Saved by a Saab

How a sweet, stolen, temperamental 1974 import drove me from despair to adventure.
Photo courtesy of Nancy Hill

The first time I slid behind the wheel of a convertible, I drove fast and fell in love. Screaming around the curves as my shoulder wedged into the door, I pushed my body and the pedal to the limit. I was 8 years old—in a topless red metal car clamped to a track on my favorite ride at Riverside Amusement Park, the Turnpike. For three whole minutes, I was queen of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 1958.

Growing up, I liked driving anything that moved—boats, bikes, cars, horses, even tractors. An uncle said we could slowly drive the rusty, old Ford 8N tractor around the barn, which my obedient cousins, 10 and 12, did. Then it was my turn. I headed for a newly plowed field and hit the throttle, bouncing over the deep furrows. Ann and Melanie, sitting on the fenders, were nearly jettisoned.

My love of cars and speed was visceral, fueled by a city laser-focused on auto racing in May and a century of car manufacturing that was the state’s lifeblood. My dad taught my brother and me the makes and models of American cars like some dads teach their kids how to pitch baseballs—’57 Bel Air, ’60 Caddy, Buick Roadmaster, Ford Falcon, ’64 GTO, Corvette Stingray. I got my driver’s license the very day I turned 15-and-a-half and drove my mom’s ’59 Pontiac Bonneville with long, brown tail fins and a cracked dash (because you had to hit it, hard, to make the radio work). Later, I drove her cream-colored Rambler station wagon whose wipers slowed when you accelerated.

My first car cost $200—a pale-green 1962 VW Beetle nicknamed Lima Bean. It had a cream Bakelite steering wheel and one tinny dash speaker that belted out Eric Clapton’s “Layla” as I sped 70 miles an hour down the interstate. When it died, I found a ’65 bug, a recovered theft with a permanent scent of vomit. After college, I had a short-lived Opel Kadett, then a black 1965 Mustang convertible that would die in the middle of intersections. Flawed, fickle, and cheap defined the cars of my youth. So, it was ironic when, at 24, I got the best car of my life—a 1974 Saab 99—and I was too afraid to drive it.

The trouble all began during the oil embargo and severe gas shortage of the early 1970s. American cars were big and thirsty. Like a lot of people, I was on a waiting list for a new economy model, a toaster-sized Honda Civic. Mud brown. One day my dad called and offered me a Saab that had been stolen, brand-new, from a dealership in Lafayette, driven to Chicago, crashed, and abandoned. Dad owned a business that sold wrecked cars for insurance companies, and occasionally a recovered theft with minimum damage came through.

“It needs some body work,” Dad admitted, “but it’s a good car for a great price.” In other words, a steal.

I had to decide between a wrecked car available now and my cute little toaster that might not arrive for months.

“What color is it?” I asked.


I weakened.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Hill

Dad drove the Saab over to my Pennsylvania Street apartment. Sure enough, the outside was fixed perfectly. Sleek and bright—a motorized pumpkin. “Sunset Orange,” the color was called. Opening the door, I took in the chocolate nylon-velour seats, high-tech dials on the instrument panel, and wood-grain trim on the dash. It was cool! It was European! It had front-wheel drive, a heated driver’s seat, and, best of all, a Blaupunkt radio and cassette player, the same sound system used by Mercedes, Porsche, and BMW. The outside was flawless, but the inside was not—half-empty boxes of stale fries on the floor and streaks of dried, milky dirt on the seats, even a dark hair stuck in the cream headliner. A hair that belonged to the felon who had driven my beautiful car. But with a scrub brush and plenty of all-purpose cleaner, I liberated my car from its recent past, erasing, I hoped, not just soil, but the bad intentions and careless treatment she endured.

Friends complimented my Saab’s engineering, lines, and brightness, and I took the praise personally, becoming for the moment someone hip enough to own such a car. But I didn’t feel hip. Not at all. My life looked fairly colorful and sleek. I had a great apartment, a good job, interesting friends, and a trim figure that attracted admirers. We drank and danced with Duke Tumatoe & The All-Star Frogs at the Patio in Broad Ripple and were rowdy regulars at the Red Key. But no one knew I felt like the elephant man, hiding a shameful secret—I had panic attacks. Alone in my apartment, I often cried with sadness and despair. The hair was still in the headliner. Like my new Saab, my insides were a mess.

My first came in 1971 as I was flying 40,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean in a BOAC VC10, on my way to study in England. It was my first trip out of the country and earlier that day I said a tearful goodbye to my boyfriend and parents, furiously packed for six weeks in four hours, flew to New York, and found the bus from LaGuardia to JFK, all having quit smoking that morning because I’d heard it was expensive overseas. The flight attendant dimmed the lights and suddenly my heart raced. Ice water surged through my arms and legs. I was short of breath. My entire body vibrated. I thought I would suffocate, pass out, die. Whatever it was—and I had no idea what it was—I was not sure I would recover. 

