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October 28, 2006

The Saab Chronicles Part 3

Now that I have lived with the new winter ride—a 1990 Saab 900—for a few weeks, the list of things “gone wrong” in JD Powers parlance has grown quite a bit. None of the items on the list are catastrophic, but they do highlight the perils of buying a 16 year old car.

Typical of Saabs of the era, the headliner was sagging from day one, and I new that from the description provided in the eBay ad. I also new from the description that there is some rust on the front fenders, parts of the car have been repainted, and the SRS (airbag) light blinks. Speaking with the sellers after I bought the little gem I found out that the rear lights “act funky”—which indeed they did when I picked the car up.

On my drive home I noticed the typical 16 year old suspension swagger, a condition brought about by old, worn out bushings, joints, springs and shocks. Despite this looseness the car tracks straight, with the steering wheel cocked just a bit, and does not pull to one side or the other. It actually feels like a magic carpet on the highway compared to my 2003 BMW M3. Overall, my impression after the 700 mile ride home was of a car that was taken good car of until it was donated. As I’ve noted in an earlier installment of The Saab Chronicles, it was a one owner car until it landed on the used car lot via a donation to the Volunteers of America.

The “to do” list of repairs so far is as follows:
Windshield washer pump not pumping
Some dash lights don’t work, others are just plain dim
Exhaust systems leaks
Springs and shocks are worn
Suspensions bushings and joints worn
No interior lights
Headliner sagging
Taillights acting funny
CV joint boots split
Rust on fenders and trunk floor
Cold start issues

Now to a sane person that list in long enough to merit dumping the car and moving on, but not to a person who feels all cars deserve reclamation, especially funky old Swedish cars that were actually great sports sedans in their day.

Thinking of safety, the first thing a tackled were the taillights, which as it turned out was an easy fix. If you ever encounter electrical problems, especially on older non-computerized car components, nine out ten times it’s a bad ground circuit. Sure enough the ground wires on both taillight clusters were burned up. A little wire and some soldering work fixed that.

The next item I tackled, simply because it was so damn annoying, was the sagging headliner. The headliner material is usually attached to a headliner shell. What happened in this Saab’s case was the foam backing on the headliner material disintegrated, causing the material to come loose of its shell. This was an easy repair which just took a little time and patience to complete. I removed all the interior trim that was attached to the headliner, removed the entire shell out through the trunk (the back seat folds down opening up a big pass through). I had to first scrape off the foam backing residue left on the shell before I could re-mount the new material which I bought from the local PepBoys parts store.

I replaced part of the exhaust (the part that was obviously bad) only to find out that the muffler is leaking also. A new muffler is on order. While I was replacing the tail section of the exhaust, I noticed quite a bit of rust between it and the trunk floor and took the time to clean that up. I chipped all the loose, corroded material away, sprayed it with special rust inhibiting paint, patched the holes with metal tape and then painted the underside with rubberized undercoating. These simple steps will help to arrest the underbody rust for another few years.

I’ll tackle some of the other problems in my next installment, and hopefully I’ll remember to take some photos along the way so that you’ll have more than just my idle words to look at.

October 24, 2006

Subaru STi Engine Project Part 1, Introduction

One of the first jobs we had after we opened our doors in 2005 was also one of the toughest, most involved jobs we’ve had to date. After flogging the hell out of his 2004 Subaru STi for most of the season, a fellow track mate and good friend discovered engine oil and coolant were intermingling, most likely caused be a leaking head gasket. The symptoms got worse towards the end of the season and he decided that the cause had to be diagnosed before the next track year (which runs from around April to November in Michigan).


We sat down with him and put a plan together. Since the STi has a flat or “boxer” style engine, the heads are actually on the sides of the engine, right up against the inner wheel wells on the little Subaru. This location necessitates the removal of the entire engine in order to get to the heads. While the engine was out, we decided to do some major clean-up work as well as a very meticulous re-assembly. We wanted to make certain the problem was fixed and the engine was assembled with the utmost care and attention to detail-- better than any assembly line worker at Fuji Heavy Industries ever would have. Jason, the owner, also wanted to do a mild power upgrade with a new Vishnu supplied downpipe, exhaust and requisite ECU reflash. The downpipe is much easier to install when the engine is out, so we tackled that before re-installing the engine to the car.

