Every place and every household has its terroir. That’s French for the unique combination of stuff that makes each grape field just a tiny bit different than all the other fields. The sun, the shadows, the chemicals in the dirt: the intangibles. I’m from Seattle and can talk all day about living in the South, which – whatever maps and borders say – really is another country. This story describes a little piece of the terroir of South Carolina.
I used to drive a 1990 Saab Turbo. On purpose. It scratched an itch. Yes, unenlightened friends laughed at me, and said my car was so ugly you kind of had to love it. Oh, well. Taste, you know.
In Tacoma, where I grew up, there was always a shop around that worked on Saabs, and the cars were as common as VW bugs. Not so in South Carolina, where I live now. Agreed, we have more sun, but less of everythng cool. Saabs, Pearl Jam, the Seahawks – all are three thousand miles away. Notwithstanding everything else, my wife says it’s like we’re on vacation every day, and I don’t argue. I’ve never actually seen the place, but I think the nearest shop that specializes in foreign made cars is about three hours away. Still, knowing what a pain this might be, I wanted one.
Of all places, I found it in Florida: my least favorite state and some of my least favorite dirt on the planet. My humble opinion. The car came with a story, and I was suspect: it was sold new in 1990 for about forty grand to a couple when they lived in Pittsburgh. The speedo, they said, read 35,000 miles but was a new one that replaced the old one which broke at…35,000 miles. So, they said, whatever the speedo says, just add 35,000 miles. I teetered a bit, quicksand seeping between my toes.
“Do you have any records of the car’s work history?” I asked, looking for something to grab.
They sent a cheery email the next day with the purchase paperwork and every single work invoice for the car from dealers in Pittsburgh and Savannah. And each invoice had the mileage listed on it. Everything added up, and I felt like a miner who just struck a major vein.
It was listed on Craigslist for $4,900 and we agreed to meet between us in Savannah, in the Mall parking lot, outside my bank. Convenient for both of us, it made my drive shorter and kept me out of Florida. I pulled into the parking lot after a three-hour drive and parked a hundred or so yards from the car. Grabbing the steering wheel, I took a breath, got out, and mosied over to where the car was like I didn’t care. Don’t want to seem too eager. I was maybe fifty yards away – half a football field – when sunlight glanced off the paint. “There is no possible way a thirty-year-old car can look that good unless someone really, really cared about it,” I thought. I was right. It was beautiful and taken care of like a favorite child. I pulled a wad of cash from my pocket and gave the guy an extra hundred, telling him it was a steal.
I worried a little every day driving it back and forth to work. It was the only car I had, and I needed it to go to work. If the thing broke or coughed, I could probably work on it, but parts are several days away. But, for two years, this thing ran like a salesman’s model: it started instantly, everything worked, and ran without even a hint of hitch in its giddyup.
Then – you know it’s coming – it happened.
I was two miles from work and heard an explosion like the engine was giving birth to a pterodactyl. I pulled over and lifted the hood to discover that it threw a belt. Big deal. I called work to take the day off and then called a towing service.
I knew this would take time to fix, so I called the shop that works on my wife’s car.
“A belt? Yeah, we can fix a belt. I mean, I don’t care if the car’s Chinese, I can put a new belt on. Bring it in.”
I hopped into the tow truck with the driver and smiled all the way to town, happy for a day off and an easy fix.
We dropped it off at the shop, and my wife picked me up across the street at Starbucks. I needed a treat after my harrowing morning. A couple of hours later, the shop called and I grabbed the phone, surprised they were done so fast.
“Hey, Dennis. This is Johnny at the shop.”
“Man,” I said, exuberant. “I can’t believe you guys are done already. It would take me half a day just to get all the stuff out of the way so I could change the belt.”
“Well, we’re not done. Sorry. We haven’t really started yet…Hey. I’ve got the whole shop standing around the car.” He hesitated. “You know that everything about this car is backward, right?”
“Umm, what do you mean? Backward?” Maybe I was premature.
“Well, I mean, the hood opens backward and the engine is in backward.”
“Backward how?” This was weird.
“The belts, you know, that we want to change? They’re in the back by the firewall, and we have to take a bunch of stuff off to get to them. It’s not like a Ford truck.”
Okay. It’s not a Ford, and it’s not a truck. Now, I know and will bet a paycheck that any one of these guys could rebuild a Ford engine blindfolded. I mean, it’s a car. With an engine and a belt. Can it be that hard?
Jonny went on, almost whispering, like he’d discovered my secret. “And you know this thing was, like, made in 1990, right? In Sweden. That’s by Russia somewhere…”
I’m flabbergasted now, as if I’d never lifted the hood before, or know where Sweden is, and how old the car is. I’m feeling like a genius for knowing how to gas the thing up.
“None of us knows how to work on this, and we don’t have any idea what to estimate. I’m pretty sure we can do it, but I can’t give you a price.”
I just want to be clear. “So you can do it? Replace the belt?”
“We can do it – I’m not worried about that, but we’re going to have to charge by the hour.” Maybe I sighed into the phone. “I think you should take to one of the Euro shops in town.”
“There’s a Euro shop in town? Our town?”
“Yeah, a couple of them. They should know how to work on this.”
I thanked him for acting so honorably. Most shops would just take the thing apart before wondering what to do and then charge me for them not knowing.
I took it to one of the Euro shops, and it never ran again. Once ‘repaired’ at the Euro shop, I had it for a week before it stopped running in the Food Lion parking lot. With lots of finagling, I found that if I charged the battery on Sunday, I could get through Wednesday driving it to work. The shop claimed there must be something else wrong with it, and they would have to charge me for finding the issue. Nevermind that it worked as it should before they worked on it. There you go.
I finally sold it to a guy in Texas. He buys Saabs in America, cleans them up, and then sells them in Germany. And – if you know of one – I’m on the hunt for a 1970s BMW or maybe a nice older Skoda. That should be a blast!
Thanks for reading. You can sign up for updates at the top of any page. You’ll get a notice of when I published new stuff, a newsletter from time to time, and a chance to get a free book when I whittle down this pile. And please hit one of those buttons below to send this on to your favorite social site.