If you've been reading Jalopnik recently, you know that Gawker has been trying to find a replacement for Murilee Martin, who was its weekend editor. A contest ensued and we the readers were flooded by a glut of sub-par writing. Out of that goopy, grimy mess was a shining stand-out. Contestant Phil Lacefield, Jr., a.k.a. ThatSaabGuy, wrote a couple of succinct pieces about one of the quirkiest makes out there-- Saab.
My favorite was the piece about the Saab Friction Tester. It was wacky and chock full of useless trivia (I know that's redundant). It captured the spirit of Jalopnik perfectly. I wanted Phil to win. I rooted for him. I campaigned for him. He didn't win. Last week, two finalists were chosen. Phil came in third.
I'm sure all of you noticed Phil's talent and his passion for Saabs. He was kind enough to sit down and pound away on the keyboard and answer my questions.
Q. What is up with your Saab obsession? What about Saabs attracts you to them?
I first encountered Saabs when I lived in the far north of Norway for a couple of years, back in the late ‘80’s. They are weird and quirky – like me – and when I came back to Ohio they were rare and expensive to maintain – like me. A perfect fit! Since then I’ve owned countless dozens, as old as a ’64 and as new as a ’96.
Q. What is your favorite Saab of all time?
Definitely the 1996 Monte Carlo 850. And yes, I own one. 3 cylinder, 2-stroke, 55hp and nothing but balls-out screaming smoking fun.
Q. Do you own any Saabs? What are they? Any stories behind them?
Currently my wife (also a Saab junkie) and I own five: our daily-driver ’96 9000 Aero (known as the UberAero, 401hp at the wheels); a 1990 C900 SPG (her car); the aforementioned ’66 MC850; a ’69 95 (the wagon version of the venerable 96, also her car); and a shell of a ’72 Sonett III in the back yard awaiting rebuilding this winter.
All these cars have amazing stories. The UberAero was purchased in 2006 with 82k on the ticker and an absolute creampuff in every way. I proceeded to install a 3” thick all-aluminum intercooler out of an NPR/Isuzu cab-over city truck, a custom-welded equal-length header to allow the A/C to remain, 35lb green injectors, a TD04HL-19T turbo (about 40% larger than stock), 4” intake and 3” exhaust…now it puts out 401 horsies at the wheels and hits 27.5lb (ed.: !!!) of boost.
The SPG was found on a nasty used car lot in Middletown, Ohio, and nursed back to life, and has been a faithful steed ever since (complete with a gigantic 20-sided dice drilled out and used as the shift knob).
The MC850 is my pride and joy, and spent 15 years in an airplane hangar about 200 yards from where I grew up, all that time just waiting for me to come rescue it. Now it gets driven regularly in vintage hillclimbs and rallys, and is my inseparable friend for life.
The 95 I bought in a package deal from an old Norwegian farmer in Poulsbo, WA, and finally became roadworthy just this past summer after a long slumber in the driveway.
The SIII was another driveway rescue (I do that a lot with old Saabs), and is a rust-free chassis awaiting many bits and a lot of time to make it whole again.
Q. I feel like the first generation 9-3 (1998-2002) was the last great Saab and it’s been downhill ever since for the brand. Do you agree? Why or why not?
Gaah, I wouldn’t call that car a “real” Saab if you put a gun to my head. The NG900 (for “next generation”) is an unmitigated piece of crap in every way. It was the first car designed and, more importantly, financed and budgeted by GM after their buyout. They are complete junk. The CS-bodied 9000 line is what I’d consider the last “true” Saab, as it was designed in conjunction with Lancia, Fiat and Alfa Romero and was (and still is!) a fantastic beast.
The 9-3 (the follow-up to the NG900) wasn’t TOO bad, but by that point GM beancounters had taken over and it was nothing more than a glorified Opel. The original 9-5 is also not too bad, although the first few years of engines were of questionable quality and reliability.
