The car of my dreams (some assembly required)

Under the hood there's just an empty space where the engine should be, and though the transmission and the oil pan are in place, I can see the cracked asphalt below. I open the driver's-side door. A layer of greasy dust films the instruments, thick dust that comes from sitting untouched for months. The odometer reads 184,340. There are no seats, front or back. The head liner is torn, and smells of mildew. I shut the door and step back. The navy-blue paint is oxidized and dull.

It's not a car. It's a carcass. Still, the body has the long prow and the rakish, eccentric Saab shape.

"You want a turbo?" Paul asks. "It's not a turbo now, but if you want, I can make it one."

Paul is compact and solid, dressed in a sweatshirt of some indeterminate neutral color and a baseball cap pulled down to meet the tops of his wire glasses. This morning I called him and said I needed to buy $5,500 worth of car. We've walked around and looked at most of the 20-some Saabs on the lot of his parts and repair shop north of San Diego.

We've talked about my other Saab, which he's maintained for 300,000 miles, and he's shown me the greenhouse he's building to raise amaryllis from seed. We've settled on this as the starting point for the car he will build me.

"You can add a turbo?"

"I can add anything you want."

I want a turbo, fog lights, air conditioning, and a CD player.

"They changed the cutout valve in the turbo so it takes less power." His voice shifts to a livelier key. "This one will have a lot better pickup than your '85; you'll feel the difference"

Under the bill of his cap, his pale blue eyes dance. For him, this car is already built, accelerating out of curves with the familiar throaty roar, turbo with new cutout valve pouring on the power.

I'm looking at the chalky paint, and the view through the engine compartment. The Auto Trader has ads for Saabs that run. It even has ads for other makes.

The high-end Blue Book value on an '87, one with seats and an engine, is $4,300. How do I explain to the prim young man at the credit union that I want to pay $1,200 over book for a 14-year-old car with a rebuilt engine?

"On paper it's an '87, but the way he'll build it, it'll be like a new car. He knows every part he's putting in it," I tell the loan officer. "It'll outlive an American car one-third its age."

His lips compress into a thin line.

"He's got the largest parts inventory west of the Rockies."

I picture the sagging clapboard barn where three or four Saabs are always in states of advanced dissection. Behind them is the cavernous interior filled with industrial shelving that rises 16 feet into cobwebbed rafters. The shelves are filled with rows of transmissions waiting to be rebuilt, stacks of alternators, universal joints, ignition systems.

The loan officer wouldn't be impressed by the ranks of steering wheels that hang in the rafters, and it probably wouldn't help to mention the cardboard box marked "Paul's unusual O-rings," or the one that says, simply, "AC dreck."

He won't give me a car loan. The car's too risky for him to take as collateral, he says. I do it on a signature loan, with a one-percent higher rate. I don't care.

"Let's get started," I tell Paul on the phone.

I am getting a car built by hand, by a man who knows Saabs as well as their designers, and will know mine even better. I am getting more car for my money than I could get any other way. And I am doing business on a handshake with a man I've known for 10 years, whom I like and trust. These are the things I tell people when I talk about my car.

All of it is true. None of it explains why I am doing it.

I am moved by his love for these cars. The way he lights up when he talks about building this one touches me in a way I can barely describe. Bringing this car back to life is his pleasure, and I am richer for making it happen.

He says it will take two weeks to build. Life and Christmas intervene; it takes five. I don't care. He calls me with updates. All the hoses in the vacuum system are tight, no leaks, on the first try. He's figured a better way to wire the dash; his voice is bright with satisfaction. I can come pick it up tomorrow.

Two hundred dollars a month for three years seems a small price to pay for his pleasure and mine. In a poem about the painter Giacometti, Robert Wallace wrote, "We'll stand in line all day/ to see one man/ love anything enough."

Right now, I have a place at the head of the line.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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