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Swedish accent

Saab, Volvo fans salute Scandinavian automobile design

BROOKLINE -- To the staccato pop-pop-pop of its three-cylinder engine, the little car rolled across the lawn at the Lars Anderson Auto Museum, catching everyone's attention.

It was a rare 1957 Saab 93, owned by Bruce Welch of Brookfield, Vt., taking its place among a sea of Saabs and Volvos at the seventh annual Swedish Car Day last Sunday.

Welch, like many aficionados of Swedish autos, began driving Saabs in the early 1970s. "It was a dirt cheap mode of transportation and I'd never driven a car in winter that was as much fun," he said.

And as to its sound, "If they're running right [and] the engine's tight, it sounds like a popcorn popper," Welch said. He called it "organic."

Perhaps at no other car rally would you find people and vehicles spanning so many generations.

New England folk singer Bill Morrissey once boasted, in a song called "Car and Driver," that he could pick a car's driver out of a crowd. Saabs and Volvos were on his list.

"I make a lotta dough in a high-tech job;

"Yah, sure, you bet, I drive a Turbo Saab."

And:

"My Volvo wagon will seat six,

It'll run on diesel or trail mix."

All kinds of Swedish cars were on display: fast-back Saab Sonnetts from the 1960s and 1970s; Saab 93s, 96s, 99s, 900s, 9000s, 9-5 Aeros, four-stroke and two-stroke engines, energized hatchback turbos; Volvos with high-backed wagons, hot-rod sedans, off-road crawlers, and even a 1964 PV544 taxi.

Volvo owners can be as prideful a bunch as Saabophiles. That includes Holly Stump of Ipswich, who handled much of the restoration of her 1964 Volvo P210 station wagon, a tall box with a roof rack.

It came from Sweden in 1988, but was never registered in the United States by its owner. Stump bought it in 1990 and nearly drove it into the ground by 1998. But she held onto the car, restored it, and still drives it, staying true to her mother, who insisted long ago that her daughter drive Volvos because they are safe.

The rarest of cars on display was the Sonnett I sports car Saab introduced at the New York auto show in 1956. The company still owns this specimen. One of only six built, it showed the world Saab's airplane heritage and became a halo car for the safe and sensible models that would follow.

"People came to the conclusion that they were excellent in the typical weather here," said Saab spokesman Jen-Willem Vester , who pointed out that the winter weather in Sweden is similar to that of New England . Indeed, the Northeast has been key to Saab and Volvo's American success. Forty percent of all Saabs sold in the United States are sold in this region.

What early Saabs "lacked in horsepower," Vester said, "they made up for with front-wheel drive and weight balance," with the engine putting weight over the driving wheels, improving traction.

Both Saab and Volvo became iconoclastic, Saab more noted for its performance in bad weather, Volvo for the safety it aggressively promoted.

As a young reporter on the Vermont-New Hampshire border in the early 1970s, I found myself attracted to Saabs after covering several roll over accidents involving the brand and noting that even though the windshields had popped, the roofs had not collapsed.

Saab through the years went from funky to sleek and fast, bringing what were likely the first mass-produced, affordable, turbocharged cars to the country. The company peaked in the 1980s when the turbo Saab was the choice of yuppies. During that time Saab's US sales increased for 60 consecutive months.

Volvo has evolved from sensible box to a sleekness of its own and builds high-performance cars wrapped in its fabled safety -- without losing a sense of practicality.

Last Sunday, we saw the exposed roots from which both companies grew their American business, as well as their distinct characters.

The cars on display were not "garage queens," a phrase Vester used to describe vehicles that never see the road. Cars such as the 1972 Volvo P1800 belonging to Anthony Caito of Smithfield, R.I., were meant to keep moving. He's taken his sports car to California, Key West, Newfoundland, and other far away destinations.

"I just love to drive it," Caito said.

Royal Ford can be reached at ford@globe.com.

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