My Saab

“The Pumpkin Mobile” – A Special Novella by DiVitto Kelly Dedicated to a Special Saab 99

Orange Saab 99 EMS

Novelista Mr. DiVitto Kelly  and a big fan of Saab cars kept his promise and wrote a novella dedicated to Saab cars. Recently, in one of the blog posts, we published his cry to find his favorite car Saab 99, if possible, and then he announced that he would dedicate one special novel to the Saab car.

Here is his message to readers around the world: “Here’s the story about my beloved ’74 Saab 99. I hope you can publish it. It’s about 3,700 words. Maybe it will lead to finding one! Take care, and Merry Christmas.

Enjoy the novel below…

The Pumpkin Mobile

By DiVitto Kelly

I realized early on in life I wasn’t a particular fan of popular and perfect. Instead, I gravitated towards the unusual, the out of bounds. From music, films, art, even a certain football team from Ohio. And for sure, automobiles. This is the story of the very first car I ever owned, discovered at a local gas station buried in snow one brutally cold February evening.

I had turned eighteen when I was told (strongly suggested) by mom and dad it was time to invest in my own set of wheels. And I couldn’t fault them. After all, what teenager wants to drive to parties in a Chevy Caprice station wagon? That’s not cool, ever. I had saved a decent amount of change though a myriad of part-time jobs throughout high school that I seriously started browsing the classifieds in our local fish wrap. I began scrolling though the listings: Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra — all good, dependable cars but boring as all heck. Then I came upon the word in bold type . . . Saab. It rolled off the tongue with such mystery.

“Saab?” I asked myself. “What is this Saab?” Not having a clue, I Googled the word. Hold on, hold on, this was the mid 1980’s! No, we were still in the stone ages back then, so I researched it the old-fashioned way. I asked my dad. He had a friend who owned a newer model, and apparently, this person had very few complaints.

My dad followed up with this spirited advice. “What the hell, kid — go for it.”

Since I didn’t have any mechanically inclined friends, I forged ahead with my gut feeling.  Whatever Saab was, it sounded cool and intriguing. I decided to call the phone number listed in the ad.

“Hello?” a gentleman answered in a friendly voice, astute and proper.

“Uh hi, I’m calling about the car for sale.” I did my best to curtail any obvious naivety. After all, this was my first stab at any serious wheeling and dealing.

The man replied it was indeed for sale. He informed me the car was parked at an Exxon gas station in town. I knew the location. I asked him a few questions. No hearty interrogating, just the basics: how many miles, auto or stick, recent oil change, did it have a kick-ass stereo system, was it in good running condition, and oh by the way, what the feck is a Saab. Stuff like that.

He said the car was in fact, made in Sweden, very reliable with surprisingly few miles for a car already a decade old. So far, so good, with the questioning, I postulated. Then I asked about the color. That’s a normal question to ask, right? Of course, it is. The man paused, like I’d suddenly asked him something deep and personal.

“Well, it’s . . .” He hemmed a little, then hawed a bunch before confessing the whole damn truth. “It’s orange.” The words came out sounding like he’d just sucked on another type of citrus. The bitter kind.

“Orange?” I replied with pure unadulterated excitement.

I had reminded myself to remain calm and reserved, but I’d already blown it. The man sounded relieved that at least one caller didn’t heave and abruptly hang up. Apparently, orange was not a popular color to other potential buyers. For me, it was, like totally awesome. I was originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, born in October – a month synonymous with changing leaves, pumpkins, and Halloween. And my favorite football team even sported those orange and black striped helmets that gleamed on Sunday afternoons. Very cool. But now I resided in New Jersey, home of the big blue New York Giants.

Normally this would have been a deterrent to some, but I jumped at the chance to at least check it out. I knew my cars well, what most models looked like that is. But from the get-go, this car piqued my interest. An orange Swedish car, reliable too, but what the hell did it look like? I would soon find out.

I remember that bitterly cold evening like it was yesterday. It felt like the 1982 AFC Championship game (aka The Freezer Bowl) between my beloved Bengals (who won 27-7) over the visiting San Diego Chargers where the windchill registered a frightful fifty-nine below. Yes, you read that correctly. By the way, 1981 MVP quarterback Kenny Anderson, number 14, should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Ken “The Rattler” Riley too.

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t the frozen tundra, but February in the Garden State can get freaking cold.  It was after dinner when my friend and I pulled into the gas station. I inched up in the passenger seat but didn’t see the car right away. My friend’s tennis ball yellow ’72 Beetle was running on fumes, so he parked at the pump for a refill. Getting antsy, I decided to trek across the snowy terrain that was the parking lot. I assumed it would be stationed nearby the other handful of cars, some recently repaired; some waiting their turn. Still no Saab.

