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Taxonomy of an Obsession
Thoughts: Taxonomy of an Obsession, by Jim Williams
I thought I'd take a stab at categorizing varieties of the VSAABing experience. After all, one frequent piece of advice to would-be purchasers is "have a goal in mind," so it might make sense to classify some of the possible goals/degrees of involvement toward which people might set off down the various oil-stained paths toward VSAAB Nirvana. Although I admit to being fairly hapless with tools of any sort, I'm a good reader and categorizer, so I've based the following taxonomy on long-distance observations of various car collector/restorer/user/hobbyists:
The Concours or Show-Car Restoration
The goal here is to make the car perfect, even though the restorer knows perfection can never be fully achieved (marking concours restoration as a classical ideal in the Platonic sense.) Since mass-produced cars generally were FAR from perfect even when factory fresh, this means the restorer tries to make them "just like new, only better" -- the way the new car WOULD have been if it had been manufactured by detail-obsessed fanatics with no expense spared. In VSAAB terms this might mean endless hours of filling and sanding your Sonett's fiberglass body panels to give them a perfectly even smoothness they never possessed when new, or having your 96 repainted for a better-than-factory gloss.
The Original Restoration
Here the idea seems to be to make the car look as if it had just come off the assembly line, right down to recreating the imperfections of mass production. If you watch the 'Dream Car Garage' show on Speedvision, you see this kind of thinking in action, as body-shop experts painstakingly apply overspray and build up deliberately sloppy welds to simulate sloppy factory workmanship... even though the extra time and effort required to add authentic shoddiness adds even more cost to the original immaculate handmade restoration. One problem with this approach is that is that getting the car "like new" may require replacing so many parts that it's questionable whether any of it is still "original" -- like the old joke about the third-generation carpenter who's proud of the fact that he still uses Grandpa's original hammer, although of course he's had to replace the handle three times and the head twice.
The Sympathetic Restoration
The Brits seem to be big on this. Here the goal is to start with an original restoration but weather it a bit to add a slight "patina" of use -- in effect, recreating the way the car would have looked in its heyday if carefully maintained by a fastidious owner. Comfortably broken-in but unworn upholstery and shiny but not too glossy paint are among the hallmarks. What's tough about this approach is that if the car gets damaged or needs further work, you can't just redo it this way -- you have to go all the way back to an "unsympathetic" full resto and then wait for it to weather again.
This goes a step beyond the Sympathetic Restoration approach and attempts to recreate a specific car at a particular stage in its life. It seems to be applied most often to ex-competition cars: rebuilding your old crock not just into a factory-fresh Fettuccine Spyder, but trying to simulate THE specific Fettuccine Spyder campaigned by Pastafazoola in the 1951 Targa Florio, complete with the Cinzano tin riveted to the scuttle to catch the ashes from Pastafazoola's ever-present cigar and the dents hammered into the bonnet to make enough room for factory mechanic Guiseppe "Big Thumbs" Mammamia to change the jets in the Webers. It appears to be up to the individual restorer whether he wants to create the condition of the car at the start line or the finish line (after Pastafazoola T-boned the goats and Big Thumbs took tin snips to the bodywork after burning himself once too many times on the header pipe) but as the latter might be indistinguishable from a completely unrestored car (or even a twisted pile of scrap metal) the examples that bring the big auction prices tend to favor the somewhat prettified approach.
When the real car is too scarce or too damn cranky, one solution is to "re-image" it with detail improvements. Again, the Brits seem to be big on this, even distinguishing between "original" replicas (those made by assembling various bits from roughly the same era) and "modern" replicas (keeping the overall look authentic but dumping those clunky Moss gearboxes, SU carburetors and drum brakes for modern stuff that actually works.) Since older low-volume British cars often were made by assembling random bits from various sources anyway, this approach may be as authentic as anything for them.
The Unmolested Original, or Time-Warp, or Barn Find
A car that's somehow survived until now without being restored and yet is still in recognizable form. Granted, "recognizable" is in the eye of the beholder: I've seen pictures in classic-car magazines of finds effusively described as being in "unbelievably restorable original condition" which, to my untrained eye, seem to consist of nothing more than vaguely geometric arrangements of iron-oxide molecules.
And finally, two categories you seldom see in the magazines but relevant to us VSAABers:
The Benignly Neglected Daily Driver
Typically this specimen will be owned by someone who wants to keep driving and enjoying his car, but who either can't afford the time or money to rehabilitate it or has concluded it's too far gone to be worth the bother. The proprietor will simply be content to patch, fix, or update whatever is needed to keep the beast functional and safe according to his own (possibly lax) standards, even if it involves using non-original materials and repair techniques involving, e.g., pop rivets, Liquid Nails, J-B Weld, Henry's Roofing Tar, old license plates, marine-grade plywood, wax paper, chewing gum, spit, etc.
The Learning Experience
I invented this category for self-protection, because I'm in it. It involves a car owned by someone who would LIKE to find a sound old Saab and fix it up really nicely someday, but isn't sure he has the necessary skills, knowledge, funds, etc. So he starts out with a car that seems fairly solid and drivable but is past the economically restorable stage (perhaps a cast-off Benignly Neglected Daily Driver) and uses it as a way of learning about the car's quirks, finding out what kinds of work he's capable of doing on it, etc. The finished, or unfinished, product may look as if it had been taken apart and reassembled by a team of unusually slow-witted squirrels, but that doesn't really matter because sooner or later it's going to wind up as that most important of all the classifications...
The Parts Car!
Trying to apply these categories to VSAABdom... suppose, for example, that the horn wire from the steering column of your Sonett has gone bad. When these cars were made, their assemblers (Sven and Ole) provided for the rotation of the steering column simply by looping the wire a few times around the base of the column, giving it latitude to wind or unwind as you turned the wheel. In replacing this wire, the Concours Restorer would no doubt fabricate and entire new wiring harness and then wrap the wire in perfectly even coils, secured by little loops of color-coordinated Connolly leather; the Original Restorer would insert new conductors into the original insulation, then track down Sven and Ole at their retirement homes to interview them about the exact direction and number of turns they used when wrapping the wire and do his the same way; the Recreator would go to the museum to see how they did it for Per's rally car; the Replicator would eliminate the loops entirely and instead use a digitally encoded wireless signal to the same onboard data bus that controlled the air conditioning, CD player, and satellite navigation system; and the Benign Neglector would just yank the whole thing out and replace it with a piece of lamp cord duct-taped to the positive battery terminal, routed to the horn, then back into the passenger compartment to a doorbell pushbutton switch epoxied to the dashboard and grounded to one of the rivets holding the license plates to the rest of the floorpan.
My point in this long-winded ramble is that I feel there's a place for all of us in the VSAAB universe, as long as we all understand who we are and stay out of each other's hair.
Jim Williams, January 2001
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Last modified: January 10, 2023