Don’t Saab for me, Generalissimo Motors

With all the problems of General Motors under daily scrutiny, there is consensus on how the company’s troubles stem from having too many marginal marques, among them, Hummer, Buick, Saab.
I used to drive a Saab 9-3, and I wondered what the ‘9-3’ meant. I thought it must be a reference to a Scandanavian dice game. I played craps a bit in high school, and knew that rolling two sixes was good and two ones was bad. Nine and three meant nothing to me, but possibly it was lucky for the Swedes who built the car. A bird wearing a crown, sticking its tongue out. What are you looking at?
A bird wearing a crown, sticking its tongue out. How quaint is that?

It wasn’t all that lucky for me, though. Picked it up at the dealer in Mississaugua and after 30 kilometers on the highway heading home I noticed that the engine was overheating. Seriously overheating. There was a good reason for that, which turned out to be that the dealer hadn’t checked to see if there was a plug in the radiator, and there wasn’t, so all the coolant was spread across a good section of the Queen Elizabeth Way. Saabs were sold through Saturn dealers in Canada in those days, in an effort to find some synergy in their common ownership by General Motors, although there was nothing else to link the brands. Saturn buyers were chipper suburban folks, quick to exchange happy memories of their vacations in Tennessee, picnicking on the grounds of the factory where their car was assembled. Saab people were basically sour misfits. So when you bought a Saab you’d get all the Saturn touches that you didn’t want, such as the team of Saturn salesmen in their golf shirts gathering in the showroom to snap your picture and cheer you on as you drove away in your brand new car. Somewhere I have the photo of a frowning male in early middle-age standing next to a blue Saab, wondering what the hell he’d gotten himself into. That would be me.

There, in a nutshell, is the General Motors ownership experience of the past generation. They’d send you on your way confused and not a little out-of-sorts, laying the fanfare on thick but not deigning to bother with the nuts and bolts.

I used to work for a guy who cut quite a figure when he pulled his black Saab 9000 into his executive parking space at the company his family owned, a big famous conglomerate. He gave every impression of being a fellow used to being in command of things, and after that evening when he hanged himself I was surprised to learn that another member of the management team promptly took over the lease on his Saab, and was driving it work every day. We sure didn`t understand that part, when a bunch of us sat around the cafeteria trying to make sense of it all. “Drive a dead man’s Swedish car, maybe it’s like a Viking ritual,” someone suggested, kidding to mask the grief, I guess. `You know what S-A-A-B stand for?` someone else asked. We waited for the answer. `Something An Asshole Buys.`

Later, when I got my Saab, I found its orthopedically designed seats were plenty comfortable, and the hatchback seemed ideally designed for hauling knock-down household furnishings back from Ikea. One day the ergonomically engineered driver’s seat came loose from its moorings, and that was worth a week’s stay in the Saab-Saturn sick bay. But, my, how the dog loved the car, and that counted for almost everything. She’d stick her nose against the dashboard air-nozzles, or stand proudly rigid on the arm-rests between the front seats, treating the item as a kind of olympic podium. She loved the tone of the radio when it played gospel music from the Buffalo FM station. She especially loved the tweeting noise the remote door-lock device instigated. It made her grin, and turn her head to make direct eye contact with me. “Don’t we have the greatest car in the world?,” she seemed to ask. I was not quite as certain, but whenever she nudged the stick-shift with her forehead, to make the Saab go faster, I found it impossible to argue.

The old-timers hanging around the Saab-Saturn service area told me the late-’90s Saab wasn’t really a Saab at all, just a General Motors-built genetically modified poseur. I was pretty sure they must be right, despite the odd Scandinavian quirks which survived, such as the floor-mounted ignition key and the goofy hatchback and the standard weather-band radio. One weekend in the early spring I took off with my business partners through central Pennsylvannia, bound for a medical conference in Washington, DC. We returned a couple of days later, tuned to the weather-band radio. The weather office said something about highly dangerous driving conditions, and a man’s voice pleaded with us not to strike out into the mountains in the middle of the blizzard, with zero visibility. They made it sound pretty bad, but it looked even worse. We prepared for a rough ride by buying twenty dollars worth of snack foods, intended as emergency rations, which the fellow in the back seat polished off quickly, between apnea-convulsed naps and petulant exhortations to keep driving. Our progress slowed to a stately five miles per hour, behind a line of 18-wheelers, some of which excused themselves by sliding off the road. The gas gauge was nearing empty. North of Dansville, NY, at a truck stop blessed with a Day’s Inn of some moldy sort, we pulled off and got the second-last available room, outfitted with two beds and a rollaway.

