Written by Tom Donney
May 12, 2012
The events that unfolded in January and February of this year were to say the least bizarre. Sometimes things happen that make little sense. Like the Saab car company going broke so quickly. Knowing many of the people who work for Saab and also many dealer friends it is a hard thing to watch. You cannot help but feel for their pIite. Myself being addicted to Saabs since I was a kid in high school, it is hard to watch the slow death of a car brand you love. I still own the very first Saab that our family owned back in the sixties, a Red 1963 96 850GT. It was my older brothers first car, and soon my dad bought a $200 1964 96 that he drove back from New Jersey to Iowa with the generator not working. (We did not have much money growing up and cars with working generators cost more!) He would bring the battery into his hotel room at night to charge it up for his next day’s drive. Within a few years both engines were blown and the 1963 and 1964 96’s were parked out back under some trees. My brother had since moved away and my dad said if I could make one of the cars run from the two, I could have it. I always loved to work on stuff so I took both engines apart and with a little luck (and no money), made one working engine from the two them. Soon I was driving the car around our house. Since I did not have a license yet that was as far as I could go! Around and around the house I went, smoking up the neighborhood till the neighbors could take no more and called the local town cop!
I started working on Saabs and cars in general for a living at age 16 in Omaha, Nebraska at World Wide Imports off of L Street. My love for Saabs has never changed. They were (and still are) the only car I want to drive. I currently own everything from a 1950 Saab 92 to a pair of 2008 9-7x Aeros with about everything in between. Except for a Saab model 94, Sonett Super Sport. For those that don’t know, this car is not possible to own, at any price. There were only six made between 1956 and 1957 of which two are owned by the Swedish museum (serial #1 White and #5 Blue), one by a German Collector/Museum (the formerly lost serial #4, green (Book about it SAAB Sonett No. 4), and one in private ownership in Sweden (#3,Red). Then in the USA, there are only two cars, one owned by Bill Jacobson of Wilmington, Delaware (#6, White), and then one by the Saab Cars North America (formerly General Motors) Heritage Collection (#2, Orange). Those who own them simply will never sell them. They truly are the “Holy Grail” of Saabs, (along with the black prototype car Ur 92-001 in the Swedish Museum.)
However, sometimes things happen to create a “Perfect Storm” effect. The first occurred when the largest company in the world, General Motors (GM), failed. That was an unheard of “F5 type event” that forced the sale of their Sonett #2 (along with many other Saabs) to the barely saved and newly reformed Saab Cars of North America (SCNA). GM had collected about 40 Saabs in their Heritage Collection and sold off all the cars to either private buyers or to SCNA. SCNA chose to buy only the rarest of GM Saabs. Now fast forward to 2011, with more storm clouds on the horizon, and the familiar sounds of Saab again going broke. As soon as I had heard enough to figure out the chances of Saab surviving was unlikely, I begin to inquire about the SCNA Heritage Cars. But to be honest, my thoughts were for cars other than the model 94 Sonett . I figured that car would end up with a home back in Sweden or a very high end buyer.
In January of this year, the news quickly broke over the internet that a sale was occurring in Sweden for all the cars in the Saab Museum. I instantly thought about the cars owned by SCNA. To hear this news from Sweden was sad, as it was with most Saab lovers I suspect. But many quick phone calls and emails to Sweden soon convinced me that the cars would most likely all remain in Sweden under the new ownership of a group of people, which included the city of Trollhattan. Since I was very sure of the fate of the cars at the Saab museum in Sweden, I quickly changed my focus back to the cars here in the USA owned by SCNA. I made several phone calls and emails to everyone I thought could help me learn the fate at SCNA. It became apparent this was a deal I could not pull off alone. Even though circumstances had me sitting with cash reserves at the moment, the benefit of all time high farm prices, I felt enlisting help would increase my chances of successfully acquiring some of the cars. There is an old saying in investing, “Bears make money, Bulls make money, and Pigs get slaughtered!” With that mindset I soon found myself talking mainly to Chip Lamb, of West of Sweden, and Bill Jacobson, of Sports Car Service, Willington, Delaware.
Bill is the current owner of Sonett #6 and I have known him and his wonderful family for a long time. They are the apitomy of what Saab people are. Trust worthy, hardworking people who truly love the brand. Last summer I was driving up the east coast on I-95 with my Chevy Suburban when I had fuel pump trouble. Bill directed me to his shop were le let me use a hoist and a tech to fix it. He even ran me to a GM store to get parts. And the charge was nothing. Hard to beat people like that.