The most I could admit to my professor was, “I don’t feel so good.” She gave me two Dramamine, and I was knocked out until London. Two weeks later, another panic attack happened in the dark, claustrophobic Madame Tussauds wax museum, and then while I was locked in a train car in the belly of a Channel ferry. I worked hard to look calm, but inside I felt I would implode, a feeling so awful it cemented my fear of having a panic attack anywhere I felt trapped, helpless, and alone. 

Back home, I graduated from college and got an apartment and a job, the usual hallmarks of progress. But I was hobbled—afraid to fly, ride an elevator alone, drive in heavy traffic, travel on remote roads, get lost, or be by myself away from home. When my friends and I sat on the steps of the Historic Dorchester Apartments after work, drinking Gallo Hearty Burgundy, someone would talk about setting off with a backpack for Europe (alone!) or moving to another city for a new job (alone!) and I thought: I could pull my lower lip over my forehead easier than do that.

Today, we know that one-third of all Americans have a panic attack in their lifetimes. But in the early 1970s, panic disorder wasn’t anywhere in the mental health lexicon. Doctors called it “stress” or “nerves,” and there was no effective recognized treatment, so reaching out to my family doctor didn’t help. He thought I was feeling the usual pressures of making my way in the adult world (of course, I was!) and threw Valium at me. The first pill gave me a wooziness I hated, so I tossed the bottle. Desperately wanting an explanation and solution, I felt lost.

In my early 20s, no one talked about panic attacks, not even my mother who had several. Once, when I was about 5, while traveling on a rural road to visit my grandmother in Fort Wayne, Mom suddenly pulled over, cut the engine, and told my older brother and me to get out of the car. We stood in the gravel as she crawled into the back seat and lay prone, arm over her forehead, moaning, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” She did not say, “Don’t worry, kids. I just need some time and I’ll be okay.” She seemed terrified about feeling so helpless, so I felt helpless—and terrified. This woman was not our mother who took care of us. We were alone in the world—at 5 and 7.

Later, when I asked her about the incident, she claimed that she’d had a migraine. Panic and shame, I learned, went hand in glove.

For two years I kept severe panic attacks at bay through carefully managed avoidance. But a few months after I got my kick-ass orange Saab, I had a bad one, and my first in a car. Stopped in traffic on a sweltering summer evening under a dark overpass on Madison Avenue, I suddenly couldn’t breathe. My heart banged in my chest. My arms and legs felt cold and weak. As I wept, my mind raced through options. Knock on the window of the car beside me for help? Leapfrog through traffic to an open road? But our lane started moving and somehow I made it the next 10 minutes to my parents’ house in Southport. My face was still red and wet when I walked inside.

“Oh, honey,” my mom came right to me. “What’s wrong?”

“That big overpass. We were totally stuck. I just lost it.”

“Here, let’s sit down. Want a ginger ale?”

She turned off David Brinkley and we sat, her gently probing. “Do you think you’re sick? Did something happen?”

How could I explain what happened when I couldn’t understand it myself? The intensity of my panic settled into a black ooze of failure and sadness. 

“Could I stay here tonight, Mom?” I asked.

“Of course. Maybe you’ll feel better after you sleep.”

Soon my dad came home and went into the hallway bathroom without closing the door. I heard his loud, long stream into the toilet, and my mother laughed.

“He doesn’t know you’re here.”

I felt awful. Not only did I not fit in my world, but I was intruding into the familiarity of theirs. Dad walked into the living room, surprised to see me. 

“Oh, hi, Toots. How y’doin’?”

Swallowing hard, I looked at my mother and my lip trembled. My father loved me but didn’t have the horsepower to deal with difficult feelings. Mom mouthed that she would explain later, so he retreated to his La-Z-Boy.

I lived at my parents’ house for six weeks. My lovely orange pumpkin sat patiently, discarded and undriven on the street in front of my apartment. My mother became my chauffeur. I worked downtown for the research arm of United Way, and when my coworkers walked to their cars at 5 p.m., I waited for my mother outside in my bell-bottom jeans and white peasant blouse, looking good but feeling deeply embarrassed. How had driving, one of my greatest childhood joys, become the enemy? What in the hell was wrong with me?

