Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Rumors of my Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

This famous quote by Mark Twain might well apply to Saab today. As I passed through life in the past year, people I knew would always inquire about the state of Saab, and somehow the only news that would stick in peoples ears was the bad. It stuns me that months after the Spyker deal that I am still getting questions about what we are going to do now that Saab is out of business. Huh?

We hear this multiple times a day from customers at the service desk. How did people miss all the good news about the sale to Spyker? The general population with no connection to Saab might get some understanding from me, but I always take notice of the status of companies I like doing business with, and presumably if you drive a Saab, you’ve got a reason to pay attention to at least some of the news surrounding the company. Another example: I was at the dentist last week. The hygienist said how sad she was that Saab was going out of business, because the 1986 900T that she previously owned was one of her favorite cars of all time. These are always odd conversations, when one person talks, and the other has a mouth full of suction tubes and dental devices and is left grunting. I held my thoughts, because I had to make sure that when I could speak again that she knew that Saab was not dead, and in fact had a promising if not brilliant future. She was surprised!

Some of this fault lies with the dealer body. We could have done more to tell our constituents about the new Saab ownership situation. In fairness, we had planned to do a large campaign to inform our clients, but decided to tie it to the launch of the 9-5. That was a mistake. Now the 9-5 is still not here and we have lost several months of opportunity to declare the great news, which now hardly seems like news, but clearly would be to some.

Most of the blame has to fall with Saab Cars North America. I understand that they had to preserve the miniscule capital they had to launch the new car, but there should have been something out there that simply stated that they were still in business, and that the future of Saab would be something for all to behold. This especially frustrates me, because an outstanding video/ad has been circulating since last year and it would have gotten the message out and touched a lot of present and former Saab enthusiasts.

Monday, July 19, 2010

New England Forest Rally Newbie

In an earlier post I had carried on about rally racing, then had to come back to that post because my son, Pascal, had “gotten the call” to step in at the last moment as a replacement co-driver/navigator for rally driver Kevin Hans of Team O’Neil Rally School for the vaunted New England Forest Rally in the Western Mountains of Maine. Such a coincidence that was!

Pascal got together a fire-suit, head restraint system, helmet, etcetera and headed north last Wednesday to start preparing the car with Kevin. They showed me a picture of the work shop at Team O’Neil. Kevin and Pascal were working on the Audi Quattro in one bay. In the next bay was the Ford Fiesta of Ken Block being serviced. You may not know Ken Block, but I bet your kids do. Block is an absolute rock-star. Understand, this whole scenario would be like having a ticket to a Red Sox game, then getting a call from the Red Sox asking if you could play right field that day (since you were already going to be there anyway) and then going into the locker room and seeing your locker next to David Ortiz’. With the car prepared, Kevin drove it across New Hampshire to Bethel, Maine; no trailer-queen, that Quattro. On Thursday, the teams were permitted to drive all the stages. These stages are spread throughout that corner of Maine and New Hampshire, and bring to mind all the books of Louise Rich, with her vivid descriptions of C-Pond this and Middle Dam that. While driving the stages, an all day affair, Pascal had to familiarize himself with all the course “notes” which are written in hieroglyphs for his narration to driver Kevin. The book was an inch and a half thick!

Friday was the first day of racing. My wife, youngest son Marcel (aspiring rally racer) and I headed to Bethel. We found Kevin and Pascal with their car in the parking lot of Sunday River Ski Resort, which in rally-speak had been designated the “Parc Exposé.” All the teams had converged, cars were inspected by the race organizers and tensions mounted. World renowned Travis Pastrana was there, along with Ken Block, and they mingled freely with all the other drivers and the hoard of rally fans. Right next to team Hans-Belperron was one of the two Saabs entered in the event, a 1975 Saab 99 with a 900 turbo engine. I noted that the car, which hailed from Pennsylvania, garnered lots of fan attention. A great majority of the cars were Subarus and Mitsubishi Evo’s. But there were plenty of curiosities, too: a Volvo 240, a Datsun 280Z, a BMW 3-series and a vegetable oil burning VW Golf diesel. The “sweep” vehicle, which checked each stage prior to the racers, was also a Saab—a 9-7X.

The first few stages were short sprints, and were designed with spectators in mind. One of the beauties of the event was that there was no expense, and spectators could freely mingle with participants. Though some might deem the exuberance of some of the spectators as unruly, it was truly an egalitarian crowd just out for fun, with fun defined in many ways. What you didn’t see was spectators becoming a danger to themselves or drivers. Rally America, the sanctioning body, did an excellent job in designating spectator areas which were close enough to be exhilarating while still maintaining order and safety. That said, my wife did get pelted with stones on one corner, including a good sized rock to the throat. Not to worry, she’s sturdy and shrugged it off.

