Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Saab Story, Part Three: Recapturing Our Lost Youth

After Eric and I sold our Saab Sonett sports car in the late seventies, Eric tried to compensate for its loss—he took up flying. By the time we moved from Chicago to Boston in the summer of 1979, he had both an MBA and a pilot's license.

Eric's enthusiasm for flying caused me considerably more anxiety than his pursuit of speed on the ground ever had. Nonetheless, once in Boston, I accompanied him on excursions to the Vineyard, Bar Harbor, and other interesting locales. At first, we flew in a rented Cessna two-seater aircraft, but before long Eric teamed up with a friend and together they bought a Piper Cherokee with room for four.

While we were still in Chicago, our Mazda RX2 had died and we'd replaced it with a boaty, used Mercury Montego, which we brought with us to Boston. Eric had been hired as a consultant at Bain & Company and I planned to finish my third year of law school at Harvard. We were both thirty by then and had been married for over seven years, but we hadn't really thought much about having children. Once we decided we were ready for a family, I grew more anxious than ever about Eric's flying hobby. When a mouse got into the Cherokee and chewed up some of its wiring, even Eric acknowledged that flying could be risky.

Our son, Aaron, was born in June of 1982. By then, the plane and the Montego had been sold and we'd moved from Boston to the nearby suburb of Newton. After moving nine times in ten years, we settled down in a 40-year-old Tudor-style house on a quiet, leafy street, a block from the local elementary school. On our driveway sat a Honda Accord and a Honda Civic, which Eric used as a commuting car. I'd decided to forego a career in favor of full-time motherhood, pursuing law and other interests on a part-time basis. Our transition from free spirits to responsible parents became complete when, in 1984, we purchased a Volvo DL 240 station wagon, a tank-like vehicle whose main selling point was its stellar reputation for safety. By 1985, when our younger son, Alex, was born, the Saab Sonett, and the life it represented, seemed a distant memory.

A Mercury Sable station wagon eventually replaced the Volvo and took us through the grade school years. In 1995, it was supplanted by a Toyota Avalon, then in its first year of production. By that time, Aaron was a teenager, and the Avalon's roomy back seat was ideal for big teenage boys. While I ferried the kids around, Eric continued to use a second car for commuting. In 1990, he replaced his Civic with an Acura Legend. It was the first car since the Saab that Eric had really loved—a sleek, metallic-blue luxury sedan, with great handling. Eric drove the Legend for seven years and would probably still have it today had a patch of black ice not caused it to spin out, wrecking its under-carriage. The damage was repaired, but while the car was in the shop I persuaded Eric that an SUV was the way to go for a safer commute in wintry New England, a dubious claim, given the rollover potential of SUVs. Still, Eric agreed that an all-wheel-drive vehicle made sense. He sold the Legend and bought a two-door Ford Explorer.

As Eric's fiftieth birthday approached, I attempted to avert any chance of a mid-life crisis by encouraging him to buy a new car, something really special. Eric had long admired two Jaguars from the sixties—the S-type and the Mark 2. For the 2000 model year, Jaguar came out with a new S-type, whose design borrowed from both those earlier cars. Eric bought the Jaguar sight-unseen and took possession on his birthday, in June of 1999. The S-type fulfilled his expectations—it was a powerful car with great acceleration, but also luxurious and easy to handle. The Jaguar was hardly a sports car, but it reawakened Eric's passion for cars. At about this time, we were emerging from the fog of over-protective child-rearing. Aaron was a senior in high school and driving Eric's Explorer. Alex was a high school freshman. Eric began to fantasize about someday owning a sports car again.

He was encouraged in this line of thought by our friend, Mason, a knowledgeable car buff whom we'd known since college. One summer, Mason invited Eric up to his house in Vermont for a weekend. Little did I realize that the main event of Eric's visit would be the 2005 Saab Owners Convention at Stratton Mountain, featuring vintage Saabs of every description. Among the more behemoth models on display were a few restored Sonetts. On seeing them, Eric immediately regressed to his adolescent state—he wanted one of his own. He even phoned me from Stratton Mountain, claiming he'd purchased a Sonett on the spot. I wasn't amused until I realized he was only joking. I worried that if Eric ever really bought an old Sonett, he would be disappointed, since I believed the actual car could never live up to his mythical memories of it.