For those who do not know, Chip is a walking encyclopedia of car knowledge. Then you add to that the fact he loves Saab too and you have a source of information unlike anyone else on this planet. Chip was also the man SCNA trusted to bring into Detroit to evaluate all the 13 remaining cars in the SCNA Heritage collection. Chip had first-hand knowledge of every car SCNA owned, something no one else had, which proved to be very helpful. With our combined knowledge I felt I had a fighting chance. The only problem was that SCNA had let go all the employees except for two. So now all of Chips, Bills, and my contacts were gone.
I decided that Bill and I together had enough capital to make a play on the cars, and the cars we each wanted were different so we avoided the “who gets what” issues. We started to talk to the people left at SCNA to purchase all the cars. This happened over a couple weeks and during this time word came in from Sweden that indeed the cars in the Swedish Museum had been saved. Also now we had a dollar amount to look at, $4,300,000 for all the cars and museum. I took the lead on the deal and did all the communications with the powers to be at SCNA. Every day I would get a different answer on how to buy the cars, from “make a cash fire sale offer” to closed sealed bids over time. Just as I thought we had an answer on the cars, a group of US Saab Dealers filed bankruptcy on SCNA. This moved severed all my attempts to buy the cars quickly and now a court appointed firm was officially handling the sale of all SCNA assets.
Finally, on February 3rd, 2012 I received an email from the people handling the liquidation of SCNA, the McTevia Group, with information on how SCNA would dispose of their Heritage cars. They were to be sold in one lot, all 11 cars, sealed bids that had to be in by noon February 10th. Also, the bids needed to come with a 25% cash deposit to SCNA of your bid amount. I do not know about you, but giving a bankrupt company a cash deposit seemed like a poor idea! If you did not win the bid, how long before you got your deposit back? Would you get it back? Also, if you won the cars, you needed to pay the remaining 75% by the following Wednesday. Then you had to wait up to 30 days for the court to approve the sale before you could get possession of your cars. To further complicate the matter my wife and I were to leave on February 19th on our first ever cruise. What if the cars were released while we were on our cruise? Also our son-in-law Chris was to be leaving any day for his deployment to Afghanistan and emotions were running high with this event alone.
I made all the phone calls and emails I thought I needed to, to check things out as best as possible and made a guess to what mine and Bill’s bid to SCNA would be. Bill and I had decided to split the cars, each getting the cars we wanted. For me the idea of actually being able to own a Sonett 1 Super Sport finally seemed possible, though remote. My wife (Patti) asked me if owning a Sonett 1 had always been a dream of mine. I said no, because it was like dreaming of one day being with Sandra Bullock, something that could never happen. Needless to say that was the wrong answer! That poor choice of analogies put me in the husband dog house for a few days!
I put a bid in for the cars on Thursday, February 9th, 2012, 24 hours before the deadline. Now the wait was on. Seems like Bill and I talked every few hours about all the “what if’s” in this deal. I did not fully expect to hear from SCNA the next day even though they said they would in their bid documents. But early Friday afternoon I got an email that read: CONGRATULATION SCNA Heritage cars winning bidder!!
I am not sure if at that point I was happy or scared!! But the thought of owning a Sonett 1 seemed to overcome all fears. I called Bill to inform him and he quickly congratulated me on now owning a Sonett Super Sport now too! But now the real wait was on. SCNA had 25% of my money and wanted the other 75% in 5 days! I decided I needed to drive to Detroit and look at the cars. I figured I would leave Sunday night to make my eleven hour trek to Detroit. Unexpectedly, I received another email that weekend that said the cars were already released and could be picked anytime now. So now I had to figure out how to get the cars home. Fortunately for me my middle son Nate was now home from Iraq and was available to assist in the pickup and logistics of the trip. I had planned on an enclosed car hauler company (which takes several days to organize) but felt the need to quickly get the cars out of SCNA hands and into mine was more important than having the enclosed trailer. So, I grabbed my open four car hauler, one single car enclosed trailer, and made plans to be in Detroit on Monday at 8AM.
We met the SCNA people and members of the GM Heritage Collection cars at 8:00AM Monday as planned. We entered the building that housed the Saabs only to find them surrounded by hundreds of GM’s concept and prototype “one off” cars. Wow! What a place. So much car history in that one single building. But the history I wanted was the Saab history! I quickly looked at all the Saabs we were buying with my son Nate, Verlyn Gregerson, and his dad (both employees and friends of mine).
