Inside a nearly empty cabin on the short jaunt from Los Angeles to San Francisco, I dozed slightly, enough to drift into a dream, a series of abrupt visions conjured up by a subconscious desire to fly: vivid flashes of reds, glinting in the sun, mountainous hills, and a seascape spanned by majestic bridges. I woke up; San Francisco loomed high above the ocean as the plane slid in for a landing. On a trip like this, all I could think about was getting behind the wheel of a fast car on the streets of San Francisco. Who wouldn't?
What if we were to tell you that you could have all of the fun and excitement of driving, say, a Maserati, but without being stuck with the Maserati price tag? How about a Ferrari, a Porsche, a Lotus, or a Mercedes? Crazy, you say? You might be surprised. In fact, you'd better sit down. Here, how does the plush leather of a 355 Spyder feel? Nice, huh? You want to take it out? It's yours, but don't worry, your life savings is very much intact.
We're about to shatter the much-heralded platitudes about buying an exotic car, as exhilarating as it all might seem at first. Here it is: Just say no. There are alternatives, viable, exciting, and rewarding alternatives to spending a hundred grand on a car you'll worry more about than your own children. Don't be that guy; paying sticker price for an exotic car you can afford to drive only on the weekends is for suckers, fools, and their money, especially when financing this new car involves more than five zeroes (that's to the left of the decimal point), a major upheaval in your personal investment strategies, and a possible drag-down fight with the more stubborn half of your marriage who usually doesn't understand that a car is more than just transportation-merely a means from Point A to B-and a platform on which to pile bags of groceries. Have you ever seen a Lamborghini in a grocery story parking lot? It's absurd.
That's exactly what Torbin Fuller first thought, as the initial giddiness of his Ferrari purchase began to wear off a few years ago, and what was left was the fear of dings and dents in public parking lots, the ridiculous insurance rates, the winter storage fees, the constant maintenance, upkeep, and typical repairs. When was there time to enjoy the purchase? In traffic on the way to work? It's like keeping a thoroughbred tethered to the starting gate, but nobody thinks of those things when the siren song of a finely tuned exhaust converts their life savings into instant debt as soon as they sign the documents at the dealer. All they can think about is getting that car out on an open road, feeling the gears under their hand, the wheels on the road, the wind in their hair, and the exhaust notes like a symphony in their ears.
As a mild-mannered Notre Dame graduate languishing in the financial department of Ford Motor Company in Michigan, Fuller was a man with a penchant for pricey wheels, but he felt there had to be a better way to enjoy several vastly different cars at the same time without going mindlessly broke or ending up in jail for grand theft auto. There was a way and he found it. After relocating to the warmer climates of San Francisco in early Spring 2003, Fuller and business partner Dan Fleming put together Club Sportiva, an outlet for those who have as much a passion for beautiful automobiles as they do for driving them. Long-time member of the club, Dr. Rick Noodleman, a dermatologist from San Jose, makes a point against ownership of any kind of exotic car: "It is nice to experience the vehicles on an ownership level, but I'm only going to drive them on Saturday or Sunday, and they have to take up space in my garage. With the club cars, I don't have to do any maintenance on them, ever. Plus, you get bored with one car, and here you get to drive an array of cars, some period, some high-horsepower, and there's no big commitment; it's easy in, easy out."
A membership-stocked form of carsharing, like Club Sportiva and several others that have since sprung up around the country, such as Classic Car Club of Manhattan and Van Horssen Group in Scottsdale, Arizona, it is based on a concept of timesharing. And like vacation apartments in South Beach, or a cruise in a chartered yacht, nobody owns them, but everyone uses them.
Consider carsharing, a world-wide perception whose time has really arrived. But it didn't just spring up overnight. Put on your pop culture time travel hats as we take you back in time to the years of the Teddy Boy culture that first emerged in Britain in the early 1950s. Think of the fashions of The Who on the Ed Sullivan Show, and you'll get the idea. This movement spawned the Nozem, an early modern Dutch counterculture society that led to the creation of the Provo movement.
Founded by Robert Jasper Grootveld in Holland in 1965, despite being responsible for the whole hippy thing here in the U.S., the Provo gained world-wide prominence through non-violent protests and their development of "The White Plans," one of which was the White Bicycle Plan which placed a number of bicycles in the center of Amsterdam in the effort to alleviate traffic congestion (and to make a statement). It failed miserably, but it is important as one of the first community-based methods of sharing an alternative mode of transportation. After that, in the late-'60s, they ambitiously focused on a project called Witkar, which planned for a large number of electric-powered vehicles, a sophisticated reservation and return system, and a number of stations in and around the city. It lasted until the early 1980s but showed the potential for commuters to share ownership of a concept instead of an actual machine.
