Wednesday, November 17, 2010

This Saab Lover's Favorite Road Tunes

I spend a lot of time in the car, and most of that time the radio is on. I’m a bit old-fashioned, and drive an old-fashioned car with an original radio, so it is broadcast radio. I will confess that most of the listening is to talk and news programs. Usually, the news programs get me depressed and the talk shows get me irritated after too much of either. I do like the Saturday fare on the local NPR station—Car Talk, This American Life, Wait-Wait Don’t Tell Me—but that doesn’t help with the 125 miles a day of commuting Monday through Friday. So at some point during my ride, I will resort to music. Ah, but what music?

Some might be surprised that in the car I don’t listen to much classical music, despite my being a cellist. There is a preset on my radio and I will occasionally check what’s on, but rarely will stop and listen (though I was treated last week when I happened upon Arensky’s Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky which I adore). I do have a nifty iPod set up for the 900, and Marcel has been kind enough load it up for tunes he thinks his dad wants to hear. He did a great job, and there is little I would cull. Mostly, I just set the shuffle and let the tunes spin out, occasionally hitting the skip button.

Sometimes, though, there is a craving for a particular song/artist to compliment the driving you are doing or want to do, not unlike deciding that you want a particular wine for a particular meal. All driving is not the same, so my favorite road tunes come down to two categories: tunes for spirited driving, and tunes for “sensuous” driving. By spirited driving, I don’t mean fast or stupid. I do mean, though, that you are focused, full of positive energy, and really engaged in the drive. By sensuous driving, I am referring to those occasional drives when things are more relaxed, you open the windows, open the sunroof or lower the top, take note of the scenery, the smells, the sounds….warm summer nights with starry skies are perfect for this. Different drives. Different music.

Picking favorite anything is hard, because you know you’ll leave something out. With apologies to those artists and songs I have forgotten, here are the bizarre selections that I enjoy when driving my Saabs.

For spirited driving:

Foo Fighters
Green Day

Own Worst Enemy, Lit
Flagpole Sitta, Harvey Danger
Octet for Strings, Felix Mendelssohn
Souvenir de Florence, Peter I. Tchaikovsky
Honey White, Morphine
Demain le Monde, Patrick Bruel
Amsterdam, Guster
Tubthumper, Chumbawumba
Politically Correct, SR-71

For sensuous driving:

Cesaria Evora
Patricia Kaas
Simon and Garfunkel
Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto

Elsa’s Procession [Lohengrin], Richard Wagner
Stewball, Hugues Aufray
Untouchable Face, Ani deFranco
Rouge, Fredericks, Goldman and Jones
Good Vibrations, Beach Boys
Blurry, Puddle of Mudd
Les Berceaux, Yves Montand
Holberg Suite, Edvard Grieg

Monday, November 15, 2010

I like wood. I like it a lot. I appreciate the various wood in my life, from the stands of hemlock, oaks and maples in my yard, to the wood inside my home, to the instruments I play, to the wood inside a car. I don’t want to see it everywhere, but I want to see it.

While there is much wood in my home, I am not the sort who would want to see every floor, wall, door, window casing and stick of furniture in wood with the grain revealed. Too much for me. I do enjoy, though, my oak floors (though my favorites were fir floors in a former home), maple cabinets, and even the birch-veneered IKEA furniture. I like wooden baseball bats, and I swear a preferred (when I played tennis) a wooden tennis racket to any composite or metal. There are places I don’t want to see wood, however, like a bathroom, and wooden cutting boards give me the creeps.

Playing an instrument like the cello gives you a different perspective on wood. To spend so much time with so much of your body connected to all that wood really makes you rather intimate with it. I love all the wood on those instruments, from the rosewood used on pegs and tailpieces, to the ebony fingerboards, the spruce of the top, and most of all the maple used for the back, ribs, neck and scroll. Here is the back of a cello made by a friend of mine, luthier Gary Davis. Even if the exquisite shape doesn’t turn you on, how can anyone resist the beauty of that flaming maple?

In the previous post I complained about the “wood” in the 2011 9-5. Saab could have and should have done better. Consider a 1990’s 9000 with a wood dash. To my eyes, this wood compliments the colors and textures found in the rest of the interior, and amplifies the luxury and beauty of the interior. The particular hue and grain are a favorite of mine, but this is not to say that Saab couldn’t find a different look for the 9-5 that would be just as complimentary and attractive.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Aesthetics Matter
Cars can be viewed and judged from many perspectives: performance; comfort; safety; economy; reliability; utility; and appearance. Our first 2011 9-5’s arrived today, and the first one which I came across made some “first impressions” on me. Since I didn’t drive the car, I gauged my reactions purely on how I perceived the car through visual and tactile experience.

