Thursday, December 20, 2007

For an entertaining - and certainly opinionated! - look at the year 2007 in the Automotive world, click over to the AutoExtremist's blog:

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Just when you think you've seen it all in a Saab....
Boating came late in life for me. My wife grew up boating, and my kids all learned to sail at an early age, and living in Ipswich, boating was an inevitability. We very quickly went from having no boats to having five, of all manner of size and propulsion. Fortunately, my son Pascal, spends his summers and weekends working at Ipswich Outboards, so the boats are all tended to expertly. When his Whaler needed some preseason repair, he volunteered to get my wife's boat, a 17' skiff in the water and to install its mooring.
On the day that Pascal and his friends were launching the boat, I received a message that there had been a bit of a problem with the boat half-way between home and the boat launch ramp in the Ipswich River. When I arrived at the scene and made my way through the crowd of friends, supporters and gawkers, the problem was obvious: the axle had broken and the right wheel had fallen off the trailer. Unlike a broken down car, or even a stranded boat, there is no one to help on a Sunday afternoon with a problem like this. Realizing this, Pascal had gone home and devised a mechanism to continue the trip--about 1/2 mile--to the ramp. In place of the missing wheel, he had installed a section of 8x8, in which he had drilled holes and lashed rope to affix it to the axle and trailer chassis.
I offered to drive since no one knew how this would work. Indeed, his 1992 900 was not happy trying to launch the 2000 lb boat on one wheel and one chunk of pine. I had to burn the clutch a fair amount before I had enough momentum to release the clutch fully, and then hoped I could make it to the ramp without stopping. We almost made it. In fact, we only stopped because a boat at the ramp was having trouble and we had to wait while it was coaxed out of the water. While waiting, we inspected the skid. The roping had held perfectly. The only problem was that the 8X8 had been worn down to an 8X4, and the ropes were now almost exposed on the bottom side. When the boat traffic cleared, I suggested that to alleviate some of the friction on the skid, that some of the assembled stand on on the left side of the trailer, grab the gunnel, and "hike out" to leverage some weight to the left wheel. It worked well, so well that all that weight broke the axle on the other side, and we now had a trailer with no wheels.
Look, in a world where boats are hauled by SUVs and burly pickup trucks, it always looks strange to see a little Saab 900 pulling a boat trailer. Seeing that Saab pulling a boat trailer with no wheels, no that's something you don't see every day. So, we fashioned another skid from timber, this time held in place with Thule nylon straps attached with nails, and with 8 young men pushing, and the might 900 pulling we got the boat to the water. Being fearful of trying to back the trailer, we took the car to the bottom of the ramp nose first, disconnected the trailer and then pushed the boat and trailer into the river until the boat floated off. This was no mean feat, and only my the willingness of my son, Andre, to go neck deep in the cold river allowed us to get the trailer back.
A new axle and leaf springs have been installed by Pascal, and when we haul the boat out in the fall, with our Saab 900, we are surely hoping for a less eventful one mile journey.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

SaabUSA confirms an AWD option for the 'new' 9-3.

September will bring about a host of changes for the 9-3, including the long-needed AWD option. You'll also see some new design tweaks on the exterior, borrowing from the acclaimed Aero X concept car. Click over to Left Lane News for more info and some pix...

