Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Saab Story, Part One: Into the Wild Blue Yonder

Once upon a time, my husband, Eric, owned an electric-blue sports car called a Saab Sonett. It was a rare car, one of only 640 built in 1969, his model year. The car was unusual in other ways as well. Its body was made of fiberglass and it had something called a freewheeling clutch, which sounded alluring until I tried using it while descending from a mountain pass in the Sierras.

When I first dated Eric, in the winter of 1969, the Sonett had just been shipped to him from Sweden. On our first date, we drove to a movie theater on Route 9 in Amherst, Massachusetts, where we saw 2001: A Space Odyssey. With the Sonett's aerodynamic design and spaceship-like interior, it was the perfect vehicle to transport us into the futuristic world of HAL. Afterward, as Eric explained the meaning of the film to me, I marveled that I'd found a guy with brains as well as a snazzy car. Despite Eric's attractions, though, I broke up with him the following summer. At that stage of my life, I was too masochistic to settle for such a great guy.

I didn't encounter the Sonett again until January, 1972, during a visit to Amherst College. Eric, having taken a semester off, had just finished his senior year. I had recently gotten back in touch with him. I now regretted our earlier breakup and was trying to figure out how to rekindle the romance.

Enter Wendy Wasserstein. The future playwright and I had graduated the prior spring, she from Mt. Holyoke College, I from Smith, but we had both spent our junior year at Amherst, where we'd become friends. After graduation, we both moved to New York City and saw one another occasionally. The trip up to Amherst was her idea. A friend of ours was giving a French horn recital at the college and Wendy wanted to attend. She asked if I'd like to come along. This gave me the perfect excuse to visit Eric and crash on his couch.

Wendy and I arrived by bus on a bitterly cold evening. Icy snow coated everything and crunched underfoot. Wendy soon departed with our horn-player friend. After they left, I stood shivering outside the fraternity house where the bus had let me off, waiting for Eric. Five minutes passed. Ten. Eric's low-slung car finally roared around the corner and up to where I stood. Eric leaned over to open the door for me. He didn't look happy. Uh oh, I thought, this isn't starting well.

"Sorry, I'm late," he said. "I had a little accident." It turned out that, in his haste to meet me on time, he had backed the Sonett into his friend Rick's VW bug, barely denting Rick's car, but damaging the Sonnet's fiberglass rear end. On impact, fiberglass doesn't dent, but instead fractures. So, Eric's car now had a jagged scar. At the time, I worried that the mishap would spoil our weekend together. It didn't occur to me that Eric's momentary loss of motor control might have been due to his nervousness about seeing me.

Despite starting with such an unfortunate bang, the weekend went well. Eric played hard to get, which only heightened my interest. While I attended the French horn recital with Wendy, Eric stayed behind at the Hadley farmhouse he rented with friends, reading Plato, or so he claimed. When I returned, I found him in bed with The Republic, whereupon I persuaded him to abandon metaphysics for the purely physical. This seemed to help him transcend the trauma of the car mishap. In any event, by summer we were married and heading west to California in our blue Saab Sonett.

Fortunately, we had few possessions, so we were able to cram them all into the Sonett's hatchback. Included was a tent, which we used as we car-camped our way from Massachusetts to California. During our trip, Eric never tired of extolling the car's many virtues—its innovative roll bar, which he assured me would protect us even in the event of a head-on collision with a Mack truck; a windshield designed so that snow and even rain would glide right off, providing clear visibility without the use of wipers; a ventilation system that circulated fresh air, creating a delightfully cool and comfortable environment despite the lack of air conditioning; and, finally, that fantastic freewheeling clutch, which enabled the car to revert to neutral when the driver's foot was removed from the gas pedal, eliminating the normal braking action of the clutch and resulting in an extraordinary sense of freedom.

