from both the customer’s and the business’s perspective. I could write volumes about this but won’t bore you here. My Team Leader in the early years was Matt Epple, who had migrated from boat repair to Saab repair. He will forever be remembered to CRS alumni for his unending richness of Down-East colloquialisms, almost all too colorful to repeat here. Matt has since retired to Maine, though he does deign to visit us “flat-landers” from time to time.

In the early 1990s, Dennis Collins was the Service Manager at Charles River Saab. Dennis was the ultimate “dad” figure and projected the perfect demeanor for the job. I don’t think he was really as thrilled about management as he would have been working in the shop. I had known Dennis at Porter, where he was the foreman for Honda and Saab, so I was excited about his arrival to replace David Winthrop. In the 1980s Porter had “stolen” a flock of Saab techs from Charles River Saab. Now the pendulum was swinging the other way.

A few years later Dennis was lured away by promises from a mega-dealer, and Felix decided that he was going to hire the next service manager from within. With that selection, Felix broke a long-standing tradition of only hiring technicians as managers. Perhaps with none of the technicians seeming a good fit, it was determined that the candidates for the position would be me and Tim Martino. Tim and I were clearly (to my mind) the best candidates. As ASM’s, we were very strong, in completely different ways, owing to our very different personalities. After repeated and agonizing interviews and meetings, Tim was awarded the position. Thank goodness.

The late 1990s were boom years at Charles River Saab. The shop swelled to 18 technicians, and with that came one of the many innovations we pioneered in the auto industry—the four-day work week. Because we didn’t have enough bays, by stretching the hours of opening and then keeping each tech and each advisor there four ten-hour days, we increased both the capacity of the shop and the employee satisfaction, and it has long been our mantra, which Ray Ciccolo says best: Employee Satisfaction = Customer Satisfaction. Employee ownership, one of the first automotive websites, and the very first US auto dealer with ISO 9002 certification were among our pioneering efforts. During this period, a certain degree of managed chaos ruled the day. We were squeezed for space at every turn. The four-day work week for the advisors brought about its own complications. It was a fabulous team to be a part of. However, change was on the horizon and made many uncomfortable. Felix was approaching seventy years and had decided it was time for him to sell the store and retire. The employees were justifiably nervous about life after Felix, for we all knew how unique he was as a dealer principle. We should have trusted Felix, and his stated intention to find the best owner for the employees, which we also understood meant that it might not be the best deal for him.

It was with great relief that a new owner for CRS who passed muster with Felix was found. We were, of course, skeptical about this Ray Ciccolo fellow. To his credit, his Volvo dealership had the same pedigree as CRS, founded in 1957 and was the largest in the area. The more we learned about Ray, the more we liked him. When he became the owner in 1999, with the exception of a couple of personnel placements at CRS, we couldn’t have been happier. We might have lost Felix, be we gained a dynamic and caring personality in Ray. The continued success of CRS is a testament to both Felix and Ray, and while the two are dramatically different, each has imbued the store with a sizeable amount of personality.

By the end of 1999, the stress of working the front lines in service had taken its toll on me. Tim Martino was (and is) a brilliant service manager, and among his many superlative skills is his ability to read people. He knew that I was burned out, and that if he didn’t do something I’d be lost to Charles River Saab. As Village Auto Group and Ray Ciccolo were taking control of CRS, Tim made me the “Service Manager” and appointed himself “Service Director.” At first it seemed that I was going to just take on some of the more mundane tasks of the department. Then, as time went on, Tim got me more and more involved with monthly report generation, attending management meetings, scouring the profit and loss statement, and being a part of virtually every decision he made. I had the feeling I was being groomed.

The Service Manager Years

In early 2001 Tim announced his departure to Foreign Motors West. I was right, he had been grooming me. In retrospect,t I was immensely lucky to have had a year of apprenticeship and fully understood the machinations at virtually every level on day one in my new position. I am indebted to Tim on many counts. To have so thoroughly prepared me for the most important job in my life was perhaps the greatest thing he ever did for me.

