Have I Got a Car for You!

Kurt Vonnegut

(Kurt Vonnegut / vonnegut.com)

I used to be the own­er and man­ag­er of an auto­mo­bile deal­er­ship in West Barn­sta­ble, Mass­a­chu­setts, called Saab Cape Cod.” It and I went out of busi­ness 33 years ago. The Saab then as now was a Swedish car, and I now believe my fail­ure as a deal­er so long ago explains what would oth­er­wise remain a deep mys­tery: Why the Swedes have nev­er giv­en me a Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture. Old Nor­we­gian proverb: Swedes have short dicks but long memories.” 

Lis­ten: The Saab back then had only one mod­el, a bug like a VW, a two-door sedan, but with the engine in front. It had sui­cide doors open­ing into the slip­stream. Unlike all oth­er cars, but like your lawn­mow­er and your out­board, it had a two-stroke rather than a four-stroke engine. So every time you filled your tank with gas you had to pour in a can of oil as well. For what­ev­er rea­son, straight women did not want to do this. 

The chief sell­ing point was that a Saab could drag a VW at a stop­light. But if you or your sig­nif­i­cant oth­er had failed to add oil to the last tank of gas, you and the car would then become fire­works. It also had front-wheel dri­ve, of some help on slip­pery pave­ments or when accel­er­at­ing into curves. There was this sell­ing point as well: As one prospec­tive cus­tomer said to me, They make the best watch­es. Why wouldn’t they make the best cars, too?” I was bound to agree. 

The Saab back then was a far cry from the sleek, pow­er­ful, four-stroke Yup­pie uni­form it is today. It was the wet dream, if you like, of engi­neers in an air­plane fac­to­ry who had nev­er made a car before. Wet dream,” did I say? Get a load of this: There was a ring on the dash­board, con­nect­ed to a chain run­ning over pul­leys in the engine com­part­ment. Pull on it, and at the far end it would raise a sort of win­dow shade on a spring-loaded roller behind the front grill. That was to keep the engine warm while you went off some­where. So, when you cam back, if you hadn’t stayed away too long, the engine would start right up again. 

But if you stayed away too long, win­dow shade or not, the oil would sep­a­rate from the gas and sink like molasses to the bot­tom of the tank. So when you start­ed up again, you would lay down a smoke­screen like a destroy­er in a naval engage­ment. And I actu­al­ly blacked out the whole town of Woods Hole at high noon that way, hav­ing left a Saab on a park­ing lot there for about a week. I am told old timers there still won­der out loud about where all that smoke could have come from. I came to speak ill of Swedish engi­neer­ing, and so did­dled myself out of a Nobel Prize. 

Kurt Von­negut, the leg­endary author, WWII vet­er­an, human­ist, artist and smok­er, was an In These Times senior edi­tor until his death in April 2007. His clas­sic works include Slaugh­ter­house-Five, Break­fast of Cham­pi­ons and Cat’s Cra­dle, among many oth­ers. The last book by him pub­lished before his death, A Man With­out a Coun­try (2005), col­lects many of the arti­cles he wrote for this magazine.
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