It was 18 months ago that SCM Legal Analyst John Draneas and I bought a 1965 three-cylinder, two-stroke Saab 96 on eBay, plucked it out of a barn in Rimini, MT, and tried to drive it home to Portland.
Readers may recall that we covered 400 of the 700 miles with little drama aside from a shredded rear tire, broken ignition key, permanently open air vent that gave sub-zero a new meaning, and windshield wipers that confused streaking with cleaning.
But those were minor inconveniences, and for a few hours we pretended to be modern day Vikings, setting off in our corsair for lands to conquer. We renamed ourselves Keith, Deft Shifter of the Column Wand, and John, Conqueror of the Oil Mixing Procedure.
Alas, all of our role playing came to an end at milemarker 298 on Interstate 90, as the three little pistons in our 48-horsepower engine decided they were tired of this up and down stuff and decided to snuggle up to the cylinder walls and rest. Permanently, as it turned out.
We coasted silently to the side of the road (perhaps the only true benefit of the Saab's free-wheeling feature), and came to rest next to a pile of animal skeletons. "Lucky," as we had named the Saab, had found the spot where the Washington Highway Patrol dumped road kill carcasses. Perhaps there was a message here for us.
STUPIDLY, WE REBUILD
Rather than simply donating Lucky to the next Saab swap meet as a door prize, we decided she should become a runner again. Due to the roller bearing construction of the Saab bottom end, rarely are they rebuilt. Undeterred, and with the help of Saab fanatic Fred Ankeny at
A-n-T Tires in Portland, we found a used short block and had it installed.
Soon enough, at least measured in restoration time (somewhat more than six months, but less than a year), Lucky was smokin' again. We took her to local Alfa and BMW guru Nasko for a quick check-over; he made us promise to take the car away each night, as he was afraid if any Saab owners saw it parked in his lot, they'd start bringing their cars in as well.
Now running strong, I drove her out to the Portland vintage races, where she was one of a pair of "two-smokes" in the Saab corral. I had forgotten one of the endearing characteristics of any kind of club gathering. All of the fanatics delight in pointing out every little thing that is wrong with your car, and ask questions like, "Didn't you know it was supposed to be injected before you bought it?"
On the way home, the driver's side seatbelt buckle disintegrated. Saabs have always had a reputation for being safe cars, as, at least in theory, they employ some elements of aircraft construction. Nonetheless, this shattered seatbelt kept Lucky by the side of the road for months. It's bad enough driving a nearly 40-year-old car in modern traffic, without leaning into the punch by not having any kind of restraint system. Our repeated queries to the local Saabists for help in located another buckle fell on deaf, or at least deafened by two-stroke exhaust noise, ears.
Finally, Dan Leisy, whose Dan's Auto Upholstery shop is near our offices, solved the problem by cleverly adapting the buckle and receiver from a '60s Chevy to fit in a way that allowed us to use the original three-point belt and mounting points.
A couple of weeks ago, with sunny May skies beckoning, SCM Executive Editor Cindy Banzer and I decided it was time for Lucky to get some exercise. Our pre-drive inspection was minimal. No checking the oil, as with Lucky, there's no oil level to check (the two-stroke oil gets mixed into the gas tank). I pumped the tires up to 32 pounds, made sure there were no tools in the trunk (everyone knows cars only break down when you have tools along), washed a few months accumulated grime off the windows and headed towards Mt. Hood.
ERIK CARLSSON, 21ST CENTURY STYLE
Just past the town of Rhododendron, I turned onto a secondary road I know well, as I use it for comparison testing modern cars, most recently a BMW X3, a Porsche Cayenne Turbo and a Subaru WRX.
Visions of the Monte Carlo Ralley dancing through my head, I envisioned front-wheel drive Lucky clawing through the gravel and sending dust and rocks flying everywhere. I was going about 50 mph as I started a controlled power slide through a favorite broad left-hand sweeper, with a sheer mountain on my left, and a 500-foot drop-off to my right.
As I surmised later, the over-inflated tires (something closer to 20 psi would have been more appropriate) acted like slicks, and the rear of the car abruptly slid out of control. Not having my copy of How to Operate a Vintage Front-Wheel-Drive Car on Gravel handy, I kept feeding it throttle and hoped that the front end would pull us straight. Just as the right rear tire was starting to slide off the road and into the ravine, the front tires caught, and after a couple of impressive ("terrifying" was the word Ms. Banzer used) fishtails, we continued up the mountain.
Proceeding somewhat more cautiously, we reflected that driving a '60s Saab in a spirited fashion takes more skill and better preparation than does tossing around a Mitsubishi Evo, or any modern car with all-wheel-drive and traction and stability control.
The drive back was at first uneventful, although the speedometer did decide to climb to an indicated 100 and then stay there. Even Saabs are subject to wishful thinking.
Within a few miles of home, the clutch pedal started going soft. One block from our garage, it sank to the floor, and changing gears became impossible.
I pushed the car to the side of the road. (At only 1,770 pounds it wasn't hard to do.) The clutch reservoir was empty, and the brake reservoir halfway down as well. Rummaging around in the trunk, I came across a bottle of brake fluid, and refilling the reservoirs got us back underway.
Tomorrow, Lucky goes back to Nasko for a rebuild of whatever master and slave cylinders have decided to give up the ghost.
Now here's where it gets a little odd. I always have a variety of cars passing through my life, including the new cars from manufacturers each week, plus treats like the 1967 E-Type coupe now headed our way.
Nearly every car is superior in every way to this little Saab. But there is something so basic (okay, weird) about driving a three-cylinder, two-stroke car that I've convinced Draneas we should hang on to Lucky for a little while longer.
I suppose there's something endearing about a car that can turn a 90-mile trip into a pulse-pounding adventure, or makes owners of boats with outboard motors give you thumbs-up when you go by a marina.
I can't explain why we're keeping Lucky. But then, at least to readers of SCM, I guess that I don't really have to.