They appeared as good as I had hoped to the naked eye, except the 1952 92. Someone had repainted the hood since the last time I had seen it. Looked to me like a MAACO $99 paint job. Not even close to matching. Oh well, that’s the way it goes sometimes. The people there at GM insisted the car had always looked like that, but they did not even know the hood and the body paint did not match till I showed them. Someone reading this may have the answer for me. Regardless, I wired the remaining 75% of the purchase price and we were soon to load cars… well almost. It seemed that SCNA had not paid their storage bill in full to the GM. We had to wait about 4 hours for SCNA to cough up some of the money I had just paid them before we could get out cars out of the General’s clutches. It was odd. They let us back our car hauler into the building, hook the winch up to the rear of the 92 and get it just up to the ramp, but we could NOT have the tires actually touch the ramp till the bill was paid in full by SCNA. The guys there were actually very cool and just doing their jobs. They were just allowing us evey inch they could and still cover their butts. They were good fun and very proud of all the cars. (Just not two stroke guys!)
We set out to start the cars unfortunately most did not start. Also surprisingly, the people at GM’s facility did not even have a jump pack! Guess times are still tough for Mr. Goof Wrench. Good thing I had two of them along with me. With the jump packs we began trying to start all the cars, the two strokes would not start, something I am not use to. The guy handling the cars for GM said they always had to use “starter fluid sprayed down the carb” to start the cars. I can assure you that after spending two years in Automotive School and my whole life working on Saab two strokes, that ain’t the F’ing way to start freaking two stroke Saabs! Regardless, I still let them shoot their magic spray to get them started but I shut the Super Sport down after about 15 seconds of running because they had to keep spraying it to keep it running and it was not smoking. A sure sign that it was being starved from an oil and fuel mix, even though they insisted it would run since it had fuel pumps running away.
About 2PM SCNA paid GM for the car’s storage so we loaded them up and got the hell out of Detroit and back to Dodge. Fort Dodge, Iowa that is! We hit snow and ice and pulled over just outside Iowa to wait out a small but slippery snow storm that had worked its way onto I-80. Our Saab Heritage caravan arrived in Fort Dodge the next day, February 14th, 2012. It was a very special Valentines Days. It was also nice too because a customer of ours from California , Gene Molander and his wife, just happened to be at the shop when we arrived too. Gene took lots of “first photos” and videos of all the cars and the unloading process. Now that we were home we cleaned the cars up good and I began the slow process of checking them out. I am so glad they are now in a Saab guys hands, because they were showing signs of “no clue – how to” all around. I only had a couple days to play with them before Patti and I left on our cruise. Now that I am back in Iowa I have had some more time to work on all of them except the Super Sonett.
Here is a quick look at the cars. Every one of them had fouled spark plugs. Cars really need to be driven!
1952 Saab 92 shitty green.
It needed an electric fuel pump installed as it won’t start with the old vacuum operated one. A good update (one Saab did) on any 92. I mounted it under the rear seat so it still looks factory. And as luck would have it someone when the car was near new added a dash switch that ran a 6 volt hot feed wire right into the trunk area and then into the left rear wheel well. Not sure if it was a backup light or what. But since it was just hanging there unused, it made an easy wire job for the fuel pump. The neat thing is it is real old “cloth type” wire that was used, so it looks “factory”. The car has a working temperature gauge but it is not the correct one. Someone installed one out of a USA 93 model. It should be in Celsius not Fahrenheit. Also the face/dial is not correct either on it either. But then only a few people would ever know that! Also, the brakes were rebuilt by someone with either no money or not able to source new brake parts I am guessing. They tried (very poorly) to rebuild the old wheel cylinders and had stuff on wrong and some pretty nasty worn out parts. I guess whoever rebuilt them last felt new shoes equals new brakes. Hummm. But now, with new wheel cylinders all the way around, all new brake hoses, it makes for a pretty good brake system on this car. The ignition points were totally soaked in oil and real nasty. (Again, real common for a 92) The points are impossible to find but I do have some spares. I installed new points (it uses two sets) and set the timing for each cylinder (A rather unusual procedure). I also set the carb properly and to my surprise this old Saab 92 runs really well. It seems to have a lot of low end torque for only 25HP. I know years ago I gave John Moss a set of “1 over” pistons for this car and I am guessing they are in there now based on how well it runs. John Moss is a true legend in the vintage Saab community and anything he ever touched always ran perfect! Also on the points, XP Power in Sweden sells a Pertronix pointless conversion kit. Finally, as mentioned above, it needs some good paint work.
