Hot-rodding with Saab and Volvo

by Joe Clark

Ah, boys and their cars. Is there a more fitting union? Just think of those stickshifts, those pumping pistons, those symbolic fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror, and, of course, the bolt-upright, angelic, solid-metal Rolls-Royce hood ornament aptly named the Spirit of Ecstasy. Why, cars are a virtual proxy of the male anatomy.

But American Graffitti is 22 years old now. Muscle cars are passé, or at least loaded down with nerdy safety features: Even the ultimate proletarian boy-racer-mobile, the Chevrolet Camaro, comes with airbags as standard equipment. Men are getting older, too; suddenly that Volvo four-door is looking mighty good for carting the wife and kids to school, daycare, and the local Ikea. So I traded in the Jeep, Typical Straight Guys are thinking. I mean, is that selling out? Nah. A Jeep's just not practical anymore. Those Swedish cars sure are dependable, and hey, a red Volvo Turbo can really kick ass.

You'd think that masses of primo customers aging comfortably into the Volvo target market of educated middle-age drivers would be a carmaker's dream. So why is Volvo, in the words of U.S. corporate ad rep Dan Gallagher, trying to change the marque's "conservative, but maybe I would say slightly stuffy" image, to make it "more youthful, maybe a little tongue-in-cheek"? Well, that depends on whose tongue is in which cheek, doesn't it? Volvo's vehicle to effect this makeover is "Spring Break," a 30-second gem of a commercial [1995] that offered up an unusual-- and no doubt unintentional-- brand of auto-erotica.

"You're telling me we're going to spring break in your mother's Volvo?" a teenage boy with shoulder-length, artistically-parted hair asks the camera. He's wearing just enough fashionably-frayed flannel and denim to qualify him for a Sassy Cute Boy Alert.

Now cut to a shot aimed straight through a windshield: Mr. Hairdo, along with the son of the Volvo-owning mother (behind the wheel) and a couple of friends, are inching their way down a sunny, crowded street. The subtly overexposed black-and-white cinematography emphasizes the crisp, inviolate whiteness of their Volvo 850 sedan-- and the skin tones of the scores of swimsuit-clad women sashaying down the street alongside them.

The lads can barely control themselves. "Look at that! Look!" one exclaims. A kid in the back seat grabs Mr. Hairdo by the head and points him toward an extra-seXXXy babe: "Check that out, man!"

"I'm definitely in love!" one of the lads proclaims.

Two women are embracing. They smile, presumably at the boys. "I've never seen anything like that in my whole life," Mr. Hairdo says. (I believe it.) By this point tongues are virtually hanging out the window, but Son of Volvo, naked above the hips save for a necklace and a seatbelt ("Volvo: Drive Safely"), has other concerns: "I hope none of these girls scratches the car," he says. "You're worried about the car?" Mr. Hairdo retorts.

"We're not in Kansas anymore," someone says, tellingly.

Watching these boys carry on is so charmant. You can almost feel the underarms steaming up, the heartbeats accelerating, the growing tightness of their loose-cut jeans. It's really quite true-to-life, all the way down to the fact that the kids never get out of the car and actually talk to the sexy grrrlz. They're more at ease articulating desire than pursuing the objects of that desire, and all that talk kicks up a cloud of sublimated sexual energy from which the four lads feed. Not in Kansas, indeed. Young virgins, like young homophobes, tend to hunt in packs, and both groups find themselves plenty excited after a night on the prowl together.

And what must be crossing the minds of those lovely women? The only guys in sight are the kids in the Volvo, and they're hardly worth worrying about. They women laugh, run along the beach, do cartwheels, play with hula hoops, and sit on front-stoop banisters, pretty as a picture. They've got each other; who needs boys?

Maybe it's fitting that, even while cruising the strip, the lads cannot escape the reach of a chaperone. We hear a distinctive cellphone warble. "Um, I think it's for you," Mr. Hairdo says, handing the phone to a suddenly wary Son of Volvo. "Mom! How's it going?" he exclaims, all innocent-like. As "Spring Break" draws to a close, the lads-- like Tommy Lee Jones and Harrison Ford in The Fugitive-- end up with themselves, not a quartet of bosomy babes. Maybe they only ever needed each other anyway.

A similar fate awaited five guys in a Saab commercial, though the Volvo archrival prefers to stuff its cars with a primer cut of meat. No young protosexual lads are to be found in "Scrutiny," a 30-second spot that made the rounds of the Sunday-morning newsmagazine shows last spring [1995].

A handsome new Saab 900 sits before us on a spare stage. Former Sarek of Vulcan Mark Lenard rhymes off some of the accolades accorded the 900 by the automotive press, bringing to mind the self-interest of car rags and the incestuous mutual back-scratching between editors and carmakers. (Ask the next automotive "journalists" you meet exactly who paid their airfare to test-drive that stunning new model in the Arizona desert or the Côte d'Azur.)

While Lenard is churning through his list, five strapping but quite well-dressed guys of the sort you'd prefer to have on your hockey team rather than your opponent's stride manfully onstage. A title appears: UNALTERED SAAB 900. The men grab the car by its lower edge, rotate it through 360 degrees (bang! crash!), get in, buckle up, and drive off.

Talk about firing on all cylinders! If cars ran on testosterone instead of gasoline, this Saab could cross the Rockies and back on the output of its occupants alone. The marque once associated with nerds and college professors here takes the subtle route toward reassuring potential buyers of their manhood. They look kinda funny, but jeez, them Saabs is tough, thinks Joe Sixpack as he witnesses the Saab come through its rollover unscathed. (Well, not quite: An almost unnoticeable chunk of something falls out of the interior once the driver's door is opened.)

Saabs aren't cheap-- a gussied-up 900 will run you over thirty grand-- so your typical 900 owner could be expected to react with alarm (or the car to react with its alarm) to the presence of five burly men alongside his car. Here, though, the intent is to make Saabs look strong by showing that Saab drivers are strong. Certainly this could not be described as a form of advertising psychology so old it ought to be carbon-dated.

It's actually quite unremarkable that a car could sustain its own weight for a few seconds of carefully-orchestrated rollover; a real rollover at speed, where the car might flip and land on its roof, would place far greater stress on the car's pillars and trusses. So the commercial is (surprise!) just for show.

And you've got to wonder what those fellows get up to after they drive off. It must be pretty cramped in that back seat with three muscley guys shoehorned in there; one could imagine assorted arms finding themselves "accidentally" resting on various thighs and shoulders. (Is it a coincidence that a recent Saab 900 billboard campaign was headlined "The most fun you've had since the back seat of your parents' car"?) Here's hoping Saab makes a follow-up commercial employing the windshield-cam used in "Spring Break." Hey, I'd buy the video.

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