Monday, 25 July 2011

Memories of Eeyore: '92 Saab 9000 CSE.

I had already handed in my resignation when he visited the dealership. Not somebody in the habit of buying cars often, tended to buy whichever car he really wanted and keep it for a very long time. 

We hit it off immediately. Diligently, I acted as "friend, partner, agent" and gave him all the help he needed in selecting his new car. There was no point in me applying too much pressure to secure the deal for the sake of monthly targets; I would be off to pastures new, or at least unemployment, in just three weeks time.

In fact, this became my sales pitch. Profit margins weren’t of prime concern to me because I was leaving, so my customers were “more likely” to get a good deal from me than from my colleagues. It worked well, in fact I sold more cars in my final month than my previous two put together.

On the day that he collected his new 3-Series Coup√©, he approached me and asked what I was doing about a car after I had handed in my company one. I told him that I’d have to find something. As fate would have it, only the previous week we had been talking about his own car, a red Saab 9000CSE that he’d loved and cherished since 1992.

The one in these photos.

He had never intended to part exchange his car, he knew he’d make more money in a private sale. But I like to think that he placed more importance in it going to a good home than making hard currency. Knowing my plight, he offered the Saab to me for £300. I said yes immediately. I had effected a Trollhattan Transfer.

I had always had a soft spot for 9000, despite knowing very little about them. I knew they had been around since the mid-eighties, and that they were born of the Type 4 family; the Fiat Croma, Lancia Thema and Alfa-Romeo 164 were its brothers and prettier sister, respectively.

And I knew they had been facelifted in the early nineties, an operation that gave it modish high-mounted rear light clusters and what seemed like one of the lowest bonnet-lines of any car in production. From the age of 16 I knew that I wanted to own one, some day, but probably never would. It was another of these noble intentions that would never come off.

Which is why I said yes, impulsively. I hadn’t even looked at the car properly, only spoken about it. Essentially I took him at his word that the car had been regularly serviced and was free of significant mechanical nasties. Very soon, on a sunny July day, I handed the keys for my BMW Z4 back to my sales manager, walked outside and drove away in a £300 Saab. And never returned.

From that point on, every mile covered was a new adventure. Gut instinct told me that I had scored an enormous amount of car for very little outlay. My half hour drive home was a calm one, I was driving gingerly, making friends with my new steed. But I couldn’t resist playing with the buttons.

This was my first ever car with heated seats (excluding my various company cars, but they don’t count) and I was free to warm my bottom just as much as I wanted. I could fart, too. This was MY car. If I had been a smoker, I would have done that, too. This was MY car. By the end of my first journey, I had named it: Eeyore, after the EYO of its registration.

I pressed all the buttons. The air-conditioning blew cold, and I was pleased to discover this as I hadn't even checked whether it even had a/c in the first place. The radio cassette (yes!) player worked and sounded fine, and there was a separate single-disc player beneath. My car had a component stack system! I felt smug. And comfy. And proud.

When I got it home for the first evening, I set about looking around it with a fine toothed comb, looking for the inevitable horrors that £300 cars are imbued with. There weren’t any. The front bumper had a graze on it, the high-level brake light had a small crack across the lens. I went out of my way to find signs of rust, the only vestige I found was in the boot floor, a thumbnail patch of surface rust on the actual boot floor drainhole. This car was minter than it had any right to be.

So flushed with pride was I that I drove straight to the Shell Garage in Clacton-On-Sea, where I took it through the car washtwice. And then, I paid for a jet-wash, too. I wanted to be rid of any salty grimness from any of the Saabs crevices and watertraps, and I left the garage with a reassuring mass of brown sludge left on the forecourt. With the car future-proofed to a certain extent, I could now get on with driving it.

When I bought the car I didn't know anything about it, mechanically. Not even which engine it was fitted with. All I knew was that Saab had a rich history of turbocharged engines, and could often be very fast indeed. And, hey, this was a CSE. Nippiness was assured, surely?

Pretty soon I realised that CSE didn't really mean anything, except perhaps a forest of wood veneer across the dash. My 9000 didn't have a turbocharger. Not even a little one. And it was the smaller, two-litre engine, too. And, it had a four-speed ZF gearbox. Pretty soon I realised that this was a very slow car indeed. It took more than 13 seconds for the 0-62mph drag.

Nevertheless, I joined an online Saab forum and began building my 9000 knowledge pretty rapidly, and the chaps on the forum tuned out to be a crashingly decent bunch. Nice people, Saab owners.

A few weeks after taking the car over, it was pressed into service to take my Father and I on a camping trip to St Ives, almost four hundred miles away. We didn't have to take the Saab, Dad has a BMW 540 at his disposal, but somehow going in the Saab felt like it would be more of an adventure.

The 9000 was more or less faultless on that 700-mile round trip. I discovered that there was an annoying seepage of wind through the drivers window that led to an annoying whistle above seventy, but that it could be solved by shifting the glass upwards a fraction using my palm. I would then repeat the process every five minutes until the end of the journey; it soon became second nature.

Eeyore proved to be less than economical, though, guzzling at an average rate of 28.2 miles per gallon through the trip. I put that down to the widely-spaced ratios of its old-school automatic gearbox and the fact that this was connected to such a small, relatively feeble engine. The brochures promised that it originally corralled 136 horses, but either many of them were turned into glue years ago, or they were all lost in the gearbox somewhere, running around and around in circles.

It was patently obvious that the Saab couldn't be driven fast, so there was no point even trying. I exploratively took it to 110 on the clock on a single occasion in the name of science, but it had taken so long to get there, made so much noise and probably burned so much fuel in doing so, that I put it straight on my list of things to not do again.