Swedish Car Day!
The 2000s were an amazing decade for me inside and outside of Charles River Saab, and not all of it good. Anyone interested in the darker side of my existence might want to read Chapter 8 of Surviving Mold by Ritchie Shoemaker, MD . On the brighter side, I believe I had a chance to lead the CRS service department through some amazing years. I managed the department through a year of construction when we installed the Saab “RED” design. I started this blog when I didn’t know what a blog even was, and Ward’s Automotive interviewed me about it and suggested CRS was the first auto dealer to have its own blog. I was there when we birthed the notion of Swedish Car Day, and while it was not my idea, I have been the shepherd of all twelve events at the Larz Anderson, and the continued success of Swedish Car Day is one of my greatest joys. I was also very proud to have brought a few hundred clients and employees through advanced driver/crash prevention training with classes at Stevens Advanced Driver Training and later In Control, and built upon those experiences by getting trained, licensed and ultimately employed as an instructor for each.

Women's Service Clinic 2006

I had an interesting stretch in mid-decade when I had to take on the service department at Saab of Framingham. I was rather fond of that store and its employees. Though that only lasted a few months when we convinced Peter Maitland to leave GM to work closer to home, I continued to work in Framingham on weekends….as a salesperson. I needed a part-time job, I could sell cars, and it didn’t hurt to have a service guy around all weekend. Thinking about it now, while I do work about fifty days a year for In Control, I do have some days to myself; not so in those days!

TurboX Launch Event we organized with Stevens ADT

From a purely professional perspective, my greatest accomplishment, I think, came in the darkest days—and there were many over the past several years—as I tried hard to hold the service department together and took the difficult steps required to keep us as solvent as possible while we weathered storm after storm. More than that, it was always a fight to maintain some semblance of enthusiasm among the staff for our beloved brand and the work we were doing. Finally, as we had to close the doors on Arsenal Street, I was greatly relieved to see every remaining employee from that store land in a position within the group, some of whom will actually do better professionally than they had before.

Highlights of the past few years have included Swedish Car Day 2010 and the participation of Steven Wade, aka Swade, then of SaabsUnited (later of InsideSaab and now of ). I had come to know SaabsUnited during the first Saab crisis starting in 2009. I called a friend, long of Saab and later of GM, Keith Hart, to see if he had any information on what was going to happen with Saab. He advised me that all his connections in the US and Sweden relied on SaabsUnited, which I had read a few times, including its forbearer, TrollhattanSaab. So, I starting reading SU, everyday. Then I started refreshing it, many times a day. I was addicted. It wasn’t just the information. Swade is a gifted writer, and his way with prose is a delight. I had become a hopeless fan-boy.

With sons Andre, Marcel and Pascal at Boston Autoshow
When joy reigned throughout the Saab community after the sale of Saab to Spyker early in 2010, I was in the process of planning Swedish Car Day. I had the ridiculous idea that maybe we could convince Swade to be our guest at SCD. As I have learned, over the years, it hurts not at all to ask. So, I asked, and Swade obliged! It took a little bit of convincing on my end have the bosses see that this would be a phenomenal investment, and indeed it was. I’ve met a lot of significant Saab people over the years, but my getting to know Swade was as good as it ever got. Since that encounter, we’ve become true friends and if nothing else ever comes of my years at the helm of Swedish Car Day, his friendship alone has made it all worthwhile.

Me and Swade at the NYIAS

In April of 2011 Swade and I met up again at the New York Autoshow. He had recently sold his interest in SaabsUnited and had taken a job with Saab to work on their social media, and thus had given birth to InsideSaab. Coincidently, April was when the troubles at Saab started, ultimately leading to its bankruptcy in December. I think we all looked to the cash flow problems as temporary frustrations. Little did we know that the production stoppage would become permanent.


By the end of 2011, Swade was gone from Saab, along with everyone else. Inasmuch as we had made a number of cost-saving maneuvers over the years and months leading up to Saab’s demise, we knew Charles River Saab could hold on a while longer to await a disposition on the parent company. These were truly dark times. Solutions, such as finding another make to sell at Arsenal Street, were investigated but we were just too darn close to other dealerships for those franchises we thought my work in our location. Other scenarios were considered, and ultimately it was decided that the only viable way to keep the Saab repair and parts business going was to relieve it of the expense of its own facility. Thus, we needed to vacate Arsenal Street.