Since I had spent some time in a 2010 9-5, I was eager to focus on the differences. When I first saw the car, technicians had the hood opened, and I went to join them to check out the business end of the 9-5. This was the “Turbo-4” variant. First impression under the hood: this looks AWFUL. The top of the engine has a completely goofy looking plastic bonnet adorning it. It looks especially ridiculous because the ribs in the center are lateral, as if to mimic the intake runners in a longitudinal engine. Perhaps worse is the front face of the engine, which is unadorned has an appearance that makes me think the engineers were expecting it to be covered; it ought to be. Once the cover is
lifted off the engine, things actually improve. I like a purposeful look, and even the ungainly, messy frontal area recedes a bit once all that nice cast aluminum is exposed. It is clear that there is a purpose to the engine hat—there is a fair amount of insulation inside, ostensibly to diminish unwanted engine noise. By comparison, the 9-3 2.0 has a cover, but only to hide those ugly bits on the front of the engine. The cam cover blends right into this, and again, all that cast aluminum looks lovely. Thumbs down on the Turbo-4 engine bay!

Upon entering the 2011 9-5, my eyes were first drawn to the console and the shifter for the six-speed transmission. It is beautiful, and feels great. High marks for tactile heft and shape. (I did note, and this was echoed by a technician, that the reverse lockout knob on the front side of the shifter does have a rather sharp edge to it which is not pleasant to the touch.) Then I got to looking around. This car has the pale beige-taupe-parchment-butter cream color which I do not like. To make matters worse, that color is carried to the carpeting. Nightmare. I can’t imagine living with an interior where I felt I had to remove my shoes (though driving barefoot is a guilty pleasure) lest I stain the flooring. This car is brand new, and from just the transport personnel, look at the condition of the foot-well.

Another change for 2011 is the addition of wood-grained material on the dash, console and doors. I like wood. I’m a cellist; I appreciate beautiful wood handled in an artistic way. I like wood in a car. I don’t like fake wood. Saabs of old, say, 2001 and earlier, used a beautiful wood sealed in epoxy. More recent cars have had fake wood, albeit pretty good. The material in the 2011 9-5, especially in the shapes to which it is modeled, is so clearly plastic as to verge on the offensive. If this were a Rolls or Bentley, I might believe that hunks of wood were carved into exotic shapes for the application on the console. Not only does the shaping of this plastic convince one that the material is not wood, but the seams in the console pieces have gaps which amplify the tawdry result. Even the Lacrosse handles the fake wood thing better.

This interior had a cocoa brown color to compliment the butter-cream of the doors, carpets and seats. My only complaint here is that the application of the brown goes too far. I rather like it on the dash top, and maybe even on parts of the console. I’m not so sure about the steering wheel. I know, though, that when you start to bathe everything in a color, down to the dash vents, their toggles, the clamshell on the steering column, and even the wiper/directional switches, that this is too much. I can only think that as the years go by, between the brown and cream colors, that the interior will look dreadful much before its time.

Lastly, I discovered a nifty storage container on the left knee pad of the dash. This was a disappointment, not because it looks cheap--it looks fine. But when unlatched it swings down with a thud, with no dampening at all. That makes it feel cheap in a way that would barely acceeptable in a Camry, let alone a Saab.

The next step for me will be to drive one of these front wheel drive, Turbo-4 9-5s. There, I’m sure, I’ll have much less carping to do. While I have done nothing but complain here, I should mention that the overall effect of the interior is still handsome and the cockpit would be a lovely place to spend time. These quibbles are with details, and while the details aren’t everything, they do matter. A lot.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Ralph Bockoven adds to his Saab stable

At Swedish Car Day in 2008, our own intrepid Ralph Bockoven was approached by Andy Pickett, who admired Ralph’s Sonett and invited Ralph to check out his Saab, a beautiful 1971 96. Ralph was smitten. The car was identical to Ralph’s first Saab, right down to the mink silver color, though Ralph’s hand-me-down 96 was nowhere near as beautiful as this example. As they spoke, they came to realize that they had gone to high school together in Lincoln, where Andy still lives. When Andy learned that Ralph was a technician and well versed in vintage Saabs, he asked Ralph if he’d be willing to do some work for him in the future.

