(first posted 7/17/2016)
(Also a Mini-COAL report on a 1996 Saturn SL2)
In early 1990 after the birth of our son, my Dublin born and Manhattan bred wife TIP (The Irish Princess) got her driver’s license after living up to then in the urban environment of Manhattan’s upper west side.
Moving to the suburbs in late 1990 and driving a Mercury Sable wagon was an eye opening experience and TIP and our son Will traveled all the by-ways and back roads of New Jersey seeking out new life forms and going to antique shops no man’s been to before.
In five quick years TIP put 60,000 miles on the Sable and despite my vigorous maintenance efforts, the smooth riding gold station wagon started to show signs of impending and expensive repairs. We decided to make the Sable my business car and get TIP and Will a new ride.
I suggested a small Jeep Eagle dealership in nearby Far Hills that local people recommended in hope she would come home raving about test driving a nice solid and proven 4.0 straight six XJ Cherokee.
She did not come home raving about a nice solid and proven 4.0 XJ Cherokee.
TIP came home in love with an automotive ghost from my past.
“I found our next car; I already drove it. It’s really fast! They’re holding it so you can drive it” She told me.
Do you remember what the exact model is of this beauty?
“Yes”, she said showing me the brochure, “it’s the top level with the big engine, the Eagle Vision TSi”.
Great, I thought, not like the dealer is going to let me bargain on the price or anything like that.
I looked at the brochure and thought, OK, it’s not the 4.0 straight 6 Jeep I was hoping for, but this is her car, her choice, and it sounded good on paper and looked good in the pictures.
Some details: The 207.4 inch long 1995 Eagle Vision TSi had a longitudinal V6 engine that developed 214 hp at 5,850 rpm and 221 lb. ft. of torque at 3,100 rpm, front wheel drive, and a 4-speed 42LE automatic transmission. The engine had two intake manifolds, four valves per cylinder, a single overhead cam per bank driven by a timing belt. It was a non-interference design.
When I went to the dealer the car was sitting in front of the showroom and it did look good. The color was called Char Gold, and it changed color depending on the sun and the viewing angle. And leather seats; I never had a car with leather seats.
Brian the salesman had a big smile on his face. TIP had that endearing characteristic of always wearing her heart on her sleeve. He knew the car was sold before I got there.
Then I sat in it and it was déjà vu all over again. I may be over using that phrase but I loved Yogi Berra.
38 years of automotive advancement and design changes separate the 1995 LH Chrysler cars from the full size 1957 Chrysler, but when I sat in it I could just about FEEL those big 1957 tail fins behind me, even though I knew they weren’t there.
Like the 1957 single headlight Chrysler 4 door hardtop that was the first car I legally drove on the road, my butt was almost on the floor, my feet seemed to be just a few inches lower than my head, and the whole back half of the car seemed to rise up behind me. Even the doors had that familiar hollow, metallic, low quality sound when I closed them. Not a good sign.
There’s no way this 1995 Eagle Vision is anything like that old 1957 Chrysler, but these thoughts would stay with me as long as we had that car. The mind is a funny thing.
We went for a test ride down two lane country roads. It had a taut stable ride and it felt wide and long. I finally stopped, let traffic pass, pulled back out onto the road and straightened the car out, and hit the gas. Oh dear, I hoped TIP was ready for this. It jumped off the line much like that old 1957 Chrysler with the exception that the Vision’s 4-speed 42LE was not as quick or as crisp shifting as the old Torqueflite. But it was clearly much quicker than the Sable wagon.
Geezers sometimes bore people with stories and statements like “they don’t make them as good as they used to”. In the case of the old Torqueflite verses the new 42LE, put your money on the geezers.
Brendan Saur wrote up a 1997 Eagle Vision ESi (a lower spec 3.3 liter and timing chain equipped model) here.
And again Brendan Saur wrote up the “luxurious” stretched LHS Chrysler here.
Transmission push buttons to the left of the steering wheel would have been nice, but I’m sure that was just me being me. The rest of the world and safety standards had moved on from those buttons back around 1965-6, probably because of the National Highway and Traffic Safety Act of 1966.
