UPDATE – new pictures of Heritage cars and the restoration of the 99 now added at the end of the article.
The following article was first printed in Issue #281 of NINES, the magazine of the Saab Club of North America. I’d like to acknowledge the club and thank the author Gary Stottler and editor, Seth Bengelsdorf for their kind permission to use the article here and thereby share a little of this collection with the wider Saab community.
At the end of the article I’ve also published some photos recently received from Gary. They’re of a white 99 that’s undergoing a complete restoration (now posted!!).
I should also add that GM has recently purchased a pristine Classic 900 to add to the collection. It was purchased from a GM employee.
When Saab Cars USA moved from Georgia to Detroit in 2004, I heard from plenty of vintage Saab enthusiasts, concerned about the fate of the fleet of vintage Saabs owned by SCUSA and kept in Georgia. After all, they were being taken over by the evil empire – GM corporate.
With only the vaguest rumor that the fleet was headed to Detroit, in early 2005 I set out to see what I could find out about the cars.
First, I “invited” myself for a visit to the GM Heritage Center in suburban Detroit. (I sort of elbowed my way in there because at the time I figured it was the new home of the Saabs.) I arrived on a cold January day, having basically tracked down the manager in the GM directory after finding his name in an Internet news article. I just called him and pretended I had some authority to be there, and told him when I was coming.
I was quite impressed by the overall collection of cars at the Heritage Center, spanning more than 100 years, but the only Saab I saw there was the 1960 RAC Rally car, which had recently arrrived from the Saab Training Center in Connecticut.
I did, however, learn that the remaining Saabs, along with most of the roughly 700 cars of historic importance that GM owns, were stored in several warehouses nearby. I didn’t quite talk my way into those treasure troves on that day, though.
Fast forward a couple of months: Jim Laman of Great Lakes Saab Club forwarded an e-mail from a company trying to find some service manuals so they could do some work on the 1960 GT 750. I sent a note back to Jim and the contact person that I would be glad to help out and try to track down some info, and I sent a copy to my contact at the GM Heritage Center.
This resulted, a few days later, in my getting a phone call from Richard Balsley from GM Historic Fleet. Dick patiently explained to me that GM Heritage Center is the building that the PR department uses to put on shows and displays, but that GM Historic Fleet is in charge of the actual car collection and is run by the Sales and Marketing department. He let me know that the vintage Saab collection was indeed safe and accounted for, and I let him know that I would be glad to round up as much information and expertise as I could if he needed any assistance in taking care of the cars.
I was happy to find out that Dick was quite receptive to getting some help from outside enthusiasts and clubs to support the various brands of cars in the collection.
I decided to shamelessly exploit my status as a GM employee (GM Fuel Cell Activities) to help out with the collection on a volunteer basis and hopefully provide a point of contact with the Saab enthusiast community.
There are eleven Saab cars at Historic Fleet in Michigan. They are: a green 1951 92, an orange 1956 Sonett I Super Sport, a blue 1960 93 GT 750, the red 1960 96 RAC Rally car, a red 1966 Saab/Quantum IV open wheel racer, a silver 1967 Sonett II #197, a red 1986 900 convertible prototype, a silver 1987 9000 Turbo “Long Run” car #3, a red 1995 900NG Pikes Peak rally car and a silver 1996 900SE Talladega car #8.
A tan 1970 2-door “steel bumper” 99 was added in late 2005. As of this writing (March 2006) the fleet has also acquired 1970 and 1971 Sonett IIIs, both very much in need of restoring!
All of the cars are receiving a royal pampering. They were sent to Michigan with a budget specifically provided by Debra Kelly-Ennis for their safekeeping, so we can thank her for seeing to that. In the months since they arrived last winter, they have gotten a serious detailing and complete going-over, and have all been running reasonably well (more on that in a minute). I believe that the 900 convertible arrived with its original tank of 1986-vintage gas, but it has been resurrected.
Currently, there is various paint and upholstery work going on including, for example, a fresh interior and tonneau cover for the Sonett I, new paint for the Sonett II, and new upholstery for the GT 750. The 99 is undergoing a complete restoration. Balsley’s motto is “it’s fine as long as it’s perfect” with regard to repair/restoration work.
It is safe to say that the current “digs” and care are far finer than Saab USA was able to provide in Georgia. Hopefully, a lot of you saw some of the collection at SOC 2005 or Swedish Car Day and got a firsthand feel for how they are being “kept.”
Once I understood that Dick requires all the cars in the Historic Fleet to be kept running, and that he was looking for information to use to get and keep the Saabs running, I decided that this sounded like too much fun to pass up. Since the immediate object of attention was the GT 750, I put in calls and emails to the vintage Saab aficionados I knew and in pretty short order had arranged for Bruce Welch (who originally restored the GT 750), and John Moss to join me in a road trip to Michigan in July of 2005.
We loaded up a few spare parts, our toolboxes and about 30 two-stroke plugs and hit the road. Upon our arrival, we found that GM Historic Fleet has a tremendous facility for working on all kinds of cars as well as a shop with six bays dedicated to detailing cars that are being sent out for various shows and events.
Equally impressive are the talented and enthusiastic crew working on the cars. We found that they are genuinely interested in the vintage Saabs and in making sure they are taken care of and presented in a way that will please/satisfy Saab Enthusiasts everywhere. As you can see in the pictures, John, Bruce, and I had a great two days of tinkering with all the vintage Saabs and running them–some for the first time in five years or more! We also had a chance to visit some of the non-Saab vehicles in the Historic Fleet. My favorites were the Three turbine-powered Firebird concept cars from the 1950s (some of these were recently running, too).
John, Bruce,I had a chance to exercise some of the cars. I had my first ride in the Sonett I, a real treat for me! Bruce Welch and I got the GT 750 almost a block away from the shop before we had to stop and change plugs. I seriously doubt that car will ever run more than a few minutes for anyone but John or Bruce. Did I ever tell you the story of how John and I towed it at 60 m.p.h. down a runway to get it “unfouled” during the 9-5 introduction in Palm Springs a few years ago?
The other funny bit was when I jumped into the 9000 Long Run car and fired it up. I went to pull out of the row of cars inside the shop and nearly piled into a 1970 GTO “Judge” when the brake pedal went to the floor It was fixed the next week, I think!
The only real downside is that the Historic Fleet cars (something like 700 total, dating from 1896 forward) are not on public display, although they are in almost constant demand for events (I think the Sonett I has been sent to at least four events in the last two months) and are rotated through a couple of GM display areas, including the ground floor of GM Headquarters in Detroit.
There is at least the potential, depending on budget, to add one or two more key “2-digit” Saabs to the collection in the future. Along with all of the existing cars, the addition of a 1971-73 95 V4 and a 1977-78 99 Turbo would allow the collection to pretty completely represent the essence of the first 40 years of Saab.
It seemed obvious to me that the condition and prospects of the “corporate collection” are better than in a long time, thanks to the efforts of a range of dedicated enthusiasts. Hopefully, many of you had a chance to meet some of the GM Historic Fleet team at SOC 2005 or Swedish Car Day. They gave two weekends of their time to come out and meet with us and learn more about vintage Saabs. I am very optimistic that we will have more opportunities to see the cars at various future events as well.
The following photos are of a few cars in the collection as well as photos of ongoing restoration work being completed on a silver bumper 99.