Friday, April 27, 2007

A Day (or two) at the Track with My Saab

Being the Service Manager at Charles river Saab, cello teacher at the Ipswich Public Schools, an instructor for Stevens Advanced Driver Training on weekends, a husband and father of three sons, you would be correct to assume that I don’t have much time for recreation. Nevertheless, I recently carved out some time to participate in “motorsport” endeavors, and I just returned from my first two forays.
Last year, my son Pascal participated in the Swedish Car Day Rally and had the distinction of finishing dead last. But from that experience, he got interested in trying off road rallies. When I asked friends who race with SCCA (Sport Car Club of America—New England Region, ) they suggested Rally Cross (or RallyX); think of auto-cross, only in the dirt. So I got Pascal an SCCA junior membership for Christmas, signed a parental waiver, and he signed himself up for his first event in March. When he came home after his first day of racing, he was wide eyed with glee and had a camera full of great pictures and movies of him blasting through dirt and mud as he powered his 1991 900S to second place in the stock front wheel drive category! It looked so fun, I thought I had to try.
So last Saturday, Pascal, his older brother AndrĂ© and I piled into the 900S and headed to the Rochester (NH) Fairgrounds, site of the most recent SCCA RallyX. We ran in the FWD stock division. The only modifications to this old car (with 175,000 miles) were the installation of Gislaved snow tires, and a single-muffler exhaust from a 900T. We had a great time. Of course the boys had more fun because they finished ahead of and earned bragging rights. The car did very well, and the only casualty was a cracked exhaust pipe. This is racing on the cheap ($55 entry), and it is great fun. I would recommend it to anyone. You need only have a car that is sound and a helmet (and they’ll lend you a helmet if you don’t have one), and snow tires or rally tires are suggested. I must confess that not only did my sons beat me, but I came in last place in our division! Alas, I was not the slowest car of the day, and did beat out some of the modified and all-wheel drive entries, though not many. I will try this again and hope for better results!
On Monday, I tried a much different venture. I am a rare bird in the advanced driver training world—I have no racing experience. I do, though, have a very good pedagogic sense and the ability to communicate with students, mostly honed from my years of cello teaching. Still, I thought enhancing my own driving skills was an important self-improvement I should undertake. Charles River Saab assisted me in this endeavor and sponsored my participation in SCDA (Sport Car Driving Association, ) at New Hampshire International Speedway, host to, among other events, NASCAR racing.
I am no racer, and am completely ignorant of all motor sports. But I do know cars and understand car control. I am not competitive by nature, but enjoy testing and pushing myself. This seemed like the perfect sort of event. I would get to drive my own car (OK, my wife’s) on a real race track with an instructor to show me how to best handle myself, my car and the track. I was not racing against anyone, or even a clock. I must say that SCDA puts on a wonderful event. It was well organized, and when we weren’t on the track, we were in the classroom, and otherwise barely had time to grab a bottle of water or make it to the lavatory.

