I bought my first classic Saab 900 late in the game, back in 2006. It had the 8-valve, non-turbo engine, which doesn’t seem to get a lot of love in the Saab community. Right away, however, it spoke to me with its honesty and its grumbly exhaust. Since these cars are like little orphans, I started to round them up. In 2008, I bought one in San Jose and drove it back to Vermont. I bought a winter beater on the North Shore of Massachusetts in 2013. I’ve got four Saabs with eight valves now…
What’s wonderful about these cars is that they all have stories attached to them, both from their previous lives and from when I acquired them. The one I love best might have the best story.
Looking around Craigslist, I found a 1983 sedan in the Catskills with an asking price of $500. I talked to the seller, who said the car would run and drive and that it had no structural rust. I asked my father-in-law if he’d be willing to run me down there to look at it. On Super Bowl Sunday, 2015, we hopped in his car with a crate of tools and a couple of spare tires and hit the road for Roscoe, N.Y.
That winter, particularly late January to mid-February, was brutal in the Northeast, with a fresh foot of snow every week and bitter cold. When we got to the car, which was parked at the owner’s father’s vacation house out near the end of a dirt road, it had been shoveled off. It started right up, idled fine and came up to temperature. Some of the lug nuts were rusted so badly that I couldn’t remove them with the tools I’d brought. I’m still a novice mechanic.
But I bought the car anyway, and arranged to pick it up with my brother-in-law, who is an ace mechanic. (He got his start tearing down engines for Skip Barber at Lime Rock and now works mainly on boats.)
A couple weeks later we set out from his house in northwestern Connecticut in his huge Ford diesel pickup, towing a gooseneck equipment trailer. We stopped for lunch at the Roscoe Diner, then drove out the back roads to the car. It had snowed again, and the car was buried, but it started up fine and once we put air in the tires we were able to drive it out of the yard, down the dirt road and onto the trailer. We almost got the trailer stuck, had to unhitch it to get to the car, then had to back the truck and trailer down the dirt road because there was no place to turn around. For all that, the operation went pretty smoothly.
The car, it must be said, has been a revelation. Earlier classic 900s are geared lower than the 1986 versions I had driven, and the lower gears suit the eight valves engine’s modest power. The car remains a hoot to drive. And since It started life in Alaska, it has a block heater and a oil pan heater, which make it the perfect winter car. I keep it oil undercoated to try to slow down the rust.
As much as I love the car, and loved rescuing it from its snowy prison, the real joy of the experience was the time spent with my father- and brother-in-law. Father and son, they are both ambitious men, each in his own way. I didn’t grow up in the car hobby, where working on cars with fathers, brothers and buddies is the name of the game, so to ask them for help and to receive it were breakthroughs for me, a middle-aged guy with a growing fondness for old, slow Saabs.
Driving through the down-at-heel towns of the Catskills, talking about our lives, sharing an adventure, those are the experiences this car brought me. We have a new story in common, and driving my cheap, fun beater Saab brings it all back. To me, that’s the best reason to love a car.