COAL: 2001 Passat GLX 5 Speed – From the Chrysler Frying Pan Into The VW – er – Frying Pan

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I was still traveling to Rikers about twice a week and needed a more inmate proof car to do that in than the Miata, so once again we planned to get a new car for The Irish Princess (TIP) and I would then use the 5 year old 1995 Eagle Vision for work.

TIP wanted a manual transmission car with pizzazz, not unlike the Eagle. That meant a powerful motor and leather seating.

And, there was a big VW dealer in Bernardsville, a short walk from the marital abode in Basking Ridge.

Little did we know we were about to go from the Chrysler frying pan into the VW frying pan.

Does that make sense?

It was now apparent that I had joined Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) at its apex in early 1987.   From that point forward it was down hill, at first slowly, and then quickly.

We all thought the initial decline was a result of the October 1987 Black Monday stock market crash. But when other companies started to recover, DEC did not. As noted in earlier COALs, DEC management and its grandfatherly president Ken Olsen did not know how to react to the rapidly changing world of information technology, as well as the very fast movement of personal computers into both corporate cubicles and people’s homes.

At first DEC’s reactions were to develop big mainframe-like systems to compete with IBM and to also develop their own line of “personal computers”. Because DEC had successfully pioneered the use of CRT and keyboard operated systems that served one user, how hard could it be to compete with the woefully underpowered IBM PC, its cobbled together tinker toy operating system MS-DOS, and the even goofier pictogram based Apple?

They found out.

DEC responded to the many threats it faced with new hardware and software designs, but these efforts always ended up being too late, and too technically unique, to compete. DEC had yet to learn that personal computer business and private users were not loyal to any one brand of PC hardware, but once they learned the ins and outs of an operating system, or an application, that’s what they wanted to stay with, even if the OS was as flawed and idiomatic as MS/DOS.

That was the genius of young Bill Gates. His initial operating system wasn’t all that great; it was basically a simple system he purchased on the cheap and then modified. What Bill gates knew, and what IBM management did not, was that the PC OS was the key to almost eternal sales and upgrades with diminishing development costs resulting in big margins.  On the other hand, the hardware itself was a commodity that had ongoing manufacturing costs and expenses and minimal margins due to increasing competition.

DEC management was in the same uninformed boat as IBM.

In 1992 Ken Olsen was replaced with the slickly dressed and dentally enhanced Robert Palmer.

While it is very subtle, the more observant reader of this COAL story might note a vague hint of dislike for Mr. Palmer. Let’s just say that 25 years after Mr. Palmer’s ascent to DEC’s two top positions (he was both president and CEO), old timey DEC workers (those there longer than I) become silent and morose if the subject of R Palmer, or his years at DEC, come up.

The most charitable phrase used by these old timers to describe him is “bottom feeder”, defined as: Slang – An opportunist who profits from the misfortunes of others.

Mr.Palmer commissioned new logos:

olddec

became:

newdec

We were called into a meeting room to see the new logo. A bearded and sandal wearing VMS OS designer sitting next to me leaned over and whispered “no worries now.”

Company cars were taken away, bottled water fountains removed, lunch rooms closed and replaced with vending machines, 401K contributions reduced and later cut altogether, and then, after a few months, layoffs.

The layoffs were followed by more layoffs. We began to notice a pattern. Technical developers, sales staff, and customer facing delivery personnel were the ones being let go.

Very few, if any, managers were on the layoff lists.

DEC management developed detailed organization charts where all lower level employees like me reported to two managers through red and blue reporting lines. Meetings were held and complicated PowerPoint presentations were developed to explain the arcane red-line blue-line org charts and almost everyone found them undecipherable. But questioning these inanities was cause to be labeled “not a team player” and perhaps eligible for the next layoff.

What we all knew was that all the red-line blue-line crap really did was give the appearance of responsibilities and activities to the many remaining members of DEC management over a diminishing cohort of individual contributors.

The term layoffs were changed to RIF (reduction in force) which management didn’t feel right about, so they used the ultimate and popular staff reduction term “right sizing”.

If you got right-sized, that meant you were part of the wrong size.

I apologize for these pedantic details into DEC’s death, but it is relevant to the overall environment in which I was living in vis-à-vis TIP, my son Will, the stresses of home life, and work. As I was 100% in the field, either at 60 Hudson Street (DOC headquarters a few short blocks north of the WTC North Tower) or Rikers Island (off shore next to LaGuardia Airport) it was apparent that when DEC management was choosing the people to go on the next layoff right sizing list, there was a tendency for them to pick people they rarely saw in the offices except during the relatively few all-hands-on-DEC (get it?) meetings.

Robert Palmer sold off many of DEC’s technologies and businesses. When DEC reached the “right size” for being acquirable, it was indeed bought by Compaq for about 9.6 billion dollars.

There were rumors that Robert Palmer had close relationships with Compaq management, that he shrank DEC until it was the size and style Compaq wanted, and that he then profited nicely from this deal.

