Leaving Helena, Montana, we passed the Wok 'N' Roll sushi house on our way towards the Continental Divide. Our mount was a newly purchased 1965 Saab 96, with a 46-horsepower, 841cc two-stroke engine.
My co-conspirator John Draneas and I found the car on eBay Motors, the result of a late-night Internet search after a few too many glasses of wine. It met our criteria of being relatively interesting, not too expensive, and located somewhere off the beaten path-in this case Rimini, a ghost town just outside Helena. Flying in, picking it up and driving it back would surely be an adventure. For $2,600 we became owners.
I had owned a pair of two-stroke 96s when at Reed College, a base-level model like our new steed, and a high-performance 850 Monte Carlo. The ring-a-ding-ding sound of the engine, the obtuse but effective column shift, and the unique sensation when the car went into its freewheeling mode were all fond memories. Draneas, past president of the Oregon Region Porsche club, and owner of a 911SC, Ferrari 328 GTS and Alfa Giulietta Spider Normale, thought the experience would be a pleasant divertissement from his day job as an attorney.
The seller met us at the Helena airport, and we exchanged a cashier's check for the keys and title to the car. Our first challenge was the 6,320-foot MacDonald Pass. Like Hannibal riding a two-stroke elephant, we conquered it handily at 50 mph in third gear, then freewheeled down the other side at some speed significantly above that. The speedometer read properly to about 60 mph and would then jump to 110 without warning. Wishful thinking, perhaps?
We passed our first car while coasting down the mountain, an '80s minivan whose driver appeared shocked when our gumdrop-shaped red torpedo shot by on the outside of a turn. The Saab handled well enough, staying flat even at 20 mph above the advisory limits, and the front disc brakes adequately slowed the 1,770-pound car.
Our initial problems were few, and included a permanently open fresh-air vent that allowed a high volume of frigid air into the car. Cramming the cowl intake full of paper towels solved this. Water ran down the inside of the windshield when it rained, and something had taken a bite out of the left wiper blade. Excessive wind noise around the windows due to tired gaskets was easily solved by a liberal application of duct tape.
We spent the night in Missoula at the DoubleTree (we asked the clerk if they had thought of hosting an RM auction), and had a surprisingly good dinner at The Riverfront Pasta House (we couldn't find a Swedish House) where we ordered the special, a wild mushroom fettuccine served with chanterelle, portabella and button mushrooms and sautéed with olive oil and garlic. Accompanied by a bottle of 1999 Badia Coltibuono Chianti Classico, and served in the "jumbo" glasses they reserved for wine tasting, it would have been a $150 meal in Carmel. $60 including tip was the tariff in Missoula; of course, the ambience was not quite the same.
We got off to an early start, the Saab proudly wearing the official "Sports Car Market Magazine" magnetic signs on its flanks. Draneas made a few off-color remarks about driving a four-wheeled chainsaw, and the Evinrude outboard on his boat having more power than the Saab engine. I reminded him that he was a co-investor in this collectible vintage car, and that old cars sometimes have big ears so one should be thoughtful in what one says around them.
We'd traveled 400 miles when a rear tire shredded on the freeway, creating some excitement and a chance to operate the antique Saab jack. The ignition key breaking off in Draneas's hand as he tried to restart the car further raised the entertainment level of the trip.
In Spokane, for $225 we had a set of 165x15 tires installed. While the Saab was up on the rack, we admired its flat, aerodynamically efficient underbody. The owner's manual contained a photo of a Saab 35 Draken jet fighter, with a top speed of over 1,200 mph. We weren't sure exactly which parts our 96 shared with the Draken, but basked in the shared glow of supersonic performance.
For $7, a locksmith cut us a pair of new keys. Encouraged, we set out again. What could go wrong now?
A few miles later we found out, as the engine seized and we freewheeled silently to the side of Interstate 90. Firmly planted by mile marker 298, we waited for the tow truck to arrive. Sadly, we removed the SCM signs from the side of our now-still mount. After finding a temporary home for the car through the kindness of John Lippis's Swedish Motor Car Service in Spokane, we hopped on the last flight out of Spokane. We were home in Portland by 9 p.m., as we had planned all along, but by way of Southwest Airlines rather than by Saab Aktiebolag of Trollhatten.
With the help of Saab fanatics Satch Carlson of Anchorage, and Fred Ankeny of local A&T Tires, we are sourcing the parts necessary to bring the 96 back to life. I'd like to have a few more ring-a-ding-ding miles under my belt before we move on to the next car.
I suppose if I were a hunter, I'd be out looking for the next gazelle or pronghorn antelope to sate my appetite for the strange and unusual conquest. Instead, as a hopeless gearhead, I'm always in search of an interesting car at an attractive price in an unusual location. The night we arrived home, I e-mailed Draneas about a Citroën 2CV on the Internet that was located just outside Flagstaff, Arizona. "It's only $6,500, the guy says it can be driven anywhere without any worries, and he'll even pick us up at the airport."
ON THE COVER
Artist Charles Maher spotted the 1955 Mercedes Gullwing on our cover, S/N 5500526, at Laguna Seca some years ago. Its current owner, Ted Stroscher of San Juan Capistrano, California, bought the car in 1996 from its original owner, who had raced it in SCCA club events in the '50s.
Maher, a member of the Automotive Fine Art Society, lives in the Detroit area. He has exhibited his work at the Pebble Beach Concours and created the artwork for the poster of Detroit's Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise this year. Maher will exhibit his paintings at the Hilton Head Concours in South Carolina from November 1-3, 2002, and at the Amelia Island Concours in Florida on March 8, 2003.
This acrylic on canvas painting was auctioned at the Meadow Brook Hall Concours d'Elegance in August 2000. Fifty Gicelee prints have been made and may be purchased for $450 unframed or $650 framed. Contact the artist at 248/851-7560 (MI), firstname.lastname@example.org.