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SAAB 96.

A classic from Sweden.

The Nordic Cars - Part I

Counterculture: The culture of those people who reject the traditional values and behavior of society.

Well, at the time I was doing it, I didn't realize I was doing it. I mean, being anti-social and all.

That 'crazy' time -- the late 60's -- was already history and my comrades in arms were fast fading into their gray flannels. But. Hell's Bells! I guess I needed one more thrill!

Two indelible images come to mind regarding this, admittedly, rather unusual car. The first time I saw it - or, rather, took

first cognizance of it -- was as an impressionable student in Connecticut in the mid-70's. I believe I was crossing the road somewhere in the 'burbs when I saw the White Swede heading my way. It passed me, all four bangers at peak revs.

I suppose it was at that very moment when I knew I wanted one. It had an edge to it.

An edge? This thing? Really? But why?

Some more context. The end of the 60's left all of us depleted. The bad old days were almost over -- the imminent end of the Viet Nam debacle was, by then, a foregone conclusion. Still, we who 'were there' (not the war, but the era) felt a little superior to those who weren't, and listening to new groups like REO Speedwagon or whatever just didn't do it. The Fillmore (Canned Heat, Hendrix, etc.) was, well, "What was happenin', man!" -- And these new guys were just duds.

So, come the 1970's, the hangover not yet over, I guess I needed one, farewell touché to that great era and the oddballs who peopled it before a total break (Adulthood!!. AHHHH!!) could occur. Only thing was, being a student, a used Karmann Ghia was all I could manage. Close but no cigar. In fact, the Ghia could almost be called, chic, compared with the baroque, teardrop shaped, Saab 96. Whosoever owned one of these - or so I convinced myself - was no ticky-tack suburbanite; no party to the bourgeoisie nonsense of home ownership and clipped hedges; no middle class hoi polloi whose main goals in life were a job with benefits, 2.4 kids, and well-established credit! Oh, no. not this guy! This was 'Mr. Independence'!

(Mind you, at the time, the 96 was probably the equivalent of a Subaru Outback or the like. And the one I saw was probably owned by some corporate lawyer-type with the 70's equivalent, soccer-mom spouse. But never mind!)

I saw what I wanted to see! Viva Che Guevara!!)

But ownership was not to be for some 20+ years.

As can be seen by my previous cars (after the Ghia), testosterone -- or something -- intervened, and it wasn't until I took a last, bone-jarring ride in my low-slung, pavement-happy Alfa along the outback, gully-washed roads of NY's Finger Lakes Region, that the image of that white blob with the pinched nose coming at me emerged yet again from mists of time and, well. I had to have it! And right now!

("TINNNNNG !!- BOI-OI-OI-OI-NG!"- The sound of my Alfa bottoming out.)

Wasn't easy to find, either. But when it was finally dropped off at my mechanic friend's home, I was to receive the second indelible image related to this car.

To say the least, my mechanic friend was not impressed.

He had gotten used to my penchant for fast, exotic machinery which, I take it, was also fun for him to work on, test drive, etc.

So, what are the first words out of his mouth? I mean, after his furrowed eyes bored a hole straight through my head?

"A frog with paint on it", was all he said.

But "A FROG WITH PAINT ON IT!!" was what I heard!

Now, there's a theory that fools and great visionaries have one thing in common: Both are convinced they see the future -- what will 'catch on', so to speak. For every Edison who sweats through years of tireless lab experimentation for just the right filament for the light bulb that will change society, there are hundreds of well, "dead-enders", in the vernacular of the day, who follow their own lights into tunnels with no exit. They see nothing but go on in anyway.

It was a downright throwing of the gauntlet to Corvette, Mustang, Camaro, and XK-E owners. You guys are just commoners! This is the real gem - the real jewel of the automotive world! OK, so 65 blistering horsepower means you spend more time on soft shoulders than asphalt to let the owners of cars with even normal pickup - Honda Civics and the like -- get on with their lives. Never mind that you look a bit retarded driving this thing. So what!? You say to yourself. You are on to something and the world cannot admit that it is blind! OK, so the only woman who is even remotely interested in being seen in it still listens to Joan Baez and has part of her septum missing.

It was obvious. I needed another input. (OK. So I should have done that before I paid for it. And it's just possible that I didn't see the wife of the previous owner 'high-fiving' her three year old and screaming something like, "Finally!!" when I pulled out of her driveway.)

My chance for needed verification - vindication of my incredible insight regarding this car - came the following week when my dentist pulled in with his sleek, Austin Healy 3000.

He stared from one angle and then the other. He, too, looked straight through me. Then when the words finally came it was pure novocain.

"Well. I think you may be the only one in the county with one of these."

Thanks, Doc. I'm still your patient, but that was far from what I was looking for.

