Thursday 13 December 2012

Once Upon A Spider

One thing I like about writing is that it can bring you unexpected experiences. One of these involved a spider. (No, not your typical house-spider but one that was made by Alfa Romeo, that Italian car maker better known for overheating cars in the 80s (e.g. the 33) that petrolheads liked driving. I particularly enjoyed the 147 (the 2003 model), which was very good at diving into corners and swinging you back out.

Fortunately for Alfa Romeo, that poor reputation of theirs was put to bed when the company was bought over by Fiat and rationalised into a luxury marque together with Maserati in the 00s. Since then, it has been able to stand alongside BMW and Audi. At home in Italy, bigger and more luxurious models of Alfas have been used by Italian prime ministers as staff cars.

I like Alfas for their avant garde styling (such as the Brera by Giugiaro) and sporty personality (I only ever driven manual). If I have a villa in the Alps, I would stock it all with Alfas and drive a different one each day.

The mountainous geography of Italy (a third of the country has ranges over 700m) has certainly defined the character of the Alfa. It is a great performer on winding roads. In the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace, 007 was pursued by bad guys in an Alfa 159 (a 3.2-litre V6) along very narrow stretches of a mountain road. That the Alfa was able to keep up with his V12 Aston Martin (not saying it is a great car), insinuates much about what the marque can do. And you don't need deep pockets to own a mountain rocket like the Alfa.

Although the car came to a dismal end in the movie, that chase scene along the mountain road has got to be one of the best ever filmed!

Alfas in Singapore were popular in the 80s and early 90s. But by then the Japanese had made so much headway with their reliable, fuel economical and better integrated cars that Alfa and its European brethren were later ignored. By 'better integrated' I mean the air-con, power windows and stereo decks. The electronics were a huge improvement over the European cars. Using CAD and robotic technologies, the Jap cars were also better seamed and put together and better reflected Asian sensibilities.

Honda and Toyota were in particular the more popular marques. Nissan was not far behind. Remember the 2nd and 3rd generation Honda Accords? Almost every other car on the road was one. Toyota upped the ante with their popular hatchback Corolla. Nissan carved out market share with their Sunnys and Preseas. Their NX coupe was also popular with the Ah Bengs and childless couples. I liked that it had a hole to conveniently stow an umbrella away!

The 90s was a period when Jap cars were seen as cheap, reliable and luxurious. European cars were thought of as idiosyncratic, and servicing them usually cost a bomb - reasons why many people turned to Japanese marques.

However, European cars did elicit a loyal following.

A girlfriend's uncle used to swear by one. His favourite was an executive Lancia saloon. It was dark green and looked a little like a Rover. Kind of bland, if you asked me. Lancia and Alfa Romeo used to be grouped as one company, but has since gone their separate ways. Both still belong to Fiat though.

I don't know why people would bother with a Fiat in the '90s. They weren't what they used to be in the '70s. In trying to compete with the rising Japanese auto industry, they somehow ended up short in the long-term quality area. Parts would inexplicably break down after just a few years.

In the late 90s, I had a friend who was an editor at Female Magazine. Knowing that I wrote with a sense of humour, she had me write some articles for the rag to mostly reflect the male perspective on certain issues. I remember contributing a few short pieces to the He Says, She Says column. One piece in particular explained why I liked the Spice Girls. Her fashion/make-up editor Gemma would often contribute the counter, female perspective.

I didn't write freelance a lot in those days (I had a full-time job). Female was my longest association and the humble payouts simply contributed to mere pocket money. I used it to treat my friends to meals.

My first actual freelance story happened many years prior and was about the misadventure of one plundering and blundering Eric The Viking. I was glad when it got published but not so later on. The magazine was called Glamour Backstage and was supposed to be a magazine about the glamour life and of beauty pageants. In actuality, it was a gay mag. And they weren't coy about it.

Nobody suspected anything at first. But after a few covers of men with naked torsos in skimpy trunks, folks caught on to its drift. At the time, gayness was just starting to come out of the closet. It was about the same time that I was accosted by some gay chaps in the East Coast Park McDonald's (of all places!) They were giving me the once over and come-hither looks outside the toilet. Like most folks who frolicked at East Coast Park then, I had gone to the Mac washroom to tidy up.