Shortly after moving to NJ I transferred to Digital Equipment Corporation’s (DEC) Piscataway office to be in their technical sales support unit. DEC was reeling from sales and financial setbacks and had started what would be a corporate death spiral with their first layoffs in the company’s history.
DEC had been very successful in the late 1950s through to the late 1980s but its founder and CEO Ken Olsen, and his management team completely missed the personal computer revolution and other subsequent technical standards and killer software applications.
Business and technical visionaries who created successful corporations often fall victim to the phenomena of being considered geniuses for building a company and then losing what was built over time as the world and technology steadily moved on.
In his 1995 book “The Road Ahead” Bill Gates mentioned his concern about the difficulty of corporate founders and CEOs maintaining and successfully managing the corporations they created through the changing business and technical world. Bill Gates said avoiding this corporate killer condition was a primary priority.
Even with this awareness and careful observations, Gates missed some big parts of the Internet revolution and some critical software functions. Accordingly, he had to play catch up to out-develop, or buy-out, smaller, smarter, and more flexible competitors.
Ken Olsen did not catch up. He tried, but his efforts were always too little, too late, or badly out of touch with the real world from which he was sadly isolated by the corporate bubble built around him.
Those of us on the front lines of technical sales support who spent our time in front of customers working to design solutions for their business requirements knew this as clearly as the naval architect Thomas Andrews, Jr., had known that the Titanic would sink as soon as he saw the damage from the iceberg.
We tried to tell people up they ladder but we were told to make bigger and more profitable sales and leave the big picture and corporate management up to them. After all, DEC’s huge size and past successes were proof they knew what they were doing.
I was hoping to replicate in NJ the successes I had with the Port Authority of NY & NJ and the NYC Department of Correction, but I found it hard going in the new business reality where DEC was seen as having lost its magic.
At first I got a well used 1988 black Ford Taurus as a company car which I thought was terrific, for 30 dollars a week I got a car (albeit not new), plus gas, and plus insurance. In the early 1990’s that was a good deal.
Then local management, under pressure to cut costs, planned to cut back on company cars and have us use our personal vehicles, which management told us had to be recent model 4 door cars.
After the expected outcry from sales and tech support people who were always on the road, and, if they had a second vehicle it didn’t fit the “rules”, management rescinded that plan until a year or two later when further cutbacks forced more drastic plans and once again we were told that we had to return our Tauruses and use our own cars. Again, they had to be late model 4 door vehicles. “No trucks” they warned us.
These back and forth car policy reversals would continue for years; DEC management was clearly out of their league and comfort zones in handling a company in crisis.
One of their more “interesting” cost cuts was to remove the Deer Park water bottle fountains from all NY and NJ offices and to remove some cafeterias in NJ offices and replace them with drinking fountains and vending machines.
This is about when TIP and I got the Eagle and I put the Sable wagon into use as my company car. But, after only a few months, the Sable was showing signs of not being up for long term high mileage business use. I looked at car magazines and heard about the new second generation Saturn SL2 with plastic body panels (they all had those) and a DOHC 124-hp double-overhead cam 16-valve 4-cylinder “lost foam” engine. They even had a 30-day/1500-mile no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee.
What could possibly go wrong? If it wasn’t as good as they said, I could return it. Like that would really happen!
There was no bargaining over the “fixed price” gold SL2 sedan, but I got a good trade-in on the recently fully repaired and detailed Sable. They immediately started using the Sable to go to sales and management meetings in southern NJ because it was nicer than the old GMC van they were using.
When I went to pick up the car on a Saturday morning, the windows on the right side did not work. It took them four hours to find a car at another dealer from which to cannibalize parts and install them in my car, and I got home with the new 5 speed SL2 just before dinner time.
During the next few days (Sunday through Tuesday) electrical glitches cropped up and interior parts fell off the car so often I took it back on a Wednesday, gave them a list of problems, and said “… fix these or I want my money back”. I thought that would get their attention.
It did not.
Amazingly, Saturn service didn’t fix any of the issues identified on the list. I was incensed.
On the following Saturday morning I stormed into the crowded dealership red faced and demanded my money back.