Of course these were just rumors.  Maybe I’m being too rough; perhaps to his credit, Mr. Palmer tried hard to help DEC survive and lamented over all the pain and financial woes inflicted on DEC employees during his tenure.

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Perhaps, but probably not.  It was only business; nothing personal.

Why was I still at DEC and not laid-off, riff’d or right-sized?

Probably because the DOC was paying DEC a lot of money for my team, my own services, and then doubled that money when Y2K reared its ugly (but profitable) head. And who would want a high stress project management gig for a bureaucratic and red tape bound customer on an island penal colony surrounded by armed guards, miles of razor wire, and being buzzed every 90 seconds by barely aloft jetliners spraying kerosene mist and vapors everywhere as they took off into the prevailing westerlies?

Certainly no one at Compaq was willing to step in.  I imagine they said: “Leave Plaut there; he probably likes it (what a weirdo) and we need the revenue.  When the revenue ends, get rid of him.”

Just because I may be paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me.

It was in this environment that TIP and I bought a 5 speed 2001 Passat GLX V6.

2001PassatStick

As many of you might know, VW might be many things both good and bad, but they sure knew how to make a car attractive to the eye and to the touch. High end VWs of the year 2000 era were exquisitely designed and built with the best feeling interior materials I had ever touched or looked at.

And the exteriors of their cars were smooth, elegant, and simple, with few if any of the unnecessary automotive styling gimmicks that have popped up over the past 65 years.

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The interior was hushed, leathery smelling, and the seats were firm and perfectly finished. Even at full throttle the V6 was a distant moan which contradicted the very rapid rate at which it could accelerate.

The shift lever was a bit vague and soft, and the travel was slightly long, but keep in mind we were comparing it to a 1999 Miata. It was not difficult to find each gear in the VW.

TIP once sat in the Miata with her hand on the short stubby shifter, revved the engine, turned to me and said “Now I know why men like stick shifts.”

My reply: “It seems like some women like them even more.”

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Here are some specs. The 2001 front wheel drive Passat GLX had a longitudinal 2.8 liter V6 with 30 valves, 169 cu in., a 3.73 axle, and 15 inch wheels. The engine developed 190 hp at 6,000 rpm and 206 lbs. ft. of torque at 3,200 rpm. It weighed about 3,600 pounds and was 183.8 inches long.

MotorWeek says the 5 speed front wheel drive Passat V6 could do 0-60 in 7.3 sec and the quarter mile in 15.6 seconds at 92 mph.

This was even faster than the Eagle Vision TSi. I wasn’t too worried about TIP; she was a good, if not a tad too fast, driver.

I was worried about the clutch, and the police.

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It had a monsoon sound system; there were speakers everywhere. Will and his mom loved that!

When put in reverse, the right side mirror pointed down and out so the curb was visible. I wish I had that feature on all of my vehicles.

PassatTrunk

It had neatly operating but somewhat complicated trunk hinges outside the sealed area of the trunk along with two holdup pistons.  It was a much better and more expensive design than the simple internal hinges on other cars that intruded into the cargo area.

With the rear seat backs folded down it could hold a lot of bulky stuff.

It had a manual rear window shade that did not impede driver visibility too much, but did keep the sun off the necks of rear seat passengers.

It was a beautifully designed and executed car.

passatblue

While TIP’s Passat was a creamy color called Candy White” with a tan interior, the blue one above shows how nicely VW designed and furnished their top of the line Passats.

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I took it back to the dealer twice for the same two complaints, a vibration at 1,750 rpm that was definitely not right, and a clutch with a very high take up point.

On the second visit they replaced a motor mount and that took care of the vibration, but they told me the clutch was “fine”.

When I asked why the rear wheels accumulated brake dust instead of the front wheels, they told me that was the way they were meant to operate. I tried some panic stops when the road was clear and it seemed to work well, so I asked them to note my complaint in the car’s history next to the high clutch take up.

To the VW’s benefit, I must admit the Passat’s vault-like construction and plethora of air bags is the reason TIP is alive today.  Very little in life is a clear case of back and white.  I may never buy another VW (even before Diesel-gate), but this Passat did that one important thing very well.

The summer of 2001 had some very hot days and we had to fix the Eagle’s A/C a second time. We also had an out of control radio/CD player that I replaced with an aftermarket unit from a local shop. We fixed or monitored everything we could on the Eagle, but I was driving on rough roads in heavy traffic over major NYC squeeze points including the all time favorites: George Washing Bridge, Cross Bronx Expressway, Major Deegan Expressway, Lincoln Tunnel, Holland Tunnel, and all of the connecting arteries.

I told TIP I might want to get a newer car sooner than we had planned as I was loosing confidence in the almost seven year old Eagle.

The next night TIP showed me a brochure for a PT Cruiser from the same dealer we got the Eagle. Instead of being Jeep/Eagle, they were now Chrysler/Jeep. No more Eagles. When did that happen?

