Hafner's $2,500 Used Car Challenge, Part 3--Final Decision
In the previous installment, I discussed how my search for my own $2,500 Car Lust had narrowed to three finalists, a 1978 Fiat X1/9, a 1990 Saab 9000 Turbo, and a 1986 Audi Coupe GT. The Fiat and the Audi were my top two choices. The Fiat's promise of carefree fun had captured my imagination, and the Audi Coupe GT had long been one of my favorite cars. But when the Fiat failed to start and the owner pulled it from consideration, the Audi became my winner by default.
Default is perhaps an unfortunate word, as it implies that I was settling for something substandard. That was certainly not the case; in fact, as I set up plans to finalize the purchase over the weekend, I was having trouble not succumbing to complete ecstasy. I felt like I had won the lottery--a freaking Audi Coupe GT!--and couldn't wait to finally lay hands on it. I couldn't imagine a better result to my search for a fun $2,500 beater, and I assumed that what had been a highly entertaining search was slowly winding down. I was wrong.
"That very evening I was buying dinner for my daughter when I received an e-mail from a woman who read my breathlessly enthusiastic Car Lust post lauding the 1986 Saab 900 SPG. In that post, I decalred my undying allegiance to the '86 SPG as my favorite car of all time, a car that, despite its extreme rarity, I had always dreamed of owning.
"Well, as luck would have it, her retired father was selling his immaculate and beloved 1986 Saab 900 SPG and wondered if I might be interested. The attached photos revealed an SPG that looked absolutely perfect, with good paint, a straight body, even, amazingly, an uncracked dash. I have never, ever seen a 1986 SPG in this condition and assumed it would sell for something like $10-$12.
"I wistfully looked at the photos of this wonderful SPG, chuckled wryly, and wrote back that I doubted I could afford it. Within minutes, she replied that the car was being offered for $3,500--only $1,000 above the top of my price range. And, what's more, the car was only five hours away from me, in Walla Walla, Wash.
With that, everything changed."
And so it did. The relevation that I might actually be able to buy the car of my dreams completely short-circuited my process and, frankly, scrambled my mental faculties. My first response was disbelief, followed rapidly by a mild physical manifestation of shock. I began shivering slightly and I was distracted, with my thoughts unfocused. I'm guessing that people react similarly when they find out they have just won the lottery.
Part of my distraction came from the fact that a part of me had already taken emotional ownership of the Audi Coupe GT and created the beginnings of a sentimental attachment. After all, with the Audi Coupe GT, I had the chance to buy one of my top five favorite cars of all-time. When I finally get around to starting the Chris Hafner Museum of Underappreciated Lustable Cars--essentially, this blog in physical form--the Coupe GT and its Ur-Quattro cousin will have a place of honor. But this didn't slow me down much. After all, with the '86 Saab SPG, I had a chance to buy, not one of my favorite cars, but my favorite car. It's like giving a biblical scholar the choice of having dinner with either the Apostle Paul or with Jesus Christ. Both options are unbelievably, mind-blowingly fantastic; but the decision itself isn't particularly hard.
Stage I--Getting There
I spent that evening in a state of reflection and increasing but impotent excitement, but the following day, a Friday, I threw myself into action. My primary issues were logistical in nature--namely time, distance, and financial.
My biggest challenge was covering a great deal of distance in a short time, as the car was located five hours away and my perceived window of acquisition was closing fast. The Saab was not yet publicly up for sale, but within a day or two the seller would be posting it on Craigslist and Saabnet.com. Given the scarcity of '86 SPGs and the low price of this example, I feared Saab lovers would immediately come out of the woodwork and descend on the car. I figured I had, at most, a 24-hour head start. When I saw the listing appear on Craigslist Friday afternoon, I knew the clock was ticking.
My timing was also delicate; as I viewed the situation on Friday, the earliest I could leave Seattle was 9:30 p.m. that night. The absolute latest I could return was 4:30 p.m. Saturday, at which point I needed to be present, dressed nicely, at a wedding. That was a 19-hour window, of which at least 10 hours would be spent driving. Add in traffic delays and the need to sleep, eat, bathe, groom, change clothes a few times, and evaluate and possibly purchase the Saab, and I had a whirlwind trip on my hands whether I bought the car or not.
