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 (www.crsaab.blogspot.com ), 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.

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