In my Nissan Frontier Capsule Review, I briefly mentioned the fact that I’d had a Saab 9-3 prior to said Frontier. Well, as it turned out, I ended up having the Saab after the Frontier, as well. Before I could take possession of said little turbocharged hatchback for the second time and send it back to the lease company where it belonged, however, I had to beg, threaten, and — depending on your definition of the word — perhaps steal.
Prince’s suggestions aside, I didn’t party much in 1999. Instead, I formed two businesses: a nonprofit web-hosting cooperative designed to provide affordable space to individuals and small businesses who were interested in using the Debian operating system, and a tech consulting firm. One of my partners in the latter was a fifty-something veteran of the food-brokerage industry who could sell the proverbial ice to the proverbial Eskimos. Before we knew it, we had some pretty decent clients and a little bit of income coming in.
My partner was a big believer in not showing a lot of profit on the books, so we went looking for some company cars to burn up the money. His credit was dismal, a casualty of starting a dozen businesses and declaring bankruptcy at least twice, so he wound up paying $800 a month for a used Cadillac STS. I had done a better job of adhering to the American secular religion of debt and repayment so I found myself at the local Saab dealer signing up for a 2000 Saab 9-3 “S” five-speed for the bargain rate of $339 a month over thirty-six months.
Some of you will have forgotten the original Saab 9-3, so let’s review. GM bought Saab in the early nineties and promptly replaced the company’s long-serving “900”, a long-nose variant of the positively ancient Saab “99”, with the “900 NG”. The brand’s loyalists were horrified; the “new” 900 was basically an old Opel with a transverse engine, generic styling, depressing interior materials, and a suspension that produced torque steer at almost any power level.
In 1999 Saab performed a modest revision of the 900NG to create the 9-3. In most ways, the 9-3 was better than its predecessor, but it was still pretty far from good enough. However, it had a few things that very few other cars in its price segment could offer: the availability of a hatchback in both three-and-five-door body styles, the combination of a turbo engine and a manual transmission, and some absolutely monstrous incentives courtesy of GMAC.
Those incentives put me behind the wheel of a black base-model five-door with leather interior, 185 horsepower from a light-pressure turbo, and dowdy-looking fifteen-inch alloys. At the time, I was still spending most of my nights at a skatepark or BMX track and the Saab’s ability to swallow a few bikes was quite convenient. The seats were better than good and the heater loops embedded into those seats could boil water if required.
The GM people wanted Saab to be a luxury car, perhaps not understanding that Saab had never really sold luxury cars. They’d sold expensive cars, but those cars were only expensive because they’d been dragged across an ocean and priced in a different currency. There was nothing luxury-car about the 9-3. The driveline, in particular, sounded cheap and the shift lever felt like its operating cables were long enough to hang the Golden Gate Bridge.
This was also the era of the ridiculous “Born From Jets” advertising. To provide that advertising with the barest connection to reality, Saab equipped the 9-3 with the “Black Panel”. The Black Panel was an enormous button that, when pressed at night, cut the illumination to every gauge except the speedometer. The idea was that only critical information would be communicated to the pilot, I mean, driver. If one of the gauges reached a “critical area”, it would light up. Supposedly this was the way LearJets worked. The way it worked in practice:
- Explain “Black Panel” to passenger;
- Press Black Panel button;
- Observe the non-impressed countenance of passenger;
- Drive for a while in Black Panel;
- Shriek like little girl when the fuel gauge falls below a quarter-tank and lights up out of nowhere in CRITICAL MODE;
- Never press Black Panel button again.
The money it took to develop the Black Panel would have been better-spent on brakes. The 9-3 was not a great stopper and the ABS cycle rate seemed very slow. Or it could have been used to address the torque steer, which was miserable despite the engine’s modest power level. At least it was possible to make relatively rapid progress if one could hold the steering wheel straight, since there was plenty of area under the curve on the power chart.
About a year into my lease, my partner came to me with some surprising information. We were broke. Although we were making decent money, his purchase and complete renovation of a massive home had eaten up our profits. He’d decided to revamp the business into a cell-phone distributorship, and he had new partners. I agreed to walk away from the business for a modest consideration, leaving the Saab behind as a condition of said agreement.
Come the year 2002, I’d all but forgotten the little hatchback when the calls from GMAC started. My lease payment was ninety days past due. Would I mind addressing it? Not at all. I called my partner, who told me the Saab had been stolen and that therefore he’d stopped making payments. Upon further questioning, he revealed that “stolen” meant “taken by the new partner in the business in lieu of repayment on a major loan.” I went to see the cops anyway. They explained to me that, although I had not handed the keys to the new partner, I had handed the keys to the dude who had handed the keys to him, and that therefore there was no theft involved.
I called the new partner and got his secretary. His secretary referred me to his attorney. I called the attorney, who informed me that his partner had a perfect right to hold the car as long as he wanted to. I explained to the attorney that the two parties holding title to the car were GMAC and Jack Baruth, and that my old partner wasn’t really suffering. He explained to me that he didn’t care. I asked him to please reconsider. He declined. At that point I threw caution to the winds and explained that
a) I was being placed in a desperate situation;
b) people in desperate situations did desperate things;
c) his client worked late at night in a bad part of town and I couldn’t necessarily prevent his client from being shot in the face by vagrants, even though I drove by there all the time.
Two weeks later, I met the new partner behind the automatic gate of a Public Storage facility, along with his attorney, and watched as my Saab was backed out of a rental garage. It looked terrible. Every panel was scratched and dented. The rim of one wheel was so badly bent I was surprised it was holding air. The new partner had been smoking in the car for almost a year. It stank. It was filthy. The seats were torn. I felt sick to my stomach, but in moments I was gone, accompanied by an odd noise from the transmission.
I don’t remember what I had planned for that weekend, but I remember what I ended up doing: cleaning that car from bumper to bumper with Q-tips, alcohol, thick brushes, peroxide, and (I kid you not) sandpaper. Near the end of the ordeal, I opened the glovebox… and found a Rolex Air-King. I knew it belonged to the new partner because it had suffered the same kind of abuse to which my Saab had been subjected. The mineral crystal was scratched and the leather was worn. I figured it for a fake and tossed it on the kitchen island.
Two weeks later, the GMAC inspector stopped by for the end-of-lease paperwork. She looked at the car for a long time, took a lot of notes, and, to my amazement, announced that there would be no damage penalty. It turns out that GMAC used the same criteria for Saabs as they did for Silverados and Suburbans. I couldn’t believe my luck. Some stories have a happy ending…
…and the story got a bit happier. My wife saw the fake Rolex sitting on the island and ran it to the local jeweler. It wasn’t fake, and they wrote her a check on the spot. Eight hundred bucks. I figured it as a hundred-dollar-an-hour detail job. A week later, the phone rang.
“Uh, hey, that car I gave back to you?”
“What about it?”
“You, uh, find a watch in there?” I told him where he could look for the watch, but unless he owned some very specialized medical equipment, I doubt that he ever managed to follow that advice.