1956 Model 94, Sonett Super Sport, Orange
I got to drive it the afternoon I left on my trip. The clutch slipped a little and it started pretty hard cold (no choke) and refused to start hot. I think this motor needs taken down to see what kind of shape it is in from years of starter spray in it. It has the same two barrel carburetor setup as my newly restored 1959 93b GT750 and it runs and starts nicely. I did not use a bore light to inspect the cylinders but would guess they are pretty nasty. The brakes seemed to pull some. I have not had a chance to check it out much yet. Did you know these cars have a trunk (boot) that lifts open like the hood? I did not! This car is a blast to sit in and drive. I can’t wait till all the salt is off the roads!
1960 93f 750GT, Blue
New plugs helped this one a bunch. A inspection light down the bore showed a lot of wall scoring. The motor has a bad growl to it and I suspect the crankshaft main bearings are failing. Guess it is time for the motor to come out and see what is going on in there. The really rare factory temperature gauge is broken. I have it repaired now so I will get that installed soon. The points had too much dwell also and were very dirty. It misses at higher RPM’s (about 4,500) and I suspect the points, but it could possibly be a bad coil or wires too. This one had the idle mixture screw in almost all the way. They need to be out about two turns on most all strokers. Someone had set the idle to about 3,500RPM’s to compensate for this adjustment error. Funny how nice it idles when it is set up properly. This car also seems under powered for being a GT750. One thing I did notice is the front exhaust chamber is not the correct one, and has been taken apart and welded back together. The GT750’s had a special front chamber that was rather oval shaped. I am guessing the correct one (extremely rare) or a “Swedish Sport” one would really help out the low power issue. On a side note this car use to be owned by Bruce and Deb Welch of Vermont. Bruce had this car running perfect when he sold it to Saab many years ago. In fact Deb and Bruce used the car as a daily driver. Few people know Saabs as well as Bruce does. I had a chance to buy this car from Bruce back in 1997 and but did not have the money to spare at the time. I am honored to be its new owner.
1960 96, Erik Carlsson RAC actual winning car, Red
Just for fun, If you have the book “Mr Saab”, look on page 61. There is a photo of my car coming up through the floor into a fancy hotel in London were the awards ceremony was being help for the winner of the 1960 RAC. The car is still all dirty from the rally, but Erik Carlsson and Stuart Turner are all dressed up in their dinner jackets! This car had a bad coil wire that was causing some issues, but now runs pretty good. A bore light inspection down the cylinder walls also showed a lot of scoring. Again, the factory temperature gauge was broken and someone had hung an ugly NAPA style US temperature gauge under the dash. Not so nice looking on this car. That was one of the first things I did, replace the bastard temperature gauge with a factory correct one. Another odd thing on this car was that GM (or whoever) had the ignition switch fail on them. But rather than take the old one out and install a new one into the factory hole, they again added another bracket under the dash and installed the new one there. So this car had two ignition switches on the dash! I just took the retaining nut off the OEM switch so it would come out, and slipped the new one into place. Granted it is not factory switch but it looks fine unless you know better! I hope to source an OEM one someday for it but the original ones are very hard to find with a KEY! This car most likely had the dash out to be painted by someone at GM. Trouble was they hooked stuff up wrong. It had wires crossed under the dash that were just plain weird. Getting them straight was pretty easy once you figured out where they all went. There are a couple neat things on this car. Eric Johnson (previous owner) was able to come to Fort Dodge one day to discuss the car and point some things out to me. He showed me a blue wire in the trunk that he said Erik Carlsson used as a “Black-out” switch for the brake and tail lights. Apparently, during rally’s at night some people would try to follow Erik Carlsson by looking for his tail lights. Erik’s mechanic wired all the rear lights to a “common ground switch”. When Erik would see someone following him he would hit the switch and this would kill all rear lights! This is something I had to hook back up right away! Eric also showed me a weird sight glass thing with magnification and grid lines that Stuart Turner would have used to help navigate with. He also showed me holes in the trunk were Erik would have stored extra quarts of oil too…something I need to re-add yet! I also discovered a spare indicator light under the right side of the dash on a GT750 style light/switch bar. Once I got all the wires hooked up correctly the light would come on with the front two fog lights. But there was a spare wiring hanging under this bar area. I traced it back and it ran up to the front of the car right to the middle of the front bumper which is where a “3rd” spot light should be mounted! (see RAC hotel photo) Neat stuff huh?
