A Saab Story with a Happy Ending: Parts Cars Rule

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 11, 2017

Is this a Saab story? You bet it is! But that doesn’t mean it’s sad—in fact, there’s a happy ending.

The Saab 9-3 convertible as found. It had sunk into the earth, and the owner was very receptive to my $200 offer. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I bought a 1996 Saab 900 SE 2.0t convertible with a five-speed transmission. It had a bunch of little needs, and a few bigger ones. I paid only $1,650, but then got the checkbook out to 1) replace half the exhaust; 2) get the air-conditioning working; 3) restore the creaking-and-groaning automatic top to full functionality, and more.

This is the one I didn't take apart--my manual-trans 1996 Saab 900SE turbo convertible. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A few things I fixed with Craigslist or eBay purchases—a new power mirror switch, a good driver’s visor, the console bin. I got the “coded” CD changer/radio working again. Thanks to the techies at Saabnet.com, for the magic formula.

The parts car looked better from the back. (Jim Motavalli photo)

After I began driving it, the catalytic converter failed, and then the direct ignition cassette. The latter is a $150 part on eBay, and the former was something like $400. Then there was installation. Ouch. At this rate I was soon going to be upside down in terms of this orphan car’s value. Maybe I already was. Kyle Lindsey of car video site SaabKyle04.com, also bought a 1996 Saab 900 SE, and after numerous little fixes and upgrades similar to mine put a “Money Pit” front license plate on it.  

Home, and under its own power, too. Note half-flat tires. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Kyle bought a parts car. So did I. He paid $1,200. I paid $200. My route to the local pizza joint took me past a house—obviously rented out to college students, based on the evidence of multiple beer kegs piled up there. In the weeds behind the house, just visible when you drove by was…a sad-looking Saab convertible. A parts car!

I mentioned that the hood struts were gone, didn't I? (Jim Motavalli photo)

My wife says that I need to wear my glasses, but even without them I go 20-20 when there’s an unusual car to be seen behind a barn. But not everyone has that kind of sixth sense. It’s nice to know that eBay Motors has its own section for salvage parts cars. For $600 I could score a 2003 Maserati F1 Cambiocorsa. The fact that it rolled hard is a minor impediment. A mere $2,975 would get me the hindquarters of a crashed Aston-Martin DB7 Vantage V12.

Can you believe this gorgeous Chrysler Imperial is a parts car? Yes, I can! (eBay Motors photo)

Another good online source is Copart, where I once saw a badly mangled $845,000 Porsche 918 Spyder hybrid with less than 100 miles on it.

This mangled mess on Copart used to be a Jeep Cherokee. But there's still plenty of parts. I bet the interior is still nice. (Copart photo)

There’s lots of classics on Copart. And don’t forget Crashedtoys.com, where you can find motorcycles, RVs, ATVs and other such man-boy ephemera.  

Parts like this mirror switch were expensive online. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The green car in the weeds was a 1999 Saab 9-3, which sounds like a totally different car, but in fact it’s got the same basic engine/trans, body panels and interior as my ‘96. It was scruffy, but also a parts gold mine. Saab parts aren’t cheap, but Saab parts cars are.

Dirty work, but someone had to do it. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Hey, I’m a journalist. I tracked down the owner of the car, and discovered that he’s a bartender at the aforementioned pizza restaurant (as well as a newly elected city councilman). He wanted to get rid of the Saab, and told me to make any offer. “I won’t be insulted,” he said. I said $200. He wasn’t insulted.

There used to be a console there somewhere. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Parts cars present a few challenges, or at least this one did. It was sitting on flat tires. The battery was dead. One of those beer-loving tenants backed into it, messing up the hood and took out the headlights. The owner said it ran, though, and when did a car owner ever mislead a buyer?

The work in progress. The exhaust system was the dirtiest part. (Jim Motavalli photo)

(Useless aside: In answering the last question, I stopped to look at a roadside Mazda Miata with a “For Sale” sign on it. There was major rear rocker rust—often the case with the early cars. The driver’s seat was in shreds, and so was the top. As an exercise, I called the number on the window and asked the owner if there was anything wrong with the car. “Not a thing,” he said.)

What happened to the driver's door? The driver's seat was pretty gone, too. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Luckily, the parts car was only a few blocks from my house, and when I brought the battery home and recharged it, the Saab—which had been sitting at least six months—started right up. After some initial valve chatter, it settled into a smooth idle. The tailpipe was clean.

The money wasn’t an issue, but domestic relations were another story. Since my wife considered the Saab (like the hypothetical boat I might someday own) a hole into which I poured money, she was surprisingly congenial to the idea of a parts car festering in the driveway. I didn’t even use half the arguments I had ready.

I got air in the tires, a bit of gas in the tank, and discovered that it would shift and had brakes. I could and did drive it home, albeit with the front balljoints thumping and bumping and stiff steering because the fluid leaked out as fast as I could pour it in.

Taking cars apart is easier than putting then back together, as countless “restorers” with unfinished projects can attest. I briefly considered trying to resurrect the poor Saab, but the list of demerits was kind of long. The windshield was cracked, as was the right mirror. The driver’s seat (leather) was dried-out toast. It needed power steering repairs, the balljoints, a pair of headlights and side lights, a new climate control module, four new tires, and a passenger door panel and inner handle. Did I mention the hood struts were shot?

So parts it was. I enlisted my friend Eric, a fellow automotive scribe who’s more hands on with cars than me. He brought over his hydraulic jack, and his expertise, I found my old ramps, and in short order we were taking off the exhaust system. I wanted the catalytic converter.

The parts stash. The filing system is precise, but you probably can't see it here. (Jim Motavalli photo)

By the end of the day, Eric and I were covered with dirt and grease, but on the ground were: The instrument panel and wood-finish trim, the console, the master cylinder, the taillights, the mirrors and mirror switch, the ignition cassette (a frequent fail point on these cars), the radio/CD player, the jack and spare, and more. The original screwdriver set was still wrapped in plastic! The engine/trans, with 126,000 miles, was tempting, of course, but I just don’t have anywhere to store them, and lacked a lift and engine stand. My car has 106k and that’s not a lot for a Saab. Readers are free to take me to task for not finding a nice home for that running engine and tranny. I tried!

Later, I got the rest of the console, the computer, the shift linkage, the glove compartment and a few other odds and ends. I took the driver’s door, since it was mint, had a good inner door panel, nice speakers and an electric window that went up and down.

I figure I’m in the black. The junkyard will give me $150 for the carcass. I sold the shift linkage for $50, I have a basement full of good Saab stuff, and I scored several parts my car actually needed right now. Plus, Car Talk is paying me for this story! Do I regret buying this sad-looking Saab? No way. Eric and I had fun, and we got a Saab story out of it. And I'm about to become a Craigslist addict as I try and sell some of what I don't need.

So do you want/need a parts car? I would recommend it if all the following conditions are met:

  • You have somewhere to store it;
  • You own something fairly exotic, with parts that are both expensive and hard to find;
  • Your significant other doesn't object to having the filthy thing around for a little while;
  • You're careful about getting under it--don't use your creeper without jack stands;
  • You're handy with a wrench and a screwdriver. Remember, taking these babies apart is a lot easier than putting them back together.;
  • You can find derelicts within easy distance of your home. Moving them is a pain in the neck.

Here's video I shot to prove that the parts car really did run, honest:


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