They ushered me into the back office and told me they couldn’t cut me a check until the following Monday after 10 A.M. when local headquarters managers were in. “Do you want your Sable back?” they asked. I looked at it sitting outside all dirty inside and out from their hard use of it and missing one of its deer whistles (it had two when I traded it in) and said no, you’ve been using it as a bus. I left the SL2 at the dealer. I did not want to drive it any more than I already had. The sales rep drove me home in the SL2.
That Monday after taking Will to school, TIP and I drove the Eagle Vision to the Saturn dealer and I got all of the money back including the traded value of the Sable.
So now I was carless, but as I was doing some work again in NYC, I again started to walk to the train station and commute to Manhattan by rail for a while.
Around that time I got a call from my old customers at the NYC DOC (Department of Correction). The original fixed price Inmate Telephone and Commissary system sale that I and the rest of the sales team had worked on and gotten so much credit for, was completed and now the DOC wanted to expand it into a series of one year labor-only project phases and they wanted to make it time and materials (T&M) rather than fixed priced. T&M would allow DOC management more flexibility in planning and reacting to changing business needs and court orders.
The wanted me back to run the whole thing because they saw DEC’s current NYC sales and management personnel as “uncooperative and inflexible”. Actually they used another series of adjectives to describe my DEC co-workers in NYC, but I feel Paul would prefer I use the terms “uncooperative and inflexible”.
I liked T&M; that’s the type of business my former partners and I had used to great success in our little software company and it was, in my opinion, a far safer and more flexible way of doing business than fixed price contracts.
Local NYC DEC management didn’t like the T&M approach, but they were in no position to impose their opinion, so around mid-to-late 1996, I developed a business model between DEC and the NYC DOC that I would run from 1997 to mid-2003 bringing in seven figures annually of high margin consulting revenue. And that was not counting some unplanned emergency business services we delivered to the DOC during that time span (which I will describe in future COALs).
After about 5 years of swimming up stream in the NJ DEC office and making a few small-ish sales but not making any really big deals, this come-hither from my old customers at the NYC DOC was a boost to my business self esteem that I needed at that time.
Now I knew how Sally Field felt when she finally got her Oscar in 1995. Someone out there (in the NYC DOC) liked me.
There was good news and bad news attached to this new opportunity with the NYC DOC:
Bad News – I’d be on Rikers Island more than I liked. But let’s be frank, no one likes to be on Rikers Island at all. Ever.
Good News – I’d have a waterfront office. Do you see those little white rectangles on the edge of the island on the right side of the photo? They’re trailers, and the MIS trailer was just about in the middle of them. During high tides and storms the water would lap around the trailer’s support foundation making those of us in the trailer a little uncomfortable. But hey, waterfront!
When not on Rikers Island I’d be at the NYC DOC headquarters at 60 Hudson Street, a few short blocks north of my old Port Authority work site in the WTC North Tower. What could possibly go wrong with this scenario?
With my new business agreement at the NYC DOC, DEC assigned me a new tan-ish, beige-y 1996 Taurus for my travels to Rikers. They were so giddy with the service deals my DEC sales rep Jack and I were making with the DOC, they quickly signed exceptions to the cost-cut-back rules regarding company cars.
For all of the critical comments about the 1996 Taurus’ obsession with ovals and its resemblance to a flounder lying on its side, this was a good riding and comfortable car. The seats were much better than earlier Taurus models and it proved to be a very reliable and comfortable car over time.
In my opinion, the business fleet level 1996 Taurus sedan was light years better than the 1996 Saturn SL2.
As the Eagle Vision aged past 4 years it began to act like the dreaded Forward Look (above figure) Chrysler 38 years its senior.
In no particular order:
- A/C failed. Twice. Very expensive to fix. Twice.
- Transmission failed; TIP limped home in “limp-home-mode second gear” and told me car seems really loud. Very very expensive estimate to fix. Dealer cut me a break. Still expensive.
- Car would not start in very cold weather. Local shop said there was a silent TSB and they did not have the right software to fix it. Took it to dealer and they fixed it immediately. “Why didn’t you send us a letter about this?” Embarrassed apology; “not all Eagles had this issue”.
- CD Player got stuck on a CD on high volume and not only would not eject the disk, the volume and other controls did not work. It would continuously play the CD, Best of ZZ Top when the ignition was on. OK, it could have been worse, but still, who has ever experienced a radio glitch like this? I had the original radio/CD player replaced at a local detailer shop.
