Posts Tagged Kurt Vonnegut
Great minds sometimes need not-so-great jobs to pay the bills. Herman Melville worked in a customs house, Einstein in a patent office. For Kurt Vonnegut, this cruel practicality came in the form of a Saab dealership on Cape Cod. I’m a huge Vonnegut fan (this blog is named after the fictional city of Ilium, New York, where many of his stories take place), and as a writer on all things automotive, I had to know more.
Vonnegut started selling Saabs in 1957. He thought the dealership would be an easy way to make money while he concentrated on his writing. Unfortunately, the cars were difficult to sell, as Vonnegut pointed out in A Man Without a Country.
“The Saab back then had only one model, a bug like a VW, a two door sedan, but with the engine in front, It had suicide doors opening into the slipstream. Unlike all other cars, but like your lawnmower and your outboard, it had a two-stroke rather than a four-stroke engine. So every time you filled your tank with gas, you had to pour in a can of oil as well. For whatever reason, straight women did not want to do this.”
Since no one could remember to add oil to their Saabs’ fuel, the cars had limited appeal. Running the Saab store also cost more than Vonnegut expected: Saab forced him to buy his inventory and pay for ads in local newspapers. Consequently, the dealership closed the same year. Vonnegut said that he would never win a Nobel Prize because of his hatred of the cars.
Saab was still in business when I started looking for Vonnegut’s store, but there were no dealers on Cape Cod. The trail went cold, until I found this link, which shows the exact location of the former Saab of Cape Cod.
Vonnegut used to sell Swedish cars out of a small stone building with a curved roof, off Route 6A in Barnstable, the next town over from Hyannis and the Kennedy Compound. The building sits unused amid a small cluster of other buildings on a relatively quiet stretch of a road that carries thousands of tourists every year.
I made the pilgrimage to Vonnegut’s Saab dealership last year on a family trip to the Cape. After almost missing the nondescript building, my brother and I jumped out of the car, touched a copy of Player Piano to the wall, and took a few photos. We’d been coming to the Cape for years, and had probably passed the former Saab store many times, but we had finally found it.
If you want to visit a car dealer owned by a literary legend, find your way onto Cape Cod via the Sagamore Bridge. After crossing the bridge, you’ll be on Route 6, the main highway that runs the length of the Cape. Exit to get on 6A heading toward Barnstable and points east. As you drive through the West Barnstable, the building will be on your right, just past the intersection of 6A (Main Street) and Parker Road.
For the first post of the new year, why not begin with an ending? Kim Jon Il was not the only newsworthy death to occur in the last couple of weeks of 2011, because the automotive world lost one of its most enigmatic names: Saab.
In reality, the death of Saab wasn’t really news: Sweden’s other volume carmaker had always had a troubled existence. It started out as the automotive division of an established aircraft manufacturer, designing small cars powered by two stroke engines (the type found in dirt bikes). These early cars, including the 92 and Sonnett series, were beautifully designed, but not very practical. Kurt Vonnegut opened a Saab dealer on Cape Cod and later wrote angrily about the company’s products.
Saab finally achieved success in the 1980s with the 900. This was a small, pseudo-luxury hatchback with front wheel drive and a turbocharged engine. Everything about it, from the styling, to the turbo, to the floor-mounted ignition, was quirky. As with its earlier cars, Saab let engineering take precedence over convention, but this time it actually worked.
Sadly, it would not last. Saab was bought by General Motors in 1989, and GM decided that Saab should not design its own cars. From the Opel Vectra-based second-gen 900 to the 9-7x SUV, every Saab since the GM takeover has been a rebadged version of someone else’s car. In 2009, GM unloaded Saab onto Dutch boutique carmaker Spyker and the company struggled through various financial crises until it went bankrupt in December.
Reading it all back, it doesn’t seem like Saab was a very good car company. It was badly managed and made few genuinely good cars. Saab’s last two cars were a large sedan, the 9-5, and a rebadged Cadillac SRX, the 9-4; the world isn’t being deprived of anything amazing. Yet car fanatics everywhere, myself included, had to stand up and take notice when Saab went bankrupt.
Why? Everybody loves a good story. Saab was an underdog, an independent car company breaking away from the corporate establishment. It tried to be different and, at the very least, kept people entertained with the possibility of quirky Swedish cars that did away with convention.
That promise didn’t always come to fruition, but it was fun to dream. By objective standards, Saab probably deserved to die. But the automotive landscape will be a lot less interesting without it.