2017-06-13 09:47:03
Wheels: In Portland, a Rare Outpost for Die-Hard Saab Fans

PORTLAND, Ore. — 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 a 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, Ore., 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 said.

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 Years of dwindling sales, compounded by an outdated lineup, took a toll on the carmaker.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 Mr. 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 said.

Luckily for staunch Saab loyalists — and Mr. 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 S.U.V.s from other brands, has kept the business going.

For Saab enthusiasts — or “Saabistas” — stepping into Mr. 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. Mr. 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 Mr. 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 said.

Saab was established in the run-up to World War II as a military manufacturer, shifting to making vehicles after the conclusion of the war.

It quickly earned a reputation for doing things its own way — its origins were in aerospace and military, so its vehicles often reflected a radically different approach to car manufacturing.

Saab’s first teardrop-shaped vehicle, the 92, used a small but peppy two-stroke engine, which required a combination of gasoline and oil to be fed into the combustion chambers. The company was also an early adopter of front-wheel drive, which helped cut costs and improved handling in poor weather. It also embraced turbocharging and employing aerodynamics to improve speed and fuel efficiency.

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.

Garry Small traces his relationship with Saab to that very year.

By that time, he had been in the car business for nearly a quarter-century, working for Pacific Car Sales, a Portland dealership specializing in imported brands like Datsun (which would become Nissan), Triumph and Volvo. It even sold Amphicars, amphibious German vehicles capable of driving on both land and water.

Mr. Small established his own dealership, initially catering exclusively to Volvos, in the early 1970s. The following decade, he bought another dealership and expanded to cover both Swedish brands. Over time, the Volvo side of his business tapered off in favor of Saabs.

Over the years, Saab began to dominate his work, not to mention his automotive passion.

When asked if he was drawn to one brand more than the other, he chuckled. “I’m more of a Saab guy now.”

“I just feel that Saab engineering was much more advanced than Volvo,” Mr. Small said. “Because Saab was a front-wheel-drive car since forever, they just work better in the snow and ice.”

His 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.

Its understated lines have aged well, however, and one at Garry Small Saab caught the eye of Nanci Main, a recently retired restaurant owner in Ocean Park, Wash. She traveled three hours to test-drive a 2010 9-5 Aero sedan.

“This is my fifth Saab and the Aero is my fanciest,” she wrote in a follow-up email. She bought the car and now plans to turn “Saab road-trip fantasies into reality.”

“I am Swedish and love the Swedish qualities of Saab,” she said, describing it as “strong, powerful, safe, unique and classy.”

Introduced in 2010, the 9-5 luxury sedan nevertheless proved to be Saab’s swan song.

Despite the carmaker’s disappearance, the focus of Garry Small Saab very much remains on the brand. Mr. Small says many of his longtime customers, some of whose allegiance has drifted to German luxury brands, routinely tell him how much they miss the special character of a Saab.

At any given moment, Mr. Small maintains an inventory of 15 to 20 used Saab vehicles — most are purchased locally, by word of mouth, thanks to his extensive experience and reputation in the world of Saab.

“It keeps us really busy,” he said.