“There are some shocking cars on the road,” former Apple chief designer Jony Ive complained to The New Yorker in 2015. “One person’s car is another person’s scenery.”
I feel pretty much the same way. Most cars are ugly now. They are box- or teardrop-shaped menaces and sometimes look like the car form of a Transformer. New cars are excessively styled; the front of a new Toyota Camry resembles  the mouth of an alien from Halo. And even when car companies correct for certain trends, like the ever-increasing size of Ford’s best selling F-150 pickup truck, their newest models also look bad. The mid-sized Ford Ranger pickup, when I was growing up, looked like a simple version of an already simple concept, with a straightforward-looking silver grille and mild boxiness, until it was discontinued in 2011. Reanimated in 2017, the Ford Ranger looks like it’s prepared to blow up a village suspected of harboring insurgents.
When I think of cars that don’t suck, I think of the Saab. Shuttered in 2012, the Swedish carmaker is an icon of a time when cars were not designed to accommodate some imaginary Michael Bay set. The Saab 900, which was released in 1978 and reissued in 1994, was the company’s most highly sold car during its life (reaching sales of one million), and it’s a car so neat and distinctive-looking that it (briefly) makes me want to be a car owner again.
Available as a convertible, the Saab (like the Volkswagen Cabrio and Cabriolet) was a kind of fun coupe or four-door that connoted, if not luxury, at least something resembling discernment. I am not an engineer or a speed enthusiast, but the high-powered engine of the Saab 900 Turbo was the kind of thing that raised eyebrows in the 1980s. This was because of its turbocharged front-wheel drive engine and distinctive teardrop design, and, later on, high-profile ad campaigns accentuating the car’s quirkiness. You could find small flourishes in later models, such as relocating the car’s ignition to in between the front seats, or the Top Gun-like “Night Panel” mode for its dashboard introduced in 1993. (Funnily enough, a 1980s Saab ad directed by Tony Scott would help him land the job of directing the actual Top Gun.)
Initially formed in the 1940s as an offshoot of an extant defense contractor (the first Saab is officially referred to as the “Ursaab”), Saab acquired a reputation as a maker of pleasant-looking and technologically innovative cars. Its international presence expanded in the 1980s, and by the end of the decade the company was spun out as an independent entity co-owned by General Motors. GM would later take over the company in its entirety before off-loading it in 2010. During the 19 years that GM operated Saab, the Swedish carmaker only turned a profit once. After a failed rescue attempt by the boutique Dutch carmaker Spyker, Saab filed for bankruptcy in 2011 and ceased production.
The Saabs of my youth were more recent models, particularly the 9-3 (an updated version of the 900) that the company started pumping out after it was acquired by General Motors in 2000. Saab had always been an upscale car manufacturer (a four-door hatchback in 2002 could run you $28,000), and its sales in the U.S. peaked in 1986 at around 48,000 cars that year. Still, that was about a third cheaper than a similarly sized Mercedes, making them, as Jalopnik once put it, “nice, ordinary, upper-middle class vehicles.”
Throughout their lifetimes, and even after the company’s death, Saabs commanded a kind of cult following. Though the 900 and its subsequent reissues were at least initially popular, the company’s cars’ pricing was caught between higher-end European luxury and cheaper Asian competitors. “Unable either to achieve economies of scale or to brand itself as a premium product with a premium price-tag, it has fallen between two stools,” automotive business professor Garel Rhys said to the The Guardian in 2010. In 2009, two years before its bankruptcy, the company only sold 21,000 cars worldwide.
It would be silly to try and argue that the Saabs of my youth should be remade for the present day. For one thing, they were a pain in the ass to fix. And part of the reason that cars are ugly now, and that they have so many curves, is because they are more fuel-efficient; the aerodynamics of a “teardrop” design help reduce the impact of wind on the open road (ironically a design staple of Saab in the 1980s). Newer cars are also safer; I would rather be side-swiped in an ugly new Toyota Corolla than a beautiful Saab from the 1990s. It’s not that Saabs are especially unsafe — it’s that car safety has come a long way in the last 25 years.
But what I think the Saab speaks to was a kind of ordinary uniqueness — a special and distinctive set of design qualities that, while not cheap, were within reach of the upper middle class-types with whom I grew up and for whom the 1990s were especially good years. Volvo, the other Swedish company that makes better-looking cars than the norm, was able to thrive where Saab failed because its owner during the 2000s, Ford, understood that by the 2000s it would best succeed as an outright luxury carmaker (setting aside Volvo’s massive truck business).
In Portland, Oregon, The New York Times  found in 2017, there was one auto dealer and mechanic left that primarily dealt in Saabs. The dealer, a man named Garry Small, said that he had a healthy business from Saab obsessives, or “Saabistas” as he told the Times. It wouldn’t last forever, but it would be enough. There are still many people holding onto their Saabs.
“We sell a few Saabs. We work on a few Saabs,” Small said. “Servicing Saabs is going to keep us going for a very, very long time.