As you can imagine this is a pretty involved process, and I will not go into all the details here, but I will give you an “executive summary” along with photos. I will continually update this project blog as I have time, so keep checking back. I also hope that Jason will chime in with comments along the way, to give you a customer’s perspective on the work that was done. I can tell you that the car ran all season this year on the track and as a daily ride without any hitch from the engine (but the suspension-- well that’s another story!).

October 23, 2006

Let’s Get Real, Who Needs Whose Help at DCX?

The media is at it again, breathlessly reporting on the supposed collapse of the Chrysler unit of DaimlerChrysler AG. And automotive trade publications seem to be regurgitating the same crap. The story goes that Dr. Z, under pressure from the German dominated supervisory board, had to send in—irony of ironies—a German manager to help the hapless staff operating behind the big “penta-star” window at Chrysler HQ in Auburn Hills, Michigan to cut costs. Are they serious? Who taught whom how to cut costs at DCX? It sure as hell wasn’t Mercedes, or anyone from the bloated half of the merger of equals.

A face only a mother could love

The inefficiency at Mercedes was as legendary as its once vaunted quality. At the time of the merger, the Mercedes unit was in a perfect storm of high costs and terrible quality that thanks only to its century old reputation and aging, slightly senile owner group it was able to weather. Mercedes was saved years of painful reorganization by lifting ideas from the systems that Thomas Stalkamp, Dennis Pawley, Bob Lutz, and gang fostered at Chrysler before the merger was even a twinkle in Schrempp’s eye. Chrysler brought efficiency and low cost to the table, Mercedes brought high price points and arrogance.

And now what do we read in the papers and on the automotive websites? The Detroit News reports: “With the Chrysler Group once again sapping DaimlerChrysler AG, the company has assigned teams including top Mercedes-Benz managers to find ways to increase efficiency and cut costs by $1,000 per vehicle at the Auburn Hills automaker.”

The fact that Chrysler may report a $1.5 billion loss in the third quarter is not due to inefficiency or unit costs, but instead is a result of building the wrong vehicles at the wrong time for way too long. And it was Dr. Z and his minions at the time that prescribed loaded full sized Dodge Rams, butt ugly Jeep Commanders and Dodge Durangos for a buying public that was becoming increasingly sick of high gas prices. The result can be seen all over the metro Detroit area—once empty lots are now packed full of unsold Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep products. Dealers are choking under the force feed antics of Chrysler’s sales and marketing group, headed by yet another one of those “top Mercedes-Benz managers.”

Talk to any Chrysler engineer or manager below the top floor and you’ll hear the same thing over and over—the troops are over worked and under staffed and because of that completely demoralized. This latest round of search and destroy cost cutting, ceremonially headed up by papa Mercedes may look good to the German investors and the sloppy media, but it will do nothing for Chrysler in the long run.

The time and effort should be spent designing, building and marketing great new cars. Chrysler is losing its edge thanks to razor thin staffing leading to underdevolped vehicles, big time blunders by sales and marketing, and spotty (read: ugly) styling… not because the cars they are building cost too much.

October 17, 2006

The Saab Chronicles Part 2

My life has become so integrated with the internet and email that I realized the other day I wouldn’t know what to do without it. So much of my daily communication with customers, so much of my research for articles, and general information gathering is now done in front of the pixilated images that my Dell deciphers from the cyber world that I’ve forgotten how it was like before this particular technical revolution. And I did indeed start my career before the internet was popular, before email was de rigor.

When it came time to find my winter car, I went straight to the internet before looking in the local papers. Specifically I went to eBay and did some price shopping. At first I was looking for an E30 BMW, but the only ones I could find in my cheapo price range were in terrible condition—not good candidates for a halfway dependable winter ride. Of course I could have bought a junker and rebuilt it, but that time and money I do not have. It turns out that another one of my favorite cars from that era, the classic Saab 900, has a much lower resale value, about ¼ that of the E30 to be exact. For roughly a grand I could pick up any number of old 900s in relatively good condition with reasonable mileage on the odometer.