But really, gay guys hitting on me? Me, the most heterosexual of men?

In any case, I wasn't interested. The reason was that they reminded me of those young, ugly gay men who hung around pubs like '+' (plus sign) or Sugar, along Mohammed Sultan Road. The waitresses all wore nurses uniforms there. The idea being that the pub was a "First-Aid" station. (Resuscitation, get it?)

The reason I visited that pub was not because it was a gay joint. An expat German friend liked to bring his girlfriend there as Happy Hour was the cheapest among all the watering holes along that strip. Trust a German to sniff that out.

After some visits, I managed to convince him to switch. There's only so much ugliness one can take from gay guys (who's not even a quarter metrosexual). I wouldn't like to be in a pub with ugly women, so why torture myself with gay men who could have auditioned as dwarves san beard for Peter Jackson's The Hobbit?

I much rather enjoy the company of people with 'character faces' - folks whose countenances are shaped by their life experiences and maybe, yes, by the sole love of their mothers. A pretty face with a vacuous mind is as attractive as an empty beer mug during Happy Hour.

In any case, I was at one time hanging out with the editorial staff of Female at one cigar party (somewhere in Clarke Quay) that my editor friend asked if I was interested in cars. I said yes, which guy isn't?

She then confided that she was thinking of doing a car review piece. A car review column? On a regular basis? Wow, that would be my dream job! But my heart sank when she told me it would only be a one-off piece.

"The catch is this," whispered my editor-friend Joyce. "You test drive this sexy sports car and try and see if it is a babe magnet for you!"

"So folks are not so much interested in what the car can do?" I said, disappointment heavy in my voice.

"Yeah, but weave that in if you want. But mostly, we just want to see if babes react to you in the car." Having said that, Joyce took a suck on her ash-laden cigar and blew out some smoke. She made a face. I didn't think she liked the taste. An intern did the same with her cigar and promptly coughed her eyeballs out.

It turned out the assignment needed me to wake up early, which is not the thing I would normally do on a Saturday. But for a sports car, I would. Afterwards, I would test-drive it and then do the social experiment in the afternoon, preferably somewhere along Orchard Road and Holland Village, or at places where "easy" babes could be had, which left me rather clueless. For some reason, we didn't think of going to Geylang or outside Orchard Towers.

Strangely, I also didn't equate easy babes with SPGs (sarong party girls). I guess the reason could be that I wasn't "angmoh" enuf. Not at all!

So early that April morning, I went to Alfa's showroom along Ahmad Ibrahim Road to pick up the brand new Alfa Romeo Spider. It was a beaut, to say the least. Red in color and with sweeping lines.

(Note that Alfa opted to spell their Spider roadster with an 'i' rather than the more common one with the 'y'.)

A Spyder by definition is a roadster; typically topless, and this Spider was. The salesman who handed over the car emphasized how the canvas top should be opened.

"Never in any circumstance should you open the top when it is moving" was what he said. Just a moment ago, he was demonstrating how one must first release the two catches in front, just above the sunshades of the windscreen. Even though that action was manual, the opening of the canvas top was auto-mechanical. At the press of a button, the unlocked canvas top would then collapse out-of-sight behind the rear seat and into a metallic cover.

That was sweet but was not what impressed me at first. It was how unnervingly quiet the car was when idling. I got into the car and wanted to re-start the engine!

Once away from the showroom the Spider proved itself an easy drive. And like most Alfas, it had power to tap on. Unfortunately, the easy revs were immediately limited once the needle touched the red zone. It quickly fell back to about 4000 rpm, which was rather annoying. The pick-up speed of the car was quick. Very quick! So if you were not light-footed, the RPM needle would just seesaw back and forth between 'red' and 'safe'!

Another winning point of the car was its stability. You could turn sharply into corners and not spill coffee. It was true then that the car was positioned for women who wanted a powerful set of wheels but not any "wrangling in the handling".