I started seeing a therapist, an older man, balding, with a large nose and a gray goatee. Sigmund Freud with aviator glasses. He was kind and felt like an ally, helping me sort out some boyfriend and general life problems, but he never explained, in a way I understood, why I was having these intense blasts of panic. He told me I would stop having them once I could view myself from a great distance. What, like out-of-body? How would I do that legally? He also quoted Rainer Maria Rilke, and I wondered if I should learn German. I bought a book called Hope and Help for Your Nerves, which had me on page two with the line, “You probably look at others in the street and wonder why you can’t be like them.”

Eventually, with time, care, and bibliotherapy, I came to see the prospect of never driving again as (marginally) worse than my fear. One afternoon, I got in my mother’s silver Olds Cutlass, alone, as tentative as if I were taking a driving test, and nudged out onto Shelby Street to get a haircut 10 blocks away. When I passed Stop 8 Road (now Edgewood Avenue), I said out loud, “There’s Susie’s house. We played hopscotch in her basement.” A block further, “That’s Kenny’s Market, where we bought penny candy and cigarettes to smoke down by Buck Creek.” On Epler Avenue, “That’s the bike shop where I got my first three-speed, a Raleigh.”

Without realizing it, I was trying to reconnect myself to my life. To be a real person in this real car. Me. A person with a past (my past!) and a future (my future!), and not the isolated stranger who had been living in my skin.

I made it to the salon and back. Driving the streets of my youth gave me a teaspoon of confidence, and it grew. Within a week, I could drive to work and short distances around town. I was reunited with my dear Saab, but I still wasn’t ready to fly solo, though I longed to. For the next two years, when I traveled, I always went with friends.

One of them was adorable Rich—with his olive skin, soft brown hair, and a laughing, East Coast, Jewish manner—who invited me to bike for three days along the southeast coast of Florida. An Indy friend had parents in Florida, so he gladly hopped in my Saab. I met Rich in West Palm Beach and we rode off, sun on our faces, going from city streets to mangrove shorelines, beaches, and lagoons. We trespassed in pine-thick parks to pitch our tent, all far from rescue, perfect conditions to make me panic, but I didn’t, because Rich was a school psychologist. Did soothing the agonies of 10th graders qualify him to manage a panic meltdown? Close enough, I told myself.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Hill

With bikes on its back and friends in its seats, my Saab took us to marvelous places, and I discovered my lifelong love of travel. One summer I drove to Cape Cod with my friend Susan and her sister, a psychology grad student at Stanford (close enough again). Rich and I did another three-day bike ride around the Cape, through Truro and Provincetown, along the coastal roads, breathing wild beach roses and salt air.  

I had wonderful times traveling in my Saab—with a friend. Preferably a friend with an advanced degree.

Oddly enough, my fear of driving out of town alone would be solved by my car itself. Saab manufactured fighter jets, but somehow hadn’t perfected the fuel-injection system in my earth-bound vehicle. Every few months, my car juddered and sputtered, temperamental as a toddler. Tune-ups at Indianapolis dealers were expensive. Then I heard about Gibson Motor Company in Perrysville, a tiny town in western Indiana, that drew loyal customers from Kentucky, Michigan, and Illinois. I called the owner, Frank Gibson, and liked him and his price. The only problem was me. Could I drive three hours there and back? No. I hadn’t left town alone for two years.

Susan went with me twice. The first time, we pulled into Perrysville and I thought, Ghost town without the dust. Gibson’s was on a short, deserted street with weathered buildings and wooden porches. You could almost hear the chink of Clint Eastwood’s spurs. The second visit was a Saturday in July during Perrysville’s Fun Dayz, with its popular pig roast. Whole hogs were buried on top of glowing wood coals Friday and dug up Saturday. While Frank worked on my Saab, Susan and I ate tender, dripping pork off flimsy paper plates, then drove home in a car that purred.

Six months later, my car coughed like an asthmatic and didn’t want to start. Either I had to suck it up and pay a high price for service in Indianapolis or drive to Perrysville again. Susan had moved and I was too embarrassed to ask any other friend to wake early on a Saturday morning to watch my car being fixed. But love makes us do crazy things, and that teaspoon of courage I got driving to the hair salon turned into a tablespoon. So, one wintry January morning, I set off for Perrysville … alone.

My hands were tentative on my Saab’s leather-wrapped wheel as I curved onto the entry ramp to I-74 on the west side of Indy and started doing crazy math. If Nancy drove away from her home (point A) toward Perrysville (point B) for 20 minutes at 70 mph, but turned around when she freaked out (point C), how long would it take at 80 mph for her body to catch up with her mind?