My final piece de resistance was hosting a farewell party at 570 Arsenal Street. Lots of old employees came back to say good-bye to the place, and though he struggled a bit to be there, Felix Bosshard was buoyed by all the well-wishers who came out that night. It was perfect, and a fitting ending. And with that, I too had some closure.

In late May, 2012 we moved our operation to our sister store in Allston: Boston Volvo Village. The transition was largely unremarkable. The staff here has been generous with their patience and time, and we have been made very welcomed. Now that the transition is complete, I feel comfortable bowing out and leaving Charles River Saab in the very capable hands of my colleagues. While my automotive adventures will continue, this latest chapter in a long volume which has been my life with Saab has come to a close.

While I will no longer be working in a Saab dedicated facility among Saab fanatics, I won’t have to go far to get my Saab fix. There are still six Saabs at home, half my wardrobe has SAAB emblazoned on it, and my kids have confirmed their dedication to their continued rally and hill climb racing in their SPG.

Finally, I want to thank everyone. I mean EVERYONE. Customers, colleagues, family, Saab employees—they’ve all meant a lot to me over the years. I won’t enumerate, for I would certainly leave someone out. I would be remiss, though, if I did not give special thanks to Ray Ciccolo and Felix Bosshard; I have been blessed to have been in their employ.

With that, the CRSaablog, renowned as the oldest auto dealer blog, has seen my last post.

Thanks to all of you who have supported my efforts over the years. Adieu!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Perhaps it has been a blessing to be in the midst of the invariable turmoil which we have experienced as we have moved Charles River Saab to cohabitate with Boston Volvo Village at the same moment that NEVS has claimed their place in Trollhattan. With such distraction, I just haven’t had the time to give the NEVS situation much deliberate thought.

With respect to our move, in all it has gone much better than anticipated. We’ve all adapted quickly to the changes in protocol here, and most of the communication challenges (internal) have been met. We’ve figured out the flow of paper, how to process customer and warranty payments, and most customers will find the experience of servicing here to be every bit as efficient as what they’ve come to expect from Charles River Saab.

The biggest difference Jim and I have noted is the bustle here at BVV. If we had moved here ten or fifteen years ago, we wouldn’t have noticed a thing. Given, though, that in recent years we’d gotten smaller and thus quieter in Watertown, all this activity swirling around us is a big change indeed! It must be said—and I am not being gratuitous in the least—that the willingness to help and general kindness of the Boston Volvo employees, all of them, has made all the difference in our achieving a successful transition without undue headache or heartache. To a person they have been generous with their time and patient in the extreme.

What, though, of all of this news of NEVS? I honestly don’t know what to think. While we had known that such a consortium existed and was bidding on Saab (and if you are not familiar with that story saabsunited or lifewithsaab both chronicle this well), I think I stood with the majority in thinking that a company seeking to build only electro-Saabs would not emerge, and I was rooting for Mahindra & Mahindra over Youngman Lotus. In the end, the option I gave no thought to, NEVS, emerged as the latest owner of Saab’s manufacturing facility and technology.

Many have expressed their misgivings about whether Saab (we don’t yet know what the new company can or will be called but I’ll refer to it still as Saab) can be an internal combustion-free manufacturer. I can absolutely imagine that cars which feature the “brand pillars” of Saab and are, at the same time, propelled by electrons. I know that such a car wouldn’t work for me, but I know many former Saab owners who now drive hybrids and might happily seek out an all electric option. In fact, “when is Saab going to sell a hybrid” was a question we heard quite often, and I think there was a distinct demographic who would have liked a “green” car that was not based on an econo-box chassis. Are there enough green-Saab customers, especially for all-electric cars, though, to sustain a franchise in Boston? That I am not sure of at all.