Thankfully, we didn't encounter a Mack truck along the way, so we were unable to test out the roll bar's effectiveness. As for the car's other supposed attributes, Eric's love for his Sonett was blind, or at least near-sighted. Regarding the vaunted windshield, for example, during the first few moments of a rain shower, the windshield did remain notably clear. However, any significant rain quickly made visibility impossible. To my dismay, though, Eric usually insisted that he could see just fine and often delayed activating the wipers until the rain was coming down in sheets. On the plus side, the windshield wipers functioned just fine once turned on, at least until a fateful day in Marin County (more on that in Part Two).

As for the ventilation system, a day traversing the Nevada desert wilted even Eric's conviction that the Saab's fresh-air flow would keep us cool no matter what. With the windows open and bugs of unusual size splatting against our windshield, we sweated our way through Nevada and began climbing the Sierras. By then, though, I had something else to focus on, for it was in the Sierras that I experienced the full impact of the much-touted freewheeling clutch.

Eric had done most of the driving during our cross-country trip. To be honest, he'd done virtually all of it. Back in Massachusetts, he'd taught me to drive the Sonett's manual shift and I'd taken a spin or two around the block, but I'd never driven on a highway, let alone on steep terrain. Now, he encouraged me to get behind the wheel. We were newlyweds and his faith in my driving ability touched me, so I complied, though not without some trepidation. Once in the driver's seat, I managed to put the car in gear and merge onto the freeway without killing us. We continued climbing, heading toward the pass. I began to relax. This was easy. I'd always been a good driver, after all, even an aggressive one. As we arrived at the summit, I stepped on the gas and the car zoomed downhill, picking up speed until we were approaching 85 miles per hour. I lifted my foot off the gas pedal. Although Eric had explained the freewheeling concept, I instinctively expected the car to slow down due to the braking action of the clutch. Instead, we hurtled down the highway at breakneck speed. What Eric experienced as extraordinary freedom felt like a total loss of control to me. I applied the brake pretty much all the way down from the summit into the San Joaquin Valley, until I finally found a place to pull over and hand the keys to Eric. I didn't drive the Sonett on the freeway again for the next two years.

Despite its quirks, though, I grew to love the Sonett. It had speed and maneuverability. Its black seats, though vinyl rather than leather, were sporty and comfortable. The car featured three-point seatbelts, which were far safer than the lap belts then standard in American cars. It had a simple, elegant dashboard and a powerful engine for its size, which gave it tremendous acceleration. It was even possible to switch that challenging clutch into regular mode rather than using freewheeling, though once I got used to freewheeling, I actually came to like it. Perhaps most important, the Sonett was a great-looking piece of machinery, a really cool car. We drew stares of appreciation wherever we went. In it, I felt instantly transformed from a staid, uptight kind of girl to the hip, laid-back woman I'd always wanted to be. By marrying Eric, I'd gained not only a husband, but a car and the image that went along with it. It remained to be seen if I could live up to that image.


Anonymous said...

Terrific! Fantastic! A truly exciting view of a great era.

Bravo, Barbara. Eric builds and Barbara writes. What a team. Can't wait for Part Two: Into the Wild Blue Yonder.

Anonymous said...

I, too, look forward to the next installment. Looking back to the late sixties, early seventies always gives me such a great surge of nostalgia!


Anonymous said...

I loved that story and admire both your skill at telling about the driving and the driving you did itself -
without forgetting the romantic touch...

Can't wait to read the next episode, coming up soon I hope?


Anonymous said...

I know the end of the story and i can't wait to read it in your fabulous prose. New England awaits your return.

Risa & Kelt

Anonymous said...

once again, a fun and fabulous tale! Looking forward to the next installment.

Jane said...

It's always a great day when I get a Famosity alert. This one had me laughing out loud. I'm thinking this story is going to take at least 5 episodes! Or at least I'm hoping it will. Maybe you'll be the official chronicler of Kriss Motors...that should keep you busy!
- Jane

Anonymous said...

This really is a great story! Looking foward to part 2.

By the way, how did Eric get interested in the Saab in the first place?