Ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated by cars. Though my parents had owned some interesting cars in their past (‘69 big block Cutlass, etc), for as long as I can remember they never had anything fun. It was always a white work van for my dad or a basic Jetta for my mom. To them, a vehicle was merely a tool to get to work or to help my brother and I for the school run. Instead it was my uncle who helped me understand what cars could be. As a mechanic for a Corvette racing team, he always had a couple of C1 or C2 ‘vettes in his home garage and would always let me help tinker on them. I was fascinated by how different components worked, even if my younger self didn’t fully comprehend the explanations.
As i grew older and started making money, I decided I wanted to start working on my own cars. The first vehicle I truly started working on was an old MK2 Volkswagen Jetta Trophy. It had a 2L 16v swap and featured those gorgeous stock Recaro seats. However, because I was a teen, I was more interested in aesthetic modifications and didn’t pay much attention to general upkeep. As a result, I ended up blowing a piston through the block. Afterward, I picked up another Jetta. This time it was a MK2 Jetta GTX that also had the 2L 16v and Recaro seats. I learned my lesson from the previous car, so I made sure I kept on top of routine maintenance while I continued with my modifications. Single round headlights, smoked tail lights, rare deep dished Ronal R8 rims and much more. Again, aesthetics (remember, I was a teen) but I still loved it. Then one day a drunk driver forced me off the road and the car ended up in a concrete bridge support, writing it off.
Undeterred and a couple cars later, I opted to get back into modifying shit. I picked up a ‘93 Mazda MX6 LS. It wasn’t as sexy looking as it’s domestic brother, the Ford Probe, but there was still a sort of je ne sais quoi about it that I adored. This time I was determined to go all in. Not content with the stock engine, I imported a low mileage JDM KLZE and threw it in after a minor rebuild and upgraded the clutch at the same time. I ditched the stock engine management and installed a Megasquirt standalone system. The fuel system was upgraded with a high flow pump, larger injectors and all new lines. New suspension, rims and tires were installed and I had all the necessary parts for a Mazda 6 big brake swap sitting in a box. This was all in preparation for a twin-screw supercharger I had waiting in the garage. I was only missing a couple of custom fabricated parts that were awaiting production when the inevitable happened: It caught on fire. Thankfully my insurance company deemed it was due to a faulty charging system (the regulator failed, causing the battery to overcharge… which somehow allowed it to catch on fire.) This was a bit of a blow to myself as a lot of literal blood and sweat went into that car. However, the eternal optimist in me saw this as an opportunity to start fresh and do a couple things differently.
I went for another MX6 of the same year. I found an example with a dead engine, so I performed the same KLZE swap alongside an auto to manual transmission swap as well. However, it was then that I started losing steam. No matter what I did, there was always something that went wrong with that car. I almost had a repeat of the previous MX6 when the starter malfunctioned and the pin wouldn’t retract, which caused an alarming amount of smoke to generate while I was parked in a gas station. The final straw was when an A/C hose dislodged from a bracket and rubbed against the exhaust manifold, causing a large cloud of freon to escape from my car while on the highway.
Frustrated, that same week I sold the car to a friend needing a cheap car while he worked on his own project and I purchased a used 2003 Honda Accord EX-L coupe from a Honda dealer. There were some obvious modifications that needed to be replaced, but as they were purely cosmetic, I wasn’t too concerned. All that I cared about was that there was a genuine Honda warranty attached to the car that wasn’t affected by the few modifications already attached to the car. I swapped out the Ebay suspension for a Koni yellow/Eibach Sportline combo, fixed the shitty short throw kit and threw on rims that helped combat the sunken battleship look the drop had created. Apart from that, I left it stock. The combination of a warranty and a lack of desire to actually work on cars anymore helped keep things calm in my mind. Of course shit broke (the manual transmission grenaded thanks to a syncro shattering, control modules broke left and right, and axles kept breaking every few months) but at least it wasn’t me fixing it in my driveway. I could leave it with the dealership and I’d be on my way with a brand new loaner car. Of course, as these things do, the warranty finally ended and I almost immediately ended up with another broken drive axle. Due to me living in a remote location at the time, it took almost a week for me to get a replacement part and when it arrived it was already broken (thanks for nothing, Lordco.) I actually managed to get a local Toyota dealership to fix the part for me, a process that took them about half an hour and one where they refused to take payment for it (I seriously still can’t thank them enough for that gesture). I fixed the car and decided enough was enough. I sold the car and decided to start looking for a brand new car.
It was then that I randomly stumbled upon what had to be the complete opposite of what I was looking for; an ad for a ‘97 Saab 900 Turbo in non-running condition. It had some obvious mechanical issues, but I was intrigued by the Swedishness of it. However, I wanted a car that I wouldn’t have to worry about fixing. I wanted a car where I wouldn’t have to search high and low for parts. I wanted a car that I wouldn’t have to worry about if it starts in the morning or if I’m going to blow the turbo while driving the Coquihalla Highway at 3 in the morning during a snowstorm. I wanted reliability and a warranty and something that didn’t recommend high octane fuel. I wanted sanity.
So naturally I bought it.
This car has been a pain in the ass trying to fix, I won’t lie. Some of the issues with the car were simple fixes (new tires, simple brake line flushes, cleaning electrical contacts for the brake lights, etc) while others were a bit more complex (trying to determine the cause of an intermittent surging idle), but bit by bit I started to remember why I first enjoyed working on cars. It all looped back to my early days tinkering on cars with my uncle, while we tried to diagnose why one of his newly purchased, poorly maintained Corvettes wasn’t working properly. The cars might have been neglected or badly maintained and the previous owners probably saw the vehicles as nothing more than an appliance and only replaced parts when absolutely necessary. But he and I saw it as a puzzle, an opportunity to fix something that was wrong. It was a way to both work out a complex issue and to think about nothing all at the same time. It’s a bonding experience, both with you and your car and with you and your friend or family member beside you. It’s about being able to stand back at the end of the day, look at your finished work and saying to yourself that you did it.
And a piece of crap Saab that had been neglected for years and had happened to pop up for sale at a time when I wanted nothing more than a warranty and reliability somehow managed to reawaken that passion inside me. I know there will be a time when I will start cursing at the car and decide to eventually hate it, but I also know there will always be a part of it inside me that I will forever be grateful for. Grease, oil and metal will always be a part of me; it just sometimes needs a gentle reminding of.