I asked the gas station attendant where the car was located. He pointed to the far reaches of the parking lot. I glanced at the end of the gas station property and there, like a mirage, stood the automotive stray, parked right next to the air/vacuum machine – all alone. It looked like it’d been banished, or maybe shunned by the other cars. And unlike the other cars, it was completely blanketed with at least six inches of snow. Yet through all the glistening white were glimmers of vibrant orange. I got tingles up my spine. My friend remained in the warm cozy confines of his car as I forged ahead in the frigid night, each step from my LL Bean duck boots making a crunching sound in the snow. Then I stopped.

I planted my body directly in front of the car, standing still as a telephone pole. I gazed at the shape when I was hit with a sudden tinge of melancholy. I felt like Charlie Brown after he and Linus stumble upon that spindly sapling in the TV classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas. I think that car needed me.

My friend drove up moments later and rolled down the window. He thought the car was butt ugly. The gas station attendant parroted the same thing as I asked for the keys. For me, it was automotive bliss at first site. The shape resembled an aerodynamic Twinkie. The sloped front end had a hint of Ford Edsel – never a good thing, but this car had a quirkiness I immediately embraced. I opened the door, partially stuck from the extreme cold, and sat down in the bucket seat fitted in rich, dark chocolate brown fabric. I hunted around for the key ignition, searching in the most logical of spots only to discover it was nestled right between the two front seats. Oh, this is cool, I thought.

I placed the key in the ignition, paused, and then engaged. I was praying it would start in an instant. Nothing doing. Rats. It must have been twenty degrees out, so I wasn’t too surprised. The gas station attendant was kind enough to offer me a jump start. I think he was especially eager to remove the bright orange blight from the parking lot. We waited a few minutes, making sure the car battery got enough juice. I eyed the attendant before turning the key.

It sputtered at first, gray smoke emanating from the tail pipe. “Come on, come, you can do it,” I pleaded. I gave the car more gas. More sputtering ensued. Then suddenly, the Saab roared to life. Yes!

With the beastly four-cylinder engine percolating, I inspected the unique dashboard layout. I found what I was looking for and subsequently turned the heater knob on high. It warmed up quickly. I stepped outside then proceeded to brush the snow off the car with my arms extended.

I asked the attendant if I could take it for a spin. “By all means,” he replied. My friend wanted to tag along, but I insisted this was something I needed to do alone.

It handled great coming out of the snow-filled parking lot, the front-wheel drive in full command. I steered down a winding road then uphill before pulling into a freshly plowed, well-lit empty parking lot. I got out and stood there as snow started trickling down from the night sky. I slowly circled the car like a curious shark, surveying for any possible blemishes, nicks, or dents. All the lights (head, tail and brake) were in fine working order. The horn sounded tinny and the wipers scraped along pebbles of ice embedded on the windshield.

With the help of my flashlight, I found the lever to pop the hood and was surprised as it lurched forward in the opposite direction of most cars. I put on my mechanic’s hat and surveyed the engine, compact and relatively clean. And no ticking sounds. I knew that was a plus. I opened both doors and the trunk. The car was spotlessly clean inside.

“I may have found an automotive gem,” I boasted.

I closed the trunk and passenger side door before sitting back down in the driver’s seat. I peered around the interior once again when I noticed a button for heated seats. Heated seats? I pressed the button and lo and behold, heated seats. My chilled rear end was now warm and toasty. For me, that sealed the deal. I returned to the parking lot and purposely parked it out of view near a rusted dumpster and burned out lamppost. I ripped off the For-Sale sign taped to the passenger side window before handing the keys back to the attendant, thanking him.

“So, you buying it?” he asked. My Cheshire grin was a dead giveaway.

I rode back with my friend who finally admitted to the cars’ uniqueness. “Don’t even think about it,” I growled. “It’s mine.”

With dreams of Swedish orange cars dancing in my head, I awoke on Saturday morning before 8 AM ready to make a deal. My parents were surprised, more like stunned that was up so early on a weekend. I downed a hefty bowl of Kaboom cereal, and with the sugar kicking in, I called the owner.

I introduced myself again and stated I wanted to buy the car. I threw out a figure. He countered. I paused, then kicked up my initial offer a couple hundred bucks. Inside I was dying. All I could think of was, don’t blow this! But I knew this guy wanted to sell, and he knew I was drooling to buy. After a little more back and forth, we worked out the details. The Saab was mine!

After some polite pestering, my dad finally took me to the bank where I made a hefty withdrawal before heading over to the gas station to meet the guy. My dad asked if I needed any help. I told him I was cool. I got out of the station wagon and walked over to the familiar attendant standing near pump number three. Next to him stood a tall man in his mid-60s, receding hairline, distinguished and dressed like a college professor.