It did in a pinch
Daystop, Dansville, NY: It'll do in a pinch

Not quite sated with bags of pretzels and a dozen candy-bars, the fellow in the back seat squeezed out of the Saab and into the cafe, protesting that he’d expected to be home before midnight. A mile up the highway the New York State Troopers had closed Route 17 to traffic. Within half-an-hour the truck stop filled up with refugee truckers, the sound of their airbrakes echoing between the mountains, the snow falling more heavily. A half-pint trucker-girl in a quilted vest lept out of her cab, shaking her head. “Excuse me,” she said, addressing me. “Do you have any idea where I am?” Dansville, New York, I said, north of Corning, south of Rochester. She did something with her mouth, a tired grimace-smile, and headed for the cafe, chit-chat concluded.

Note new wallpaper. The place has been gussied up recently
Note new wallpaper. The place has been gussied up recently

The room was exposed cinder-block with a paper band around the toilet seat, old-school, but HBO had an original episode of The Sopranos that evening, and you could look out the window and watch the snow fall. One of my business partners sat pretty much all night in the coffee shop eating pie. The other walked in circles smoking a cigar, leaving patterns in the snow-filled parking lot. By morning the roads had been mostly plowed, and we began the five-hour drive home, which took eight or nine hours. The weather-band radio insisted it was still not safe to travel. The back seat was littered with beef-jerky wrappers and empty two-litre containers of Pepsi. The partnership was pretty much over by this point, and I was sick of the Saab, as well. Neither would be around by the end of the year.

Now ten years have passed, and I suddenly find I’m back driving another Saab 9-3 again. Couldn’t even tell you how all this happened. Elton John might call it the circle of life, but he probably has someone to drive him around. Evidently this latest iteration of Saab is actually an Opel Vectra badged with the Swedish griffin logo, missing the distinctive hatchback-and-weather-radio. The ignition is still on the floor, and the engine still has a turbocharger, which only kicks in when it`s good and ready, and never mind what you might have been expecting. The dog seems less delighted with this Saab, compared to the previous one, but I`m considerably happier with it, so that makes it nearly a draw. What’s mostly changed between Saabs is the status of the car’s manufacturer. Ten years ago, General Motors was busy sewing the seeds of its own collapse, cranking out models that didn`t seem to be adequately engineered, assembled, serviced or able to be explained.

Since then, the General seems to have straightend out some previous issues, but he`s like a man accustomed to heavy drinking in private, whose years of midnight debauchery were a secret from no one who witnessed him stumbling out of the Officer`s Club gulping breath mints at closing time. He could keep his bad behavior out of view, and continue to function at a reasonable level — until the day he couldn`t, and that`s when he learned how exactly many people he`d been pissing off. Now the General has been busted down to Sergeant, as I think I previously said, and he`s entirely without friends. Even the people who have made their careers apologizing for him — congressmen, local dealers, auto magazine editors, other toadies — can`t entirely believe he`s let it all slip away this quickly. That’s life in this free market economy, me hearties. Someone will straighten out this mess in the auto industry, and we`ll soon have forgotten all about brands such as Buick and Pontiac as quickly as we`ve forgotten about Durant and LaSalle. Shanghai Automotive can take over Chevrolet the same way they snared MG Rover; now that you mention it, the names even sound a bit similar: Shanghai, Chevy. Tata can have Hummer, and I’d encourage them to bring out a new vehicle called the Tummeler. The US Army can buy their mission-critical military vehicles from Frank Stronach and a couple of Russian oligarchs. Displaced UAW workers can earn a bare-sustenance wage by joining the New Cilivian Conservation Corps, and clean up the national parks so the Chinese and Indian tourists will have somewhere nice to stay on their camping vacations, seeing the USA in their overseas-built Chevrolets. None of this will matter all that much. It just won`t.

By now, it`s clear even to me that the designation `9-3` refers to the number of Saabs General Motors actually manages to sell each year: nine to guys named Olav who just retired from the herring import-export business, and three to people like me, who would probably rather be driving an Isetta, except that they don`t make them no mo’. That’s what they call a niche market, which is a ludicrous enough conclusion to a brand that once stood for something, and a corporation that was once strong enough to dictate to resentful consumers across the western world.

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