Thursday, June 03, 2010

I love Denise McCluggage

Denise McCluggage writes for Autoweek.
This article, titled Love and Recalls appeared in the March 23, 2010 issue of that publication and appears here until their lawyers call and threaten me.

Love and Recalls
Denise McCluggage

The coincidence of Toyota-gate and Alfa Romeo's revival of the Giulietta name has reminded me how much more important it is for a company to make cars that are loved than to build ones that are respected. Not that Toyota hasn't yearned to be loved--it's just that it never quite got the knack. I've said before, if a Toyota or a Lexus were a suitor, I'd tell it, "You're really terrific, but can't we just be friends?"

When a car is loved, forgiveness is plentiful; when a car's reliability is its strong point and that is now doubted, the absence of a net is sorely evident.

My history of car ownership is dotted, or maybe oil-splattered, with several British marques. Two MG TCs and a Jaguar XK140. Almost an Austin-Healey. I even craved a Jensen Interceptor with Ferguson Formula. (Don't ask.)

Forgiveness was further extended to four (!) Fiats. But my Alfa Giulietta Sprint Veloce circa 1958 is the subject here.

The Giulietta had a quirk that spurred the starter motor to spiral into action, even when the car was at speed. Like when I was on the Nürburgring with Phil Hill showing me his preferred line as I clung fiercely to the passenger's seat. (No seatbelts.) We didn't hear the ominous whirring until we were stopped in the pits. Took every tooth off the ring gear. Push starts or small hills were then in order for several weeks.

But Giuliettas almost universally shared two other quirks (quirks are what you call flaws that love lets you forgive).

Always when one Giulietta owner met another, the question inevitably arose: "Carburetor or battery?"

My answer: "Battery," meaning that my Alfa was one in which the trunk-mounted battery liked to tip over, spreading hungry acid on anything left nearby.

For other owners: "Carburetor," which meant that it chose to burst into flame at varied intervals. I never met any Giulietta owner who had both quirks to forgive.

We would compare quirks and shake our heads with fond smiles, almost prideful. Look what I have forgiven. How much more could anyone love thee?

In those days, "recall" was what you did when you redialed--and I do mean dialed--a busy phone number. Caveat emptor ruled the market. (Remember, a Ford Pinto and a Chevrolet Vega had been loosed on the world.)

Not until the fledgling Japanese manufacturers strengthened their wings and began to soar in the United States did their strong point--reliability--become what most buyers simply expected.

"Bulletproof" was a common description of things Toyota, and that powered the company's remarkable growth.

Sometimes the spark of love might glint a moment in an enthusiast's eye--the MR2, maybe the Celica--but that uniqueness would be hammered down.

Fun was banished. Back to trustworthiness and reliability.

Now those very traits, admirable but unexciting, are under question. Late-night comics strike with relish. Toyota is damaged by real tragedy and its inexperienced, tone-deaf responses. Sad.

My belief: All of Toyota's problems will be tracked down and made right. But the healing balm of love will be missed.    © AutoWeek 

My response appears below.


Denise McCluggage I love you, I adore your perspective, your subject matter and your take.

I've always loved you, from the first paragraph I ever read of yours you've been a favorite of mine.

However, when I finally discovered my March 22 issue of Autoweek (no doubt placed someplace "it belongs" by my too-tidy but stunning and kind-as-Mother-Teresa wife) and read "Love & Recalls" I realized how much you actually `get it'.

The look, the sound, the *feel* of an Alfa Romeo is unlike any other vehicle.
Everything is where it's supposed to be, the ergonomics are superior to anything I've ever encountered.
It's all where God Himself intended it to be, right down to the ashtray in some models; right under 3rd gear. One, two, three, (flick cigarette).

Clearly you're more than just another good writer; you're apparently a pretty cool chick to boot!

Twenty-five years ago I was selling lease paper, mostly to new car dealers and when I was lucky to my own prospects as well. The 85/86 tax revisions had made leasing quite advantageous to those who could claim business-use of a vehicle and business was good.

In the late fall of 1985, on my way to deliver a lease contract to a Chrysler dealer in New Milford, CT I passed a little Alfa dealer.

I knew nothing of Alfas, and thought of them as Italian MG's - I was quite mistaken.

Took care of business with the folks at the Chrysler franchise and figured the winter would be a good time to call on a sports car dealership as it was doubtful anyone else did once there was snow on the ground.

So, I stopped at a Dunkin Donuts, bought a dozen doughnuts, a few coffees and brought it all into Kinsella's Alfa Romeo.

I was introduced around the tiny little (five - three employees, plus the owner and his wife) dealership where the over-sized shop made me feel like a grade school kid on a field trip.

A four door MG from the late 1940's, a two door convertible Range Rover with a manual transmission that had never been brought state side, (legally at any rate - this one came into Canada on a fishing boat, was driven down on a dealer plate and registered as a "home made" vehicle in CT) and various Alfas, a Triumph or two and a BSA motorcycle in the corner.

The place was fabulous, the people were a hoot, and the owners were flattered that anyone would call on them in the winter, much-less bring them coffee and doughnuts.

I made it a point to repeat the performance several times over the winter and into the spring eventually saving a sale for them via utilizing a lease as a quasi balloon-note financial instrument structured specifically for their client.

I was in.
My competitors arrived right on schedule near Memorial Day, none of them had been seen in months or in some cases ever before; my tenacity (or was it the doughnuts and coffee?) had paid off.

I leased Alfas like there was no tomorrow all that summer and well into the fall; the next year I leased a little over 1% of all the Alfa Romeo's that came into the U.S.

Somewhere in the midst of it all a client needed to terminate early as she was getting married and leaving the country for Europe; I took the Veloce so I could sub-lease it.

My dad had turned green every time a coworker (a subordinate no-less) drove by in the late 1950's in his Triumph. Even as a boy I could see no matter how he tried to conceal it, how he envied that car.

He saw the Alfa Romeo in my garage and asked, "You keeping that? You should, you're young you're making good money and if you don't you'll regret it the rest of your life."

I kept the Veloce.
Over the next 15 years I went through 4 more and played around with an old Alfetta for a while too; the addiction was I suspect like heroin - I adored them.

"You're buying another Alfa aren't you?" asked my wife at one point during a no-Alfa period.
I asked how she could tell, she replied; "You're painting the garage floor again, you only do that when an Alfa's coming home with you." (I made a mental note to try and be less obvious in the future.)

After decades of monkeying around in the car business with varying degrees of success, I've owned (often as dealer which I was for several years until a couple of my employees put a stop to that for me) the whole gamut. A Rolls, Ferrari, several Porsche's (fast!), Peugeots, Jags, all the more normal European cars, virtually every domestic, and a handful of Japanese nameplate creations but found only Subaru to be interesting enough to want to drive.

The difference with Alfas?

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