Special to Clunkbucket by Peter Peter Hughes
Interstate 81 northbound, between Binghamton and Syracuse. Leaving New York City that morning I’d subconsciously registered a hint of additional depth to the Saab’s normally throaty exhaust note, but it isn’t until a fuel stop somewhere in Pennsylvania that I think to actually look underneath the car, and discover the exhaust just aft of the catalytic converter rusted nearly clean through, hanging by a thread. Worrying, but not exactly surprising: months earlier, returning from a trip to Chicago, the exhaust just ahead of the cat had failed — as luck would have it, a mere five-minute tow from what had to have been the best Saab shop in Indiana. Would I be fortunate enough, I wonder, to make it the couple hundred miles home this time?
As it turns out, no. Maybe half an hour later the Saab’s cabin is filled with a booming roar as the exhaust gives way, rounded out with the sickening accompaniment of metal on asphalt. I pull over to assess. The cat, still attached to its sturdy new downpipe, is fine; it’s everything from there back that’s dragging, hanging from the rear forward. There’s not much I’m going to accomplish roadside, though, so it’s back in the car to limp to the next exit, emergency blinkers signaling mayday as the felled exhaust gouges away at the shoulder.
Fast forward through fifteen eardrum-rattling minutes and one state trooper inquiry and I’m finally able to slink off the interstate. I look around for someplace flat, and coast to a stop in front of that signature feature of twenty-first century central New York, an abandoned gas station. Perfect. It’s about ninety degrees and I’ve got maybe an hour of daylight left. I set to work.
Option 1: Tie the exhaust to the underside of the car. It takes about thirty seconds on my back to determine that that ain’t gonna happen, not with what I’ve got to work with. Option 2: Pull the exhaust out from under the car, throw it in the back, and try to limp noisily the rest of the way home. This, on the other hand, seems relatively doable.
The Saab’s exhaust is straight nearly all the way back; the only problem is where it bends upward to clear the rear axle and sway bar. Even with the car as high as it’ll go on its flimsy, twenty-two-year-old scissor jack, I can’t get quite the angle necessary for the exhaust to clear the axle. Looking around, it seems the gas station is recently enough abandoned that it’s still serving as somebody’s junk yard, and I spend some time around back, amongst the discarded washer and drier and an early ’80s F-body, poking about for something that might be of use.
I return with a steel wheel. Setting my mini-spare atop it, I lower the left rear of car onto the most ghetto-improvised jack stand anybody’s ever been stupid enough to crawl under. Jacking up the front of the car from the other side gives me the room I need. Sweat drenched and grime blackened, I emerge in a cloud of mosquitoes and raise the freed exhaust above my head in triumph.
It is a short-lived triumph, however, as after not more than ten minutes back on the interstate the Saab just dies, and this time, my diagnostic skills extending not much further beyond things that are physically, visibly dragging on the ground, I concede defeat. Calls are placed, a tow and a ride home secured.
The epilogue is an improbably happy one, as the Saab, it seems, does not choose the places it breaks down arbitrarily. The next day, after some online digging, I call and have the car towed another twenty miles to Ithaca, to a shop that turns out to be run by the real-life inspiration for the Seinfeld Saab Nazi character. He gets it running — turns out it was just an alternator wiring harness that’d come loose — fixes my exhaust (while preserving most of the catback, so it still sounds awesome), and asks if I want the complete service that will make me a customer for life. One week and half again what I paid for the car later, I get it back, completely transformed. Boosting like crazy and rock solid at speeds that had previously generated so much old-car loosey-goosiness that you’d back off long before you even approached them. For the first time I know what it’s supposed to feel like to drive a Saab SPG. It feels bitchin’.
Hughes’ 7-inch/LP Album Fangio is available now from Fayettenam Records. The premise? Five-time world champion Fangio goes underground to avenge the sins perpetrated upon Latin America. Check out the video My God is an Angry God — starring the very SPG above — here.