As a result, Saab ownership had quite a profound effect on my driving style. I would sit at only a little over seventy, not out of pious deference to road traffic law, but because it was the most relaxing way to travel. Chilled motoring was further encouraged by a CD player that worked brilliantly despite its vintage, and the large speakers dotted around the car (and made by Scandinavian name from the past, Luxor) sounded terrific.

Over time I discovered yet more new delights. The glovebox and centre console binnacle were illuminated in anti-glare green. The seatbelt release buttons them selves lit up in red. A display on the dash told you the battery condition on startup, and the map reading light was brilliantly directional. The 9000's interior may have looked like a case study in 1980's design, but it was becoming a fabulous place to spend time.

The enormous, accommodating seats were astonishingly comfortable, and the purplish sun-faded velour pleasant to sit on. Occasional wind noise apart, it was fairly quiet once a cruising speed had been attained, and the heating and ventilation were excellent, but I'd love to know what the optional electronic climate control would have been like.

It was a useful car, too. The boot was enormous, even enormouser with the rear seats folded flat, whereupon it does an excellent impression of a Ford Transit, should you unexpectedly find yourself struggling with flat-pack in a damp IKEA car park. This happened, and had my parents and I been in any of the other family cars, we would have been forced to throw money at a Man With A Van. Or stage an impromptu self-assembled bonfire.

I could never quite put my finger on it, but something was making me unnaturally fond of this car. It certaily wasn't the handling; it was basically sound but for the fact that the front dampers were, with hindsight, a bit knackered; leading to alarming levels of pitch into fast bends. I usually solved this problem by just slowing down. I enjoyed the strange noises that the gearbox made in the lower two ratios, too; an upwards whine in first, a downwards one in second. It sounded more akin to the gearbox of a train than any car I'd driven before.

I bought a set of age-appropriate three-spoke Saab alloys from a pleasant chap in Finchley. He came out to look at the car after hearing me gush with praise.

Is it manual or auto?” He enquired.
It's an auto” I replied. His face darkened, his lips pursed for a sharp intake of breath that never came.

You need to look after those. Check the oil, you know, give it some love. Those ZF autos are fine for about 120,000, after that they can be a bit, er, unpredictable. How many miles has yours got?”

Er, 121,000”.

The gearbox woes never arrived, certainly not during my stewardship of the car. I took it for an MOT, where I discovered that it had a split windscreen washer bottle. Screenwash trickled straight onto the floor of the MOT centre, but the they couldn't fault me as the actual washers worked fine. In fact, the car flew through the test, not even an advisory. “Bloody lovely”, the man said.

It was. I tinkered the external appearance by fitting clear white front indicator lenses; purists may shriek in horror at the loss of the gingercators, but it made a huge improvement in my eyes. In fact, it almost looked sporty; or at least much less un-sporty than it really was. One of those cars that your eyes are drawn to, and then spend a good while doing loops, connecting all the details together.

For the summer of 2007 I covered many miles in the Saab and enjoyed every one of them. I went to the Tokyo Motor Show that year, and found strangely comforting the fact that my Saab was waiting for me in a Heathrow car park. It was like a dagger through the heart when a thieving scumbag threw a rock through the drivers window when I visited my cousin in Sheffield; they stole my TomTom Satnav but, more hurtfully, they'd damaged my car. MY car. 

My car that I loved.

By February the following year I had started my next job, this time for Mercedes. This meant another company car. I was issued a CLK Convertible, and the Saab was sidelined. I still had Eeyore for another six months or so, but hardly ever drove it as my attention was stolen by the shiny new German car on my driveway. 

Still living with my parents at that point, it was they who insisted that I sell the Saab if I wasn't going to use it, and, with the terms of my tenancy otherwise extremely acceplable, I duly, but regretfully complied. It was a difficult decision, but the Saab was soon listed on eBay with a reserve of £300: the amount I had paid in the first place. 

Up to now, my then girlfriend (and now wife) had never travelled in the Saab; I'd dragged her around in a series of Mercs that weren't really mine, but onlookers were none the wiser. I took her out in the Saab just once before I sold it, just a short journey in and around her home town, but long enough to build up an impression. I pointed out all the features and foibles of the car that had enamoured me so. She humoured me, of course, but conceded that she totally understood why I didn't want to sell it. Clearly, she agreed that it had a certain undeniable charm. 

The spell it had cast over me could only be broken by a swift, clean transaction. I'm my own worst enemy, though, and the evening before the eBay gavel fell at £450, I took the Saab out for a drive, for old times sake. Selling it felt like the wrong thing to do; it didn't feel like our time together was ready to end. And then I switched the stereo on. An old Bonnie Raitt song was playing on evening radio; a track that I hadn't heard for ages. It contained the refrain “I can't make you love me if you don't”, and that was almost too much for me to take. Suddenly sentimentality got the better of me. 

I was starting to anthropomorphise the car far too much. Thoughts my of previous human relationships and how they had ended were somehow clotting together with the emotional turmoil of parting with the Saab. I felt that it was talking to me, summing up how it saw our relationship and why I wanted to end it. 

But it was wrong; I did love Eeyore, but we were were destined to be star-crossed. We couldn't stay together. I can't stand this kind of emotional blackmail from any car, told it to not do this to me, switched the radio off, and drove straight home.

Usually my common sense overcomes my soppiness, but I knew that I'd never be able to part with the car if I took one more drive. If I was going to move on, I had to go cold turkey.

I turned the key to lock the car up for the night, and never drove it again.


  1. I've always liked the Saab 9000, you still see the odd one on the road.

    1. Yes, and those you see tend to be well looked after. Which is nice.