The call came one day. The clutch hydraulics had lost their integrity, and the 96 was delivered to Ralph’s home for inspection and repair. As Ralph spent time repairing the clutch and a few other miscellaneous problems, and came to appreciate this car’s condition. It was flawless. The car had 32,000 miles on it. Andy had owned it since 2002, and drove it almost not at all. There were two previous owners, including, it is believed, the original dealer (who we have not yet been able to identify) who apparently kept the in his showroom for many years, and subsequent owner who cared for the car well and used it as a daily driver.

Ralph commented to Andy that should the day come when he wanted to part with the car, Ralph would entertain its purchase. That day came just recently. Andy had decided to sell the car to purchase another toy. He had received an offer from someone who intended to cut the car up for its many fine parts. When Ralph was offered the car, he couldn’t match the lofty price offered by the other bidder, but convinced Andy that rather than see that car destroyed, it would be preferable for it to have a good steward. None could be better than Ralph.

Ralph is now the proud and happy owner of this 96.
Two of my favorite films, both set in my favorite city

Trying to pick a favorite movie is like trying to pick a favorite food: there are just too many favorites from which to choose. But if you narrow the field to movies with great automobile presence, it starts to be easier to pare one’s selections. There are lots of great movies which showcase cars and have great chase scenes, but two of my favorite are C’était un Rendezvous by Claude Lelouche, and John Frankenheimer’s Ronin.

I discovered Ronin in the late 1990s. Our family had been making due with a 20” television, and with the advent of larger, flat and 16:9 screens, we decided it might be time to update a bit. I went into the Tweeter store (Tweeter, before its demise, had long been on my list of favorite retailers) in Harvard Square (or HV2, as the Tweeter insiders referred to the location) to explore what was new in television. As I went from screen to screen, some conventional tube, some projection, I came to a widescreen television that caught my attention; not because of the quality of the picture, but because there was a BMW tearing through Paris, being chased by a Peugeot driven by Robert DeNiro with Jean Reno at his side. I was transfixed. A salesman came by, saw my interest, and offered to start the scene again. I think we watched it another time or two, and finally I asked him what it was. I left Tweeter knowing two things: I was going to buy a widescreen television, and I was going to buy Ronin. Within weeks I had both.

Watching the entire movie brought additional surprises. More cool chase scenes, and lots of views of Paris and Nice. That would have done it for me right there. But there was more. In fact, this movie had everything going for it: directed by John Frankenheimer, screenplay by David Mamet, starring Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno (my favorite French tough-guy actor), Natascha McElhone and automotive stars including a BMW M5, Audi S8, a Mercedes 6.9, and a Citroën XM. Intrigue, fire-fights, deception, betrayal, and yes, the fabulous chase scenes, all make for a delightful cinematic escape.

If one knows Paris, there is some humor in watching the BMW chase scene. While the scenes flow nicely together, when one studies the locations of various scenes, which as sewn together look contiguous, they create a path through Paris which would be impossible to navigate without the aid of worm holes. This was pointed out to me by my cousin, Jean-Philippe, who grew up in the 8th Arrondissement and knows Paris even better than I do. Of course, once I realized this, I spent too much time figuring out the hopscotch, when I should have just enjoyed the show. Some things you just shouldn’t over think!

Here’s a teaser, the scene that first got my attention. Watch it here if you’d like. But do yourself a favor—go find Ronin and watch it on a big screen with a great sound system.

C’était un Rendezvous (1976) is a different sort of film. Nine minutes long. No actors. No dialogue. Even the car which is the star never appears on screen. The premise is simple: a car is driven through Paris from the Boulevard Périphérique / Porte Dauphine to the steps of Sacré Coeur, in under nine minutes. One take. No edits. One camera, mounted on the front bumper of the unseen car. The opening has a statement which declares that no tricks or acceleration of the action were used in creating the film.

If you’ve never scene C’était un Rendezvous, hang on. I have not seen it in DVD, but even on the small screen it is breath-taking. If you don’t know about the movie, don’t read about it first. You’ll have lots of curiosity, as I did, and if you research too hard and long, you may walk away a bit disappointed when you discover the “man behind the curtain.” There is great legend and debate surrounding this film. What was the car? Who was the driver? Was Lelouche really arrested after the first screening? Who cares? Just watch the film! If you’ve ever driven in Paris, you’ll be especially impressed. The making of C’était un Rendezvous was perhaps the most egregiously irresponsible and sociopathic act (try counting the red lights which are blown through) ever taken by a film maker. Even knowing now that nobody was hurt or killed, can we imagine that anyone would ever have the insane creative courage to do something like this again?