A Third Saab

My dad was, in most ways, a creature of habit. In his later years he took some chances and let himself explore outside of his comfort zone a little more, taking up swing dancing, travelling more, making new friends, and trying new foods. It was only later in life that he'd let me start taking him for lunch, settling on an amazing little Indian restaurant in Laval as our go-to lunch place. Growing up, on the rare occasions we'd head out to restaurants, I always knew what the choices were: Bill Wong's [RIP], Harvey's or, on a really special occasion, Le Biftèque. On Sundays, after church, we'd all head over to the Montreal Pool Room on St-Laurent - comfortably nestled between a shady army surplus shop with blacked-out windows and a busy all-day strip club [sans blacked-out windows] - and impatiently wait in the car while my dad went inside to purchase hot dogs, fries and soda. He'd return with a big carton of the stuff, and my sisters, parents and I would sit in the Chevy Impala / Buick Century / Buick Century / Buick Century, parked right there on St-Laurent in the sweltering Sunday afternoon sun, eating greasy fries and steamed hotdogs, doing our best not to squirt ketchup or drop onion chunks onto the brown / burgundy / grey velour seats. After stuffing our faces with unredeemingly unhealthy junk food, we'd head up to St-Viateur Bagel to get a dozen (or two) freshly-baked bagels. Today, fresh Montreal bagels are at the top of my favourite foods list, but back in those days, the combination of the aforementioned greasy fast food and the raging sea-sickness induced by the yacht-like ride in my dad's car left me with a distaste for those fresh, warm, delicious bagels. Of course, the next morning, I would beg for them for breakfast.

Dad justified his car choices by extolling the crucial benefits of the front bench seat [also, as of 2014, RIP]. We were a family of 5, so in practice a car with two bucket seats would have been sufficient to haul us all around, but "you never know when you might need to have someone else along", kinda of like "you never know when you might need two dozen 2x4s" or "you never know when you might need a large box of mismatched, rusted nails and screws". Every time it was time to get a new car, we'd all go with him, and he'd humour us by trying out different cars - going far as to give a sweet Acura 3.2TL a test drive a few years back - but he always decided on another arguably mediocre Buick Century because it had the bench seat and he didn't see a reason to give it up. He trusted the nameplate. He was comfortable with it. I remained dismissive of his taste in cars as well as his lack of bargaining ability (an inability I also inherited, sadly); he, on the other hand, would gift bottles of wine every Christmas to every bewildered used-car salesman who ever sold him a car. 

Fast forward to 2010 and I'm in need of a vehicle. I tried to get by with just a bike, but living in Laval - a black hole of public transportation - and owning a dog (who doesn't do well on a bicycle) meant I needed something with four wheels. I set a budget, and casually start checking the hebdo, craigslist and kijiji for used cars in my price range. Helpfully, my requirements were fairly specific: manual transmission, leather seats, four doors, not-rear-wheel drive, sporty-ish, and fairly unique without being pompous (ruling out BMWs). For my budget, I'd say about 90% of the cars on offer were Honda Civics, Toyota Corollas or Nissan Sentras with the odd Subaru Impreza or Volkswagen Golf thrown in. I'd driven most of these cars and while they all felt like very competent and "good" cars, I didn't feel like shelling out near-new-car cash for a slightly used car. 

Then, a few days into my search, an almost-new, navy blue Saab 9-3 appeared on the listings. I did some research on the specific year and it didn't seem to have any recurring major problems like spontaneous combustion or such. What's more, at the time SAAB was (and still is) in dire straits, facing bankruptcy and an uncertain future. Dealers were trying to unload their models in a hurry and prices on Saabs are dropping like flies. Most of what I knew about Saabs came from my old friend Boris, whose ex-girlfriend drove a classic Saab 900 and swore by them. The upside for consumers is that prices were right at rock bottom. For the cost of a crummy 2007 Civic econobox I was able to get a luxury sedan of the same vintage that retailed new at about 3x what the Civic sold at. I'm proud that it's one of the very few purchases in my life that made actuarial sense, because actuarial sense is way overrated.

I drove that awesome car for 2 1/2 years, and had it shipped to Saskatoon when I started working there. I promptly sold it in Saskatoon upon finding that everything, including cars, costs far more in Saskatoon than in Montreal. I sold that car for more than I bought it for in Montreal, accomplishing the unheard task of actually turning a profit on a used car. I then tried getting along in Saskatoon with only a bicycle, but alas, I quickly found out that was nearly impossible. Even though I rode my bike to work all year round (including winter, with carbide-studded snow tires), Saskatoon is one of the least bike-friendly cities I've ever been in. Everyone from drivers to pedestrians to cops are completely biased against bikes, and I've seen more than one close call from distracted drivers who've never had to deal with sharing the road with cyclists. 

