Today’s question is how did a kid raised on a ranch in southern Idaho come to acquire such an odd lot of funny foreign cars? After a Simca 1204 and a Ford (Mercury!) Capri, I had moved on to an apple-green Saab 99. If a French Simca was an odd choice for the nosebleed high Rocky Mountains, what on earth was I doing with a Swedish auto sporting a Triumph-designed (the horror!) motor?
The story I told my therapist went like this: first, our little village of three hundred hardy if isolated souls happened to straddle U.S. Route 89, which was the main north-south route to Yellowstone National Park, which meant a steady flow of summer tourist traffic. As it happened, I myself was a major bottleneck both morning and afternoon on this well-traveled highway during the summer months as one of my appointed tasks was to shepherd (wrangle?) our dairy herd to and from its summer pasture. I did my best to keep my herd out of the middle of the road, but for those unacquainted with bovine habits, the average cow is a stubborn and immovable object. It does no good to honk at her; such provocation only makes her more determined not to be moved from her path. This was a hard lesson for many weary and impatient travelers. I shudder to think what would happen in this day and age with every other car or truck packing heat, but in those times even the most short-tempered driver had to adjust, at least momentarily, to the bucolic anachronism of my little herd. No doubt several hundred photos of me and my posse are still mouldering in vacation scrapbooks across the U.S. as rarely a day went by that some traveler wasn’t pointing a camera in our direction. We were, I realize, our town’s sole tourist attraction.
What does this have to do with funny foreign cars, you may well ask. It so happens that when we weren’t attending to our various cowpoke duties, my older brother and I could often be found perched in a tree in our front yard bordering Highway 89, pursuing one of our few available pastimes: counting cars. We were fortunate in that the road before us provided a great variety of exotic machines that you would not normally find within shouting distance of our village. These strange vehicles provided us with the raw material for that game of our own devising, which, happily, required only a notebook and a pencil to play. Given the limited recreational prospects of our tiny burg, we made do with such homely activities. However, don’t harbor the impression that we only counted cars . . . we also classified and ranked them. At an early age I could identify not only the make and model of nearly every domestic car and truck . . . I knew what year it was made. I know, a prodigy, right?
The fly in the ointment of our little game was that initially we struggled to identify those few and random cars that weren’t manufactured in the USA. We were heralds of the zeitgeist, however, and whether by osmosis or radio waves, we soon adapted and were able to pick out any MG, or Peugeot, or FIAT, or even the odd Borgward. I can only assume that it was an innate generational skill without rational explanation.
In any event, aside from our experience as two little car fanatics perched in a tree, there were other influences as well, including the appearance of our city relatives with their sometimes astounding automobiles, the most pedestrian of which was an ever-present canvas top VW Beetle. Included in the list, however, were more unconventional examples: my brother-in-law’s Renault Dauphine, my other brother-in-law’s Citroën DS19 company car(!), and my uncle’s Volvos.
The Citroën is so off the wall that I still can’t wrap my head around it, so I’ll move on to the Volvos. My maternal uncle was an odd duck whose penchant for reactionary conspiracy theories would allow him to fit comfortably into mainstream America in our present day, although back then he was considered to be an eccentric, albeit harmless, outlier. He earned his living by running a mink ranch . . . a pursuit that very likely no longer exists, at least if we’re lucky. I don’t know your notion of a mink ranch might look like, but if you are thinking that it consists of rugged mink wranglers riding the range of a scenic Old West with a coffee pot, beans, and a side of bacon in their saddlebags on their way to the mink roundup, you are sadly mistaken. An actual mink ranch, in fact, resembled something more like an industrial chicken operation, the difference being that a chicken won’t bite your damn hand off it you stick it in its cage. And the smell! Oh Lordy . . .