Dr. Susan Shaheen, an expert on the environmental impact and aspects of public transportation at California's Partners for Advanced Transit & Highways (PATH), explains, "The principle of carsharing is simple: Individuals gain the benefits of private cars without the costs and responsibilities of ownership, and instead of owning one or more vehicles, a household accesses a fleet of vehicles on an as-needed basis."
The real watershed in the development of the industry came in the 1990s with such larger and more structured projects as StattAuto in Germany, the precursor of Mobility Carshare in Switzerland, Greenwheels in the Netherlands, CommunAuto and AutoShare in Canada, Flexcar in Portland, Oregon, Zipcar in Boston, and CityCarClub in England and Scotland. As of this year, there are hundreds of such programs and organizations in operation around the world, each with varying success. Shaheen reports that "sharing a car reduces the need for four to ten privately owned cars in Europe and for six to 23 cars in North America. Studies and surveys suggest that 11 to 29 percent of carsharing participants sold a vehicle after joining a program, while 12 to 68 percent delayed or decided against buying a car."
The altruistic concept of traditional carsharing in the ideal philanthropic model of a perfect world is designed to allow the general community to save time, money, and the environment. It provides increased access to transportation for poorer citizens, it reduces congestion, frees up parking, improves air quality, and encourages greater use of public transportation. The office chief of California's Division of Mass Transportation, Gale Ogawa, states, "At the state level, carsharing can provide the missing links between transit, home, and places of employment, while providing transportation for short trips throughout the day." These are wonderful platforms on which to base a smooth shift from capitalism (the best to market first) to a society that distributes responsibility of products and commodities by the many for the good of the few. Shaheen adds, "A carsharing system, in effect, transforms fixed costs of vehicle ownership into variable costs, as carsharing is most effective and most attractive when seen as a transportation mode that fills the gap between transit and private cars, and that can be linked to other modes and transportation services."
However, the emotional leftovers for our society are what stereotypical Americans love to hate, concepts that are all melded into one word: sharing. Americans hate to share, but don't worry. Club Sportiva isn't about any of those things. If owning one expensive car in your garage is like a marriage built on the foundations of love, trust, and loyalty to that one car for the rest of your life, then Club Sportiva is a hot sexy mistress you see on the weekends; scratch that-it's a harem of sexy mistresses, and they all are waiting for you to pull down their tops and ride them off into the sunset.
And that, my friend, is exactly what we did.
There is no more a perfect environment to own and drive a car than in the greater San Francisco area, as there are literally dozens of day trips that will take you through some of the most beautiful landscapes in Northern California, from the hideaway retreats of Big Sur and the grape country of Napa to the tide-pool-speckled beaches of Cambria.
The Club Sportiva paddock is well hidden with small exterior signage and little to clue you in to the fact that behind the well-guarded steel doors of an old shipbuilder's shop sits two million dollars worth of the world's finest cars, each one ready to hit the streets. We dumped our rental car by the curb and enjoyed some cityscapes in several of the cars they had to offer, and despite a little trouble parallel parking the Maserati and navigating some of Frisco's more vertical roads, we were given a taste of the experience of being a member, from the introductory tour when they first handed us the keys to wine and cigars from their 1,000-bottle cellar in the clubhouse at the end of the day.
The 200-plus members who have been in the club, some since its grand opening four years ago, can enjoy any of the facilities and any events that fit into their busy individual schedules. Membership isn't guaranteed for each applicant, however-they get about a dozen a week-because there is a very stringent screening process that keeps the quality of the membership on a high level. They are looking for active professionals who have a high respect and admiration for beautiful cars, but more importantly, those who are responsible; so far, Club Sportiva has enjoyed a blemish-free record. Nobody has bent a fender or dented a door yet, and Fuller and Johnson attribute that to their background checks, driving record checks, and compatibility requirements. Johnson puts it this way, "If I wouldn't enjoy having a drink with you after work one day, then I wouldn't want you in the club." That's fair.
Within the club's structure, there are several levels of membership. The entry level, called Gold Membership, runs approximately $3,200 a year, and that affords you 17,000 points. Our day with the Ferrari F355 Spyder would have cost us 3,000 points, and that means we would have another five days left in the car, a solid week of driving. But take into consideration that this is a top level car in June, the height of the season. It is an expensive time to be an enthusiast, but if we wanted to take, say, the Honda S2000 or Mini Cooper out on the road during the winter, we could have it for nearly three solid weeks. The extra benefits are discounted use of the clubhouse for personal events, like a birthday party, board meeting, and so on, and some complimentary Club Sportiva merchandise.