That very uncertainty added further complications; getting to Walla Walla while preserving the flexibility to drive the Saab back to Seattle was proving to be a challenge. My wife and daughter already had plans--plans I was abandoning in my mad rush--and weren't available to come along. And with only a few hours of notice, I wasn't going to have much luck convincing a friend to drive 10 hours with me on the off chance that I might buy a used car. I couldn't exactly drive our family car out to Walla Walla myself; if I bought the Saab, I'd have to temporarily leave one car or the other in a strange city. On the other hand, buying a one-way plane ticket would be both expensive and awkward if I didn't buy the Saab. A rental car seemed like the ideal situation; if I bought the Saab, I could drop the rental off in Walla Walla. If I didn't buy the Saab, I'd simply drive the rental car back. Offsetting this impeccable logic was the realization that a one-way rental-car fare was eye-wateringly expensive--a round-trip rental was $32, but one-way was $260.
Happily, my wife's family stepped up and generously offered to help overcome the transportation problem. My wife's aunt and cousin live in Yakima, which lies halfway on the route to Walla Walla and roughly halfway there. That took care of my lodging, and my wife's cousin's boyfriend graciously volunteered to come with me to Walla Walla so that if I bought the Saab we could at least get it back to a friendly house in in Yakima.
Once the transportation question was solved, I turned to the money. My wife wasn't enthusiastic about spending an extra $1,000 that we hadn't budgeted, but she understood my SPG mania and was supportive. Unfortunately, I had to do some tap-dancing to actually get the money--we bank with an obscure credit union with no branch nearby or, for that matter, in Walla Walla. I was instead limited to working with a cooperative branch that wasn't about to give me $3,500 in cash. Eventually I pulled out the maximum $500 and took the remaining $3,000 in a bank check made out to the seller. This limited my negotiating possibilities, but at least I had the money available.
All of this came together in roughly three frantic hours, though not without an interesting additional stimulus. Right at the crest of my rushing-around, I received an e-mail from the Fiat seller explaining that the X1/9's starting problem had simply been a result of flooding, and would I like to take it for a test drive? I shelved the e-mail, but that small bit of drama further taxed my already flagging intellectual and emotional reserves.
After all the planning and worrying, setting off on my dark, rainy, 150-minute drive to Yakima came as a relief. I arrived at around midnight, tried to explain to my incredulous in-laws why I would jump through all of these hoops to pay $3,500 for a 23-year-old, pregnant-looking Swedish car, and then subsequently fell into a short and fitful sleep.
The previous eight paragraphs have painted a picture of tedious drudgery; I have included them here for the sake of illustrating the chaos that the Saab relevation introduced to my car-buying process. But when I rose on Saturday at 5 a.m., collected my wife's cousin's boyfriend, and set off on the road to Walla Walla, I was having the time of my life. I have always enjoyed rising early in the morning for a road trip--I find the innate promise of adventure and discovery exciting--and this time I was on a quest to fulfill a dream I had been nurturing since boyhood. It was a quest that took me to Walla Walla by way of Yakima--such evocative names! Everything about the journey felt epic, from the fortuitous e-mail that sparked the adventure, to the satisfaction of putting together the trip on such short notice, to watching the sun rise in colorful splendor over the plains of Eastern Washington. Everything was coming together perfectly, and as we cruised through the ubiquitous vineyards into the outskirts of Walla Walla on Saturday morning, it seemed inevitable that when we next left that town I would finally have achieved my dream of owning a 1986 Saab 900 SPG.
Given all that, imagine my surprise when I left Walla Walla several hours later, shaken and confused after rejecting the car I had lusted after for the last 23 years.
Stage II--The Car
As we pulled up to the seller's house, I couldn't take my eyes off the SPG. Stock 1986 SPGs came only in Edwardian Gray, but the owner had repainted this one in glossy black. I prefer the gray, but black is a good color for these cars as well--in fact the handful of 1985 SPGs produced were black when they left the factory. I have always thought the '86 a beautiful car, and even without the usual cloak of Edwardian Gray paint this one was as seductive as any I've seen. This SPG looked as if it was about to pounce; it sat low in a feral stance and looked smaller, leaner, and vastly more purposeful than plebeian 900s. It was gorgeous--but of course you can see that for yourself in the photos that accompany this post.
