The Damascus Road – at 200 km/h

Greetings from my office. Being the last week before Christmas I’m loaded to the gills with reports that need to get sent out by 11.59 a.m. on Friday prior to the Christmas Party in the afternoon. Hence the overtime.

Earlier I was reading a post in a MSM blog asking whether anyone had any Damascus Road experiences, be they spiritual or not. Naturally I related the whole thought to my Saab experience. This is what I do.

Some of you may have read a little about my first Saab experience in my author profile page. Allow me to elaborate and as you read, I’d invite you to think about your own experience and maybe share it in comments. Maybe you’ve been a Saab-lover all along, or maybe your story is a little more like mine….

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In Australia, a kid in the suburbs will most likely grow up loving football, cricket, the beach, the thought of a beer and eventually a beer itself, and they will aspire to drive either a Ford Falcon or a Holden Commodore.

It’s been Ford vs Holden here for all of my time on the planet, and I’d be comfortable with the knowledge that it was the case well beforehand, too. Since Adam was a boy, smelly and boistrous Australian males have been making the annual pilgrimage to Bathurst in New South Wales for the Bathurst 1000, an endurance race that has been most notably fought out by Ford and Holden, with a couple of twists through history as the rules have changed. It’s now part of the V8 Supercar Series and exclusively Ford/Holden.

I couldn’t afford a Holden Commodore 18 years ago, so my first ride was a Holden Gemini. Thankfully I wrote that one off about 5 months later and got myself a real Aussie car – a 1973 LJ Torana. Complete with it’s 202ci straight 6, mag wheels and rear spoiler, it was cop bait in the highest order. The picture below isn’t my car, but if you take off the racing stripes and add some 5-slot mag wheels then it’s pretty close.

LJtorana.JPG

In Australia, new drivers have to display “P plates” on the car to identify them as “Provisional” licence holders. A car like my sauced up Torana with P-plates on show was a big bright invitation to the police and they accepted the invitation many times while I had that car. I got pulled over once a week for all sorts of made-up reasons. Basically the cops just wanted to keep perceived hoons like me in check.

It’s one of those rites of passage for an Aussie kid to have an old Holden or Ford. It’s a natural progression, like learning to swim. You get your licence, you get your car – and that car is usually either a Holden or a Ford. If you go for one of them fancy European cars then you’re probably getting a bit above your station.

All of my friends had old Holdens or Fords just like mine and we drove them everywhere. Racing, cruising, hanging out in parking lots. Whatever. These cars were an integral part of our identity as Australian teenagers – and we loved it.

My first conscious enounter with a Saab was around 1988 when my girlfriend’s cousin got one. It was a 99 painted in some sort of frog-like green. I remember thinking to myself “what a stupid looking piece of junk”. I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. She seemed a little strange, we’d call it ‘posh’ here but others might say she was just sophisticated. Her dad drove a Citroen, which was the strangest looking thing I’d ever seen at 18 years of age.

Around the same time, a famous female newsreader here in Australia was making conversation on air with her co-host, as they do, and declared that what she wanted for Christmas was a Saab 900 Convertible. In my Holden-induced stupor I recall thinking of her as being quite stuck-up.

See, it never occurred to me or my friends that a Saab or Volvo was to Sweden like a Holden or Ford was to Australia. In Australia, if you bought a European car it meant you were a bit odd, but you had enough money to buy it and more importantly, enough money to fix it.

Fast forward about 5 years and I was visiting some friends of mine. The lady of the house’s brother turned up for a visit (which was quite an event as he lived about 3 hours away). Nathan was a farmer’s son and around 19 years of age, so you could imagine my surprise when he took me outside to show me his new wheels – a 1986 Saab 9000 Turbo.

This isn’t his car, but it’s the same model. Nathan’s was white with a tan interior.

1986Saab9000-2.jpg

If you’re not familiar with this generation of 9000, let me tell you that they were fully loaded. At a time when my mates and I were sitting on vinyl seats (or lambswool seat covers) and struggling with sliding/sticking heating controls, Nathan was sitting on soft leather and dialling in the exact temperature he wanted on the climate control system.

I was driving a Toyota Celica at this stage, so I was a step up on a few of my friends who had stuck to the old Holden credo. Their cars were overheating at least once a week, but at least they were loyal. I wasn’t sold on the Saab, but being a little older I was smart enough to allow my interest to be piqued.

A few months later I made the trip to Nathan’s parents’ holiday house at Philip Island for a weekend with a few friends. I’d made this trip a few times before, but this time I accompanied Nathan, riding shotgun in the 9000. My first road trip in a Saab!

First impressions are important, and mine were ones of amazement. The first contact you make with any car is sitting in it. The Saab absolutely knocked me out with those beautiful, comfortable leather seats that you seemed to sit “in” rather the Holden seats that you sit “on”. The smell alone was infectious enough.