Not wanting to spend much, I hit Kijiji and set the filter to "$2000 and less". Lo and behold, another Saab - a 1993 burgundy red-on-tan-leather 5-speed Saab 900s with 325,000km on the clock - is the first hit, meaning it had been posted just minutes ago. I went to see it and bought it that same night, while meeting the elderly Scottish gentleman who had owned and maintained it since new. He was such a cool guy that we became friends and met for coffee a couple of times to discuss Saskatoon, Saabs and women. I guess that's not so different than my dad buying his car salesmen bottles of wine, is it? That old Saab was a tank. It wasn't a turbo, wasn't the fastest, but it started on the first turn every morning, never ever got stuck in snow, and handled like a beast. There's something intrinsically cool about driving a 20 year old car around that almost no one else owns. I drove it for two years without any problems and sold it for almost the same price I'd bought it for. 

When the time came to drive back to Montreal from Saskatoon, I debated bringing it back. The combination of having all my earthly possessions and my dog in a 20+ year old car driving halfway across the country - not to mention the hassle of getting it inspected, certified, etc. in Québec what with all the ridiculous requirements here - brought me to the difficult decision of selling it and driving back in a rental instead... a decision I've regretted more than once. I sold it to a young girl whose minivan had just died. I can say without hesitation that it was one of the best cars I'd ever owned, and definitely one of the coolest. 

Of course, upon returning the rental in Montreal I needed yet another car; generally Montreal's a very easy city to go carless in except my family and friends are spread all across the public-transport-less suburbs, and dogs aren't allowed in the subway. I wasn't set on anything specific (and certainly didn't want to pay the cost of a new car) so I short-listed  again, a number of cars under $5000 on Kijiji. I got my good friend Nick to drive me around on a crisp Saturday morning, planning to drive and buy whichever of the dozen or so cars turned out to be best (and cheapest). We saw a Nissan Xterra (cool but this particular one had seemed beat-up), a lovely Volkswagen Jetta, and at a dealer that I had gone to for another vehicle, lo and behold, was a 2004 black-on-black leather Saab 9-5 Aero. I thought it would be priced out of my budget, but it had been sitting there for a long time and the dealer needed to move it (it was his accountant's personal car since new and had been excessively well-maintained). I drove it, made a bit of a low-ball offer that was [surprisingly] finally accepted, and drove off with it an hour later. The concept of depreciation is still so odd to me; less than eight years ago someone paid close to $60,000 for this car, and here I am driving it now for less than the cost of some new bicycles. It's a strange new world.

Later, when I saw my sister, she poked fun at me because we'd both always teased my dad for only buying Buick Centuries for most of his life, and here I was, buying my third Saab in 4 years. I tried to defend my position with "it's just the same brand, not the same car; they're different models" or "I need a car with soul, Civics and Sentras have no soul" etc, but she was right - I'm guilty of having a manual-transmission leather-interior torque-steering Saab fetish. Despite my vocal protests, and for all my adventurousness and travelling and risk-taking, when it comes to cars, just like my dad, I'm still a picky, finicky - and usually illogical - creature of habit. 


Wednesday, February 20th, 2013
vieuxbandit's picture

;-) I've had two Mazdas. No wait - THREE! hahahaha! All standard transmission, none of that leather stuff (really, no thanks; and no electric windows or AC or anything I deem fancy (ie can break and be costly and doesn't fit my "needs only" car philosophy)).

And it IS highly irrational. I looked around before the first new one (looked around meaning I test drive ONE other car... but hey, we also only saw one other house before choosing ours), but not at all before the current one. Just walked into the dealership and said "blue, please"! :-)

No clue what the next vehicle will be however. When I face the facts, we need a minivan. SIGH. Hello automatic transmission from hell, meet me: I've got two feet, I want to use them both and I strongly believe I can do a better job on my own thank you. Bleah. Also, Mazda no longer makes minivans, just that stupid 5 of theirs that doesn't actually have more space than my much cheaper 3Sport. SIGH. In my dreams I drive a refurbished small school bus. (And it runs on water too.)

Also? No one ever wanted to take swing dancing lessons with me. Boohooohooo.

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013
stevenmansour's picture

Considering how much I [used to] drive, no A/C isn't an option, especially with a dog. Same goes for leather seats (easier to clean / don't get dog-smelly!) I also only buy used (never new) cars, so whatever nice, reliable car depreciates the most is usually what I get. Lately, Saabs, I guess. :p

Don't get a minivan! Get a manual wagon (Mazda6?). Nearly as much room. Way less lame.

If you ever want to go 50/50 on a biodiesel schoolbus, count me in... imagine the possibilities!

Monday, February 25th, 2013
vieuxbandit's picture

Hey, I'm not judging. I don't like leather for many reasons, and I can't stand AC, even in homes (I also have no intention of living somewhere where it's needed so that's lucky). I feel like I'm breathing artificial air. If I had it in the car I'd use it 2-3 times a year (bitching the whole time) so it's really not worth it for me.

The possibilities: I knoooooooooooooooooooooooooow! :-)

Except for the fact that they're super old gas-guzzlers, our ideal vehicle would be a wood-paneled station wagon (we insist on wood paneling!). That or the bus! *sigh*

(I only drove a minivan once and hated it -- but I forced myself to drive it for an hour and a half to drive into Natashquan. It's my favourite road ever, and I wanted to drive some of the way even though I was with Ted and Seb, two born drivers.)

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