Kurt Vonnegut on Saab

Kroum left a link to this piece in comments. It’s from In These Times.

Seeing he’s now shuffled off his mortal coil, I don’t think Kurt would mind me reproducing it here on a site dedicated to Saab, though ITT might beg to differ. It’s a short piece about his time as a Saab dealership owner in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.


I used to be the owner and manager of an automobile dealership in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, called “Saab Cape Cod.” It and I went out of business 33 years ago. The Saab then as now was a Swedish car, and 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. Old Norwegian proverb: “Swedes have short dicks but long memories.”

Listen: The Saab back then had only one model, a bug like a VW, a two-door sedan, but with the engine in front. It had suicide doors opening into the slipstream. Unlike all other cars, but like your lawnmower and your outboard, it had a two-stroke rather than a four-stroke engine. So every time you filled your tank with gas you had to pour in a can of oil as well. For whatever reason, straight women did not want to do this.

The chief selling point was that a Saab could drag a VW at a stoplight. But if you or your significant other had failed to add oil to the last tank of gas, you and the car would then become fireworks. It also had front-wheel drive, of some help on slippery pavements or when accelerating into curves. There was this selling point as well: As one prospective customer said to me, “They make the best watches. Why wouldn’t they make the best cars, too?” I was bound to agree.

The Saab back then was a far cry from the sleek, powerful, four-stroke Yuppie uniform it is today. It was the wet dream, if you like, of engineers in an airplane factory who had never made a car before. “Wet dream,” did I say? Get a load of this: There was a ring on the dashboard, connected to a chain running over pulleys in the engine compartment. Pull on it, and at the far end it would raise a sort of window shade on a spring-loaded roller behind the front grill. That was to keep the engine warm while you went off somewhere. So, when you cam back, if you hadn’t stayed away too long, the engine would start right up again.

But if you stayed away too long, window shade or not, the oil would separate from the gas and sink like molasses to the bottom of the tank. So when you started up again, you would lay down a smokescreen like a destroyer in a naval engagement. And I actually blacked out the whole town of Woods Hole at high noon that way, having left a Saab on a parking lot there for about a week. I am told old timers there still wonder out loud about where all that smoke could have come from. I came to speak ill of Swedish engineering, and so diddled myself out of a Nobel Prize.

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  1. Old Norwegian proverb: “Swedes have short dicks but long memories.”

    LOL! Yet, they’re not the ones who came up with the Hummer…

    “As one prospective customer said to me, “They make the best watches. Why wouldn’t they make the best cars, too?” I was bound to agree.”

    So Americans’ ignorance that there’s a world outside the U.S. has been going on for some time, huh? 🙂

  2. Ah, this Sweden vs Switzerland thing they never understand across the pond… 🙂 I remember the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 96. Sweden was playing Switzerland in handboll. That really made the Americans confused… 🙂

  3. It’s not just an across-the-pond thing. Years ago (late 90’s) I went to the local Saab dealer here in Hobart, which had just been taken over by a new company. As I stood there I had to listen to this slick dressed idiot talking about the great Swiss engineering in the 9-3 Convertible.

  4. “For whatever reason, straight women did not want to do this.” Funny, but true.

    Swiss/Swedish: I worked for ABB (Asea Brown Boveri) for nearly nine years having to explain that it was a Swiss/Swedish joint venture company joining Asea (Sweden) and Brown Boveri (Switzerland). Our division aligned with a Swedish technology, so we reported to a division HQ in Växjö, Sweden. Invariably, someone would point out that our product ‘must be of high quality because of what they do with those clocks over there’ or ‘Have you been over there? They say that those mountain towns are beautiful!’ The Swedes will get this: Växjö happens to be located on the vast plains in the southern part of Sweden – probably closer to Copenhagen than it is to Stockholm or Göteborg. Nary a mountain in sight!

  5. ctm: Wait until Australia plays Austria. Then you’ll see some SERIOUS confusion!

    Tasmania/Tanzania is another one… :-0

    Also ctm, I’ve run across people who already thought SAABs are German.

  6. I’ll admit to mixing up Uruguay and Paraguay from time to time, but at least they are on the same continent and share a common language and general culture.

    I once heard a woman in a government office in Danver, Colorado say to someone recently relocated there from Albuquerque, “New Mexico? Oh, I thought that you were a DOMESTIC relocation. For INTERNATIONAL relocation, you must go to our main office downtown.” Sad, but true.

    (For those of you not from the US, New Mexico is a large state in the southwestern quadrant of the country.)

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