This Mechanic Is On A One-Man Mission To Save SAAB
Photography by Cole Pennington
In the winter of 2010, a formation of about 100 Saabs approached Times Square. Their mission: win over support from the public in hopes of saving the ailing brand. It looked like a military-style show of force, with multiple squadrons of turbocharged Swedes buzzing through one of the busiest intersections on earth. Those familiar with Saab’s aircraft heritage might liken it to an elephant walk of JAS-39 Gripen fighters taxiing in tight formation.
Commanding the Wing from Northern New Jersey was Mike Grieco, a man who has dedicated his life to the often misunderstood Swedish marque. He’s piloted a Saab since the late ‘60s, an era when Saab’s three-cylinder, two-stroke cars were dominating the Northern European rally circuits and all but obliterating more powerful contenders on ice tracks. Mike said the popping and humming sound of his Saab 93 through Times Square drew people out of coffee shops to catch a glimpse of these obscure cars, and indeed early Saabs sound like nothing else on the road. They putter along like a giant popcorn maker on wheels sending loud snaps and bangs out the back of the car while leaving sizable puffs of white smoke and burnt oil at stop lights. In short, they’re strange. And largely unfamiliar. And that’s exactly why Mike first fell in love with them.
The Times Square mission didn’t save Saab, but it hadn’t been a failure either. A few months after the rally it was announced that Saab was purchased by Spyker after nearly going to Koenigsegg. Good news for Saab enthusiasts, but it didn’t last long, and Saab eventually closed its doors for good in 2011 after succumbing to global market forces. And in a way, that’s when the second phase of Mike Grieco’s mission started: keep as many Saabs on the road as possible through offering his decades of experience as a Saab mechanic to owners that were diligent enough to stick with the brand after the dealerships disappeared and parts supplies suddenly became more finite.
In his youth, Mike was a devoted American muscle car enthusiast. He built a ‘68 Pontiac Firebird screamer in his garage. It was the kind of Firebird that rocked from side to side at stop lights and had more torque than most modern pickup trucks. It all changed when he introduced himself to a pretty girl one night at one of NYC’s nightclubs in the early ‘80s. We often don’t consider it, but peripheral events, like matters of the heart, have an impact on our automotive taste. After dating for a bit, she urged Mike to work at her parents dealership, Zumbach Sports Cars, as a tech, but the kind of cars that Zumbach sold didn’t have a lick of chrome nor V8 engines under their hoods. Naturally he was hesitant—but the tennis courts and swimming pools at his girlfriend’s parents’ house helped convince him that he might as well give it a shot.
He went through tech school for Saab and started working solely on the quirky Swedish brand. The more time he spent around them, the more he appreciated them, coming to love Saab’s incredibly pragmatic approach to engineering an automobile. During his tenure at the dealership, he started to fall harder for Saabs and out of love with his girlfriend, whose parents owned the dealership he worked at. When she pushed for marriage he knew he had to leave Zumbach Sports Cars. The money and the brown nosing just wasn’t worth it in his eyes. He didn’t want to do her the disservice of marrying for the wrong reasons, but he didn’t want to leave the brand he’d grown to admire deeply. He left her, but stuck with Saab.
Mike went on to work at two other dealers as a tech, and finally opened his own Saab-focused garage in 1991. He’s owned and operated Grieco Bros. Saab in New Jersey ever since. And now that Saab has been gone for over half a decade, the role of the independent Saab mechanic is more important than ever.
The centerpiece of Grieco Bros. is a fleet of vintage Saabs from the days when emissions laws allowed two-stroke motors to be used in more than weed whackers and lawn mowers. A blue 93, wearing its original paint, acts as an ambassador for the shop at local shows and meet ups. Now it’s set up for vintage rallying and racing, and it gets a chance to trumpet around the track at Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Import & Performance Nationals every year, but it came to Mike in a form far from what it is today.
Through some chatter on the internet, Mike heard about a Saab 93 that had been sitting on the tarmac of an aviation defense contractor in Trenton, NJ for decades. It was free for anyone to take as long as they towed it away at their own expense. Mike showed up early the next weekend with his trailer to find a car that was even rougher than described. Local hooligans had jumped on the roof at some point and dented in the metal, kicked in all the windows, and made sure that not a single single knob remained in the interior. But it didn’t matter, it was free and Mike’s core mission was to save as many Saabs as possible. This one would come back from the dead, too.
When the 93 arrived back at the shop, he discovered a fully built race motor under the hood that was designed to run on alcohol. It was clearly intended as a race car and he didn’t have a title, so he figured the best future for the car was in ice racing, spiked tires and all. During the teardown he found the rotting registration slip, barely legible, so he reached out to company listed on it and an executive there agreed to help transfer the title, and gave him a history lesson on the car. The executive told him that the car used to be used a testbed for engineers that worked for the contractor, and that they called it the “Super Saab” and planned to race hillclimb events with it. During the ‘60s this was a popular form of amateur racing in the Northeastern United States, and the Saab fit nicely into the circuit. The team of aerospace engineers made modifications to the fueling system in addition to adding cold air ducting. It wasn’t a surprise to Mike to find out that aerospace guys would be drawn to tinkering with Saabs. Born from jets and all that.
Mike rebuilt the hot but tired motor with an eye towards reliability, but kept the engineers’ vision in mind by adding period race elements, like a SuperTrapp exhaust and Panasport wheels. The interior was mildly refreshed, while the original paint was kept after the dents were hammered out. The philosophy of the build erred towards completing the project the team started in the ‘60s rather than starting from scratch.
Alas, the 93 served as a testbed once again for a project that was considerably more complicated than the first: Mike would make the first home-built turbo two-stroke Saab 96, and he would use the 93 to help develop that car. Saab had become synonymous with turbochargers from the ‘80s onward, so Mike imagined what would have been created had the brand committed to the technology in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The build took years, but what emerged was a 96 that looks stock and pristine, but shrieks with a distinct turbo whistle under load.
Mike has seen a revival of interest in Saabs in recent years that he hopes will continue to grow. Ironically, he’s busier than he’s ever been, and he’s even taken to reproducing parts that aren’t available anymore from the factory. With the lack of dealership support, more customers are coming to him to keep their cars on the road. It takes a strong commitment to own any Saab in 2018, but with mechanics like Mike servicing them, coupled with a strong spike in interest among the collector market, the brand may be set to take off on a new flight plan.