Monday, September 21, 2009

Saab Story

A random selection of great old Saabs.

I lived in Charlevoix for a stretch during the summer of 1987 with a few guys from Flint. They did all the planning and I just sort of showed up and slept on the floor of this tiny three-room house they managed to talk Joe the landlord into renting them. We jokingly called it "the Condo," which allowed us to hold our own with the rich dilettantes in Charlevoix who actually had condos and summer homes, provided, of course, that they never actually saw our place.

Joe lived right next door in a much larger house. We heard he had his license revoked for several drunk driving incidents, but through a quirk in the laws was able to legally drive a moped around town. Sometimes we’d see the moped ditched in the driveway or the yard when Joe couldn’t negotiate parking it in the garage. I vaguely remember that he had been a pilot, and if you were talking to him outside — usually about some loud incident that had occurred at the condo the night before — he'd often stop, peer up into the sky, spot a minuscule jet, look at his watch, and say something like "Oh yeah, that'd be the 8:29 out of Toronto." It was impressive, although I later realized he could have been making all the information up, which would have been even more impressive.

One of Joe’s lone requests was that we not have a lot of guests stay overnight. According to my sporadically kept journal, there were occasions when as many as 13 people slept at the place. Two of the guys even constructed a bunk bed in the lone bedroom in an attempt to accommodate the crowds. It collapsed sometime in late June. There were no injuries.

I was driving my grandma's old Buick Electra 225 at the time. It came in handy because it functioned as a camper on some of our road trips out of Charlevoix. It could comfortably sleep three — one in the front seat, one in the back, and one in the spacious trunk. It was much more luxurious than the floor at the Condo.

My friend Jim was driving the first of what seems like several dozen old Saabs he has fixed up over the years. Jim has always been able to find great deals on cars and, later, houses. (He managed to buy his first home in Ann Arbor at a rock-bottom price after he casually struck up a conversation with the owner at the Del Rio bar.) The first Saab fit right into my sad and misguided attempts at the time to be the Great Gatsby of Michigan, so I liked to borrow it.

It was an exciting car to drive. It didn’t have great power or superior handling. Instead, it had six inches of play in the steering wheel. When you wanted to turn right, for example, you had to spin the wheel for half a foot before the tires would actually start turning. As you can imagine, this revolutionized the driving experience. A lot of the lessons I learned at Southwestern High’s driver’s training program went out the window. You had to do some serious advanced planning on turns, and you had to have strong arms and quick reflexes. Driving with anything in one hand — like a Stroh’s bottle — was out of the question. I know I personally scared the hell out of numerous Fudgies and locals alike when I crossed the center line making the right turn from Michigan Avenue to Petosky Avenue heading north out of downtown. Between Jim’s Saab and Joe’s moped, I sense the thoroughfares of Charlevoix could be a very unsettling place that summer.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I have a nostalgic attachment to Saabs. I’m not sure you could call the classic Saab profile beautiful, but it’s certainly distinctive. When I look at the latest Saab on display at the Frankfurt Auto Show, I can’t help wondering what went wrong. Is this bland, indistinguishable sedan really the offspring of the car I grew to love while terrorizing the populace on the roads of Charlevoix?

The Saab flagship sedan at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show. (Photo: Hannelore Foerster/Bloomberg)


  1. I love the "8:29 out of Toronto" line... same as the old Ernie Harwell bit of saying where the guy that caught the foul ball ws from "And that one caught by a young man from Roscommon, MI"

  2. Swedish gov't is not bailing out Saab or Volvo I hear. China is positioning for ownership. Plants in Sweden are laying off workers in large numbers. The US wants out of their involvement also. Too bad for those quality made vehicles. unclebuck

  3. The Saab dealership on Center Road is lonely, Gordy...maybe you should fly out again, and drive back.

    They have (a little bit of) traditional-design inventory. You could probably make a pretty good bargain.

    They also have one of the original teardrop two-strokes out front...though I'm guessing it might need a bit of maintenance.

  4. Hey Gordy, A solid ex-Flint guy was part owner of the Bridge Club bar in Charlevoix in the late 80s. Did you ever stop in there?

  5. Through the years I'd owned 2 different late 80's 900's. There was no question as to what it was. That vehicle looks nothing like a classic Saab.

    Shame....everything out there is becoming a blur.

    Take the logo's off pretty much anything these days & tell me how many folks could name what is what?

    They all look alike...big & butt ugly. :-(


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at