If you read the financial papers, it’s not just the American automakers that are in trouble. The latest one to join them is Saab. Which is sad. I’ve always been a Saab enthusiast – maybe not so much in the last few years, when cars have got a bit generic; but the early Saabs were so different from anything else on the road.
I remember my first ride in a Saab. I was a teenager and my friend’s parents had one, and he came and picked me up one day and we were driving around in the snow. American cars, with their big V8s and their terrible drag co-efficiency, you take your foot off the gas and you immediately slow down to 45 or 40, just from wind resistance and the big three-speed automatic gearbox.
But the Saab had something called freewheeling, which I’d never heard of. You’d be going along at 60, the engine would be screaming, you’d take your foot off the gas and you’d still be going 60 for maybe another half-a-mile because of the aerodynamics, the light weight and lack of friction. This always amazed me. I was fascinated by the concept.
You couldn’t just get in a Saab and go. There were little things you had to do. I loved the ring-a-ding-ding sound and having to mix the gas and the oil at the gas station. I felt like a real enthusiast.
They were unique. The doors in early Saabs opened the opposite way to American doors; they’re what we call suicide doors. And when you opened the hood, there was this tiny little motor. What fascinated me was that the fan looked like a desk fan you had in your office. It was metal, it had three blades on it, and it had a metal guard around it like one on your patio.
The most amazing thing was that the generator was also the water pump. A fan belt turned the generator and at the back of the generator there was a little impeller that water went through. Can you imagine if the English had tried to make a water seal…
The exploits of rally star Erik Carlsson were legendary when you were a teenager and growing up in New England, where the terrain was a lot like it was in Sweden. You had a lot of snow – at least five or six months in the year. Saabs and Volkswagens were the only things that could plough through the snow
I still have a comic book of a Saab racing a Stingray and it says, ‘Saab vs Stingray – which would win if the race was being held on ice?’ They showed the Saab going over a frozen lake – and because it was drawn it had one wheel in the air. I always wondered how you lift a wheel on ice. They never quite explained that. But the Saab was way ahead of the Stingray in the ad.
I also remember my friend’s mother’s car. We could roll it over in snowdrifts. We’d go down the road on a snowy day and we’d roll over three times, get out, push it back up and continue driving.
I’ve now got a 1958 Saab 93. It was a three-speed originally and I put a four-speed gearbox in it. It has a terrific heater and a nice wind-up clock in the dashboard. And it has seatbelts, which in 1958 were unheard of in America. No-one had seatbelts, you know.
Saabs weren’t really cheap. Why would you have one of these when you could have an enormous V8 that seated six people and had a huge 400ci V8 in it… and did 6mpg!
Then, of course, Saab had to drop the two-stroke because of emissions and went to a V4 unit, which was a Ford if I’m not mistaken. Then they went a bit more ordinary. They kept some of the quirky things; you know, the key down on the floor and a few other things like that.
But in the last few years, at least in America, Saabs lost some of their personality, now that cars have to have regulation bumpers so that you can hit people in the knee and they get up laughing. Saabs lost some of their individuality.
I have a friend who is a real Saab enthusiast and when he drives from Iowa to California he carries a spare engine in the trunk. So when he blows it up, he just pulls over to the side of the road and puts the other engine in. He’s done it once, I know for sure. Old Saabs are not highway cars. You get on the road with your foot to the floor and the thing’s screaming at 80. My friend can change the engine almost as quickly as changing a tire. That sums up Saab owners and Saab ownership.