ouray

ouray
It's me doing a little posing while taking a break at the Ouray, Colorado Jeep Jamboree in 1995.

Monday, November 14, 2016

900 Miles in a 2017 Fiat 124 Spider: Nashville, Habitat for Humanity and, Well, Fun

2017 Fiat 124 Spider.
I'm not the kind of guy who typically drives when he can fly. I know, I know. It goes against the grain of being a motoring journalist. Here's my philosophy, if it's far away enough that flying is a consideration, then, given the choice, I'll fly. I travel a fair amount for what I laughingly refer to as making a living. Work-related travel, in particular, I'll leave to the airlines – or, in my case, airline. I pretty much always fly Delta. I've logged nearly 2 million miles on Delta. We have an understanding of sorts: I make the reservation, and they get me where I'm going on the day I want to go.....well, more often than not.

Typically, a work destination must be within 150 miles or so for me to eschew flying for an overland slog. There are exceptions, however. I make the 400-mile schlep between Greenville, SC and Louisville, KY once or twice a year by car. When I want to avoid locking myself into a return date, I'll drive the nearly 1,400-mile round trip from Greenville to Delray Beach, FL. But, these aren't work-related.

Breaking with tradition, I recently chose to drive the 380 miles from Greenville to Franklin, TN for a Nissan program. Nissan's North American headquarters is in Franklin, which is about 20 miles south of Nashville. The event: The House the Media Built. 

Nissan has contributed some 90 or so trucks to Habitat for Humanity.
Nissan has been very involved with Habitat for Humanity since Hurricane Katrina. Contributing more than $14 million in cash, around 90 pickup trucks and enough labor to erect more than 80 homes, Nissan is, what you might call, committed to this house-building charity. 
A few of us hamming it up for the camera.
Someone in Nissan's PR department got the wacky idea to bring in three waves of journalists over the course of a week to build a Habitat house. I say “wacky” because automotive media does not have a reputation for breaking a sweat during carmaker programs. Mostly we are coddled, pampered, fed, housed, chauffeured and generally made to feel much more valuable than we are. Yes, it's a great job, and I get weekends off.

I had been looking for an excuse to request a Fiat 124 Spider for a road trip. I had a late-September boondoggle laid out that would have had me fly into Hartford, CT, pick up a 124 and then drive north to Stowe, VT. It was all in the name of enjoying the fall foliage and talking up a Stowe resort. Sadly, there were some last-minute communication issues with the resort, compelling me to back burner the Vermont trek to the spring.

Then along came Nissan with its Habitat program. Nashville is even closer to Greenville than is Louisville. So, why not drive? I thought. Fiat was happy to change my jumping off point from Hartford to Greenville.

I don't know if you've noticed, but the 124 Spider is on the small side. The Nashville trip would require transporting all my video gear, clothes for three nights and four days, work clothes, and a pair of cowboy boots – hey, it's Nashville, after all. How would I stuff all of my gear and wardrobe into the 124 without looking like the Clampets moving to Beverly? Hills, that is. Swimmin' pools, movie stars....

I contacted the person in charge of Fiat 124 PR and asked her to measure the actual dimensions of its trunk. She e-mailed the info back
My new ECBC bag tucked into the 124's trunk.
to me in less than an hour. I had one small rollerboard that would fit into the Fiat's cargo hold, but I needed another. ECBC is a California company specializing in small bags well suited for airplane carry on and other personal-gear duties. They offer two models that appeared to pass the 124-size muster: Sparrow and Pegasus.

I wound up with the Pegasus. A well-engineered bag targeting business travelers, it's a versatile compact rollerboard that also converts to a backpack. For people who fly and don't qualify for Precheck, it is uber convenient because it has a laptop compartment that opens flat, so you don't need to remove the laptop when going through screening. Lightweight, it holds a surprising amount of stuff. And, it has a charger for juicing up a smartphone or whatever. Retailing for $400, it sounds a bit pricey, but its utility quickly defines its value. If you want an exercise in frustration and futility, though, try searching for it online at a discounted price. You would have better odds finding an Apple iPhone 7 discounted.

When flying, you can simply unzip the Pegasus laptop pocket, open it and run the bag through x-ray.
I was able to stack my two rollerboards on top of one another in the 124's trunk and still had room on either side for my boot bag and some outer wear. I'm a firm believer in driving a convertible with the top dropped unless it's raining. I needed a cap to keep the sun from frying my melon and a couple of jackets of varying warmth for late-night motoring. My backpack hitched a ride on the passenger seat.

