It could have been construed as a love affair. The beginning eye attractions soon morphed into a need to know, to touch, and a longing to have. Love can only explain my husband, Matt’s, fascination for Saabs.
Matt had owned a Saab, in some form or another, since 1978. He found the lines “classic” and the engineering a marvel. The dashboard had an airplane cockpit look complete with the Saab airwing logo on the steering wheel. The engines were easily accessible. He cannot count how many times he had lifted engines in and out of the hood, replaced transmissions and an array of cables, hoses, and wires. Of course, not everyone is tuned into the repair-ability of car ownership. But Matt grew up as the kid who had to know how things worked. He pulled apart clocks, experimented with paper airplane designs, and built intricate structures with tinker toys. Having hand experiences of working parts was key to understanding and becoming the guy who could fix just about everything.
Saabs are Swedish cars that were born from pre-WWII aeronautical engineering. The Royal Swedish Airforce commission the Saab company to build bombers. Over the years, Saab evolved from airplanes, race cars, then to the small, practical, affordable cars we know today.
Matt was introduced to the wonders of Saabs by my father when Matt and I started dating in our senior year of high school. This was the mid-70s. My dad found his first Saab decaying in someone’s front yard and bought it for $50. This was in the mid-60s. At that time, there were plenty of parts around from junkyards and backyards to make at least one work. Throughout my childhood, there was some semblance of a Saab in our driveway. Transmissions, carburetors, side panels and clutch sticks were scattered throughout the garage, under beds, and for short durations, on the kitchen table. I learned to drive a standard three-cylinder Saab in my late teens and had accepted my dad’s “Rube Goldberg” fix-its. I started the engine by sticking a pencil in a spot on the panel so the ignition would work as normal protocol. I always traveled with a gallon of water to feed the radiator. I also learned how to measure oil into the gasoline and, once the gas cap was tightened, bounce on the back bumper to mix the oil and the gasoline adequately.
Matt was intrigued.
Matt easily took up the obsession. Saab ownership challenged his mechanical problem-solving skills. He took great pride in making things work. The “affordability” feature fit his wallet. When I think back to the times we drove to and from home and college (450 miles one way) in a Saab 96, puttering up the inclines and gliding in neutral on the downhill, to negotiating Long Island traffic, that little car was a marvel and Matt amazing in keeping it running. At one point my dad shipped Matt a transmission to his college dorm in Buffalo. There was always a spare one in the garage. Matt used the transmission for his thesis (Transmission Impossible) and later replaced the faulty one in the Saab 96 sitting in the school parking lot.
In our early married years, we lived in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Matt happened to bicycle past a home with a sporty Saab Sonett wearing a for sale sign. The burnt orange color didn’t bother him. He knocked on the front door and made a quick deal with a very large man eating a messy hoagie.
It was an impractical car that negated the practical side of Saab ownership. At six-foot-three, Matt had to fold himself into the driver’s seat. He rented a garage to keep it safe from the elements and repair whatever frequently failed. The Sonett could not tow a small trailer for our little sailboat nor carry a canoe on its roof. Tools and groceries had to be thoughtfully fitted into its boot. It didn’t matter. He so enjoyed the race car feel and driving in something unique and fun.
Eventually, the Sonett had to be sold to make way for more practical transportation that fit children, towed boat trailers, and carried home and garden projects. Matt put together a four-cylinder Saab 95 station wagon. No longer did we have to pour just the right amount of oil into the gas tank and bounce on the back bumper. Matt replaced, repaired and cobbled body parts from different cars. At one point our family car had a luggage latch holding down the hood and sported three colors. This gave Matt his first opportunity paint a car. He had white freckles on his face and arms and spotted paint on his spare glasses. Everything in the garage was coated in a hazy coat of white. I reupholstered the seats. The car looked great, and it was so zippy with four speeds.
Time tumbled forward, and Saab ownership faded for many years. Even my dad shed parts from his inventory. Car engines evolved to complex, fuel efficient systems. Computer chips and sensors required professional attention. Weekends spent under the hood no longer existed. Even changing the oil got complicated. It was not a bad thing. What a relief to not have to worry about every little thing that could go wrong in a car. A car is supposed to fill a need. It should not always be a project.
But Matt did pine for the unique-ness of the Saab sedans and the sporty fun the Sonett had offered. In 2008 when the girls finished college, and I completed cancer treatment, Matt bought a used Saab 93-ARC convertible. Instead of the airwing logo on the dashboard, the Royal Swedish emblem is stamped on the steering wheel and back fender. He still has to push the driver’s seat all the way back to fit his length. The turbo engine roars softly, the ride is smooth, and it is always a great day to drive with the top down.
Alas, Saab is no longer in production and access to parts and service is limited to one garage on Long Island. Despite its faults, dings, and fragile upkeep needs, Matt proudly drives it and intends to until it no longer moves out of the driveway.
Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The memoir is a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year of breast cancer treatment.