The Girl with the Saab Tattoo, and Other Generational Stories

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 04, 2019

This story has its origins in two things: buying Saabs from a young woman named Jess and meeting my neighbor, Ben. As it happens, they're neatly representative of Gen X and the Millennials, and they have quirky taste in cars. So here’s my column about what the younger generation is thinking. Contrary to public opinion, they aren’t abandoning auto ownership in favor of ride sharing and public transportation.

Ben Gott and his yet-unnamed special edition Rabbit GTI. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Ben Gott, who just turned 40, lives around the corner. He wrote his master’s thesis on nostalgia, and says it typically kicks in after 20 years. So that explains his current obsession with cars (and music!) from his youth in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “The Volkswagen Corrado, now that was a cool car,” he said.

Gott is a sixth-grade English teacher at a nearby private school. We connected through my Saabs, because he got a 1990 900 SPG model as a graduation present when he graduated from high school in 1997. He loved it, but a tree fell on it. “The engine lived on for another 14 years, though,” he said.

Flamingoes in Ben's garden. These go back to the 50s, right? (Jim Motavalli photo)

Gott grew up in Salisbury, Connecticut, near Lime Rock Park, around interesting cars. His father had a Jaguar XK 120, and his mother drove Porsches—a pumpkin orange 1968 example, followed by a 1974. There was a “smattering” of MGs, one of which his brother still owns. Ben was too young to drive most of them, but they made an impression—as did Lime Rock.

Gott bought a manual 2005 Mustang GT convertible from his father for $5. “It was beautiful and wonderful and totally not me.” It sprang a leak, evidently the result of some kind of manufacturing defect, and the carpets got soaked, leading to mildew. “Ford said it didn’t do water,” Gott said, and so the car went to a new owner in Florida who said he could fix it.

And then Ben did find a car that suited him, a leased bright-red 2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI. “GTIs are a lot of fun to drive,” he said. “They perform like those 80s and 90s cars I like, but they also come with all the modern conveniences, like blind spot detection and satellite radio. I can plug my phone in.”

That first GTI has now been replaced with Ben’s new ride, a 2019 GTI Rabbit Edition. These are cute little hatchbacks, featuring Cornflower Blue paint and nostalgic plaid upholstery. Only 3,000 will be built for the U.S. The car revives the dormant Rabbit name, and it’s kind of a tribute to the original 1983 hatch, which also had plaid seats. They start at $27,595, or you can lease one as Ben does.

Ben's music room. The LPs are on the other side. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Power is from a 228-horsepower turbo four, connected to a (rare today) six-speed manual. It does indeed have those modern conveniences they could only dream about in 1983, including connectivity, blind spot and pedestrian monitoring, and autonomous emergency braking that activates the Golf R ventilated discs.

We started talking about GTIs when Ben brought his new car over to give me a test ride. I had a blast, since I’ve loved the hot hatch category since I first drove the Toyota Corolla FX16 in, could it be, 1987? Point and shoot, that’s how these little road rockets behave. “I can pick up my Christmas tree and also have fun,” Ben said. “It’s monstrously capable.”

Ben's other car is a Volvo V90 Cross Country like this one. His car is nicknamed "Lars." (Volvo photo)

Ben also has another car, and that one he’s named. Sitting outside most of the time, because he has only a one-car garage, is Lars Günderson, a 2018 X90 T5 AWD Cross Country. It’s about the slickest-looking station wagon I’ve ever seen. “If there is a future for wagons, it is in my generation,” said Gott, who hasn’t gotten around to naming his Rabbit yet.

These wagons start at $51,450, and are powered by a two-liter, direct-injected and turbocharged four, producing 250 horsepower. The wagon format is indeed vanishing, and it’s unfair—they’re more practical than SUVs, hands down. With Gott, nostalgia is at work—he remembers being ferried around in boxy Volvo wagons as a kid.