I won the bidding on a plain Jane white 900 from Kentucky. My brother and I drove down about a week later to pick it up. We took his new 4 door Jeep Wrangler (which drew an amazing amount on interest from the locals at gas stations along I-75) just in case we had to tow, drag or otherwise coax the old 900 up to Michigan. Thankfully we did not. The car was in as described condition with no nasty surprise like rodents living in the back seat, or saw dust in the transmission (not sure if that old trick even works nowadays). It’s a stout little car that had one owner its entire life until it was donated to the Volunteers of America and subsequently bought at auction by the foreign used car dealer at the foot of the Smokey Mountains. Buying a donated car might be one step up from dragging an abandoned car from the side of the highway home, but at least it had some value to not only the owner, but also a reputable charity.


Now I can begin the process of revitalizing the old car, fixing it up so that it can live on to see another day. Like I said, it may a bit tired, but thanks to the southern climate and the care taken by the little old lady who cherished it for 16 years prior to my stewardship, it has potential to be a good winter car. And it is so damn funky in a retro-cool way, you just have to love it. Despite being only 16 years old, its nearly vertical windshield, super thin “A” and “B” pillars, uncluttered dashboard, it feels as if it’s at least 30 years old and darn near a classic.

October 12, 2006

The Saab Chronicles Part 1

“The Most Intelligent Cars Ever Built” is a tagline as familiar to me as “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” It was used in Saab automobile advertising for many years and helped distinguish the quirky little brand from Sweden as a true niche player before the marketing people ever got their hands on a French-English dictionary.

In Saab’s heyday—before the takeover by General Motors and after it first appeared in the US—I remember reading a report that more Mensa (the “high IQ society”) members owned Saabs than any other brand. Talk about a niche. More important to why I have this fascination with Saab is the fact that the classic 900 and 900 Turbo were real sport sedans at a time when few were to be found. Think back to 1979, BMW was really only beginning to hone their sport sedan offerings beyond the ubiquitous 2002, but they were as expensive as they were slow. Detroit had nothing to offer and Japan Inc was still on the economy rung of their automotive evolution.

In 1979 Saab introduced a light pressure turbo to their already sporty handling 900 sedan and created one of the great icons of modern motoring. Along with such cars as the BMW 2002, Honda Civic, the VW Rabbit (Golf) GTI, and Audi Quattro, the 900 deserves a place in the car enthusiast’s hearts as an early trailblazer in the sporty car market.

brochure shot.bmp

It is with the classic Saab 900 history in mind that I decided finally to pick one up for a winter long try. Sure Saab’s history is much deeper than just the 900 of the early 1980s, but it hits the sweet spot in my connection with cars. Call it nostalgia if you wish, but the car simply resonates with me and so when I went looking for a winter car on eBay it is on Saab ad I landed.

For those of you who live in glorious sunshine year around, the concept of a winter car might be foreign to you. Let me quickly explain. Here in the Midwest where we have actual seasons and winter brings with it snow, slush (combination of snow and rain), salt (to get rid of the snow and ice) and frost pot holes and heaves in the roads (thanks to the freeze-thaw-freeze cycle), driving your “good car” year around hurts the car-guy soul. Winter cars also give us a good excuse to pick up cheap, older models of cars we’ve always wanted to try out but never had the inclination to go out and buy when it was brand new.

It really is great fun flinging a car around in the snow and ice knowing that if you break it, it will not break your bank account. It’s a Snow Belt thing, you wouldn’t understand.

Back to the car; I found a plain Jane white with blue velour interior 1990 Saab 900 with 117,000 mile on the odometer. A small used foreign car dealer on the edge of the Smokey Mountains in southern Kentucky had it up for bid on eBay, with no reserve. A cool grand later, I was the winning bidder—the first time I ever spent so much on a car sight unseen but the vital stats sounded good and the seller had high marks for honesty from past buyers.

In the next installment of the Saab Chronicles I will talk about the first meeting of car and new owner, be sure to check back.