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Jay Leno: The Collector

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Saab is dead, but maybe that isn't so bad.

I just heard on the radio today that Saab will no longer warranty any of the cars it sells in North America, which is pretty much a death knell. I’d like to think Saab can survive but it’s not looking positive.

And I have to admit that I’m not sure what Saab stands for anymore. When I was a kid it was a unique brand, unlike any other car maker out there. I’ll never forget my first ride in a Saab; I was in high school and a friend’s mother had an old three-cylinder with freewheel. To me that was the most amazing thing. It didn’t go particularly fast but when the driver took their foot off the gas it didn’t slow down. There was no compression braking and it just kept rolling.

This fascinated me and I wanted to learn more about them. Plus it had front-wheel drive at a time when no American cars had it. It had a two-stroke engine that sounded like a popcorn machine. You couldn’t over-rev it; you just kept your foot in and shifted when it wasn’t making any more progress. It was a lot of fun to drive; great in the snow. With the freewheel and aerodynamics, you got incredible gas mileage for that period in America. Which was anything over 25mpg.

It made an impression on me and I always wanted one. In fact I remember picking up a comic book, that I still have, which had a Corvette Stingray and a Saab racing. It said ‘A Corvette Stingray can beat a Saab but can it beat it on ice?’ And it showed the two coming around a corner, and I’m not sure how the Saab was able to do this, but for the illustration the Saab is coming around a corner on three wheels with one in the air. I was never able to understand how the car was able to lift a wheel on ice but, hey, that was the magic of having a Saab!

You had to be a dedicated owner to have a Saab. You had to premix your gas. It was a real chore. You went to the gas station with two five-gallon cans, you filled them with gas and then you added the 50:1 mix of oil to the gas, shook it, and then you put it in the car. There was no automatic transmission. When you wanted to warm the car up quickly you pulled a chain that hung from the dashboard that went to a window shade that went up against the radiator so that the car heated up faster.

The most fascinating thing about the car was that the generator was also the water pump. Imagine the English combining a water pump and a generator! At best it wouldn’t have worked and at worst you would have been electrocuted the minute you touched it. Somehow the Swedes were able to make this work. It was a car born from jets. That was always the great symbol of Saab.

The exploits of Erik Carlsson were all over the pages of Road & Track; stories of him beating all these other drivers on ice and snow. The Saab of my youth was a car that was bought by intellectuals; college professors had them. Author Kurt Vonnegut even had a Saab dealership – Saab Cape Cod – in the late 1950s. When we saw one parked, my dad would always say ‘Look at that foreign job. You’d get killed in that thing!’ My dad had a big Buick Electra. Brocade interior, four doors and a 455ci engine. Dad could never understand why anyone would buy one of those little things. This, of course, made them more intriguing to me.

Saabs didn’t look like anything else on the road. I loved the clock on the dash; it was mechanical and you would wind it every eight days rather than drain the battery with it. When you opened the hood there was a little cache, which would hold a quart of oil.

Mine is a 1958 93. I think it’s one of the oldest Saabs in America and it’s just about perfect. Actually it is perfect. Four people can ride in it, it’s not fast but you can go 70mph. It has its own cruise control – just put your foot to the floor and keep it there. It’s only 750cc.

I love the idiosyncrasies; in some Saabs, but not mine, you put the key in the floor. I’m someone who always seeks out unique driving experiences and driving a Saab is nothing if not unique.

When they went to the V4 engine, that was OK but they lost some of their charm for me. And then over those last few years 
I never really fully understood what they were about. Saab made the mistake that I think a lot of car companies in America made in the 1980s and early ’90s. Everything just sort of blended together and they had no unique voice or vision any longer.

Saab had a small but loyal customer base and, once they 
took all the quirkiness out of it, it was just like another car. It no longer had much personality and I think that was the main problem. If this really is the end for Saab, it will be very sad but 
not entirely unexpected.

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