The 124 Spider Fiat provided for this adventure was a 2017 Lusso: the mid-range grade. I would have preferred the standard 6-speed manual transmission, but my test 124 used the optional 6-speed automatic tranny to transfer output from the 160-horsepower 1.4-liter turbo to the rear wheels. This powertrain delivered 36 mpg on the highway, where I performed the bulk of my driving. Engineered for the twisties, the 124 really shinned on the mountain roads. Anyone much taller than six feet might not want to spend hours in this cockpit, but I found it comfortable and easy to live with. The top is a bit of mechanical genius. Just about anyone can easily raise and lower it from the driver's seat.

I viewed this 360-mile endeavor as an opportunity to drop in on one of my fraternity brothers and his wife in Lenior City, TN, which is just west of Knoxville. I spend three or four weekends a year with them. With that in mind, my route took me north on SC 25 to about 25 miles south of Asheville, NC where I hooked up with I-26 North before transferring to I-40 West for the final 130-mile run to Lenior City.

About 25 miles of I-40 between Asheville and Knoxville are across the Blue Ridge Mountains. It's a delicious array of sweeping curves and elevation changes. I have driven this route dozens of times and am always frustrated with its 55-miles-per-hour speed limit. Even more so when driving a little roadster engineered to straighten the most severe of corners. Did I strictly maintain the posted limit? No clue; I was far too engaged whipping the steering wheel from right to left and back as I took curve after curve dodging plodding minivans and avoiding struggling 18 wheelers.

A commitment in Greenville prevented my setting sail until early afternoon on Saturday, but I still reached my destination well before the ribeyes came off the grill. My next-day's travel continued west on I-40 for roughly 150 miles to Nashville and then south 20-or-so miles to Franklin.

Nissan hosted us at the Marriott Hotel near its headquarters. Typically, carmakers put us up at staggeringly exclusive hotels and resorts for events, but this event was anything but typical. Up at oh-dark-thirty on Monday morning and loaded two by two into Nissan Titans, we drove to the Habitat build site in Antioch, TN for breakfast and a briefing on the what to expect for the day.

We started with a blank slab at 9 a.m.
And finished here at 4 p.m.
I embarked on this event expecting the media to contribute little in the way of actual construction work. Again, this is a group of people unfamiliar with fetching their own breakfast coffee on carmaker events. The idea of us carrying, hammering, sawing and climbing ladders simply did not compute. Boy, was I ever off the mark. After handing out hardhats, work gloves, nail aprons and pencils, a half-dozen building supervisors divvied us up into teams.

As the first wave of media, we faced a bare concrete slab. We worked for three hours, beginning at 9 a.m., broke for an hour's lunch and then worked three hours before quitting and heading back to the hotel. In six hours we erected all of the interior and exterior walls, as well as setting one of the roof trusses in place.

Nissan's plan was for media to arrive on the first day, work the second day and fly home on the third. A buddy and I requested that we be able to stay an extra day. We wanted to contribute more than one day's work, but we also wanted some time to shoot video, interview Habitat people and so forth. That wasn't the only part of the schedule where we went off the reservation.

Vince Gil on the right playing with The Time Jumpers.
Nearly every Monday Night, the Western swing group The Time Jumpers, including the amazing Vince Gill, perform at a joint just off Nashville's Broadway called 3rd & Lindsley. Two of us sneaked off with one of the Nissan PR people and his wife for the evening that finished up there. What a night!

Joining the second media wave, we returned to the build site the next morning. I contributed work all morning, but at the lunch break, I shifted into video mode. Knocking out three just3things videos, I finished in time to put in a little more work before heading back to the hotel.

Here's what you need to know about Habitat for Humanity: Volunteering is more fun than it is work. Yes, it's several hours of real labor, but the supervisors are more like teachers than task masters. I do a lot of remodeling around my house, but I still learned some things working with these experts. It was as fulfilling a two days as I've ever spent.

I popped out of bed early Wednesday morning, ate breakfast with a couple of pals and then pointed the 124 Spider toward home. My
The finished product!
test 124 didn't have a navi unit; so, I used Google Maps to call out directions. Rather than routing me back through Nashville, Knoxville and Asheville, it took me through Chattanooga and Atlanta. It's about 15 miles longer that way, but it was a change of scenery....well, at least until I arrived in Atlanta. I slug my way between Greenville and Atlanta on a regular basis.

Basically, though, I drove about 750 miles with the top dropped. I crammed a lot of activity into five days; however, it left me smiling.

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