As an author of car books and an editor at ec, occasionally I am asked to speak at enthusiast gatherings. I'm happy to do it-getting a chance to meet with people whose arcane interests match my own is always interesting and occasionally enlightening. It has given me a perspective on who spends the most money and who has the most fun. If you're new to this idea that you could own a collectable vehicle in which other people might take interest, but you have little disposable income, maybe it's time you consider a Saab.
Once upon a time, it was cheap to buy an old British sports car with which you could join a club. After learning the secret handshake and the mysteries of Lucas electrical systems, it was fun to meet other people whose life experiences included tuning SU carburetors and whacking recalcitrant electric fuel pumps with brass hammers. Unfortunately, the last traditional British sports cars are now at least 30 years old and have joined the ranks of what are called "collector" cars. It's hard to find an MG or Triumph or Jaguar that hasn't been restored at considerable cost, so the entry fee is fairly high if you're a young person without a lot of cash. For this reason, you'll see a lot of gray hair at British sports car gatherings, and more interest in what's for dinner than in who had the fastest time on the autocross. Sadly, our beloved old English sports cars have become an anachronism, the automotive equivalent to hay rides in their relevance to modern transportation.
German cars too were once obtainable dreams for the car demented. Although a Porsche or Mercedes-Benz was a stretch, cars from Audi, Volkswagen, Opel, and BMW were at least affordable on the used market. To a certain extent this remains true today, and indeed the bread and butter of our magazine remains these Teutonic brands. Unfortunately, a once almost-affordable German sports car like the iconic Porsche 356 has reached stratospheric prices. Even the cheeky BMW 2002 has crept into the realm of unaffordability for the impecunious-or just plain cheap-car collector. Volkswagen continues to bring us successive generations of interesting performance machines (can you say GTI?) and indeed attending a meeting of VW enthusiasts gives hope that the younger generation still understands what cars are all about. Unfortunately, German car companies have been seduced by the siren-song of sophistication and the models they have produced in the past decade are road rockets, capable of incredible performance, but at a price that ensures that resale values on the used market will be daunting for someone who's just looking for a toy.
To find a real enthusiast's bargain, my suggestion is looking farther north. Sweden's wide roads and harsh climate require cars that are fast, comfortable and reliable. Products from Volvo and Saab have a well-deserved reputation for toughness and are screwed together well enough to make an excellent choice if you're looking for a winter beater. But look beyond the staid first impression and you'll find either company provides a range of interesting products, some of which are real performance bargains. Although I have owned a few Volvos and admire their solid construction, it is to Saab that my heart consistently returns when I'm looking for something fun to drive on the cheap. First of all, there's the sheer variety. If you want a true classic car in the vein of an Austin Healey or Jaguar, Saab built some tidy little two-stroke sedans in the 1950s and early '60s. Models like the Saab 93 and early 96 are slow and cantankerous, but riotously fun to drive. Their distinctive "ring-ding-ding" two-stroke exhaust note ensures that they won't be mistaken for anything else.
Later in the '60s the Saab 96 grew up, gaining a V4 engine (sourced from Ford) and spawned the 97 Sonnet sports car, a distinctive coupe crafted from fiberglass. The '70s brought the Saab 99, a legitimate contender against cars like the BMW 2002 and the Mercury Capri. At the end of its life in the late '70s it was turbocharged, opening the door for the slightly larger Saab 900 that hit the streets in the early '80s. A black Saab Turbo was the car to own in the go-go '80s, and few other cars have come close to its combination of virtues. You could autocross it one weekend, drive cross-country the next, and run a pro-rally on the weekend after that, all while getting good gas mileage on your daily commute. The Saab 900 was available in non-turbo versions, as well as four-door and convertible models. Meanwhile, working with Fiat and Lancia, Saab developed the 9000 model, a bigger car that could also be purchased with a turbocharged engine.
General Motors purchased Saab in 1989 and added its own take on Swedish cars. The New Generation 900 model was surprisingly good and very Saab-like, eventually resulting in a variety of spin-offs. Saab's later cars are all very nice, but begin to get a bit pricey. If you are looking for a bargain, the 1980s Saab 900 through the mid-'90s GM-built 900 are models where you can place your best bet. Just be aware that these are now older cars with lots of miles and that they will have their own set of problems (weak transmissions and sagging headliners, for example).
Last summer's 2009 North American Saab Owners Convention (SOC09) was held at Copper Mountain Resort in Colorado, hosted by the Rocky Mountain Saab Club of Colorado. Here was a chance for Saab fans from around the country to meet. There were seminars, an autocross, a rally, a parts swap meet, and a car show-pretty much standard fare. I was there as a guest speaker, and also because I really do like older Saabs. There were plenty to see with more than 300 attendees. Convention Chairman Jerry Danner and his staff kept everything on time and moving smoothly. He also managed to give the proceedings the sense that it was a family reunion rather than a car-club gathering. Indeed, that's what owning an older Saab is all about. Although there were a number of newer cars at the event, and a small number of early '50s and '60s machines, the majority were those '80s to mid-'90s 900s that are right now at the pinnacle of affordability. Buy one as a beater, enjoy its distinctive looks-your car will not be mistaken for a Hyundai-use it as a commuter, drive the wheels off at an autocross, and then take it to the next Saab owner's convention, where you and your beater Saab will be welcomed as the newest member of the family.