In few other countries are people as attached to their cars as Americans are. We develop intense hatreds for cars that betray us and affection bordering on silliness for those that prove faithful.
We even name cars. My late mother’s last car — she was in her 80s — was a sports car, “Blue Baby.” My wife all but drove the wheels off of a car she called “The Unit.” A friend’s truck is less than affectionately known as “The Slug.”
I go through cars the way most people go through shoes. A year, a year and a half tops, and I’m bored with them. There have been only two exceptions, and both were Saabs. The first served faithfully for four years, and the last was a record-setter at five years. I traded it recently for a newer car, and I knew the instant the papers were signed how Benedict Arnold must have felt. It’s fair to say that I loved that car.
Saabs had a reputation for being quirky. That’s “had,” rather than “have,” because the company has gone the way of the Packard, the Studebaker, the Oldsmobile. That was part of why it was time for a change. Cars no longer manufactured lose their cachet, parts become harder to find. It was time.
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That quirky reputation? It was deserved. How many other cars had wipers on the headlights?
Instead of being on the steering-wheel column, the norm for just about every other car on the planet, a Saab’s ignition switch was on the console between the bucket seats. It took a while to get used to reaching down instead of up to engage the key, and vice versa. Even after several months, I still catch myself pushing the key into the cup holder of my new car.
Made in Sweden, Saabs were one of the first cars to use rack and pinion steering. They popularized turbocharged engines, used front-wheel drive decades before it was widely available on American cars, and their styling was unique. Saabs looked and drove like nothing else. They were sturdy and rock solid. When other cars were blowing across the center line in crosswinds, a Saab held the road like a Sherman tank. They felt heavy but got good fuel economy. And they were comfortable, even luxurious.
America’s early Saab dealers included Kurt Vonnegut. This was before he had established himself as one our greatest (and quirkiest) writers. Vonnegut was captivated by the innovative style and technology of the 1956 models, which his daughter likened to spaceships.
Truth compels me to admit that my last Saab — four have graced my garage — had a couple of quirks that did not inspire affection. The antics of the trunk lid, for example, were a source of continuing frustration.
They were one of those inexplicable things cars do that baffle mechanics because you can’t make them happen. They happen sporadically and only when they feel like it. (A Fiat my wife and I owned when we were newly married comes to mind. It howled like a dog for no apparent reason and never at predictable intervals.)
The Saab’s trunk malfunction operated on a similar schedule. I’d get in the car, sit down and the lid would pop open. Then an annoying chime would sound to alert me that something was amiss with the trunk (as if it weren’t obvious). It didn’t happen every time I sat down, or every third time or 10th time. Sometimes it wouldn’t happen for weeks, then three times in a single week. Mechanics, predictably, were confounded.
Another of the car’s eccentricities had to do with the aforementioned ignition switch. It’s easy to forget about the key when it’s practically on the floor instead of in plain sight on the steering column, which makes it easy to leave it in the ignition if you get distracted.
Note to its new owner: NEVER DO THIS.
If you leave the key too long in a Saab ignition — overnight, for example — you can’t get it out. I managed to do this three times in five years, and each time I had to have the car towed to the shop for the key to be removed using wizardry known only to mechanics.
“What would happen if I just pulled hard enough to force it out?” I asked Michael, my mechanic, the first time this happened.
“Instead of a little check, you’d be writing me one for about $1,200,” he replied.
Not once, however, did that car force me to write a big check. Other than routine maintenance, the only expense in five years was to replace a part that was leaking when I bought it.
This brings us to the new car. New for me, at least; it’s a couple of years old. So far, I like it pretty well. It’s sleek and shiny. It’s the color I wanted, it gets great gas mileage and it has some impressive digital features. I might never learn to use them, but they’re impressive.
Actually, I like it better than pretty well. It’s a great car. But it takes awhile to warm up to a new car. No matter how stylish or economical or technically sophisticated a car is, it takes time to earn your trust. It has to prove itself over years and miles before it has your full confidence and, yes, affection.
I like the new car just fine, thanks.
But I loved the old one. Breaking up is never easy.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com.