Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Post Script

Lots of readers enjoyed the piece about the Saab Museum, so I feel it is worth adding a post-script. At the end of the account, I had mentioned that Dan had been, by dint of experience at the museum, bitten by the vintage Saab bug. He has been looking hard, both here and in Sweden (his work is still taking him there frequently), and has finally found a winner. After two visits to Vermont and much deliberating, Dan has purchased a 1957 93. It needs a new floor pan, which is provided, but the rest of the body, chassis and interior are said to be in good condition. Of course, being the year of our founding, 1957 is a special year for Charles River Saab, and given how few dealers there were in the states in those days, it would be fascinating to find out where this car originated. Besides a barn-full of spare parts, also included in the sale was the rolling chassis—no power-train—of a 1960 93. Dan is considering a unique build, blending this body with a more contemporary chassis and power-train to create a really unique daily driver.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Magic Happens

I like to recount stories in this space. I guess I like to tell stories, period. Mostly, I have stories to tell which are my own. That’s the advantage of getting old: you’ve got more stories to trot out when you need to write about something. This is a story which has nothing to do with me. Rather, it is the story of one of our long-time customers, Dan, who had such an amazing experience that I asked if I could retell the story here. I found myself so eager to present this because, I think, I wish that this had happened to me. Happily, he consented. I apologize to Dan if there are a few detail mistakes.

Dan has been a customer of mine for as long as I can remember, and a Saab owner/enthusiast for much longer than that. When I first knew Dan he had an SPG. Then another. At least one, perhaps both, were treated to a variety of performance up-grades. In those times, Abbott Racing was very de rigueur. But Dan did not order his AR parts from some catalogue. Rather, he went to Abbott Racing in Britain and filled his suitcase with such things as a water cooled intercooler, rising rate fuel pressure regulator and so on. Dan likes performance Saabs. After his SPG’s, Dan graduated to a Viggen. After that, his current car—a TurboX Sport Combi. I know that he also had, and may still have, a beater 911.

A couple of weeks ago, Dan found himself in Malmo, Sweden on a business assignment. His company in the US had acquired a Swedish concern, which is what had Dan there for a week. Having followed the travails of Saab, and at that time of the Saab Museum, it occurred to Dan that finding himself in Sweden during the museum auction process, with attorneys at his disposal, that perhaps he would throw his hat into the ring. He did. He submitted bids on ten of the cars in the collection. His bids included a proviso, probably standard, that the bids were conditional upon his inspection of the cars. While he would have loved to dash up to the Saab Museum right then and there, Trollhattan was not next door and he was consumed with his work. He did, though, send Peter Backstrom (my apologies for the missing umlauts) an email toward the end of the week to tell him about his bids and that he hoped to be able to view the cars.

He received an email from Backstrom which was, not surprisingly, terse. Dan was reminded that he was late to the party with his bids, and the inspection process was wrapping up. In a more conciliatory tone, Backstrom did advise Dan to call him at the museum when he would be available to have his viewing. Backstrom left his office and mobile phone numbers.

Dan’s work kept him occupied until 4:00 pm on Friday afternoon. He was willing to concede that it was likely impossible for him to see the cars. Nonetheless, perhaps Backstrom would be at the museum on Saturday, and Dan could try to change his return flight to the US to accommodate this. With some trepidation, he dialed the museum number. Dan wasn’t surprised that it went to voice mail. He hung up. He considered calling Backstrom’s cell phone for a moment, wondering if it might be too intrusive. Just then, the desk phone rang. Dan hesitated. He was in a borrowed office. Should he pick up? Dan did.

“Hello, you just called,” it was Peter Backstrom.
“Yes, this Dan, from Boston. I sent you an email about the cars I had bid on.”
“Well, you should come see them.”
“I could drive up tomorrow, would that work?”
“No, not tomorrow. Why don’t you come now?”
“I’d love to, but I’m in Malmo.”
“OK, so I’ll see you in four hours.”
“I don’t have a car. I’ll need to rent one.”
“OK, so I’ll see you in four and a half hours.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’ll see you at nine o’clock.”

With help from a Swedish co-worker, Dan got a rental car and started north to Trollhattan. He arrived at the Saab Museum at 9:15. It was dark. There was, though, a lone Saab parked out front. Dan knocked at the door. A moment later, Peter Backstrom was letting him in.

As soon as they were inside, Backstrom offered Dan coffee, and they went to his office where Backstrom brewed a fresh pot and the two started to converse. When the pleasantries were completed, it was time to find Dan’s bid cars. Dan had focused on early cars, mostly two stroke models. This is interesting. While Dan did have a 95 V4 as his first Saab, he had never owned a two stroke variant. There were a couple of anomalies in the group, but essentially he was looking at 93’s, 95’s and 96’s. Some were in the workshop. Some in the hall. Some in the barn, an unheated, unlit space where they had to rummage around with flashlights. When in the work shop, one of Dan’s cars was wedged too tightly among other cars to allow the doors to open, so Backstrom heaved it forward until Dan could open it and get inside. With each car there was a story, and of course Backstrom was all too willing to provide every intimacy one might ever want to know about these Saabs and their histories.

When the inspection process was over it was well past 11:00 pm. Dan was left alone in the hall of the museum while Backstrom set about closing up. When he returned, he asked Dan where he was staying. Dan hadn’t thought that far ahead. Not to worry, Backstrom called the hotel in Trollhattan where Saab guests always stayed and made an arrangement, and per his say-so was granted the Saab preferred rate. When Dan asked for directions, Backstrom insisted on leading him there personally. I don’t know how many times Dan pinched himself that night, but I hope he realizes that he was living an absolute Saab fairy tale on behalf of many of us.

Here’s what I find remarkable: all of it. Just think about how cool it would be to spend two hours with Peter Backstrom, alone, in his museum, not to mention going into the bowels of the workshop and barn. Then you do it at night. Nobody else is around. Could anything be more fantastic to a Saab fanatic? Then there is the whole aspect of Backstrom himself. I have always heard that he is the nicest and most gracious man alive. Now I’m pretty nice and fairly gracious, but I can assure you that if my life’s work was in peril and there were parties looking to snatch pieces of it away, I’m not sure I would have stayed at work until 11:00 pm on a Friday night to indulge anyone’s desire to see the collection. That he did this, and not for someone who might have been trying to buy the entire place and save it in situ, is remarkable in my eyes. Truly, Mr. Backstrom possesses a measure of heart and grace that we can all admire and use as an example for how we should all treat one another.

The next day, Dan headed south again in the teeth of a blizzard in his rented Nissan diesel (this was the same day it snowed here in Boston during our “We are many, we are Saab” event, and you might have even seen pictures Swade posted of the snow as he was in Trollhattan that week as well). While he told me that it was a white-knuckle journey back to Malmo, I am quite certain that Dan would not trade those twenty-four hours for anything.

In the end, of course—and this helps to make this story perfect—the Saab Museum was saved, intact. Dan was as happy as anyone about this. His only interest in bidding was to preserve what he could of the collection if indeed it was going to be scattered. In the end, Dan got something truly better than a piece of the collection: he got to spend a most memorable evening in a most magical place. Having heard this story, I can only say that as much as I ever wanted to visit Trollhattan and the Saab Museum, such a trip is on now on the “must do before I expire” list. And, as a fitting epilogue, Dan has now told me that he is actively seeking out, for the first time in his life, a vintage stroker Saab, such was the inspiration of that museum experience. This, I am sure, would make Peter Backstrom smile.