By the end of the first day, the red Audi of Hans-Belperron was in 21st position out of 65 cars, and given that it was one of the least powerful cars there, this was quite a feat. Things didn’t go well on day two, however. During the fourth stage of the day, near Richardson Pond, the red Audi started losing its punch. It seemed the fuel pump was delivering less and less pressure, and Kevin eventually pulled the car off and dropped out of the race. An ignominious end to be sure. But not as impressive as the ending to Ken Block’s, as his suspension failed at full speed and his car cart-wheeled into the woods, coming to rest on its side.

The Block connections abounded this weekend. Ken Block’s wife also ran a car in this rally, a Mazda Speed-3, which she rented from Team O’Neil; she also finished, unlike her famous husband. The Mazda she piloted was originally going to be the ride for team Hans-Belperron. Very much a different animal, being front-wheel drive and very powerful, it would have been interesting to see how they might have faired in that car. Most likely they would have finished. As it was, they were with plenty of company, as a total of twenty-four cars did not.

In the end, it was a very satisfying experience. Even if I divorce myself from being the father of a participant, I can attest that this was about as much fun as you can have for almost no money. The festival atmosphere, the goodwill of the spectators, and the bringing together of friends and strangers to cheer EVERYBODY was wonderful. Who won? Who cares!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Excellent Automotive Television

I spend enough time with cars in my life, between working at Charles River Saab and In Control and following my son’s racing pursuits, that I don’t need to seek out car related pastimes for recreational purposes. But my sons, especially Marcel, are huge fans of the BBC’s Top Gear television program. While I never sit down expressly to watch the program, there have been enough times that my sons have commandeered to clicker and switched to BBC America to tune in that I have come to appreciate Top Gear, and perhaps it is the best piece of entertainment on television—especially if you love British humor as I do.

Essentially, Top Gear is a variety show. It is part travelogue, part guest interview, and many parts silly fun, with motorized vehicles either directly or tangentially factored into their schtick. The three hosts—Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May—are delightful in their interaction with one another at times, and merciless in completely hysterical ways at others. Each show features at least one car (whose performance is gauged on the Top Gear track by the Top Gear mystery driver—The Stig), one celebrity guest who gets to take a timed lap in the Top Gear Affordable Car, and some sort of automotive challenge for the hosts, often in exotic cars or in exotic places. I cannot even guess at the sort of budget this show must have. There is not a continent which has not been the backdrop for one of their escapades. Indeed, some of these sorties are rich eye-candy, such as a tour they did of Viet Nam on motor bikes. Others are just ridiculous and make you laugh until it hurts, as was the case of their foray in the American South in $500 jalopies. It is truly brilliant television.

Top Gear has had the occasional Saab grace its stage. One episode a few years back poked fun at the “Born from Jets” campaign, in which The Stig piloted a 9-5 Aero on the track and raced an RAF Harrier Jet. The jet won. But it was still great fun, and while not completely enamored with the 9-5, there was certainly some affection for it.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

In Praise of Rally

In a recent interview on Swedish television, Saab-Spyker CEO Victor Muller indicated a desire to reclaim more of Saab’s past by getting Saab involved with rally racing, expressing a desire to see Saab in the World Rally Championship as early as 2014. Those familiar with Saab’s history of course know of the legend of Erik “on the roof” Carlsson, who piloted Saab 96’s to three victories in the RAC Rally and two wins at Monte Carlo, among others. Those cars were severely underpowered compared to their peers. Yet, with his breathless driving style, Carlsson was able to best the competition. Later Saab rally champions included Stig Blomqvist and Per Eklund.

I’m not much a fan of motor sport. I ought to be. I’ve worked in the car business my entire adult life, and have been teaching crash prevention training for several years with a cohort that is comprised almost completely of active automobile racers. I’ve done track days (written about elsewhere in this blog) which I find thoroughly enjoyable, and have had silly fun participating in autocross and rally cross events. Wheel to wheel racing, though, just hasn’t appealed much to me as a participant. Even my sons are more in tuned with racing. Son Pascal started racing rally cross when he was sixteen and placed second in the front wheel drive class in New England. He’s moved on to hill-climb racing, which he finds more thrilling, and gives me more gray hairs. All three sons have invested in building a heavily modified 1985 SPG that will see some sort of racing, at least once a proper roll cage is installed. Marcel, only fourteen, is slated to be co-driver for Pascal as they take on some TSD rallies later this year, including the Winter Challenge Rally in Vermont.