Clutching a plain white envelope filled with a stack of hundred-dollar bills, I walked over. The man approached first me with his arm extended to shake my hand.

“You must be the young man buying my Saab,” he said with a grin, speaking with an accent I couldn’t quite decipher.

“How did you know,” I replied.

The man smiled. “Your tiger striped hat was a dead giveaway.”

I adjusted the brim as I presented the envelope. “Here’s the money. Sir. It’s all there.”

“I’m sure it is.” He took out the cash, flipping through the bills. “Nice, crisp hundreds,” he replied. “Thank you, young man.” After signing the title over to me, he reached into the right pocket of his tan corduroy coat and handed me two sets of keys. We shook hands. “She’s officially yours.”

I dangled them in front of my eyes, observing the keys in almost a trance-like state. I still couldn’t believe it. I was officially a car owner. “Thank you so much.”

“Something tells me my Saab will be in good hands,” he said. “Enjoy the ride.”

“I will. Take care, sir, and thank you again.”

He started walking to his car when he turned back. “May I ask you something?”

“Uh, sure.”

“What made you want to buy this car?” he asked. “Truth is, I didn’t get too many phone calls for it.”

I pondered the question for a moment, then answered. “It’s just . . . different.”

He laughed. “And the fact it’s orange as a tangerine?”

I shrugged before breaking out into a smile. “That kinda helped.”

I waved to my dad indicating I was all set. The attendant glanced at me. “Nice ride.”

“I know,” I answered.

I ended up getting a fill-up, the attendant even offering to squeegee the front and back windshield.

“See you around,” I said. With a full tank of gas and clean view, I was jazzed as Christmas morning.

I got into the car, slipping on the seat belt and started the engine. What a beautiful sound. I left the parking lot and drove past the familiar string of shops and restaurants along Main Street in my hometown of Madison. I passed my favorite pizza joint on the right, Italian Village, but deemed it too early for slices of pepperoni pizza. Maybe later. As I approached a red light, I peered at the neighborhood car wash on the other side of the street. I immediately made a left turn and veered into the parking lot. Normally I’d do it myself (I love washing my car) but with it still feeling like the North Pole outside, I figured I should christen my new set of wheels with a proper bumper to bumper wash and wax.

After surveying the menu of options, I decided to splurge for the super deluxe, full-detail spa treatment, complete with real carnauba wax. What the hell was carnauba wax? Whatever it was, my car deserved it. I steered the car in line when the employee told me to place the car in neutral. I stepped out and walked over to the waiting room inside. Before entering, I kept a watchful eye as they vacuumed the interior and power sprayed the floor mats. I stepped inside and sat down in a chair next to the coffee maker but couldn’t sit still. I stood up then began pacing back and forth like an expected father. I attempted to catch a glimpse through the fogged-up window as my Saab 99 traveled gradually down the conveyor track where it was met with spraying jets of water.

I waited impatiently for a mother and her two annoying young kids, both of them jumping and cheering as their faux wood looking minivan pass through, treating the whole experience like some sort of Disney ride. Ugh, minivans. No thank you.

I sidestepped over to a large porthole window where I caught glimpses of soapy spray followed by dangly blue bristles flailing like giant squid tentacles, which did kinda reminded me of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride at Disney World in Orlando. I think I was digging the whole experience almost as much as those kids. Still, minivans?

Now out of sight, I shuttled over to the next window for a peek. Unable to decipher much through the avalanche of snowy suds, I walked to the cashier and paid up. Resembling a mini convenient store, I browsed the assortment of car accessories, wipers, floor mats, steering wheel covers, and collection of car scents. I eventually selected the pine fresh original.

After leaving the tunnel, I saw my car escorted to the waxing station. I sat down again, picking up an old Sports Illustrated, edges frayed. I glanced up at the clock again. About twenty minutes later, a middle-aged man, heavy-set with a beard wearing a Red Sox hat, came inside and barked out. “Whoever’s got the orange cah, it’s ready.”

“That’s me!” as I leaped off the chair. He glanced at me before closing the door. Again, with the effervescence.

I dashed outside and there it was, my Saab 99 appearing to me like a stunning Sanibel Island sunset, the orange hue almost glowing. I was so proud. Never mind the expensive BMWs and Mercedes waiting for their turn. I was oblivious.

I drove off, proud as a peacock. This glorious moment called for something loud and punkish. I turned on the factory installed radio and then . . . Meh.