I was to ensue on a great voyage of personal discovery: I would find the true value and meaning and of this car -- this bizarre Scandinavian symbol of. Of what? I didn't have a clue.

I consulted the Ancient Greeks, noted Persian philosophers and even, the timeless, Upanishads. Nothing there.

I then delved into the exotic field of Runic Numerology and the Viking Sagas, hoping that these would take me closer to the Nordic essence of the thing. But, there too, I found nothing to assuage my wounded ego.

Could it be that I was. driving a nut-mobile!? Some distant relative to the Racing Outhouse or the Weiner Mobile?

And if so, what of my long-held and highly regarded status in the community -- Mr. Exotic? Was that lost forever? Would I now be restricted to. speaking with town meshuggenahs and introverted Metrosexuals!? Oh, God, NO!. Not that!!!

Then, alone in my study, I found what I was looking for.

It was in a book by Dean Acheson, the austere looking Secretary of State under President Truman.

There beneath a photo of Truman and Churchill, the caption read: "Two men of character."

My release - no, my Epiphany! It was the very word I sought! Character!

This thing had that in spades! An incredibly svelte teardrop design, a wood-finished interior, built by a jet fighter manufacturer (Viggen), and with a 4-speed manual shifter right off the steering column! Cool! QUAINT!! UNIQUE!!!

And when I parked it downtown. Guess were all the interest veered? Towards the four Corvettes? No. The Lincoln Towncar? No. The Dodge Intrepid? No!! Of course not!!

People were guessing, bending, asking, wondering. I felt like a little like Lindbergh when I climbed in. 'Would it fly'?

I could hear them thinking. What would the engine sound like? Where the *&^%$#@! did he get this thing!?

Ok, so when that V4 engine caught the spark, there was no great thunder from down under to be heard. But did any of these people realize the racing pedigree of the car they couldn't quite take their eyes off of?

Granted, rally racing isn't quite an American sport. The annual, Baja Mexico run does make it into the end-pages of most of the racing magazines, but only for those with Speed Channel does the pounding frenzy of the Paris-Dakar or the Monaco (winter) rallies make you sit up and gasp: "Now, that's a real test of a car!"

Yes, indeed. Speed, cornering, climbing, braking, driver skill. You name it. Every component - human and mechanical - is under enormous stress for hour after hour, days on end, during these punishing, overland rallies. Car and Driver/Motor Trend/Road & Track and their readers seem consumed with 0-60, quarter mile and skid pad stats under idealized conditions. Now I am not a fan of the latest incarnations of the House that my Saab built: those "boy-toys" for grownups, Imprezas and Evos with their fake wings, etc. (I'm always looking for the big wind-up key underneath.) But, in realistic, suburban life, with its crumbling roadways, surprise mud holes and uneven loads (like watermelons rolling around in the trunk), you just might prefer a proven rally racer over a Le Mans prototype as the quickest ride between two points.

And my little number, pulling out before their very eyes right now, was master of that game for many years running. Not only did the winning machinery early on tend to be Scandinavian, but so also did the drivers. (Something related to ice-blue eyes and Nordic-blonde intensity, perhaps? Or maybe connected to the stark endurance of the cross-country skier - another specialty of the Norsemen?)

Some of the people gazing at the car are my age. And I can see the feint glow of recognition setting in.

'Ah, yes..' they are thinking. Before the current SUV craze; and even before the previous Sport Jeep phase was ushered in with the imposing Wagoneer, there was this. The car for the professional, advanced degree in hand, who wanted the most of from his weekend outings. The "Thinking Man's" choice: A weekender that could make that run deep into the Adirondacks a fearless romp -- an absolute blast! - every time. And then, with equal confidence, got you to work through the deepest blizzard, heaviest monsoon rain, and strongest gale-force wind that the Good Lord could throw at you.

Over the years, the Japanese, and the Europeans did get better at the rally game - with both cars and drivers (although the last World Rally Championship still went to a Norwegian). And, while the heyday of the Swedish/Saab/Nordic dominance in this form of motorsport is no longer a sure thing, when my machine rolled though the Alps, it was king of those hills, and everyone there knew the meaning of it: If there was snow on the ground - or there was no ground at all - the fastest way through was with the help of the Icemen. Though they never played at Formula One and were not represented at Le Mans, Indy -- or even NATO -- and despite rumor to the contrary: after thirteen hundred years, the Vikings had yet to give up their hold on the continent.

To acquire one of these might be a challenge. But certainly worth the effort!

Just look through the last issue of Car & Driver. The Honda looks like the Pontiac which looks like the Acura which looks like the Audi -- which looks too much like the new Mercedes. Hey! And they're all the same color as well: Silver!

In the end, isn't it all about distinction, individuality, and. Character!

Next time ... The Jetsons Next Door


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