I was in the Novice class, with about ten others. I realized what a serious affair this was when I first got to NHIS and saw all the spectacular cars there: Porsches, BMWs, a Ferrari, Corvettes, Lotuses and so on. I wasn’t expecting that so many fine cars would be driven by the Novice students. As I recall, the other students drove a Honda S2000, BMW M3, BMW M5 (old), Mini Cooper S, Porsche 911 (three of them), a Noble, a race SPEC Miata and a Lotus Elise. Yikes. I was in my wife’s thoroughly stock and original 1993 9000 Aero 5-speed on Pirelli Sport Veloce touring tires and 167,000 miles. After a terrific classroom session to get the lay of the land and an explanation of the ground-rules by instructor Luka Sedrar of the BMW Car Club of America, we took our cars to the track to meet our instructors.
My instructor for the day was Larry Barbieri, an instructor for the BMW CCA, and he drives a BMW M3. I wondered if instructors would see my car and run away, hoping to get into one of the more swish cars. But Larry was completely cordial and didn’t roll his eyes at the front-drive Saab. I was relieved! He started off by offering to drive the Saab a couple of laps while I observed from the passenger seat, no doubt to gauge its response on the course and to allow me to see the line he would try to teach me. We put on our helmets (thank you Toby Teller for donating your helmet to me) and communication devices and were on our way.
It took me about three seconds to realize that a). Larry was an excellent driver b). I was going to have a lot of fun that day. After those laps, I had a pretty good mental image of the track and where I wanted to be in each corner, where I wanted to brake and how much, and where to accelerate. At least I thought so until we switched places and I had to drive. It is tough work to drive hard and accurately. Timing is critical, as is planning and anticipation. It is as mentally stressful as it is physically demanding. Larry did a great job in “narrating” my laps around the track. He would position me, advise on when to brake, shift, accelerate, roll out the steering, where to apex on a turn and so on. And just like that, our first twenty minutes was up. I was reassured by that time that not only was Larry a good driver, he was also a very good instructor.
During the next session, I became aware of the cars that needed to overtake me (and there is a system of etiquette to allow safe passing by invitation of the leading car), but also found that my old Saab could run around the track with some of these cars, and even pass them. OK, I know this isn’t racing, and that not everyone was necessarily going as hard as they could. But even Mr. Non-Competitive Me got a little thrill the first time I exited the chicane on the heels of the M3 and got the signal to overtake, thus opening the throttle and pouring on all 258 lb/ft of torque to achieve the pass before the braking for the next turn. There was one turn, Turn 3 to Turn 4, which is very sharp and executed in second gear and immediately ascends a steep grade. I thought all that torque would rocket me up that hill. It might have, but the dreaded Traction Control rained on my parade. As I would try to accelerate up the hill while unwinding the steering, the inside front tire would lose grip, the TCS would engage, and all my lovely turbo boost and power would evaporate—boost is just so ephemeral—leaving me in the middle of the hill with no power. Ugh!
Late in the day, Larry gave me a ride in his BMW. As good as he was in my car, he was so smooth and fast in his car. I don’t know what modifications the BMW had, but it did have purposeful tires, massive looking brakes and 5-point harnesses. The suspension looked a bit lowered, and I wondered what engine modifications it may have been running. I admired the surefootedness of the car, and at no time did it ever feel as though it misbehaved. The expert interface of man/woman and machine, be it an automobile or a pipe-organ or a bicycle, is a sublime and wondrous thing to observe. In this case, it was also exhilarating to the point of exhausting. I couldn’t believe how tired I got just being Larry’s passenger!
At the end of the day, the old Saab did start to overheat a bit, for reasons I do not yet know, though she is running perfectly now. She averaged almost 11 mpg during the track sessions, and I did almost run out of gas even though I started the day there with 13 gallons in the tank. The tires were not nearly up to the task, having had the outer edge of the front tires torn off and will have to be upgraded before I do this again. Other than the tires, the car performed as well as I had hoped, and perhaps even better in some respects. Even the brakes, which seem rather smallish by today’s standards, worked well and never faded, though they turned a really neat shade of blue! Beyond the tires and the need for a TCS-off switch, how could I have asked for more from that car? She got me there and back. She was not pampered by being trailered to the track. I did no preparation other than changing filters, fluids and plugs and setting the tire pressures and lug torque. So the trusty 9000 Aero, capable of lugging massive purchases from IKEA and 17 foot Christmas trees (see stories below) shows us that she has so many capabilities. I wonder, though, how I would fare in, say, a 9-3 Aero…..I think Larry was right: the needle is now in my arm!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Le Roi est Mort, Vie le Roi!
Yesterday, GM announced that Jay Spenchian, Saab North America General Manager, had been replaced by Steve Shannon, a career exec at GM who has experience in GM Europe, and most recently was the General Manager at Buick. I must say that I will miss Jay. He was the most accessible Saab chief in a long, long time, and one of the very few who sincerely understood the brand. Before Jay worked at Saab, and when he first joined GM, he requested a Saab 9-5 as his company car, to the astonishment of his co-workers. His reason? It was the best car in the GM portfolio. Jay's affinity for the Saab and his understanding of its history and clients was a welcome relief from the idiocy that emanated from the office of the last chief executive, Debra Kelly Ennis.
We don't know much about Steve Shannon, but we certainly hope for the best from him, and I would like to wish him the best. Steve did his undergrad work at Harvard (MBA from Columbia) so perhaps we can lure him to his old stomping grounds for a visit to Charles River Saab!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Sad Ending for a Saab. Happy Ending for Me.
January 2 I was on my way to work. My family had left in the wee hours for Maryland, and of course I was worrying about their travels. Little did I know that I was the one in motoring peril, not them. At 6:10am, as I rounded a bend on a two-lane road, I was greeted by a pair of headlights--on my side of the road. My next recollection was wonder what the big gray thing was sitting in my lap, and the realization that it was my airbag! I blacked out again, and next I knew I was standing outside my car, speaking to an EMT who wondered how I had gotten out of my car. I still can't say, given that my door wouldn't open. I finally regained a clear head as I was being neck-braced and body boarded in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. I spent the morning there as the fine folks picked all the glass out of my face and eye. I was left with a scratched cornea, a left cheek that looked like hamburger, and a bruised bicep. I was also left with a ruined car.
The great news is that I am OK. The eye healed in three days. Glass came out of my face for a while but that seems done, and I should have only a few small scars. When looking at the crash, it could have been much worse. Much worse. When released from the hospital, my desire to understand the accident overcame my good sense and I spent the day doing detective work. My father-in-law drove me around as we inspected the crash scene, my car and the offending car. What I deduced from the physical evidence, is that the other vehicle, a Toyota SUV, crossed into my path probably as a result of hitting black ice. My Stevens Advanced Driver Training instruction influenced my actions: I had braked and turned right, JUST avoiding a head-on crash and taking the blow down the entire side of the car. Because I was braking, after the impact turned me to the left, I stopped just off the pavement. The Toyota suffered some damage from hitting me, but was destroyed as it careened off of the Saab and then drove into and onto a stone wall. From the police report I later learned that he was speeding, probably in excess of 55 mph. That, coupled with my 45 mph, means there was a lot of kinetic energy happening, and to have walked away with a foggy memory and a few scars--I am lucky!!!
As it was meant to do, the Saab--a 1993 900T--was forgiving where needed, and strong where it had to be. It also responded with quick reflexes--active safety--to ameliorate the crash impact. I owned this car for only a year and a half, but was very fond of it. I may never own another Classic 900T, but I will never forget this one and the way it saved my life.