The next day I was off to buy a kick-ass sound system. I ended up replacing the original radio with a Pioneer High Power AM/FM Cassette player with auto-eject and hooked it up to a pair of oval 6×9 Blaubunkt speakers in the back. The Buzzcock’s I Believe never sounded so satisfying.

Dubbed the Bengal mobile by my friends, my Saab 99 and I traveled everywhere: From North Carolina to Massachusetts, from the Jersey Shore to Virginia. And on many side roads less traveled. Maybe it wasn’t exactly a babe magnet, but my girlfriend at the time didn’t seem to mind. She liked the heated seat thing too.

Unfortunately, as the odometer kept spinning, the miles churning, so did the repair costs. And by the way, repairs were, oh, twice as much as your average car. I Rope-A-Doped with the repair bills, taking a financial pounding like Muhammad Ali’s unique strategy against George Foreman in their historic heavyweight title fight in 1974 (the same year as my Saab). I made the necessary repairs and continued to drive my orange delight but with a little less vigor than before. Even the heated seats stopped working after year three, which brings me to the infamous bank drive thru incident. The final straw was the transmission going kaput right as I made a hefty deposit. Even the bank teller felt my pain. By the way, Ali won that fight in Zaire, the Rumble in the Jungle, but I was down for the count.

Now the thought of coughing up nearly two grand on a fifteen years old car was eating at me. There were other issues too: calipers, gearboxes, wiper motor, brakes, all needed replacing. I loved the car, but at some point, I had to make the hard choice. I decided to get it repaired and eventually had it towed to a well-respected transmission shop in town. They had an impeccable reputation. I was unpleasantly ready to bite the bullet, fork over the cash, and drive away down but not out. But that’s not quite how the story went. Oh, they worked on my car all right, performing a mechanical version of a triple bypass. They worked on that transmission for what felt like a month – nineteen days to be exact, but who was counting. I was, and my co-workers too. They thought I was an automotive jinx. One friend who offered to give me rides to work would do so on one condition; that I wouldn’t touch anything in the interior other than sitting on the seat.

Meanwhile, the transmission mechanic, a seasoned pro, struggled with my car like it was some alien spacecraft from the outer reaches of the solar system. The mechanic said he’d never experienced anything like it before. They could not fix my car. Eventually, they got the 99 running, but it shifted with all the grace and dexterity of a drunkard attempting gymnastics. They genuinely felt bad and didn’t charge me a nickel.  I drove home and parked it under a cluster of soaring maple trees in my driveway. And there it sat.

After much inner debate and pondering, and the insistence of my parents, it was time to move on from the pumpkin mobile.

# # #

Fast forward three decades and three minivans later. (Okay, they’re not that bad after all.) I had barely thought about a certain orange car. Until . . .

I had this incredibly vivid dream.

Maybe it was the brief shot of cold weather we got in normally hot and humid southeast Florida that jogged the memory banks. But there I was, buckled in, hands upon the wheel of my 1974 sunset orange Saab 99. Just me and my ride in all its pumpkin glory, maneuvering along winding roads, windows rolled down, music blaring, the heated seats keeping me warm and toasty. The crisp effervescent scent of autumn with its plethora of red, yellow, and orange leaves scattered along scenic roads. I’m even noshing on my favorite Jersey delicacy: a Taylor ham, egg and cheese (salt, pepper, ketchup always) on a hard roll.

The next morning, I woke up with orange Saabs dancing in my head. When I got to work, I turned on my computer and Googled away. And lo and behold, loads of images of my old car, same shade of orange, same soccer ball rims. I think I displayed too much exuberance showing my co-workers. They thought it was “interesting.” I knew what that really meant. I miss that car.

Someone once wrote: “The design of Saab is either incomprehensible, or you fall in love with it forever.” The latter happened to me. Saabs are distinctive automobiles with a quirkiness that owners (past and present) thoroughly embrace. They’re hardly automotive perfection, but that’s okay. I don’t need perfection. I like Saabs.

With one child graduating from college and the other past the halfway point, I was thinking it might be an opportune time to, you know, kick the tires sort of speak at some classic car websites. Now, I may very well be Charlie Brown attempting to kick that darn football, but with the idea of my first automotive endeavor firmly planted front and center in my brain, there is no turning back. I will track down that car.

But just in case I’m unable to locate one, if you (the reader) know anyone interested in selling a 1974 sunset orange Saab 99 (preferably in automatic), please shoot me an email at [email protected] I’m all gears.

2 Comments

  • Hi Tim. I’m glad you liked the story. I’m hoping someone will have info leading to a ’99 in sunset orange. I was in contact with a person in Maine who had a hatchback he was willing to sell a couple of months ago. He was going to send some more pictures but mentioned he was ill. That’s the last I heard from him. Still crossing my fingers. Take care.

    DiVitto

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