Being involved in such an operation could very well have affected my uncle’s sensibilities, I have no way of knowing at this late date. Whatever the cause, one of his defining characteristics was a predilection for Volvos. Where it came from, I haven’t the slightest idea as his previous cars had been a line of vast two-tone Lincolns the size of aircraft carriers. Whatever influences may have initiated this sea change, they were long-lasting, as he drove an assortment of Volvos for the rest of his life. Not only that, but on occasion he would toss me his keys and let me drive them as well.
It so happened that one summer afternoon when he and my aunt were visiting he pointed out the kitchen window and revealed his latest acquisition for his Volvo stable: a brand new 164, hot off the Torslanda production line, and what a beauty it was, dark blue with light blue leather seats, which I can still smell if I close my eyes. “Well, are you going to drive it?” he asked, and I wasn’t about to say ‘nope’. I returned an hour later, beguiled by its many Swedish virtues. Thus began a longstanding fondness for Swedish automobiles that would finally bear fruit some years later when I fell for the siren song of Svenska Aeroplan AB.
On my first visit to Europe it so happened that my sister and I booked a ferry from Denmark to Oslo, Norway, an overnight voyage that braved the very high seas before taking refuge in assorted Norwegian fjords. After a day in Oslo, we headed east, driving the length and breadth of Sweden in our modest VW Squareback before returning to Copenhagen. We stayed overnight in a hotel situated in a very small town where I unwittingly kept the key in my pocket when we left the next morning. As it wasn’t attached to one of those little plastic tags common in the U.S., which you could in theory drop in any mailbox, there was no returning it and I have kept it to this day in the misguided belief that I would someday return. Notwithstanding that unfortunate episode, two days on the lightly traveled roads of Sweden nurtured my affection for the country, maybe because it reminded me of the rugged terrain of my native Idaho. During our long drive it dawned on me that Swedish automobiles seemed ideally adapted to their native territory and that their inherent ruggedness wasn’t the result of some campaign cooked up in a Madison Avenue sweatshop. They seemed to have grown spontaneously and robustly from the Swedish landscape. Just how robust I would find decades later when my son purchased a very used Volvo 264. A careless Puget Sound driver (is there any other kind?) had targeted the driver’s door. I located a sort-of matching one at a wrecking yard in North Seattle only to discover that you needed a crane to lift it.
But let us return to the late Seventies, when the demands of an expanding household dictated a car more practical than the little Capri that had served us reasonably well. I perused the local classifieds, initially zeroing in on an Alfa Romeo 2000 Berlina. Now, I was well acquainted with all things Alfa, having spent several months in Milano, where they were ubiquitous. I took the locally sourced 2000 out for a test drive, in retrospect likely scaring the bejesus out of its unsuspecting owner as I figured that an Alfa demanded to be driven as it would be in its native habitat, i.e. flat out. I was, of course, immediately smitten by the Alfa bug, but though I knew that Alfas of that vintage were reputed to be sorted and reliable machinery in their homeland, the fact remained that there was no one in my fair city who was qualified to work on them and the nearest dealer was in Salt Lake City, an hour and a half away. My own mechanical skills remained basic at best, and so with a heavy heart I decided that, discretion being the better part of valor, I would resume my quest for the funny foreign car grail. The Saab was next up, and though it wasn’t an EMS, which I would have preferred, it also didn’t carry the steep EMS price tag. I test drove the 99, more sedately than the Alfa, I suspect, as somehow the Swede seemed to demand restraint. Nevertheless, I found it spacious, handy, and seemingly well maintained. There was a local independent shop that worked on Saabs, so my wife and I decided to take the plunge, selling the Capri for cash on the barrelhead, whereupon we drove the 99 home to our brand spanking new house we had built just south of the Idaho border.