Now retired from NASA, one of the club's more famous members, 76-year-old Dick Gordon, flew the command module in the Apollo 12 mission to the moon in November 1969 and has been a member for a number of years. "Doing a speaking engagement for another member, I met Torbin and saw some of the cars. I fell in love with the Corvette," Gordon says, which reminded him of his '69 Corvette given, one each, to all of the astronauts by then-GM-president Ed Cole. "My wife is trying to talk me into a Porsche, since she used to race one years ago in Florida. I'm headed up there again in mid-August, and I may try something new... any sports car. It doesn't matter what it is, as long as the roof comes off."
Contrasting the entry-level Gold Membership, there is the top-of-the-line Elite Membership, costing nearly $12,500 a year, but it comes with all the bells and whistles you would expect, including free use of the clubhouse, a free stay at historic MacArther Place in Sonoma, Calif., a linen-bound Club Sportiva photo book, and so forth, and 80,000 points. The Ferrari in the summer will eat up all of those points in 19 weekend days or nearly a month of weekdays. Torbin explains: "Weekdays are significantly discounted because that is when most of our members are working and the majority of the cars are available, at least during the off months."
But you'd be foolish to blow it all on one car at one time. The club is about the experience of a variety of cars, not just a single car. Mix it up and you can work out a schedule that will allow you nearly 60 days behind the wheel of the club cars, from a Mini Cooper up to a Lamborghini and everything in between. Ever been in a Bentley? That's a Tier Three car. How about an '89 Porsche 911 or a '62 Corvette Convertible? Both Tier Four. Buy these 20 cars from 20 different dealers, store them in your garage, and pay for their professional care and service each year for this kind of money. Impossible.
Self-proclaimed gearhead and multiple Porsche owner James Gassel has been a member of the club for the past two years. He currently owns a '62 race-prepped Porsche 356 and a (993) 911 C4S, but the attraction to the club was variety. "While I'm lucky to have two great cars, I couldn't afford to have all of those cars at one time. As well, I like their selection," Gassel says. "I like the fantasy of being able to drive a 308 or the Jaguar. It is really fun to be able to drive a whole bunch of different cars." He has spent time in the Ferrari 360, the Lotus Esprit, and a Mercedes S430. What could be better than that if you're a motorhead?
It's not just about the cars, we soon discovered, and a lot of the general membership feel the same way. It is a social outlet for busy people who aren't involved in too many civic activities. Brad Johnson, director of membership and business development, helps organize many of the social events that stands Club Sportiva apart from just a holding house for expensive rental cars. "We have regular poker nights, driving tours to wineries, and joint events with other car clubs," he says. In fact, they offer members-only dinners at various restaurants in the city, scotch and cigar nights, and a weekend at the race tracks like The Grand Prix of Nations at Laguna Seca or private track time in F1 cars in Las Vegas. Gassel, an advertising executive who splits his time between Chicago and San Francisco, adds, "They are interesting people to meet, a whole new access of social networking. It has been nice to meet people at the social events, to make new friends who are as into cars as we are."
Pausing for a few photos underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, the Morgan Plus 8 roadster attracted a lot of attention, much more than the Maserati, and several people had their pictures taken with the cars. One of the benefits of membership that Fuller or Johnson didn't explain, as they want the members to experience it for themselves, is that sense of accomplishment, the kind of invalidated success only a Ferrari can offer, vicariously as it was for us. I noticed it in the eyes of passersby on a tour bus who took pictures of the cars and shouted comments. The whole time I was thinking, eight people died building the bridge behind us and they're taking pictures of a car with marvel. Now that's power.
We learn at a young age that sharing is one of the most humane ways to treat our fellow schoolmates, and that letting go of personal property so that others can use it without guilt or strings is a pleasure unsurpassed by the bliss of ownership itself. Yeah, right. Say that to the owner of a Lamborghini who spent more on his house than the Gross National Product of some third-world countries as he's handing his keys over to near strangers so they can unleash the horsepower and torque on an unsuspecting machine of beauty and performance. Torbin Fuller and Club Sportiva do exactly that each and every day.
Where will it go from here? Fuller is looking to expand to Los Angeles and Las Vegas, each time keeping the location accessible to the region's best attributes, at least for a car enthusiast: scenic drives and gorgeous destinations.
Please, remember to share; seat time in a Ferrari might depend on it.