As we took off it was total comfort. For a kid that grew up with rough old Australian cars, and one who didn’t know this Saab owner that well, I figured he must have been rich. The car cost around $18,000 when he bought it, and that’s a hefty enough sum nowadays, let along in 1992 or 1993 dollars. He was working for his dad and his parents agreed to guarantee the loan. Happy Days! I figured I was riding in the lap of luxury.

And boy was I getting to my destination fast. And then slow. And then fast again. Nathan liked to show off the turbo performance. We all thought our old Aussie clunkers had some go (and some of them really did) but this was smooth, sophisticated go, with enough torque to suck the chrome of your tow ball. And all from a four cylinder engine!

On the road into Philip Island we had some guy in a BMW following us. As many of you know, a male human in the 18-24 age group can sniff out a race at 100 paces in a high wind. Bimmer-guy was sitting on our tail just consistently enough for Nathan to get an itch – so he scratched it. We were on an endlessly straight section of highway and with the pedal down he effortlessly got the 9000 up to around 200 km/h and it seemed like it happened in a snap. The BMW was left behind, eventually caught up and stayed with us for a while. We parted respectfully and thankfully, no-one got hurt.

It was reckless, foolish, dangerous and totally intoxicating.

I’d been at or around this speed before. Once on a road trip to the Australian Grand Prix in my Torana (the speedo ended at 180) and once in a friend’s modified HR Holden. When I look back and think about the build quality of those cars it makes me shudder to think I chanced it. The thing about the Saab, though, was that it was totally accommodating and brilliant at whatever speed we drove. To an Aussie kid from the suburbs it was an absolute revelation.

As mentioned, Nathan was a young farmer working for his parents and one time when I was visiting the farm we had to deliver about a dozen emu chicks (about 1ft tall each) to another farmer who had purchased them. The chicks were loaded into a box and then dumped in the back of the 9000 for the trip. Who’d have thought?

I got to drive the 9000 on the way back from that delivery trip and needless to say I was sold (well, I was sold on that first trip, really). It took a long time before I could get one, but it’s been nothing but Saabs since. And this website is only happening because of that first drive.

I’m still constantly amazed by Saab’s quality of experience and practicality. My amazement on that first drive is something that’s tempered now that I drive them everyday, but reminders come and go from time to time and the grin returns amidst memories of a car that totally shifted my whole perpective.

Whatever else you do – enjoy your ride today.

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Note to Andy R, I hope this doesn’t seem blasphemous. It’s not intended to, just a good, opportune analogy. Any application you can find in it is OK with me.

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6 Comments

  1. Nice story Swade!

    My first Saab was a 1999 9-3 low pressure turbo. I wanted a car with great safety and I layed my eyes on Saab 9-3, Volvo s40 and Audi A4. My friend told me that the Volvo was Mitsu-junk, the Audio was just Audi-junk and the Saab was Swedish iron! I went to test drive the Saab on a drizzly afternoon, put the car in first, second and third gear and accelerated. The front wheels spun like crazy and I was sold! It turned out that the low pressure turbo was tweaked a little by Hirsch. Now I’m on my second Saab, a 9-3 Sportsedan also tuned by Hirsch, and I’m loving every second!
    For me, Saab is the best mix of safety, performance and reliability! 🙂

  2. Great reading. Back up to 1967 and think Saab 96, and this line reads true for me:
    “reminders come and go from time to time and the grin returns amidst memories of a car that totally shifted my whole perpective”

  3. Being a Swede I’d rode in Saabs alot but my first drive of one is something I’ll always remember. It was late september 1994, I had finished highschool and was to start my military duty in february ’95 so I managed to get a lowpaid job at the local Saab/Opel dealership washing cars and stuff like that. On the third day working there my boss told me that I was to go to another dealership some 60km away to pick up a car that was to be used as a display car at our dealership. I got an old Opel for the ride there and didn’t think much of it. Once I got there I told them who I was and that I was to pick up a car. Then I happened…they rolled out a brand spanking new, black 2-door 900 SE Turbo. *drool* “Drive carefully” the salesman told me. Yeah right…first i found a parking space and tuned in the right radio stations. Then I turned my sights homewards. I got out on the mainroad home and instantly found myself on a long straight with three lorries ahead of me, dropped into third and floored it. *Whooooosch!* That thing went like nothing I’d ever experienced before. Needless to say I got home in record time so I parked about 3 km’s out from home and let the car cool down for about 15-20 minutes before I dared drive the rest of the way home.

  4. Those stories sound a lot like my own. It’s the unexpected discovery that it really is a wolf there in that sheep’s clothing.

    Very enjoyable reading, gents. Mats, you should email the URL for this story to your old employer!!

  5. Actually I have been on the road to Damascus (from Beirut) while travelling overland to Amman in Jordan. Through the Bekaa valley it was amazing! And in a Saab 9000 CD, fantastic fun!!!!

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