Outside the sun was shining with the sky only slightly cloudy. So, this is what's it's like to drive topless! My dad used to drive an open-top Triumph, something I rode in often as a kid but never drove. That experience made me want to own a Mazda Roadster, but each time, I would settle for a practical choice. In our kind of tropical weather, it is hard to justify owning a topless car or one with a slashable canvas roof. You would either drown in monsoon rain or be sunburned from the noonday sun. Or have your belongings stolen by opportunistic car park thieves. It happened often in the Orchard Somerset car park area. (Back when there was still an open car park.)

That's how I felt after test driving the topless Alfa Romeo for a while along Jalan Ahmad Ibrahim. I was dressed East India Co light but was still roasted by the sun. It would get worse came noon. But I was enjoying myself too much to notice.

After a while I decided to call my friend Set for a second opinion. He was a car aficionado like me and once owned an Alfa. He also once fixed a Skyline engine into his dad's Volvo, sending it to the stratosphere at each traffic light race. Only in Malaysia can you build crazy stuff like that and get away with it. Or race along unmonitored B-roads..

Set and I took the car a longways to Changi's quiet Nicoll Drive to test-drive it. Set was elated to get behind the wheel. Not many software engineers in their day jobs get to test-drive a sports car. In a way the Spider test-drive was to reward him for the many March Madness (see other stories) outings he once initiated. He loved his cars (he owned two '70s Minis as a hobby) and was a very good driver. What's that saying about friends sharing good times? That's basically what I did.

Set's verdict of the Spider was that it was a good car. Not a wild sports car but one that was refined. We both wished the RPM limiter to be switched off but the showroom owners must have decided to play it safe. I was sure we weren't the only ones to test-drive this new seductress from Alfa. There could be other journalists waiting. We both felt the Spider crying out to be let loose and was disappointed that we couldn't let it fly.

I asked Set how much of the Alfa DNA was in the Spider. He said the major characteristics were still there. The hurry to get somewhere and the note of the engine. It always sounded fun and flirty.

Set gave the Spider longing looks upon parting. I knew he wanted to drive it some more but I had an assignment beckoning. Time for me to go flirting instead of being flirted with. The Spider, with its passionate ruby red color and somewhat feminine sleek lines, was indeed seductive. It worked on us guys but will it work on the girls?

My first stop was Holland Village.

I parked next to a cafe to see if any hot babe would come check me out. Heads turned but they soon returned to their conversations. I was actually feeling rather amused as I had never done anything like this before. And it wasn't like me to go picking up women anyhow.

An elderly Chinese lady in a sunhat came by. "Ah tee, ler eh chia jing sui," she said, in Hokkien, meaning my car was pretty. Great, not only was I not attracting the young ladies but older women were taking an interest. Much older women at that.

"Er, OK lah, aunty," was my embarrassed reply.

I turned on some music and pretended to tap along. It only got annoying stares from the people at the cafe.

I then decided to exit the car and bum-lean on it looking like I was waiting for someone. From under my sunglasses, I was spying to see if any passerbys would take notice of the red-hot Spider. No one seemed bothered. Not with the car, not with me.

I was a strapping chap then weighing some 56kg. I would know because I had lost like 10kg the months prior... All because I got a bit laggy during Reservist. I was struggling to get out of a two-door coupe during one in-camp. I am sure it wasn't all that bad a weight issue but I had always been tops in my fitness and that one occasion finally convinced me to do something about it. That and the delicious ox-tail stew someone cooked up that Christmas prior in Bedok. It was either more of that and fat, or less of that and lean.

I decided enough was enough and went on a diet. The diet was simple: avoid all carbohydrates and sugar. Eat fruits as snacks and run 15km every week. More, if time allowed.

It worked. I lost 10kg in three months and put three back. What, put three back? Yes. At the next in-camp, I found myself too light. All the army stuff I had to carry on my person was biting down on the new fat-less me; I needed more meat to buffer all those sharpy buckles, straps, etc. Still, at 56kg I was very lean, and it felt good.

Truth be told, a strapping me standing next to a hot car would be more ideal in the 00s. It better conveyed youth and dot-com success, not the year after a financial crisis. Folks probably thought me silly (or a show-off) to even buy a new sports car!