Q. Take off your hat as a Saab enthusiast for a moment. What are the realistic chances of Saab surviving and thriving in the medium to long term future?
When word first came out that GM was looking to sell Saab, we all started to panic a bit. This was early in the financial meltdown, so no one was really sure who had the money and wherewithal to make the deal happen, and do it right.
Koenigsegg stepped up early to buy the company, which at first glance was a good thing – sexy Norwegian supercar maker bringing Saab home to roost. But it quickly became clear that, as cool as Koenigsegg is, they just weren’t going to be able to do justice to Saab in the way that it needed to be done. Those guys have only built a handful of cars and have 50 employees and no big-company experience; taking over a massive production facility with thousands of workers and a huge parts supply chain was something they just weren’t equipped to do, so the deal fell apart.
Then along came Spyker, and Victor Mueller. Here’s a guy with massive piles of cash, a passion for making good cars, a love of Saab…oh, and decades of good business experience running large companies. That last bit was what had been missing from the Koenigsegg deal, and when Victor finally managed to pull off the purchase (despite the best efforts of Detroit idiots to kill the deal in process) there was much rejoicing in the Saab community worldwide.
Mid-term, Victor and crew have the money, determination, experience and patience to get the NG9-5 and the 9-4X out the door and selling well; their real challenge is long-term, and whether they can manage to get a new 92/93/96 into production. The recent partnership with BMW (giving Saab access to engines, tech and – hopefully – the Mini platform) was a HUGE shot in the arm to that goal. If they can announce and release two or three really solid, lower-cost, enthusiast-attractive products in the next five years, I think they’ll do just fine.
Q. Tell us a little bit about competing in Jalopnik’s America’s Next Top Blogger contest. What was the most difficult part of the writing process? The most satisfying? What did you think of your competitors? Knowing what you know now, would you compete again?
I’ve written for numerous other publications through the years, so coming up with a couple of stories was really quite simple for me. Yes, I picked Saab as the subject of both stories, but only because the two subjects were so damn COOL. It was satisfying to see the positive feedback, and to know that readers enjoyed my work; what was much less satisfying was the ever-shifting rules, which seemed to me – and I could be totally wrong – to stack the deck well in favor of certain writers even before the final voting began. The entire process boiled down to how many people you could convince to click and vote, rather than any actual quality of writing; having a contest like this voted on by this method is akin to picking the president by an American Idol-style call-in vote over a two-hour period. It will be interesting to see the quality of work the two finalists produce. Nonetheless, I had fun, and would do it all again in a heartbeat.
Q. What is Cartophilia?
Ahh, one of my other geeky passions, maps! (Others include collecting board games and border/highpoint hunting…I’m such a nerd…) http://blog.cartophilia.com is a discussion of maps, map-decorated things, and anything in between; originally started by my buddy Jamie McQuinn, I’ve now become a contributing blogger and help share my passion for mappy goodness with the world at large.
Q. What country or region in the world are you most fascinated with from a geographical perspective? Why?
Hmm, that’s a tough one. As they say on the Discovery Channel, the world is an awesome place! Geographically, I’d have to say Europe, where so many countries share so many borders, a place rich in enclaves, tripoints and all manner of crazy geography!
Q. What car websites do you regularly visit? What geography/geopolitics site do you regularly visit?
Daily for me include Jalopnik, saabsunited.com, Bringatrailer.com, and occasionally Autoweek; Strange Maps (http://bigthink.com/blogs/strange-maps), The Basement Geographer (http://basementgeographer.blogspot.com/), Huffington Post, CNN.com, Consumerist and Boing Boing are but a few of the sites I visit daily…
Q. Why do you love cars?
Cars are the ultimate expression of individuality and personal gratification. Consider: of the tens of thousands of cars made in the world over the past 100 years, you chose THIS particular make, model, year, color and trim package to drive. Then you chose to customize it to your liking, making your car the only one like it in the entire world. I love basking in the pride and excitement I feel when I gather with other gearheads, knowing that I’m doing the exact same thing!