The Saab was the ideal car for the northern Utah clime, as anything the local weatherman threw at it was certainly no worse than it would have encountered in its native land. It handled the snow as well or better than the late, lamented Simca and was roomier to boot, which after all was the object of the exercise in the first place. We hadn’t been able to afford a garage when we built the house–the plan was to add one later–but the hardy Saab handled sitting outside in the sub-zero temps without batting an eye. Its Bosch fuel injection was a revelation when it came time to fire her up on a January morning–after all, the cars that came before the Capri still had manual chokes! We never even bought snow tires for the 99, but then I’d never purchased a set of them in my life as having the skill to handle driving in heavy snow was the birthright of anyone born in the high mountains of Idaho: we don’t need no stinking snow tires.
Come summer it was time for another Road Trip to the East Coast, as my wife’s family lived there and she was homesick for the Chesapeake Bay. We enlisted my old pal, Norm, as a third driver as he was headed back to grad school in Michigan and, hey, it was only a few hundred miles out of the way. (Ain’t youth grand?) The trip to Ann Arbor was mostly uneventful as the Saab ate up the highway miles with a hearty appetite and reasonable gas mileage, if not quite up to Capri standards. We dropped Norm off early one morning in a grocery store parking lot and changed our heading to south by southeast. After a visit to family plus Ocean City as well as the Smithsonian in Warshington (sic) D.C.and ample helpings of soft-shell crab we turned around to retrace our footsteps to the greater Intermountain West through the now familiar interminable flat lands and cornfields of the Midwest. We made it as far as Wyoming when something in the dash started sending up little curlicues of white smoke. We all know that feeling, don’t we?
Now in my experience a smoking automobile is never a particularly good omen. We pulled off to the side of the road where I used my rudimentary electrical skills to determine that a wire from the turn signal stalk had lost its insulation and was rubbing against the steering column subsequently blowing a couple of fuses for good measure. I wrapped some scotch tape around the wire and we were on the road again, We stopped at the Saab dealer in Salt Lake City to purchase a new stalk and fuses and were relieved to find they had all of the above in stock. I unscrewed the old stalk, screwed in the new one, replaced the blackened fuses and all’s well that ends well, to coin a phrase. Our sense of relief was combined with our appreciation that the 99 hadn’t burned to the ground out in the wilds of Wyoming, leaving us to the mercies of the coyotes, prairie dogs, and long-haul truckers.
In the two plus years the Saab never threw us another scare, proving to be as reliable as the day is long. It wasn’t flashy by any stretch of the imagination, but I came to appreciate that as a virtue, especially when I compared it to the contemporary Detroit offerings. I never really grew fond of its Kermit-green paint job and I had to be cautious not to jerk my head back quickly or the pretzel shaped headrests–hailed in the press as a sensible solution to the the head restraint regulations because you could see through them– would give me a concussion. The whole ignition key-between-the-seats business, so amusing at the outset, eventually impressed itself onto my consciousness to the degree that I occasionally still grope the center console when it comes time to start a car. Could it be that Saab was right all along? I suppose that’s a moot point now that everything starts with a button that looks like a doorbell.
For sensible, astutely engineered, straightforward go-anywhere-in-the-snow practicality, the Saab has never been beat. It ranks up there with Simca as the funniest of funny foreign cars I have owned, but its solid phlegmatic character was very much its own thing. Down the road there would be a 9-3 in our household, but by then Saab had lost some of its matronly qualities and become . . . sexy. The ignition key still resided between the seats and it still went anywhere in the snow, but it was svelte, beautiful, and luxurious. No more stamped vinyl door cards and scratchy velour upholstery that wore like iron, and no more Triumph Dolomite slant four that caused such fear and loathing when bolted together like Frankenstein’s monster and dropped into the Triumph Stag. Instead, under the bonnet was a mighty turbocharged four whose turbo boost gauge moved in reverse synchronicity with the fuel gauge. Stomp on that throttle and you will pay.
The old 99, in the end, was maybe too sensible. Soon I grew restless and resumed the search for the automotive grail. In our next episode we will examine what happens when, seduced by the siren song of the Scuderia Agnelli, you abandon all reason and bet your chips on a machine that could very well break your heart.