Also, the timing was way off on it. It has a locked distributer, where the weights are welded solid so no timing advance will occur as the engine rev’s higher. This is something I do on all my cars and I may have done this to this car years ago since this car use to be owned by Eric Johnson of Northfield, Minnesota and I worked on it before. This is another example of a non-Saab person messing something up. You set your timing higher (to a fixed advance of 18 degrees) with a locked distributor. Whoever set the timing last set it to factory specs and failed to check and see if the distributor was locked. (To check this on your car just pop the distributor cap off and see if you can rotate the rotor any by hand. A stock distributor rotor will rotate some then it will “pop” back in place and you will feel the spring pressure as you rotate it.) I had forgotten that I had rebuilt the transmission on this car for Eric Johnson when he was doing the restoration on the car. I called Eric Johnson to let him know I had purchased his old car and he seemed very pleased and did not take long for him to get to Fort Dodge to see his old car. I am hoping he will accept my offer to let him and his wife drive it to Iowa City, Iowa for the SOC12 this summer! Again, these cars need to be driven some!
1987 9000 turbo Talladega- Long Run car, silver
This car looks great but after we started it and ran it to the trailer, it would not restart to drive onto the trailer. The Generals’ boys insisted it was out of gas as it would only run on one or two cylinders. I said it seemed like fouled plugs since it was smoking badly (and is never driven!). Needless to say they thought I knew nothing about cars and added fuel to the tank (my fuel can too as they did not have any gas either!) And yes it still did not start so we had to winch it on the trailer anyway. When we got back to Fort Dodge I threw a set of plugs in it while it was still sitting on the trailer and guess what?? It started right up and ran like a champ! We got it off the trailer and it drove excellent. However the clutch felt poppy and sticky at times and it popped out of 5th gear once. I hauled it back to my house in a trailer to store it while I would be be gone on the cruise because I was out of room in my building in Fort Dodge now. (Time for a sale of my own now, too many cars and need space!) The car ran out of the trailer fine but when I ran it into my garage the clutch pedal stuck to the floor. Add to that the clutch was still engaged and now there was brake fluid leaking out the bell housing. Okay, time to load it back into the trailer so we can pull the transmission to access the slave cylinder that is bad. Why is it that the newer cars always cause more issues? Funny thing is we had thought we might have to drive this car back from Detroit to Iowa as my car hauler is set up to haul four small vintage Saabs, not three vintage ones and a modern long 9000!
Once we had the transmission out, I installed a new slave and rebuilt the master for the clutch too. The line between the master and the slave was “collapsed” and causing the issue. A new line was also installed at the same time. I also decided to take the transmission apart and inspect 5th gear since it had popped out. I thought maybe with all the miles in 5th gear there might be some wear in there. And since I own a transmission shop, it’s easy work for me! It all looked perfect inside the transmission so I just popped it back together and away we went…however the new slave had other ideas. It was defective and leaked badly. Out the transmission came again and another new slave went in. Finally it all worked and the car drove very well. It is really rare to see an old 9000 in such good shape. I love the 9000’s and feel they are one of the best Saabs ever made. In fact, I am collecting them too! Almost have every year now…anyone know of a savable 1986 out there??
That’s about it for now. I really need to thank a lot of people for the roles in this process and for helping make the winds of the “perfect storm” dissipate in the farm fields of Fort Dodge, Iowa dropping a Saab Sonett Super Sport and a few other Saab treasures trapped in it! Thanks to my pick-up and shipping crew of Nate, Verlyn Sr. and Verlyn Jr. And thanks also my good friends at Meyer Saab and Iowa City Saab, Marty and Annette Adams. Others VIP’s include Peter Backstrom, Bud Clark, Tom Nelson, Jim Sweeting, John Libbos, Moose, and many Saab lovers who sent emails wanting to help purchase the cars and/or those sending congratulations.
But mostly I need to say a big “THANK YOU” to Chip Lamb and Bill Jacobson. Both good people, and better Saab folks.
And if you are ever in the Fort Dodge area…swing on in and have a peek!
Thanks for reading and Safe Saab’in!