Thursday, June 08, 2006

When You’re Going to San Francisco…

What do you say when someone invites you to San Francisco for the day? I'd say, "Maybe." But what if they dangle a carrot in front of your face in the form of a Ferrari? I'd say, "When's my flight?" That's not exactly what happened, but it is a fair assessment of the events as I see them. Several months ago, I pitched an idea to an automotive magazine I regularly write for: Go up to San Francisco and visit a company that operates a time share club for high-end car enthusiasts, drive a couple of cars I pwouldn'ty wouldn't ever get to drive in my life and visit a city I always enjoy. To my surprise, the editor said yes, so I scheduled the trip, took along with me a photographer that I've worked with for years (Rob was my senior editor back at the magazine, great to work with and a very talented shutterbug) and hit the first flight out of town yesterday morning.

The company, Club Sportiva ( is an organization of 200-some-odd car enthusiasts who don't want to incur the costs of buying a brand new high-dollar car and all of the maintenance that goes along with it (surprisingly enough, you'd expect a $250,000 car to be maintenance free, but it costs anywhere from $500 a month to keep that car roadworthy, a far cry from the welded-closed-hood of a Honda or a Toyota), so there's Club Sportiva. They join the club for around $10,000 a year and they get to drive any one of 20 very nice cars for about 30 to 45 days a year, depending on the plan you buy into, just like the time share vacations you hear so much about. The best part is that it is a club with events, a clubhouse to hang out in after work, poker nights, wine tastings, driving cruises, etc. It is indeed a very worthwhile program for those with a little extra cash doing nothing for them but without a place to safely store a ridiculously expensive car (or the desire to do so).

There isn't much to report about the trip, really, as everything went like clockwork. The flight up there was uneventful as it was mostly an empty flight, and I had an hour to read a new book, Our War for the World by Brendan Phibbs, a first-hand account of a medic in World War II. It is one of the first books I've read about the war that doesn't enthusiastically support every aspect of it. It isn't anti-war, but it touches on the fringes; the word the jacket uses is "reluctant." As far as the writing is concerned, the descriptions are truthful, unapologetic and brutal. I appreciate honesty when it comes to memoirs (take that James Frey!).

Once we were at the club, we got the full tour of the nicely appointed facilities and I was handed the keys to a 1997 Ferrari 355 Spyder, a beautiful car, 3.5-liter V8 with 380hp mated to a six-speed transmission. In the picture at the start of this entry, you can see the rear corner of the 355. Other notables in the shot is the yellow Lotus Esprit, the green Morgan Plus Eight and peeking into the shot in the upper left corner is the orange Elise. Let's just say that I was slightly nervous about getting behind the wheel of a $200,000 car and unleashing myself on a city I've only driven in once before (in a rental and that didn't end well for the car; it never did for a rental car). The Ferrari's clutch was heavy, the gears rough, the steering quick and the accelerator amazingly responsive, but what I liked best was the gurgling note of the exhaust system when you revved it up to around 7500rpm and then let it idle down. Beautiful. We did some car-to-car shots along a stretch of freeway that had impressive vistas of the cityscape, which managed to catch the attention of the local law enforcement who followed me around the city for a few blocks. When they decided that I didn't plan to do anything that would remotely illegal (probably much to their disappointment), they founded bigger fish to fry.

Since a member of the club was waiting patiently back at the clubhouse for the Ferrari, I was only able to be into it for an hour or so (which was an hour longer than I've spent in any other Ferrari I've been near). I was a little saddened to see it go, but c'est la vie, easy come, easy go, right? Next up, this:

The picture above shows a 4.2-liter V8 2003 Maserati Spyder, a $150,000 car that I spent most of the day with but was least impressed with. Though it boasted more horsepower than the Ferrari (by merely 10) and the engine had a better sound from a more modern tuned exhaust, it just was like driving a regular car. I could have been behind the wheel of a Mazda Miata and it would have felt the same, while with the Ferrari, it felt as though I was driving it rather than it driving me. However, it was a Maserati, and knowing that alone was enough to impress me for the three hours that I got to spend with it.

Of course, being San Francisco, I had to deal with the hills, but really, what is the deal with the hills? Okay, I was following one of the club's partners on a photo shoot under the Golden Gate Bridge; he was driving a low-slung 1982 Morgan Plus Eight, and he thought nothing of driving vertically up the side of any number of San Francisco's numerous hills, as he was quite adept at what he considered normal driving around town. For some reason, all of them have stop signs every two hundred feet, and they're not on the flat part of the hill, naturally where the crossstreet intersects the hill, but on the hill itself. How can those people drive like that all day long? I'll stick with the traffic and smog over clutch-burning hills.

Did I mention that one of the design flaws of the Maserati is its clutch, touchy, short and light, prone easy to stalling if you didn't have the foot finesse of a ballerina dancer, which I don't apparently. Of course, with all of those hills, the odds were good that I would find myself in a stereotypical San Francisco situation: I rolled up to a stoplight perched on the side of a paved mountain, pushed in the clutch and kept my foot firmly planted on the brake so gravity wouldn't drag the car into the bay. I was behind the Morgan, and a Mercedes, whose owner was equally proficient at navigating the rigors of the hills, pulled up right behind me, I mean right behind me, and in the rear-view mirror of the Maserati, it seemed as though there was possibly four inches between our bumpers. Yikes! Needless to say, I did it without catastrophe, but it was a sweaty palm moment until I was able to get it over the hill without stalling it, an embarrassing occurrence in the company of car men.

Let's not mention my failure to be able to properly parallel park that thing in a space big enough for an oil tanker, but I blame my sunburn and the fact that I drive a truck on a regular basis in an area of the world where parallel parking is, ah, unparalleled. Clear skies and a sunny day isn't too kind to fair skinned guys like me, and spending most of the day in a quarter of a million dollars worth of convertibles leads to a sunburnÂ…and a disability to put a car as close as possible to a curb without going over it.

However, being red faced (both from the sun and my parking inaptitude) it was most worth it, as the whole day cost me absolutely nothing, and when you did as much as I got to do without spending a dime, that makes for a good day... but when I cash the check from the article I have to write about it, that might be a better day. But that's work, a four letter word on this site, and we won't talk about that here, will we?

The return flight: Funny thing about meeting strangers on an airplane is that you'd think everyone would be more friendly to each other knowing that they're five miles above the earth in a little pressurized aluminum tube hurtling through a freezing cold atmosphere at the whims of a possibly manical (and/or drunk) pilot flying in a machine that was built by the lowest bidder. Case in point, I was sitting next to this girl who looked like she just spent the last few hours taking a college final exam she knows she's going to fail but is happy to be free from the strangulations of academia until her grades darken her doorstep only to be forced to sit next to me, high on the fumes of a Ferrari...and feeling chatty. I didn't feel like reading, so what was I supposed to do?

Me: "Are you headed for home or are you headed out somehwere."

Her (absently): "Oh, I live in the area."

What? You live in the area? What the hell does that mean? Well, gee whiz, I'm on a plane right now, how about you? Do you live were we are or where we're headed, but before I can ask again what I felt was a crystal clear question, she reaches up to the seat pocket in front of her and flips through its contents, only to exclaim, "Headphones, headphones, I didn't get any headphones!" as if someone forgot to pack her insulin. The woman in the window seat donated hers, the girl plugged them in, flipped on the music and that was it. How do you like that? After that, I was rather hoping the plane would go down...teach her to be friendly when I'm pulling her from the flaming wreckage by her headphones. Until then, I guess I'll read... ooo, turbulance.

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