I told TIP I could be laid off/right sized any day now. Management probably thinks they can replace me with a person who has connections with the new management at (who do I work for now) Compaq.

TIP said she still thought we should get the PT Cruiser. “… you can get it with 5 speed stick; it has a cue ball shifter, we’d have three 5 speed cars; wouldn’t that be neat?”

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I knew what a cue ball shifter was from reading old car magazines and ogling pictures of 1962 409 Biscayne sedans. When did she learn to appreciate such arcane automotive details?

If we were to have three 5 speed cars, thank goodness they would all have the same shift pattern.  That would be one less thing to worry about.

We drove down to the dealer but there were no PT Cruisers to drive. This was when they were in such demand that there was a waiting list for them and when one came it, it had a customer’s name on it.

We ordered a Touring Edition in taupe frost metallic with a cue ball 5 speed shifter, roof rack, and CD player. “Should be arriving in a couple of weeks” we were told.

Trade in value on the Eagle? Don’t ask.

About a month later on a Friday afternoon, I was with the team on Rikers when temperatures reached 103 degree F in the sun.

There is no shade on Rikers Island.

We had finished the day’s work and were in the trailer documenting activities for my regular Monday status meeting at 60 Hudson Street when we got a call that a tractor trailer loaded with boxes of cat5 cable was parked at the IT storage area and that no one was there to unload it.

Note: As noted in an earlier COAL cat5 cable contains 4 pairs of copper twisted pair wires and can be used for connecting one terminal to a data network, or it can be used to connect four separate ordinary telephones to a telephone network. Keep this in mind because later that year (2001) NYC would desperately need network and telephone wires and we would have a lot of them in the Rikers IT storage area.

The DEC Compaq team, two correction officer escorts, and I drove over to the storage area in a jail van and formed a bucket chain from the trailer to the storage area and unloaded the trailer. It probably took 90+ minutes for us to complete the work in the 103 degree heat.  In the sun.

Back at our air conditioned trailer office, we drank iced tea and water and slowly recovered from the ordeal. Time to go home; it had been a long week. We were all soaked to the skin.

All cars must be securely locked with windows up when parked on Rikers. Even though I let the Eagle’s engine and a/c run a while with the windows cracked to vent the heat, I could not feel any relief. A bottle of water in the cup holder was too hot to touch, let along uncap and drink. I could feel the cold air from the Eagle’s vents but my head was not cooling down. The rest of me was still wet and starting to get chilled. The Eagle’s a/c seemed to be working.

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With the a/c on max/recirc, I left the island, went over the Triboro Bridge, up past Yankee Stadium at a crawl (Friday evening traffic, maybe even a game), up onto the Cross Bronx, and then over the George Washington Bridge.

I kept feeling the vents to be sure it was still blowing cold, and it was, and I still felt the body chills, but I also still felt very hot in the head.

Traffic smoothed out on 80 west and I got into the right most lane after the major merges, set cruise control to the traffic flow and tried to keep a clear head because I did not feel well.

RumbleStrips

Rumble strips.

Wonderful things.

I do not know if I fell asleep or passed out, but the rumble strips shook the Eagle violently and loudly at about 55 mph and I was suddenly wide awake and alert with a pounding heart, and thankful there were no vehicles on the shoulder. I had drifted slowly to the right and still had only the right wheels on the strips.

I could have killed innocent people.

Alignment on the Eagle was good; I was falling gently off the road’s diminishing crown.

At first I did not tell TIP about the Route 80 west rumble strip event, and much later that evening she got a call from her twin sister who lived in Dublin. Her sister had been vacationing with her husband and three of their children in Spain when her husband Ted died suddenly. Ted had had a kidney transplant 25 years earlier, was still on anti rejection drugs and was not a very healthy man, but still, his death was sudden and unexpected. He was maybe 8 years younger than I.

TIP, who was very close to her twin (not identical) sister and her brother-in-law, was at first in shock, then cried a lot, and then in the early A.M. hours, went into active planning mode.  She made reservations to fly to Dublin from JFK the next afternoon.

I wanted to say “Why JFK? That’s a god awful trip, can’t you do it from EWR”, but I realized that would have been seen as callous, self serving, and uncaring considering the unfolding family trauma.  I kept my mouth shut.

She packed quickly, and the next day Will and I drove her to JFK.

In the car TIP was silent.  To break the awkward silence I mentioned the Route 80 west incident and said that, adjusting for the time difference between NYC and Spain, Ted might have died right around the time I went off the road.  I offered up the suggestion that it was “… an odd and weirdly ominous coincidence.”

She said nothing.

At the International departures drop off, she hugged Will, got out of the car, and marched stiffly into the terminal building with a determined posture that was unfamiliar.

She said nothing to me.

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I knew she was upset and was grieving, but that struck me as being a really bad omen.

TIP said she would be gone for 3 or 4 days.

She was gone for almost three weeks.

What am I gonna do now?