Or maybe ultra-rich.

In any case, the Spider's styling wasn't as aggressive as a Lamborghini or as futuristic as a Ferrari. It was kind of gentle, so maybe that's why it didn't really catch anybody's attention. Besides, unless you were a petrolhead, Alfa Romeo wasn't a sports car brand you would recall off the top of your head. Porsche, more likely.

Later, the situation was the same along Orchard Road. People glanced at the Spider but no one sidled up to chat with me.

All in all, I had spent the whole morning driving the car with the top down and the better part of the afternoon hanging about kerbside like a prostitute waiting for customers.

It's kind of sad to treat your body like a taxi where everybody with some money can jump on for a ride. Kind of difficult to hold on to your self-esteem when that happens. The same can be said for actors/actresses in the adult movie business. It's an emotional fracture that's not easy to heal. Just ask Annabelle Chong. Even goal-setting (that gang-bang fest of hers) did not make - what she was doing - agreeable.

Agreeable was the word. I wondered if what I was doing was 'right'. Could I pretend to be a cad, who is by definition a guy who has no qualms about bedding any woman? Cat or dog, for that matter.

All that was running through my mind sitting in that red Alfa Spider. I was no cad and so decided to treat this whole thing as role play. After all, the whole affair was like a guy's dream to be given a hot car to attract hot babes. But I worried about what to write if the social experiment failed. I decided help was needed and called my friend Jane. As  expected, she was again in town shopping. Finally, I was going to have a hot babe in my car!

Jane was a career girl and not a bad driver. Although well off, she loathed to own a car as she viewed it as a bad investment in Singapore. If she needed one, she would drive her dad's (or one of her boyfriend's). What was her verdict of the Spider? Well, she didn't find the foot pedals too close together like in the old Alfas (they were positioned such for fast heel-to-toe action. A practical idea for fast drivers but a pain for girls with heels!) She also said the Spider was built like a Saab. After a while, I could tell that Jane was becoming addicted to the vehicle. As I prised her fingers off it, I noticed that her nails were polished the same ruby red. I think she liked the way the car gave her that Pretty Woman image: top-down car with shopping bags in the back seat. Or a very Hollywood Rodeo Drive kind of thing.

After my time with Jane, I met up with Gemma in her open-top Ford Escort at the Goodwood Park Hotel car park to take pictures together. It would be a pix of a guy and a gal in their respective topless wheels.

The picture spread eventually looked good in the magazine, my red wrinkle-free shirt from East India Co. complementing the red Spider very well.

Even though I did not hook any girl for a ride that day (which was actually a relief personally) I enjoyed driving the Spider. It was towards the evening when I returned the car that I realised I was suffering from borderline heatstroke, so engrossed I was driving the car top down! Needless to say, I came down with sunburn as well.

My girlfriend May arrived to fetch me home. She was in good humour about the whole social experiment knowing that I was doing it more for the car than anything else. And I realised something else getting behind her Honda Civic hatchback: it was a damn soft drive compared to the European-made Alfa. Speeding up the car was like stepping onto tofu!

Well, that's a Japanese car/engine for you. At that moment, I realised why some folks could be so loyal to their European brands. The difference in drive characteristics was like night and day. Ok, the Spider was a sports car and it wasn't fair to take that as your everyday typical, but I was thinking that in general, continental cars had more oomph and power. A Jap car was smooth and refined and not at all angry even at the high revs, which made them agreeable especially with no-fuss drivers.

So on that day, my affair with the Alfa Spider lasted from 7am in the morning till 6pm in the evening. I was half-dead from sunstroke and half-amused with the failure of our social experiment. But I was one happy petrolhead given a chance to drive a new breed of Alfa Romeros out to charm a new generation of drivers. For that, I would be forever and eternally grateful to Joyce, my editor-friend from Female then. On another occasion that gratitude would be reserved for another editor pal of mine. That time, it was an opportunity to edit a newsletter for Saab car owners. Heheh, who was it that said "Have pen will travel"?

Next story:The Pantsuit Lady

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