Despite my skepticism, I am not pessimistic. I am not optimistic, just terribly unsure. Because the latest Saab affair dragged on for oh so long, I am emotionally inured to the machinations of our favorite car company. I read the news, but remain just curious. If Saab does come back and succeed with electric propulsion, terrific. If it doesn’t, that will be sad but far from tragic. I do hope for success of the venture for the folk who really need and live for Saab—the employees and their dependents in Trollhattan. I do hope that before I leave this life that I will have visited there, and I can’t imagine the place could be the same without a robust auto manufacturing plant.

I invite all to come and visit us in our new home here in Boston. We may feel like squatters, but it’s like we’re squatting with a rich relative: it’s all very nice here. I wish the very best to the NEVS and the good people of Trollhattan, and am very curious to see what the future brings.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Last Day on Arsenal Street

While I can, and I have, rationalized that the relocation of Charles River Saab is a necessary and ultimately positive event, I cannot help but be a wistful as I sit here on our last working day at Charles River Saab in Watertown. Beyond a successful transition of the business to 75 North Beacon Street in Boston, my greatest anxiety has been about the employees who were not slated to go with us, for while we intended to bring over technicians, parts and service advisors and the remaining sales staff, there were a number of support people here who did not necessarily have an assurance of continued employment. Happily, I can say that EVERYONE here has a place to go next week, and all within the Village Auto Group.

In recent weeks, as the parking lot and showroom have gone empty, the reality of this inevitable move hit home. Further, as we started to pack, much as when one packs up a home to move, we’ve come across stuff we’ve forgotten which invariable triggers a memory of days gone by. There have been lots of them—both days, and memories. By my calculation, I have worked here 5,565 days, so about 55,000 hours. That’s a lot of hours. That’s a lot of hours in one building. No wonder I have so many memories that keep flooding back into my consciousness.

As was evident at our farewell-to-Arsenal-Street party last weekend, what has meant the most here isn’t the real-estate or the brand, it’s been the people, and the affinity that Charles River Saab employees have had for one another and the company throughout the years. There were employees at that party who started working here in the 1970s, and every decade since was richly represented. We’ve always been a company full of characters, always colorful, often passionate, and never boring. When Robin DeMaso addressed the assembled on Saturday, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. I don’t imagine that there are too many businesses where so many alumni would get back together like that for one more chance to reunite, to remember, to laugh, and to cry (just a little).

There will be lots of lasts today—last customer, last part handed out, last phone call taken, last email to go out. Now that I’m old and wizened, I don’t bother much with sentimentality, but today—just today—I will allow myself a bit of it. Tomorrow, though, it’s back to work: onward and upward!

Below are some pictures from the farewell party.

 Many of the assembled prefered to stay around by the shop.
 Group photo in front of the wedge.
 Robin's speach had everyone teary-eyed, even Jim.
 Robin and Felix.
 Monica and Wes
 Closeup of the group photo
1980's crew: Peter, Alex, Robin and Doug

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

0031: The Charles River Saab Story
We are on the verge of moving our existing operation to co-habitate with our sister store, Boston Volvo Village, less than a mile from our Arsenal Street location in Watertown. While the staff will move, largely intact, to the new facility, we can't help but be a bit nostalgic for the place we've all spent years, even decades, growing rather old together. Thus, I thought it might be an opportune moment, as we begin a new chapter, to take a look back over the last 55 years.


Charles River Saab has a unique place in Saab’s history in the United States. Not only are we the oldest Saab dealer in America, and by extension, in the entire Western Hemisphere, we were one of the first, as witnessed by our dealer code number: 0031. We certainly aren’t the best because we’re the oldest. I could argue, though, that we got to be the oldest by being the best.

Saab Motors, Inc. was the original importer of Saab automobiles in the United States. It was founded by Ralph Millet in 1956, with the first shipments of the Saab 93 arriving in Hingham, Massachusetts, not far from where I sit, and I had the pleasure of making his acquaintance here some years ago. At the same time, a cadre of young Swiss entrepreneurs was opening a group of automobile dealerships that sold a variety of European brands—Borgward, Morgan, Maserati and Saab. The company was under the banner of Gaston Andrey, the name of the most gregarious of the three partners. Two locations were established in Boston’s suburbs: one in Framingham, about fifteen miles west of Boston and the other in Watertown, which adjoins Boston’s Brighton neighborhood. A third location came later in Coolidge Corner, Brookline. Felix Bosshard, one of the owners, was in charge of the Watertown location, known as Gaston Andrey Associates. Other brands, like Alfa Romeo, Peugeot and Ferrari would come and go, but Saab was a constant presence at the Watertown location.

