From the May 2021 issue of Car and Driver.
Like any normal person with healthy internet habits, I sometimes venture onto Craigslist, type in “Saab,” and see what pops up. Will I find a decrepit 9-5 wagon moldering in the tall grass of an unkempt lawn? Or maybe a 9-3 convertible in that acid green? Perhaps there will be a 900 or a 9000, but probably not, because North Carolina isn’t exactly the heart of Saab territory. Saabs come from the land of the ice and snow, where the synchros fry and the head gaskets blow. So imagine my astonishment when I discover 10 listings—9-3s, 9-5s, even a stray 900—all in the same place. Against all odds and logic, somebody is running a functional Saab dealership a couple of hours away from me. This I have to see.
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That somebody is Saabman, a.k.a. Bary, who won’t tell me his full name even though it’s easily found online. From the moment I arrive, my visit is steeped in bewilderment, which is an appropriate feeling when you’re visiting a parallel dimension where Saab is both still in business and extremely popular in the South. Bary is Saabman’s last name, but many people think his first name is Barry. A Saabman sign on his building reads “Rick Barry.” But the sign maker misspelled the name, plus that’s not him. Rick is his son, who also works here and goes by Saabman. When I arrive, both Saabmen think I’m a customer. The Saab logo—a snarling eagle-lion wearing a crown—is less confusing than this situation.
I find Rick tinkering with a V-6 9-3 Aero that’s overheating. I ask if it’s a head gasket and whether that makes this car a goner. “These cars come up at auction, and used-car dealers are afraid of them because they don’t know how to work on them,” he says. “We do. So this one needs a head gasket? I’m not terrified. We’ll throw a good engine in it and put it on the lot for $4500. And then somebody will get a unique luxury car for not much money.”
A mechanic walks past, and Rick gestures to him and says, “He can drop the engine out of this in five hours.” The guy pauses and says, “Four hours.” And that’s how you keep Saabs on the road: know what you’re doing and stash lots of spares. Rick points to shelves of parts inside the garage. “We’ve got axles, transmissions, interior parts. If a car needs an engine, so what? I’ve got another one right over there.” He is the most optimistic Saab fan I’ve ever met.
If Rick and his dad think I’m a customer, I’m not so sure they’re wrong. I used to have a 1991 9000 Turbo that unleashed glorious screes and chuffs from the turbo. My brother had a ’91 900S. I drove a diesel 9-3 convertible in Europe during my honeymoon. Of course, my fondest Saab memories are intermingled with frustration. One of the 9000’s favored pranks was to barf the vacuum line off the fitting to the boost gauge, which had the side effect of disabling the turbo. Why would Saab design it that way? That question has been asked many times, about many things.
Due to Saab’s hasty demise, I never got to test the 2011 9-5. I figure this is my chance, so I ask Bary if I can drive one. “Take mine,” he says, tossing me the keys to a black 9-5 Aero XWD parked outside the office. In C/D‘s testing, we clocked this model—300-hp turbo V-6, all-wheel drive—at 6.2 seconds to 60. Which is a blink quicker than the 9000 Turbo’s run 20 years earlier. This last 9-5 is emblematic of both Saab’s maddening stasis and what might have been. It’s a great used car, the kind of esoteric choice that marks you as an individual of boundless intrigue. Or maybe just a big ol’ Saab freak, which is kind of the same thing. Fortunately, there’s still a sizable population that fits that description.
Nonetheless, the Saabmen are diversifying. Out on the edges of the lot, I spy a few Land Rovers awaiting those avid gamblers who might find a Saab too reliable. “We’re starting to get into some other things, like Land Rovers, that are still in production,” Rick says. “Because 2012 was the last year for Saab, and 10 years from now I don’t know how many people are going to be looking for a 2012 Saab.” I told Rick he might be surprised.
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