I didn't hide my concern from Eric, so he reacted the way any rational man would—he began searching in secret for a 1969 Sonett to restore. His quest continued, without my noticing, for over a year, mostly on the Internet. Since so few Sonetts were built to begin with, there were very few on the market and most of those were in bad repair. Finally, though, Eric thought he'd found the car he wanted. He decided it was time to reveal his intentions to me.

I reacted the way any rational woman would—with dismay.

"You can't recapture the past," I admonished. Eric insisted he simply loved the Sonett and relished the idea of restoring one.

"You'll take over the garage," I complained. Since we have a three-car garage, that argument didn't hold much weight.

Eventually, I was set straight by several of my girlfriends, who pointed out that boys like their toys. One of them put things in perspective—at least Eric didn't want to build an airplane, she reminded me, or ride a motorcycle (her husband had succumbed to the lure of a Harley-Davidson not long before, with near-disastrous results). I was at last convinced and gave my grudging support to Eric's project.

Eric excitedly showed me pictures of the car he'd found through his Internet search. It was located in Arizona, where it had been owned by two generations of the same family. The car looked just like our Sonett, except it was bright red rather than electric blue. The photos showed the car housed in a spotless garage, suggesting it had been well-cared-for. The current owner, Mike, was selling it because his wife was having a baby and wanted the garage space for a sensible car. Here was a woman I could relate to!

When the deal was in its final stages, Mike mentioned that the car had been in a minor rear-end collision at some point before his father purchased it. The damage had been repaired but, in the interest of full disclosure, he wanted Eric to know about it. Eric mentioned off-handedly that he'd had a similar-sounding accident with his Sonett.

"But my car was blue," Eric said.

"Oh, didn't I mention that this car used to be blue?" Mike replied. "My dad painted it red."

Eric asked Mike where his father had purchased the car. The answer—Berkeley, California, not far from where we'd last seen it at Eric's parents' home on the Stanford campus.

Shortly after this intriguing conversation, Eric was helping his mother sort through boxes of old documents as she prepared to move from the Stanford house after 47 years. During the process, he came across a copy of his original title to the Saab Sonett, VIN number included. He immediately contacted Mike, who confirmed that the VIN number of his Saab Sonett was identical. So, Eric was buying back his original car! This amazing coincidence erased even my remaining hesitation about the purchase. A short time later the car was shipped from Arizona to a convenient locale near our home, where Eric picked it up and drove it onto our driveway.

I gazed at our now-red 1969 Saab Sonett. It looked cute, smaller than I remembered, and somehow not quite ours. Perhaps it was the red paint, perhaps the intervening years, but I didn't feel much connection to this little vehicle we once again owned. A while later, back in the house, I saw the car keys sitting on a table in the foyer. I picked them up. They were old, clearly the original keys. I felt a rush of emotion. These were the same keys I had held back in the seventies, when we were young and starting our life together. These were the very same keys I had inserted into the ignition, the keys that had started not only the car, but our journey together. Memories came flooding back, along with the thrill of having somehow recaptured a little piece of our youth.

Our 1969 Saab Sonett, fully restored by Eric and repainted its original blue color.


Anonymous said...


The story made me cry at the end. It was so touching and came to a full circle of your lives together. A rare story told by a very talented story teller. The journey from now on will be just as interesting .

Anonymous said...

A few minutes ago I ended reading part 1 and 2 and did sent my comment, after that I saw that there was allready part 3!!!!
So I tell you the rest of my story:
The Sonett 2V4 1969 I bought in Germany was originally blue but painted red in the USA (I think during a coffeebreak).
Now it is again blue.....
Thank you Barbara from the Netherlands for you beautiful story.