I wandered into Ben’s music room, which shows some cross-generational appeal—he has large collections of both vinyl and CDs. “I like to keep master copies,” he says of the CDs. “Vinyl is more interactive, and it sounds warmer.” The music in his collection is dominated by 1980s and early 1990s stuff. He likes Talking Heads, Pearl Jam, Belly, grunge, old R&B. He posed for a picture with Todd Rundgren. He gets nostalgic about that photo of the Beatles crossing Abbey Road, went to see Shawn Colvin, and recently posted on Facebook about watching Chinatown. He recently declared, “They’re playing Scritti Politti at Whole Foods. MY TAKEOVER WAS SUCCESSFUL.”

Gott and Todd.

We both own AR turntables from the 1970s, but his has been lovingly restored. Mine, well, works.

Around the same time I drove Ben’s GTI, I went up to Poughkeepsie. I tell people, “Ask me if I bought a Saab,” and when they ask, I say, “No . . . I bought two!” The pause is critical, especially with people who think you’re crazy to have ever bought a Saab.

Jess Hayes with 14-month-old Holden and her mother, Maggie. Since it was Hayes' grandmother's house, I actually met four generations of the family that day. That's the Commemorative Edition in the background. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Jess Hayes is 26, soon to be 27, and has a tattoo of the Saab logo on her ankle. She’s owned five of them, though now that she’s the mother of 14-month-old Holden, they’ve given way to practical VW Beetles and Honda Fits.

“I really like the way they look visually, and it’s just a very safe and well-engineered car,” Jess told me. “I got into them by chance when my mother happened to find one on Craigslist. I fell in love with them, and I haven’t found anything more fun to drive. It’s just as well-rounded as can be.”

The Saab collection, with the interloper Beetle that invaded paradise. (Jess Hayes photo)

Jess says she “got the tattoo because it was a big part of who I was, the Saabs. I loved the aesthetic and the design. I had a friend at the time whose whole family drove Saabs, and we would hang out and talk about them.”

Kind of like dogs, or children, right? Jess says her priorities changed when she found out about Holden. “I got a Beetle to commute with,” she said.

The famous Saab tattoo. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The two Saabs I bought from Jess were the last two standing, both 1993 models—a Commemorative Edition (CE) hatchback with a five-speed manual and a turbo convertible with an automatic. Both had been sitting for a while when I bought them. The convertible was well-preserved inside the garage, sidelined by an alternator problem. The CE suffered outside, with a no-go reverse gear.

The CE, 137 of 325 made, looking the worse for wear. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I asked Jess if she’d ever buy another Saab. “Absolutely!” she said.

My 1993 turbo convertible in the garage where it long slumbered. Notice paperwork on the hood. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I could tell that Jess is a music gal, considering both cars have killer stereos in them, and a giant speaker assembly was in the back seat of the convertible. I asked her for some reference points, and she named them: Aphex Twin, The Mountain Goats, Joanna Newsom, Of Montreal, Battles, Goldfish. I hadn’t heard of Goldfish, and she said they are a “South African sort of dance electronic band, kind of Aphex Twin meets Raffi meets Die Antwoord.”

Still dusty, on its way to getting reborn. (Jim Motavalli photo)

So she’s younger than Ben, and has more recent musical references, but they both like cars from that magical era—late ‘80s, early ‘90s. Of course, so do I and I’m much older than either of them. Go figure. I think it's that cars of that era look cool, have a modicum of safety and infotainment features—ABS, airbags, CD players—and go like stink. Plus, they have personality.

Off it goes. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Old Cars magazine just released a list of future collectibles from the 1994 model year, focusing on such gems as the Mazda RX7, the Corvette ZO6, and the Z28 Camaro. What, no Saabs? Volkswagen Corrados?

Yes, that plant really is growing between the fender and the trim on the CE. It had been sitting there a while. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Oh, a funny postscript to all this is that I first heard about the Saab convertible from my friend, Saab guy Chip. This was something like two years ago. He told me I should check it out. I called Jess' number but must have gotten it wrong because she didn't call back, and says she doesn't remember hearing from me. I answered a Facebook Marketplace ad for a totally different car, and there was the convertible, too. We made a package deal.

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