Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Simpler Times
Last week CRS service advisor Seth Wonkka flew to Portland, Oregon and bought a 1977 Saab 99GL which he then drove back to Boston over the course of four days. This past weekend, he came up to my place, where he got to look around the new house, and I got to take his new car for a ride.

In 1977, I was in high school, and I can’t say that I had much knowledge about Saab, other than what I read in car magazines, and certainly no passion for them. I lived in southern Connecticut at the time, and while there were some Saabs around, my automotive aspirations lay elsewhere. Porsches, BMWs, Mini Coopers, Fiats, and even some muscle cars from the late 60s to early 70s were my cup of tea. Despite the differences in all these cars, the one thing they share, and share with the 1977 99 is that they were quality automobiles, yet they were simple.

Sure, there were cars available in those days with lots of extraneous stuff, but you could also buy a bare bones high quality car, like a Mercedes-Benz with roll up windows (remember them?), a four speed manual transmission and no radio. I know—a friend had one. It was so nice to get into the 99, which is not that different from my 1992 900T daily driver, and marvel in its simplicity. The 99 has those clever roll up windows, multi-adjustable manual seats, no air conditioning, no sunroof, steel wheels, and not even power steering. Can you even buy a car now without power steering? Having owned a number of cars with manual steering, it can attest that it is delightful to have so much unadulterated steering feel.

I recall that when I started working with Saab that the 900 “base model” retailed for $11,400, or just a little more than a fully equipped Honda Accord or Chevy Celebrity. That was in 1984. The car did have power steering, but no power windows, power locks, alarm, radio, air conditioning, antenna, or floor mats. These were analog cars at the dawn of the digital age. Would anyone buy a stripped down version of a Saab today, if it was available, in order to save a few thousand dollars? I’m just not sure. While the simplicity and mechanical nature of the 900 and 99 were endearing in their nakedness, more modern cars would fail to impress in that condition. Even the 9000, a car I love dearly, was just a dullard in its “base” form (which was still rather richly appointed). I can’t even begin to imagine a 9-3 or 9-5 in “light” form. Perhaps we are destined to drive ever more sophisticated and clever cars. While certainly better than the cars of yore, they do lack that mechanical transparency that made the old cars, like the 99 and 900, so endearing.


Beren Erchamion said...

I sure would - both buy a 99 and buy a stripped down car...less is sometimes more.

Lee said...

I think the closest you can get to a "light" SAAB would be an un-optioned Swedish-market 9-3: plastic wheel covers, non-metallic paint, fabric seats, and no driving lamps. My 2002 9-3 SE arrived here via California - it has fabric seats without seat heaters! I would rather drive a "stripped" SAAB than an optioned Camry.