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A Saab Story: The Little Red Car That Cried More Than Wolf

L.A. STORIES. A slice of life in Southern California

June 30, 1991|TOM NESSINGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This is the story of the world's most obnoxious automobile.

Of course, a car can't be obnoxious--like a dog, it takes after its owner. So as you read this story, try to picture the kind of person who would allow this car out of the garage. It's not a pretty thought.

This experience occurred one night a couple of months ago, right after I put my name in at a Marina del Rey restaurant. Stepping outside, I heard someone ordering someone else to move away from something. At the time, I assumed it was a police officer or security guard speaking to a passing miscreant.

Waiting on a bench, I observed a new red Saab 9000 convertible parked about 20 feet away. Because it was in a handicapped space, the car was fairly close to the restaurant, in an area with a lot of pedestrian traffic. People had to pass this car as they walked to and from the restaurant and nearby stores or the parking lot.

As one unsuspecting woman passed by the red Saab, it spoke to her.

"You are too close to the vehicle," it said. "Please step back."

She did just that.

"Thank you," it said. (Bossy, but polite.)

This was the amplified voice I earlier had attributed to a policeman--it had that kind of tone. Other people noticed it too. A man tried approaching the car.

"You are too close to the vehicle," said the Voice. "Step back." (No "please" this time.)

The overall effect was that of being addressed by the robot on the 1960s TV show "Lost in Space": "Run, Will Robinson! Move away from the car! Danger! Danger!" It had the same kind of commanding, but monotone, delivery.

Obviously, the Saab had some sort of motion detector that set off the Voice if someone got too close. In playing with this, the growing crowd of onlookers soon learned that the thing would go off when someone was about three feet from the car. If approached from certain angles, very slowly, it wouldn't go off at all. Someone suggested that, being a Saab, the Voice should at least have had a Swedish accent. ("You there, you step avay from dat car, yah sure, you betcha!")

We also found out that the warnings grew more threatening. The first couple of times, it just said to step away. The third time the Voice announced: "Perimeter violation. Five, four, three, two--" and when the offender stepped back, he got a robotic "Thank you" for his restraint.

("Perimeter violation"? Is that a shooting foul, I wondered aloud, or is it more like a turnover?)

Finally, the temptation grew too great for one man. He stepped in front of the Saab and waited for the "perimeter violation" countdown to go all the way to zero. His reward was a reasonably impressive sound and light show. About three different sirens sounded, the horn honked repeatedly, and all the lights flashed on and off. Through the din the Voice could be heard repeating the phrase: "Help! I'm being tampered with! Help! I'm being tampered with!"

There was no command now--in this final spasm of distress, the Voice had become pathetic, using the same tone in which one usually hears: "Help! I've fallen and I can't get up!"

It is important to note that, at no time before or during this display of automotive petulance did anyone lay so much as a finger on the red convertible. The mere proximity of humans was enough to send this Saab into a paroxysm of mechanical indignation. You got the idea that, if you actually touched the thing, it would go into a hissy fit.

After about three minutes, the show was over. Bystanders gave it about a 5 for originality, a 10 for annoyance value, and generally agreed it had a good beat but you couldn't dance to it.

However, it cut off in mid-whine, and attempts to set it off again were met with stony silence. Maybe the car was sick of being teased. More likely the anonymous owner, seeing his car was the star of an impromptu floor show, shut off the alarm by remote control.

Look, we live in a big city with a lot of people. Among the prices we pay for living in a city are smog, traffic, congestion, and, yes, car theft. This isn't to say that these aren't problems, or that we shouldn't try to do something about them, but we must also realize that they are part of Life In The Big City.

Another thing we have to live with is the fact that, occasionally, people will come near us and our property, bump into us even, and that this jostling is part of everyday life. If you stood on a street corner downtown and started screaming every time someone walked within three feet of you, they'd haul you away.

Why is it, then, that someone obviously felt that their car was so valuable, so precious, that the mere possibility of human contact justified an electronic schoolmarm that scolded anyone who walked too close?

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