Automaker bankrupt since 2011, but Portland business still chugging along.
It mounted the ignition on the center console next to the driver. It once tested replacing steering wheels with joysticks. Its earliest cars were available only in green. Saab, more than most automakers, took pride in making cars that were a little unusual.
So it makes sense that one of the United States’ last Saab dealerships is in an Oregon city with the slogan “Keep Portland Weird.”
The Swedish automaker filed for bankruptcy in 2011 and has not produced any new cars since, leaving a vanishingly small number of outposts for fans of the company’s quirky cars.
Garry Small Saab, a family business based in Portland, is one of them — and it is chugging along just fine, thank you very much.
“We sell a few Saabs. We work on a few Saabs. Servicing Saabs is going to keep us going for a very, very long time,” Garry Small says.
It didn’t always look that way. Years of dwindling sales, compounded by an outdated lineup, took a toll on the carmaker.
A Dutch supercar company, Spyker, tried to revive the Saab brand after buying it in 2010, but the audacious move did not work and production ended soon after.
That left Saab dealers like Small stuck with cars that he said were “virtually unsellable,” as their warranties were worthless. “It was some tough times there, for a couple of years,” he says.
Luckily for staunch Saab loyalists — and Small — parts are still readily available for everything except truly vintage models.
That maintenance business, along with sales of used Saabs as well as several other late-model sedans and SUVs from other brands, has kept the business going.
For Saab enthusiasts — or “Saabistas” — stepping into Small’s showroom is like going back in time.
Company memorabilia fills rows of shelves, Saab posters and signs cover the walls, and used Saab cars sit waiting for their next owner to take them home.
Small even keeps an orange 1954 Saab 92 on the showroom floor.
It doesn’t run, but he says it is one of only two such versions to remain in the United States, and functions as a conversation piece.
The brand may have a reputation for quirkiness, but Small says its appeal is rooted in more basic characteristics.
“They’re so well engineered, great to drive, the seats are comfortable and they’re great in snow,” he says.
Over the years, Saabs won a reputation for distinctive exteriors and engineering quirks, gaining the company a dedicated following around the world. The company’s sales in the United States peaked in 1986, at just above 48,000.
Small’s favorite Saab is the 2011 model year 9-5, and a steel-gray version powered by a turbocharged V-6 engine and fitted with all-wheel drive serves as his personal car.
A New York Times review of the vehicle called the 9-5 “a car you want to love,” but also one that lagged rivals in terms of ride comfort and chassis refinement.
At any given moment, Small maintains an inventory of 15 to 20 used Saab vehicles — most are purchased locally, by word-of-mouth.
“It keeps us really busy,” he says.