We then met the owner, a gracious and intelligent retired fellow who obviously loved his car. He had made it his own and performed some intelligent upgrades. For example, he had replaced the original engine and transmission with the superior, more reliable units from a 1989 SPG, and put in a mildly tweaked engine computer. He had also embraced the 900's cavernous cargo-carrying potential by completely removing the rear seats and putting in a custom floor and moving the battery to a location amidships. These are all modifications that I would have at least considered, and the owner obviously was a good man who cared for his car. In short, if you're dumb enough to buy a 23-year-old Saab, he's the guy you want on the other end of the transaction. After I had seen the car and met the owner, I was just about ready to hand over the check and drive away in my new SPG.
Unfortunately, that was when the beautiful tapestry began to unravel.
The pendulum began to swing as I began to check out the cargo floor. As much as I love the SPG's load-carrying capacity, I'm not quite so much of a load-hauling purist that I wouldn't prefer having rear seats to house my daughter's car seat and the occasional passenger. Before I arrived I figured I could find a rear seat and mount it fairly easily, but checking out the setup revealed that it might be a little more complicated than that--especially as the battery had been mounted in the custom floor. No big deal, I rationalized--I can figure that out.
The owner had also mentioned that the SPG's cold idle was a little uneven. No big deal there either, as frankly I'd be shocked if any car of this age was perfectly stable and tractable when cold. Unfortunately, it went beyond that. The engine cranked and started, but it just didn't want to stay running--the owner had to sit behind the wheel for a full five minutes playing Fred Astaire with the gas pedal to keep the reluctant engine alive. Actually, reluctant is an understatement. The idle was lumpy, shuddering, and borderline vicious. Watching the owner fight to keep the SPG alive damped my ardor significantly. It was probably a small issue, the owner said as his deft throttle foot kept the engine teetering barely on the right side of stalling. It certainly could be something small, I reasoned, though troubleshooting a drivability issue of that scale on a computerized, fuel-injected car without onboard diagnostics didn't sound particularly simple.
Things would improve once we got underway, I figured, but I was startled when the owner insisted on driving. He just wanted to drive until the car warmed up, he explained. I probably should have protested--getting a first-hand feel for the car's cold-start and cold-running behavior is an important part of buying a car--but I agreed and jumped in the passenger's side. And, to be honest, I wasn't impressed. The idle was still lumpy, and the engine felt unhappy and unresponsive. Being a passenger wasn't a waste; I took advantage of the freedom to look over the interior, which didn't look quite as good as in the photos. The body felt loose, there were a few interior panels missing, the glovebox and some of the other interior parts were bubbling or loose, and everything seemed kinda dirty. I had been shocked that the dash hadn't cracked as it has in every other 900 I had ever seen, but when I was up close I could see that the cracks had started. They were small, but they were there.
After a 10-minute drive around town, we pulled over and swapped seats. The engine had only just warmed up and smoothed out, and despite my mounting sense of discomfort with the car, I figured getting behind the wheel might re-ignite my passion. Unfortunately, I didn't feel the magic.
It's hard to describe, but the car just didn't feel good. The power was adequate but not overwhelming, and there was a queer hesitation that gave me pause. It wasn't turbo lag--the power kicked in, then it paused, then the power came back. The engine sounded thrashy and unhappy. The steering wheel was off-center, the steering action had a lot of slop in it, and it wandered badly. The gearbox was vague, and something was wrong with the shifter--the shift knob twisted violently to the left with each shift and I had to wrestle it back straight to get it into the next gear. Every bit of mechanical sympathy that I command--much of it flighty and nervous since my Saturn experience--was sending alarms up through my nerves and into my brain. The car wasn't right. Before the test drive I had written off the SPG's high mileage (200K miles on the car, 115K miles on the powertrain) as immaterial given the Saab 900's famous durability, but the car felt fundamentally old.
The owner showed me to a straightaway where I could take the SPG up through the gears, and to some twisties where, he said, I could sample "the real Saab experience." I badly wanted that experience, but no matter what I tried I had to fight with the car to drive it. I knew there was something fun bottled up in there, but I just couldn't get to it.
