Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bare-Naked Driving
I am, by nature and training, a deconstructionist. I enjoy the intellectual rigor of
examining a situation, problem or thing and dissecting it into its component parts. This is helpful when one is not overly bright, for it affords me the ability to analyze situations I would otherwise find baffling. Much of my time at conservatory was spent doing this sort of analysis, on both music (I am one of those few freaks who actually enjoyed music theory and analysis and took every course I could) and performance at the instrument. People of immense talent and genius do not do this; they don’t have to.

When assessing the driving experience of a car, there is, of course, how said car feels in total. This is very important. I also like to look past that and gauge my reaction to the various systems. However, as cars have become more integrated, more digital, more “of a piece,” this has become increasingly challenging. Thus it was with great analytical interest that I approached my first drives in the newly unleashed 1985 Saab SPG Hillclimb car built by sons Marcel and Pascal for the Climb to the Clouds race at Mount Washington.

Construction of this car essentially involved stripping it to a shell, throwing away everything that doesn’t contribute to making the car go, stop or corner, and then putting it back together again. Sunroof? Gone. Power windows? Gone. Stereo, comfy seats, heater, AC, insulation, door panels and cruise control? All gone. After being taken to the car’s essence, there are some additions: this is a race car, not an exercise in automotive asceticism. Hence, better suspension, lots of go fast stuff on the engine, racing seats and a full roll cage are fitted. Is it like driving a 900? Unmistakably.

While the ignition key assembly between the seats is gone, the array of switches to
activate various circuits, and the pushbutton starter, are all on a custom console in its place. Nice touch. Once started, the exhaust note, amplified from the large exhaust and absence of sound deadening inside the car is unmistakably 900 turbo. Sitting in a racing seat is not. I adore Saab seats, and while the Sparco seat and 5 point harness aren’t bad, even after 90 minutes in the car, I missed my real Saab seat. Another thing I missed was the 900 smell (every C900 owner knows what I mean). Apparently that does reside in the fabrics, and not in the bones of the car. Once I pulled off, the driving experience was at once familiar.

I was immediately at home in this minimalist 900. Delicious clutch (even with upgraded bits), strong brakes, wonderful steering, and handling that was completely predictable and sure footed, even on modest street tires. When I think back to my parents’ first new car, I recall that it had no radio, a rubber floor mat, crank windows, and not much else. So it was with the SPG. It got me to thinking—do we really need all that junk in a car? I realize that this SPG is not a viable daily driver if only for the noise level, even with ear plugs, and I’m talking road-noise, not exhaust.. When you get rid of all the toys—the NAV, the audio system, the sunroof, the SID, the trip computer, the cruise control…..the only thing you’re left with is driving. Now there’s a novel thing to focus on in a car! It’s like removing all the sauce and stuff on a plate and having just the piece of meat and eating it unadorned. This may not be for everyone, but a real meat lover will like nothing better. Thus, I found myself, even when loafing along on the highway in the right lane in the SPG, very much enjoying the experience.

Could I drive a bare-naked car every day? Almost. A C900, which I drive now, isn’t that far removed when compared to a modern car, so I think I could. I would want to keep some insulation, normal seats, and a heater and defroster are a must. I do like a sunroof but could live without one Likewise I could also do without power windows, locks, cruise control, AC and carpeting. Yes, I would also like to have a radio and clock. But not much else. The realization in all this to me was that if you like a car, then reduce that car to its bones and still like it, then you know that your passion for the car is deep-rooted and goes to that car’s essence. Toys and luxuries are nice to have, but applied to an uninspiring set of bones is like (pardon me here) putting lipstick on a pig. I bet that a lot of Saab drivers would feel the same. Take a Lexus, say, and strip it down and ask Lexus owners what they think. I bet the reaction would be a bit different. I believe that many Saab drivers would love driving a Saab sans accoutrements—not that they’d give them up for good—and this may be why we are so passionate about these cars.


Swade said...

Finally! Someone understands why I don't put sauces on meat!!! :-)

Outstanding post, Pierre. Check your inbox.

BishopQ said...

Pierre - speaking of the fun of driving, are you guys offering Hirsch performance upgrades at CRS yet? I saw you listed on the Hirsch site, but didn't see any info on your main site.

My '09 9-3 XWD would be great at 240hp. :)

Pierre Belperron said...

Yes, we have placed our order with Hirsch to do the upgrades. I wish I could tell you exactly when we will be up and running, but can only confirm that this should happen very soon: hopefully by the end of July.