[Of note—it is because of the Swiss nationality of the company founders that our logo is a modified Swiss cross. The original Gaston Andrey logo included a complete cross. However, a trademark infringement entanglement with the Swiss government led to the separation of the vertical hatch from the horizontal.]

In 1980 the Gaston Andrey partnership was dissolved and each owner took a store as their own. Felix Bosshard retained the Watertown Street, Watertown location and changed the name of the company to Charles River Saab, owing to its proximity to the river, which was right across the street. In perusing a proclamation of this change, it is noted that there are many familiar names among the list of employees from that time. Michael Clancy, who retired at the end of 2011, appears on that list and at the time already had ten years of Saab experience. Rick Furlan, who retired from Charles River Saab after 33 years of service in 2005 was also on the list, and while Rick may be retired, his son Rick Jr. is still working here.

Two of the hallmarks of Charles River Saab have been its focus on service and innovation. Because Mr. Bosshard was a mechanic, not a salesman, he put his efforts into building a strong service repair business. When the company moved to its Arsenal Street location in Watertown in1987, indeed the facility was not proportioned as most dealerships would be—far more room was devoted to the Parts and Service Departments than one would expect from the modest-sized showroom. But there was more to that bias than just allowing more square footage. The new shop was air-conditioned (unheard of in those days, and still not that common), with acoustic panels for noise abatement, and vacuum evacuation of tailpipe exhaust: comfort and wellbeing of the technicians was a high priority. Innovations included the formation service teams, early adoption of computers in the service department, one of the first automotive websites, perhaps the first auto-dealer blog as cited by Ward’s Automotive ( ), the first dealership in the United States to be ISO9002 certified, offering advanced driver training to clients and employees, and co-creating Swedish Car Day at the Larz Anderson Automobile Museum.

In 1996 Gaston Andrey closed his store in Framingham. Charles River Saab leased the property and established Framingham Saab (later Saab City). The Brookline dealership, Gaston Andrey Boston, as it was called, had sold its franchise and closed as well. In a weird twist of fate, that “GAB” franchise was sold to the Herb Chambers corporation, an enormous conglomerate of dealerships, who moved the location—much to our consternation and likely a violation of our franchise agreement—1.6 miles from our door. Though we would have preferred them elsewhere, we made the effort to succeed in spite of their proximity. After all of this Saab dealer closing and shuffling, and being the last of the remaining original Gaston Andrey enterprises, we reclaimed our original modified Swiss cross logo, thus replacing the logo created in 1980 (left), which some of our customers will doubtless remember.


In 1999 as Mr. Bosshard retired, the reins were passed to Ray Ciccolo and the Village Automotive Group. What a relief it was to all of us here to find that the new owner of this most special dealership shared our focus on service, integrity, customer satisfaction, and employee retention. Under Mr. Ciccolo’s reign, Charles River Saab was allowed to expand its creative and innovative ways. We launched Swedish Car Day (with Boston Volvo Village) in 2000, executed a number of innovative clinics, sponsored road rallies and established collaborations with Stevens Advanced Driver Training and In Control Crash Prevention Training.

In 2003 our facility was updated in accordance with the Saab Retail Environment Design standards, and Mr. Ciccolo invested in a number of state-of-the-art systems to ensure that we provided the best automotive experience possible, and maintained a staff that really wanted to be here serving its clients. In the end, what made Charles River Saab remarkable was not the building or the age of the company. Rather, it was an amazing group of individuals, many working here for years (or decades), enjoying their work, and always striving to provide an outstanding experience for their customers.

With the difficulty Saab faced starting in 2009, we had the unfortunate task of contracting our operation. Where ten years ago we had fourteen technicians (and at our peak a few years before we were at twenty) dropped to seven, then five. Our sales department, including management, was reduced to four, then two. We adjusted to a new, smaller Charles River Saab and looked forward to the brighter days. Those brighter days came, but were fleeting.

