It's no secret that I've been a car nut for much of my life. But unlike most of my contemporaries, I never cared for the muscle cars, the Mustangs, Camaros and the like. No, for me, the appeal was always the odd little Eurocars, the ones that prized handling over brute force, balance over mere horsepower. The ones that dared to be different. Saabs fit that mold perfectly.
I still remember the day in 1979 I first discovered the marque. It was a gray, rainy day in Dayton, Ohio. I was on Christmas break from college, and my aging, rattletrap '70 VW Beetle needed some work. So off I went to one of Dayton's several VW dealers to subject both car and nearly empty (student) wallet to the whims of the service department.
I had time to kill, so I wandered into the showroom. Turns out the dealer carried two brands. Certainly the VW side had some appealing little cars -- Sciroccos, Dashers and Rabbits. But my eye was quickly drawn by something I'd never actually seen in the metal before -- a Saab.
Of course I'd read about the odd little beasts all the car magazines described as "quirky," but I hadn't actually seen one up close. This one was a five door (four doors plus hatchback) 900 EMS -- Electronic (fuel injection) Manual (transmission) Sport. One look and I was hooked.
I want to say it was a Saab-specific shade of green, but if I recall correctly, it had burgundy cloth upholstery, so probably not. It could have been the gray that the company called "rose quartz." No matter. I was a fan for life.
Yes, the quirks were there, all right. The curved windshield. The ignition key between the bucket seats. The seats themselves, looking like something out of a Swedish furniture store. I loved them all.
I remember the price on the sticker too -- $10,000. At a time when the Scirocco across the room was selling for about $4,500, this was a small fortune. But I said to myself I'd have one someday.
A few years later, I found myself working with a friend who drove a 900. It was nothing fancy, the base model, a kind of pastel yellow with a fair-sized dent in one side. I would have traded my two year old Civic for it in a heartbeat.
It got better. She traded the yellow one in for a sleek, black 900 Turbo -- the ultimate Saab at the time. I drooled over that one too.
Fast forward a few years. I'd actually test-driven a few 900s by this point, so I knew what to expect, but never could quite find the right one. In the meantime, I'd switched careers, married and moved to southern Ohio.
Then came the day Exec Chef Heatherann and I went out for a little drive. I picked her up at work on a Sunday morning after she had worked a 12-hour night shift. We headed into Huntington, W.Va., and as we passed the Toyota dealer, there it was -- a baby blue 1986 3-door 900 hatchback. This was the one.
And it was. An $1,800 bank loan, another trip to Huntington and it was ours. We'd been looking to replace the Civic, which was on its last legs by then anyway.
From a driver's perspective, the car was everything I'd hoped it would be. It was truly the fulfillment of an automotive dream. It was wonderful -- until the air conditioning broke.
That was the beginning of the downfall of Baby Blue. We spent a small fortune at the dealer trying to get the a/c fixed. The dealership spent at least an equal amount of their own trying to get it right. They really tried their best. But it seemed as soon as one part of the system was fixed, something else broke.
Then we moved to Florida. A/C became critical. And by this point, about four years in, other things began to break too. Expensive things. Things that required tow trucks and rental cars. Things that required parts shipped from Sweden. Things our bank account couldn't quite handle.
The last straw was when the car broke down as H.A. was driving to meet me for lunch one day. No matter how much fun the car was to drive, we couldn't have something that left us stranded on the side of the road. So before long, Baby Blue was replaced with a VW, giving us a pair of those.
Never one to leave well enough alone, I moped around about missing the Saab. My long-suffering wife put up with it for a good while, biting her tongue as I read classified ads for the little Swedish wonders aloud to her. And we're talking months here, not days.
One fateful weekend, one of those ads clicked. A dealer in Orlando had a 1989 four-door 900S. Well, you can guess the rest. My wonderful wife agreed -- partly, perhaps, just to shut me up --and I happily followed "her" VW home in a rose quartz sedan with no power window switches -- and no a/c. Apparently one of us was a slow learner.
Thus began about 5 more years of Saab-dom. Once again, the car was a sheer joy to drive, everything I wanted it to be, even better than the first. On the reliability front, once again, it left much to be desired. From the radiator fan motor that literally fell apart in my hands to the six -- yes, six -- power steering pumps, it tested our patience regularly. Or rather it tested mine, and I tested Heatherann's.
I got pretty good at making minor repairs myself. But even the minor things required expensive parts.
At some point, it just became too much. Probably when the a/c broke yet again. We traded "Rosenqvartz" (the Saab paint code name) for a Volvo sedan that stood us in good stead for the next 8 years. But parting with the Saab was tough, as it was with the first one.
The Volvo was built like a tank, and proved damn hard to kill. It was what we needed at the time. Even so, if I listened to my heart, I'd buy another Saab tomorrow, quirks, faults and all. There's just something oddly lovable about them, something that makes them more engaging than a Japanese transportation appliance such as a Camry or Accord.
But I learned after the second Saab to listen to my head in things automotive. I vowed never again unless it was a new one. The bank account never allowed for that, so I made peace with the Volvo and a VW Jetta -- good cars both, but still lesser. Now the Volvo's been replaced with a Subaru. Once again, a good car, just not quite a Saab.
Now Saab appears to be gone for good, and I'll never have the chance to own a new one. The old ones will eventually disappear, done in by a lack of parts availability. There will be more transportation appliances on the road, and fewer "quirky" cars. And that makes me a little sad.
Godspeed, Saab. You'll be missed.