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Wine, cheese, infidelity, and Saabs

Opinion

With Dutch automaker Spyker seeking to buy the brand, an owner mourns the possible end to the quirky car that defines its driver.

February 04, 2010|Meghan Daum

The Toyota recall may be dominating headlines these days, but I have another sad automotive story to tell. In fact (and you know I had to resort to this pun), it's a Saab story. Literally.

Spyker, a boutique Dutch automaker known chiefly for building the teak-and-gold-leaf carriage used by the queen of the Netherlands, is purchasing Saab from General Motors. The brand has been in play for months, and Spyker may not have the bucks to make it happen. Regardless, the move is only the latest unsettling news for a car that was "born from jets" in Sweden and crash-landed in American bankruptcy.


FOR THE RECORD:
Saab: Meghan Daum's column on Feb. 2 about Saab said that Kurt Vonnegut owned a Saab dealership in the 1970s. He owned the dealership in the 1950s. —

The thought of Saab's permanent demise causes a certain kind of person a certain kind of existential woe -- emotions similar to the ones you feel when, long after accepting that your favorite indie band is now popular with the masses, that band breaks up or stops playing except in the drummer's living room.

Saab drivers, as you no doubt know, are intellectuals. They're college professors and journalists and people who work in public radio (many drive the same Saabs they had in college). Though book smart and knowledgeable about cheeses, the lives of Saab drivers are often a mess. They either drink too much (only wine) or are on the verge of divorce because their spouses have run off with partners who are either less depressed or less critical of the world, or both.

How do you know this? From the movies, of course. And some books and TV shows too. In storytelling, Saabs are shorthand for "liberal elite," which itself is shorthand for a lot of things, not least among them "people whose desire to appear unconventional is expressed through highly conventional means."

Saabs have been prominently featured in movies such as "High Fidelity," "Sweet Home Alabama," "As Good as It Gets," "The Bourne Supremacy" and, perhaps most famously, "Sideways," as the car driven by the wine-obsessed, frustrated novelist played by Paul Giamatti. In the film adaptation of "The Soloist," The Times' own Steve Lopez, played by Robert Downey Jr., drives a Saab 9-3 (in real life, Lopez drives a Volvo wagon). When Jim Halpert in "The Office" proposed to Pam at a gas station, he arrived in a Saab 9-2X.

It gets better: Kurt Vonnegut owned and operated a Saab dealership on Cape Cod in the early 1970s. In a 2004 essay for In These Times magazine called "Have I Got a Car for You!" Vonnegut wrote, "I now believe my failure as a dealer so long ago explains what would otherwise remain a deep mystery: Why the Swedes have never given me a Nobel Prize for literature."

Being a journalist and a cheese lover and all, I drive a Saab too. Mine is just 8 years old, and technically a GM, but it's a Saab fair and square. I know this because it currently needs thousands of dollars of work that I can't afford. I know this because, like all Saab drivers, I automatically reach for the floor-mounted ignition when I get into a car that's not my own.

Oh, and speaking of that floor-mounted ignition (an imprimatur, more distinctive than even Saab's crowned lion logo, the turbo engine or the swaybacked contours of the classic models), I once, while riding as a passenger in my car, reached for something in the back seat, bumped the ignition and managed to turn the car off as it was speeding along the interstate at 70 mph.

Fortunately, the exquisite handling of the vehicle allowed my companion to pull safely to the shoulder and then have a conniption fit. Although he previously knew no Scandinavian languages, he managed to yell in Swedish. That's how amazing and intellectual the Saab is.

Saab's calling card is quirk. And that, ironically, may have contributed as much to its demise as to its popularity. As any indie rocker knows, it's hard to maintain your iconoclast cred when you're on a major label. Under GM's benighted ownership, Saab's quirk was pretty much faux quirk -- with a high price tag to boot.

But as much as the brand may seem poised for imminent demise, Saab purists might see a glimmer of hope in the ultra-niche market of Spyker. Can a teak-and-gold-leaf carriage go into turbo drive? Maybe someday a college professor will give us the answer.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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