The protracted interruption in production leading up to bankruptcy proceeding and GM’s intractable position on technology licensing for potential Saab investors made clear that we could no longer maintain our operation in our Arsenal Street facility. With new product years away, we knew that we could no longer maintain our presence here, and recognized that the dearth of new cars would also eventually affect our after-sales business. Thus, it was determined that our diminished (in size) service and parts business needed a new home where it could operate with significantly lower overhead. Fortunately, Village Auto Group has Boston Volvo Village, our sister store, located less than a mile from here in Boston, and space was carved out of their operation to accommodate us. May 29, 2012 will see Charles River Saab in its new home, its first outside Watertown.

How Times Have Changed

Felix Bosshard, in all the years I knew him, always published a newsletter each quarter. It was not fancy. There were no pictures. There were specials, announcements and insights on Saab. They were also very well written. I did carry on and wrote more newsletters after Felix’s departure, and while they were more glossy and included pictures, Felix approved of them which was high compliment indeed. These days, blog and social media have supplanted the newsletter.

The earliest newsletter we have dates from February 1960. In that edition, there were two service specials for Saab owners:

We now have in both locations a rubber-boot for your distributor cap which will prevent it from getting dirty and cracking when wet from snow or rain $1.07 ($1.50 installed. ) [I wonder how many people went for that 43 cent installation charge]

If your car does not have a windshield washer, have you thought about how much aggravation such a gadget would save you? They only cost between $12.50 to $20.00 (The latter electric and available only in Watertown)

Prices are installed!

Our Amazing Staff

One need go no further to gauge our commitment to Saab than to walk through our employee parking area. Virtually everyone at the dealership drives a Saab and most of us have many multiple Saabs at home. That passion, coupled with vast experience, is what truly sets us apart. Here are a few of our key employees, with apologies to the many fine people not mentioned here.

Armen Essayan, Sales Manager
Armen has been with Saab here and at our Framingham location (which closed in 2007 at the expiration of our lease) since 2006. A collegiate wrestler and graduate of Boston University, Armen has had a number of Saabs, including his current car, a 2009 9-3 SS Aero 6-speed, and an awesome Harley Road King.

David DelTorto, Sales
David has been at Charles River Saab for ten years. He has distinguished himself not only here, but nationally as well: he is the reigning US sales champion. He arrived at CRS driving an Audi, but it’s been all Saab ever since. His current ride is a TurboX.

 Peter Vincent, Parts Manager
Peter has been here in Parts since 1983, and parts manager since 1993. Presiding over what has been, on many occasions, the largest parts and accessory dealer in the country, Peter has a 2004 9-5 SC with MapTun Stage 1, and his wife a 2008 9-5 Aero.

Jim Halko, Assistant Parts Manager
Jim has been working with Saab Parts since 1984. A former Parts Manager and true aficionado, Jim only recently parted with his “Find your own road” denim jacket. His current Saabs include a 2002 9-3 HOT and 1999 9-5.

Jim Carfagno, Service Advisor
Jim has worked with Saab since 1985 and been at CRS since 1987. An avid hockey player, Jim was invited to try-out for the 1984 US Olympic Team….but those Olympics didn’t work out for the US. Jim has a 1996 Convertible, his wife a 2008 9-5 Aero and his son a 2001 9-3.

Peter Maitland, Technician

Peter has a career with Saab that started in 1983 at Gaston Andrey Framingham. In 1987 Peter came to Charles River Saab where he worked as technician and team leader. He was recruited by Saab Cars USA in the late 1990s and went to work as a Field Engineer, covering the Michigan-Washington DC-Maine quadrant of the US. When the travel and GM got tedious, Peter took the opportunity to become the Service Manager at our Framingham location (which was in the former Gaston Andrey building), which was a bit of a homecoming. After the closure of Saab City Framingham and taking a bit of time to tour and grow his hair, Peter settled back into his old digs at CRS. His daily driver is a BSR enhanced 2008 9-5 SC, but also has in his driveway/garage a 2008 9-3, 1968 95, 1969 Sonett, 1973 96 and 1967 Saabo. His touring vehicle of choice is a KTM 950 Adventure.