Yet here I am, somewhat uninterested in all of it as both participant and spectator. With one exception: WRC. World Rally Championship came to my attention when summary broadcasts were aired weekly on one of the new HD television stations. I watched once. I was hooked. No monstrous cars endlessly turning left. No shrieking, darting formula cars that look like alien insects. No, these were cars, driven by fearless pilots in breathtaking and fearsome places, all around the globe, at the most ridiculous speeds. It didn’t hurt that the perennial champion was a compatriot, Sebastien Loeb.

It was sad to see that so few manufacturers are involved in WRC. Only Citroen and Ford remain. Long gone are Mitsubishi, Subaru, Hyundai, Peugeot, Audi and a host of others. Hopefully, Saab returns to this world stage soon.

I would urge anyone to take a look at WRC. It’s entertaining, the drivers are full of character, and the scenery is beautiful. There’s a wonderful clip of Sebastien Loeb racing in Finland in 2008. His co-driver, Spaniard Daniel Elena, has the most adorable lilting counter-tenor (sounding more French than most Frenchmen) as he guides the champion through the forest. Can you imagine keeping your eyes on a clipboard while traveling along like this. Yikes! Enjoy!

If you enjoyed this, consider heading north later this month to be one of the crazy rally spectators at the New England Forest Rally. Big name drivers like Ken Block and Travis Pastrana will be participating. See for details.

Update: After writing this post yesterday, by the purest of coincidences, son Pascal got a call from Kevin Hans of Team O'Neil Rally School inviting Pascal to replace his co-driver at the aforementioned NE Forest Rally! Pascal is racing at Okemo mountain this weekend, but heads up to Maine on Thursday with his helmet and fire-suit ready to dictate the rally notes to Kevin. Alas, they'll be piloting an Audi...

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Thoughts on a Favorite Car

There has been much discussion about a new small Saab which will pay homage to the 92. I owned a very small car once myself, and that car has been re-conceived by Honda. I just read a review of forthcoming Honda CR-Z, a sports-hybrid two-seater which takes its styling cues from the iconic CRX of the 1980’s. The CR-Z takes that styling and general concept, and wraps it around a more powerful engine and regenerative hybrid electric powerplant, with a unique (for a hybrid) six-speed manual transmission.

In the 1980’s, I was not a huge fan of Japanese cars. I liked them; I even owned them, including my first car. I just preferred European cars. My wife and I were both working in the car business in the mid 1985, and she was selling Hondas. She loved small cars, much like her mom, who was driving an MGB-GT when I first met her, and who would later be tooling around in a BMW Z3. Susan wanted to buy a CRX, which was no mean feat in those days, when one had to wait months in line for any Honda, and pay well over sticker price. Even Susan had to pay the “overage,” on a CRX, though it was reduced from $1500 to $1000. I wasn’t convinced. Still, Susan ordered it, and we waited.

During the wait, the New England Auto Show took place, and we both had to work the show. In those days it was at the old Hynes Convention Center on Boylston Street in Boston. At the end of the show, all the cars on display were taken away to local dealerships. Susan and I were each charged with bringing home a Honda. I don’t remember what she drove out of the Hynes, but I remember that I was annoyed that my ride was a 1985 Honda CRX automatic. Could there be a stupider car? My expectation was that I was going to be miserable driving home the 15 miles to Nahant that night. I crawled into the car, adjusted the seat and was resigned to the fact I could not be comfortable, and after a ride in a freight elevator, drove off.

Yes, the lack of a third pedal made the car stupid. Yet, I found myself completely intoxicated by the car. It was just plain silly FUN. No power anything. Awful seats and awful driving position. But it was FUN. The engine had no torque and only 75 horsepower. But it was FUN. There was a sense of glee I simply hadn’t experienced before. Certainly, the simplicity of the car was a factor. It only weighed 1800 lbs, was tiny, you sat on the floor, the steering was not assisted, and the car just begged to be tossed around.

Finally, ours arrived. It was blue with gray cladding, and had a proper transmission. It was Susan’s car, but became my daily driver when first son came along. I drove the car to 100,000 miles. Every one was uncomfortable, but utterly entertaining. The single most trouble free car I’ve owned, I sold it to my sister, who drove it a bunch more, and liked it so much she bought a newer one.

I’m not sure, at 2800 pounds, that the CR-Z can really capture the real essence of the CRX. But I applaud Honda for trying. Likewise, I hope that the Saab 92 project really does connect the past with present technology. Here’s to fun cars!