- Stopper pins holding the front hood properly in place when down would not stay put. I replaced them with homemade pins made out of large plastic screws, fuel line hose, and black cable ties. That was a permanent fix.
- Front hood would not stay up; I carried a broomstick in the trunk so the hood would not hit me on the head as I charged the battery after the (see above) cold staring problems. We had the hood holdups replaced.
- Two recalls; one about the fuel injectors and the other… I forget, maybe fuel injectors again.
- Rear door hinges would come loose with use and I had to buy a special, very large screwdriver to re-tighten the hinge screws about every month or so. Tried larger bolts, locking washers and super glue; none of which worked.
There’s more but I’m starting to get a headache. I also noticed that the dashboard was three inches (3 INCHES) higher on the right side than the left. It didn’t affect the driving but it kind of explained the other problems in a way.
While all of this was going on, in mid 1998 TIP informed me that this marriage, which had started in 1985, was not going as she had expected or hoped, and we needed to see a marriage counselor.
While not exactly surprised (one kind of knows when one’s spouse is not overjoyed), I was, well … surprised.
Does that make sense?
Why am I asking you?
I was told that while TIP had grown in many ways as a wife and mother and volunteer at a local senior citizen housing center, it was clear to her that I had not changed and matured and was the same hard working, anal retentive obsessive nutcase unexciting, and no fun-to-be-with husband that I had always been.
She said she wanted a fun husband “like, like, … like Russel Crowe, someone who likes to go to parties and socialize and go to weddings, and dances and maybe once in a while, drink a little too much champagne and do impulsive stuff like fly off the Rio”.
I thought to myself “Russel Crowe? Who is Russel Cro…, the movie actor? The gladiator guy with the muscles? Did I hear that right”? But I did not pursue that exact point and instead diverted to: “Rio? As in de Janeiro Brazil? That Rio? Do you know how unsafe Rio is?”
She ignored me: “That’s not the point and you know it. Forget Brazil. The point is, I have grown and matured and developed and you have not.”
She continued: “On Saturday nights you like to sit in the living room and listen to A Prairie Home Companion on the (*) radio”.
(*) Note – The above link is a scene from the movie A Prairie Home Companion which was based on the radio show. Can you identify the blonde woman is red or the red headed woman in green?
I protested “I’ve been listening to PHC since the mid 1970s, years before we met”. Then an unspoken thought popped up in my mind: “Well… yea, OK, maybe, not too much change there”.
TIP continued: “… and on Sunday nights you sit in the living room and listen to Don K. Reed’s Doo Wop Shop“. More unspoken thoughts: “No change there either”.
“Well gee, I enjoy these old fashioned radio shows and ….” but TIP interrupted: “Don’t say it; you’re a grown man and all you do is go to work, clean the bathrooms, wash the cars, clean the parakeet’s cage, and listen to the radio.” You don’t even like TV!”
She had a point; nothing she said was untrue. I had to admit, it, I
was, might be, no, was a boring husband.
We started seeing a marriage counselor once a week. We’d hire a neighborhood girl to stay with Will and to make it a “night”, we also went out for dinner after the sessions. Some of those post session dinners were nice times; others were not.
TIP became annoyed because she thought the counselor, being a man, was tilting in my favor.
I wanted no problems on that issue: “OK, so find us a woman counselor you like”. But she did not; we continued with the dude.
At one session in October 1998, she told the counselor, “All he does is buy plain, dull, four door cars. He never gets anything fun-like. I think he’s suffering from anhedonia.”
The counselor nodded thoughtfully and made some notes.
“What’s anhedonia?” I asked.
Counselor dude added, “Maybe you two should go out together and buy a car that gives both of you some fun.”
“What’s anhedonia?” I asked again, but TIP and the counselor were on a roll.
Dude continued: “Something he would never buy on his own, but that you would want him to choose.”
TIP’s mood visibly brightened.
Counselor dude warned: “That may not solve some, or any of your marital problems, but it may be a start. And you could continue to work on the marriage from there”.
So that’s how this boring guy got a silver 1999 NB1 Miata.
Empty heart, indeed.