Ralph Bockoven, Technician
Ralph is no stranger to SU readers. You can’t go to any regional or national Saab gatherings without seeing Ralph and some of his beautiful vintage cars. You may recall it was Ralph’s Sonett II which so intoxicated Swade when he was here in Boston for Swedish Car Day in 2010. Besides having worked here since 1983, Ralph is a former nationally ranked table-tennis player, and his two sons are following in their father’s tracks. Besides his Sonett, Ralph has a pristine 1971 96 and he and his wife each drive a 9-5.

Stephanie Furlan, Accounting

Stephanie is married to Jeff Furlan, Rick’s younger brother, who was a technician here for many years and recently took a technician position at our Honda dealer. Stephanie, always a fixture at Swedish Car Day at the registration tent, drives a 2001 9-5 SC Aero.

Alfredo Dias, Chauffer, Service and Sales Assistant
Alfredo is one of the most compelling employees we’ve ever had. He joined our staff in 1995. There is much more to Alfredo than his charisma and good looks. A native of Cape Verde, he’s now an American citizen, and his naturalization ceremony was filmed and is part of a video that plays at the Constitution Museum in Philadelphia. He is pentalingual, including fluency in Russian. He lives with his wife and two children, and in his quest to live “the American Dream,” recently bought his first home. Alfredo drives a 9-5 Aero and his wife, Natalie, a 2004 9-5 SC.

Dan Leahy, General Manager
Dan has been with the Village Auto Group since 2006 and has been our GM since 2007. He manages three other stores as well: Boston Volvo Village, Volvo Village of Norwell and Porsche Audi of Norwell. That, and being a father of six keep Dan extremely busy. Though his loyalties are divided, Dan is true champion of Saab. A number of his family and friends are our customers, and one of his sisters recently traded her old Saab on a new 9-5.

Ray Ciccolo, Owner
Ray, a native of Cambridge with degrees from Suffolk and Northeastern Universities, is the owner of ten dealerships (having started in 1963 with a Rambler/Volvo store) including Charles River Saab, which he acquired in 1999. He is well conditioned athlete who still plays softball, an avid thespian and singer, and world traveler. His real passion is the Ciccolo Family Foundation. Not only does it sponsor fund raising events all year for a number of charities, the foundation and employees of the Village Auto Group get actively involved in many local campaigns, including Keys for Success, WGBH, Suffolk University, the MS Society and Birthday Wishes. On a global level, Ray has been involved personally with a number of projects, including The Alliance for Children Foundation, Global Smiles Foundation and the Ciccolo Sunbeam Orphanage for disabled children in Yulin, China. For his efforts, both local and international, Ray has received countless accolades. While most often sighted in Volvos, Ray has been seen enjoying a 2011 9-5 and a 9-4x on occasion.

Pierre Belperron, Service Manager, et cetera

I’ve been with CRS since 1989, following a five year stint at another nearby dealer where I worked in sales and service with Chevrolet, Honda and Saab. Charles River Saab recruited me as a service advisor, and there I remained until 2000, when my predecessor, anticipating his departure, made me his assistant so as to show me the ropes. I became the Service Manager in 2001, and here I remain. Beyond administrative duties, I help with the landscaping in the spring, plow our parking lot in winter, move snow with our Caterpillar loader, write the CRS blog, try my best to keep things on Facebook, and put together Swedish Car Day at the Larz Anderson Museum each year. My training is as cellist at the Boston Conservatory, and I continue to play and teach, and how I got from cello to Saab is too long a story to tell here. I reside in New Hampshire with my wife, a former Saab service advisor, and my three sons. Everyone in the household has a Saab. The cars you will find in my driveway and garage include Sue’s 2002 9-5 SC (MapTun Stage 1), AndrĂ©’s 2001 9-3 HOT, Pascal’s 1994 9000 Aero, Marcel’s 1995 900T, Pascal and Marcel’s hillclimb/rally racer 1985 SPG, and my daily driver is a 1992 900T.