One Saab Forward, Three Saabs Back
Around 1977 when the first Saab Turbos were spooling up, I thought they were goofy and underpowered. A four-cylinder? Yeah right, keep it movin', Sven. But I was an 18-year-old North Carolinian with six hundred dollars and a Gator Mcklusky fixation, not exactly the Saab demographic, which I believe was Minnesota dentists and social workers who married well. Then on the epic drive in my '66 Plymouth Belvedere out to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune as the next great stunt car driver, I stopped and spent a week in Aspen, Colorado. Among other opinion-altering experiences I had in that unique and wonderful town, I saw that Aspen police officers wore blue jeans and cowboy hats, and that their patrol cars were… Saab Turbos!? Hmmm, well maybe those things aren't so bad. This new found admiration for all things Aspen took a car that only an exit ago was pretentious and fragile, and made it masculine and cool.
Saabs fell off my radar until 20 years later when I bought a thoroughly used Black 1984 900 Turbo Hatchback for $1,000. It was a great car, and by "great" I mean, "not a BMW." I like BMWs, but there are just too damn many of them. Owning a BMW in Santa Monica is like owning a cornhusk in Iowa. I can't say I was fully charmed by the Saab right off. The footwell ergonomics were odd, the roof pillars seemed too far forward, and the shifter moved with a stiff yet rubbery awkwardness, though thanks to its origins, it always slipped effortlessly into neutral. So we took it slow, became friends, and after 15 years and around 125,000 miles give or take a jaunt to Joshua Tree, we were significant others.
At about 300,000 miles, the car started to feel like it was turning toward the barn. The specific problem was a stuck caliper, and a moderate whack with a hammer did the trick, but the writing was on the driveway in various fluids. Note to self: Contact the Depends Undergarment people about possible automotive applications. Sure, with a few bucks here and there I could've nudged the thing on for who knows how long, but driving it had become like watching sand trickle through an hourglass, and I was overcome with curiosity about what shape that last grain would take: Oil pump? Head gasket? Connecting rod?
A State of California environmental program would give me $500 bucks to get it off the road and smush it into a China-bound block. Then three months later I could buy it back in the form of a 99-dollar mountain bike at Wal-Mart. Couldn't do it. Certainly some aging hippie Saab-nut in the New Hampshire backwoods would gladly trade his entire inventory of homemade hemp soap for a rust-free '84. But a better option presented itself in the form of a coworker who needed cheap transportation.
Twenty five years old and up for anything, Luke had landed a job in Omaha and needed to get out there. I pointed at the Saab and offered the deal: If I give you this car, will you stay in touch and tell me what finally kills it?
After a quick tutorial about wires that have to be jiggled and fluids that need to be topped, the title was signed, hands were shook and he was off to the great plains. He called me from Laramie, Wyoming where he was visiting friends and told me how perfect the car was, 30 mpg and rock solid at 70 mph all the way. Great to hear, I said, and make sure to check that oil…
Luke's next call was from the side of the interstate outside Ogalalla, Nebraska. He'd forgotten to check the oil, and the rings went. While Luke apologized and I assured him it was no problem, I did the best I could to block out the screaming the pistons must have been doing before they finally packed it in, "JIM!!! We're dyin' in here! WHERE ARE YOU!!! JIIIIIMMMM!!!!…. "
The trusty old '84's abrupt and violent end moved me to honor it, so I dropped the Ford Ranger idea, got on Saabnet.com and looked for the best Saab 900 Turbo I could find for $1,500.
Doug was a full-on Colorado Saab guy. He picked me up at the Denver Airport in one of the last 9-5s to be built and we drove to his Aurora home, where his 9-3 SportCombi sat in the driveway. As I walked into his garage, that familiar old Saab smell settled about me like I'd been wrapped in Ingrid Bergman's shawl. The Rose Quartz 1985 900 Turbo Hatchback sitting there was everything he'd represented it to be on the website: 190,000 miles, but in sparkling, meticulously maintained shape. Doug said he'd been hanging on to it for his 14-year-old twins, figuring they'd be clamoring for the keys at the strike of 16. But when he'd mentioned it recently, they both gave him that teenager "You've got to be kidding" look. So I eagerly parted with $1,750, and he reluctantly parted with what he insisted was the best Saab he'd ever owned.
The drive back to Los Angeles was glorious. Introducing Saab #1, Rosie.
Cut To: Three months later…
Rob, my Saab mech/guru: "So Jim, I know you like the older Saabs."
ME: "Whatever gave you that idea."
ROB: "I have a long-time customer with an extremely nice '85 900S four-door. He's giving it to charity because he just bought a Prius, want his number?"
I called. I drove to Beverly Hills where I test drove a nearly pristine, one-owner Ice Blue Swedish garage queen. $750? Done.
Sorry, Car Talk Vehicle Donation Program. Introducing Saab #2, Bluey.
Then comes the bright idea to supplement my income by driving for Sidecar, the ride-sharing co-op that wouldn't force me to drive around sporting a giant pink mustache. I like Tom Selleck, and I like cotton candy, but there's a line.
For whatever reason, no matter how nice your 29-year-old Saab might be, Sidecar requires you to have a 2001 or newer. Damn techies. Guess I'll have to buy what I've secretly been lusting after, a 2003 Saab 9-5 Aero Wagon. What a car. A mere ten years ago, this thing was $40,000. Which means it's got tons of fun unnecessary stuff that I probably won't fix when it breaks. What I really love about the 9-5 Aero is that it is elegantly fast. And when elegantly fast isn't fast enough, the gear shift has a button with an "S" on it, which stands for "Stupid Fast".
Guru Rob gave it the OK, and I ponied up $4,000. Introducing Saab #3, Bullet.
So here I am with 3 Saabs, humming Torn Between Two Lovers while trying to decide which to sell. What the heck, maybe I'll sell 'em all and go be a cop in Aspen.
Got a Saab story of your own? Have advice to give? By all means let me know!