At this point, I think the seller began to realize that there was something amiss--I wasn't as animated as I had been, and our conversation dried up. The shifter problem was something small, he explained, as was the non-functional cruise control. He was sure the car's various problems were small issues that he hadn't yet had a chance to address. It's quite possible that that's true, but those issues suffocated everything that should have made the SPG fun to drive.
In retrospect, the tipping point in the test drive came when I began to compare the Saab to the Audi Coupe GT. The SPG looked better and had more power, but the Audi was still a pretty car and drove infinitely more sweetly. Where the Saab wandered, I had been impressed with the Audi's steering. I had to wrestle the SPG's shifter with each gearchange, but the Coupe GT's shifter snicked from gear in satisfying fashion. Most to the point, I had enjoyed driving the Audi, and I wasn't enjoying the Saab.
At the conclusion of the test drive, we both stood silently next to the SPG. The moment of truth had arrived, and I was deeply conflicted. As you might expect, my heart and my head were battling, but those age-old competitors were on different sides of the debate than you might expect. My head kept telling me that this was finally my chance to buy my SPG, but my heart kept screaming that this wasn't the right car.
And so there I stood, with a 1986 Saab 900 SPG in front of me and a check in my pocket. A nod on my part would seal the deal. But instead, I told the seller that his car was lovely, that it would sell quickly, but that it just wasn't the right car for me. Then I walked away.
Stage III--The Aftermath
I'm afraid I wasn't particularly good company for my wife's cousin's boyfriend on the drive home; I was in a brown study, preoccupied with my own thoughts and trying to figure out what had just happened. Had I just made a huge mistake? Had I thrown away a great opportunity because I was simply tired, hungry, and spooked by a few small issues? Was I a Saab dilettante? Did I not actually truly like the car I grew up loving? And was I going to turn Car Lust into yet another dull, self-absorbed blog?
The answer to the last question is apparently yes, but I think otherwise the answers are no.
My wife and I like to say, with tongue at least partially in cheek, that low expectations are the key to happeness and that high expectations are the key to misery. This goes for movies, music, food, relationships, and cars. Frankly, I had such low expectations when I checked out the Fiat that I wasn't particularly bothered when the thing didn't even start. I evaluated the Audi right after dismissing the heavily modified Saab 9000 Turbo, and it benefited from the comparison. But with the introduction of the SPG, what had been a fun beater search turned into something more serious; the stakes had been raised.
I realize that in the course of this I have made the SPG sound like an awful bucket of bolts, and that's not fair to the car or to the seller, who genuinely loved his car. It was a beautiful car--gorgeous, really--and it sold quickly. The Fiat and the Audi had their own issues as well, and ultimately the Saab would have worked out just as well as the other two. The issue is that the Saab just didn't feel like my car. I have always promised myself that when I get my Saab that it would be the right one and that I wouldn't settle for an inferior experience. Because of this, I judged the SPG on a different set of criteria than the other cars in the challenge.
Even without fixes, the Saab would have made an absolutely glorious beater, with style, power, a yawning hatchback, and acres of load-hauling space, like a cross between an El Camino and a rally car. Ultimately, though, while that sounds like fun, that's not what I'm looking for out of my SPG experience. It would be like having a meaningless one-night stand with the love of your life. Someday I'll either find a pristine SPG or have the money to make one pristine, and I'll settle down with it. Until then there are plenty of fish in the sea ... or, rather, cars in the classifieds.
It was a long trip, and I showed up to the wedding in a cold sweat two minutes late, but I'm still glad I went. For one thing, had I not tried this SPG, I would have always wondered about it. And for another, I'm not usually very good about reacting instinctively and impetuously to reach for what I want. I did so in this case, and it was a salutory experience.
So, on that bittersweet note, I brought to an end what had turned out to be an absolutely incredible and rewarding used-car search, in which the entertainment and final product were in dramatic contrast with the meager budget. I brought it to an end my purchasing the winner of my personal $2,500 used-car challenge, which will get its own post very soon.
The Winner: 1986 Audi Coupe GT