So I found out yesterday (in the DBD where else?) that SAAB is likely to go the way of Edsel, Pontiac and so many other automobile brands and disappear soon. This fact makes me very sad. Why you ask? Because I grew up with SAAB cars, and I have many, many SAAB stories (pun intended).
A SAAB 99, looks benign, doesn't it? Little do you know......
In 1970 my Dad did something that could have singled him out for an FBI investigation: he bought a furrin car. And not just any foreign car, I mean a sporty Alfa Romeo, Lotus or a Jaguar might have raised a few eyebrows, but a SAAB? From Sweden? Madness! He bought it in Europe, and had it shipped to the States before we left England. What possessed him to make this quixotic purchase? Well, he was friends with one of the surgeons on base, who drove this most unusual car:
A SAAB 96, no bad memories with this one, since we never owned one.
This is powered by a 3 cylinder, 2-stoke engine (like a motorcycle); he had the station wagon version, and when we were kids, we fought to sit in the rear-facing fold-out seats in the cargo area any time we got to ride in it. I'll never know exactly what attracted my Dad to the SAAB 99, they were fun to drive, maybe it was just his inner hipster wanting something "cool". They were advanced for the time, being one of the first front-wheel drive cars available, which my Dad never failed to brag about "I can drive fast in the rain, and not lose traction". It also had something called "freewheeling", that disconnected the drivetrain from the engine, without holding in the clutch, which actually sounds sort of dangerous, but promised better gas millage if used correctly.
Anyway, in 1970 I'm guessing there might have been at most a few thousand SAABs in America, and most of these I imagine were on the coasts, where the commies and hippies live. But my Dad was assigned to a tour of a base in Kansas City, MO. SAABs were so few and far between that any time my Dad saw another SAAB on the road, both drivers would pull over and introduce themselves and start talking SAAB. When I was a kid, I thought the car was cool too, and as an airplane aficionado, I thought the fact that SAAB also made fighter jets gave the car a certain cache.
Never did get to drive one of these, however.
The summer of '71 my Dad decided to visit his surgeon friend, now out of the military and in private practice, who was living in Portland, OR. So we all piled into to the trusty SAAB (Mom, me + bother & sister), and prepared to drive from Kansas City to Portland. By the time we got to Laramie WY, it was clear (even to me) the car wasn't acting perfectly. When we neared Elk Mountain WY, things were getting desperate. My Dad was driving on the emergency lane of I-80, since the SAAB wouldn't do better than 40 mph at even the most modest hill, and then "freewheeling" on the downhill parts to save the engine. The 40 miles from this point until we got to Rawlins WY, seemed to last forever.
Sidebar: As a farther myself, this whole adventure must have been killing him, Dads are always suppose to be able to know what to do, to handle any of life's emergencies. Looking back, I admire him for never loosing his cool. Not sure I could maintain in similar circumstances.
But the mechanics in Rawlins were no help whatsoever, no one had any parts for this weird car, the best they could suggest that he might try to see if he could drive to Casper, they might be able to fix it there. So the next morning, we headed out Route 287 to Casper. We didn't get more than ten miles out of town, when the car died, dead, completely dead. My Dad then walked back to Rawlins with my brother, leaving the rest of us to guard the SAAB. He needn't have bothered; in the four hours we waited for him to return with the tow truck, not a single car drove by on Route 287.
Nice scenery, but hard to enjoy when you're feeling lost.
So the only solution was to tow the SAAB back to Denver which was the nearest SAAB dealership at the time. May still be, for all I know. My Mom, my sister and I proceeded to Portland on a Greyhound Bus, my Dad and brother rode with the tow truck operator to Denver. They had to replace the entire engine, as the oil pump had failed, and the engine had completely seized up.
Well that was exciting! But there was more to come. My Mom and I visited family in Des Moines IA, and the gears got jammed in fourth, so my Mon drove all the way back to Kansas City in fourth gear, slowing down as low as the car could stand without stalling and blowing through intersections blasting the horn. What we took away from the Portland adventure is if the car is running, never, ever stop it for any reason until you get where you're going.
One last SAAB story, although there are many, many, MANY more. This is the car in which I learned to drive:
Three on the tree, baby, three on the tree.
I learned on a Chevy II station wagon on the unused runways on Maxwell AFB, Montgomery AL. I can't blame my Dad for wanting me to learn in this car, rather then in his baby (the SAAB). But I always lusted to drive the SAAB, as it was much more fun, and a lot faster. Sadly, rather than take the Chevy when it came time to take my driver's test, my Mom let me take the SAAB. Bad Idea. At this time in Alabama driver's tests were actually conducted by State Troopers, which made me nervous as it was, plus I was a long-haired punk. The Trooper took one look at the car and me and decided he didn't like us, and it got worse when when I showed him that key for the ignition was next to the stick shift on the floor. He had me start with Parallel parking, and I hadn't done this in the SAAB yet. I made one small mistake, and the driving test was over in a total of five minutes - never even saw the road.
Anyway, you'd think after all the problems with that 1970 SAAB 99, that my parents would never touch a SAAB again; yet they bought another 99, a 900 and a 9-3, go figure. My kid brother crashed that first 99 many years ago driving like a complete maniac, but he was unhurt. Goodbye SAAB