On the interstate, I practiced a version of 12-step recovery advice: one mile at a time. I noted each mileage sign, looked wistfully at each exit. Despite the warning signs, emergency turnarounds in the median looked like lifelines, and I welcomed each one like a friend. I slipped in my favorite mixtape and Billy Preston’s “Outa-Space” came on, a mood lifter if ever there was one.

Billy and I kept going until I pulled into Gibson’s concrete-block service bay.

“Frank?” I called between the whiny ratchets of an impact wrench. Frank’s blond head lifted out from under a hood. He smiled, happy to see me, and I explained what my car had been doing. He nodded like he’d heard it all before.

“How long do you think it’ll take?” I asked, trying to keep my nerves out of my voice.

“Oh, don’t know for sure.” Frank had the easy manner of a country boy who didn’t much go by a watch. “Come back maybe around 1 or 2.”

It was 9 a.m. Fresh panic flooded through me. If the “big one” hit, I didn’t know anyone in town to call; plus, I couldn’t leave—for four or five hours. I was alone with my thoughts, behind enemy lines. I didn’t believe I could rescue myself out of the downward spiral of a panic attack. I pictured Frank staring open-mouthed as I moaned and sobbed, seeming possessed by demons. Would he take me home to his mother? Would she wrap her arms around me and make a cup of tea? Could she be a nurse? 

Distraction sometimes abated my fears, so I had made  a “plan” for the day, just as a few years later when I began to fly again, I walked onto airplanes armed with Sudoku, a good mystery, a nail file and buffing block (my husband always commented on how my nails gleamed when we traveled), and my copy of Hope and Help for Your Nerves, dog-eared at the pages that I thumbed like a rosary.

“All right, I’ll be back,” I said and shuffled away with weak knees, heading for the cafe across the street. I had a good book and figured breakfast could eat up an hour with a couple coffee refills. The waitress had a warm smile, and I ordered bacon and eggs and listened to voices around me, trying to look and feel normal, not like I was ready to throw my arms around the waitress’s midsection. 

Interestingly, in all the years I suffered from anxiety, I never, not once, cried out with panic or grabbed onto someone to help, but I always had to believe that if worse came to worst there was someone who would care for me, take my hand. I could assign this role of unwitting savior to almost anyone, even a stone farmhouse miles away in isolated North York Moors. I could walk down there. They’d take me to a hospital or give me cocoa and a ride home. I once decided, when the door of an airplane thudded closed and I sat nervously anticipating the first electric jolt of claustrophobia, that the man a few rows ahead was a doctor, just from the look of the back of his head.

After breakfast, I walked to the edge of town and the Wabash River. Flowing south to join the Ohio and Mississippi, it was a commercial thoroughfare in the 1800s and took flatboats and steamboats as far as New Orleans (which made Perrysville a thriving river town). From the road I picked my way down to the riverbank and an open area. A good spot to hook bass or bluegill on sunnier, warmer days, I thought.

It was a mild day for January, so I sat on the downed trunk of a sycamore, pulled up my jacket hood, and slipped on my gloves. As I looked out at the wintry swirls of the empty, muddy river, my thoughts slowed. I was proud of my courage to have driven here and endured the first two hours in town. “Here I am,” I said to myself over and over, almost giddy.

Panic attacks come so suddenly and are so frightening that some sufferers avoid any possible trigger. Like a telescope focusing ever down, their outward lives get smaller—no driving, no travel, no restaurants, no shopping, then finally no leaving the house. Early on, I thought my inability to drive or fly or travel alone would keep my world forever small, but unaccountably, something inside me (a deep stubbornness, I suppose, coupled with an extra ration of wonder and curiosity) made me fight back. I wanted to bike along sunny beaches, hike through a Wisconsin pine forest, kayak in Croatia, walk atop the mountains of Norway, and gaze across Lago Azul to the granite towers of Patagonia. I had an aunt who went to California and told me, “I hated flying, but I wanted to be there so badly, it was just the teensiest bit stronger than my fear.” In the end, I decided that being a scared explorer was better than being safely stuck in Indianapolis.

Time on the riverbank passed. The sun broke through and warmed me as it brightened the water. But while my body relaxed, my mind found some new mischief. What if there’s a problem and my car takes all day to fix? What if I can’t make it through the next half hour? What if the “big one” hits and I can’t drive home? I needed a diversion to quiet these thoughts, so I stood up, shook out my legs, and walked into town. To my surprise, when I rounded onto Jackson Street, my sweet Saab, my rolling pumpkin, was waiting for me like Cinderella’s carriage. “It’s done!” I said aloud and did a tiny jig. The ride home was easy, almost fun. I floated past each interstate exit and median turnaround as if I were running bases after hitting a homer. There was no roar from the stadium, but the cheers inside my head were more than enough.

I wasn’t cured. In the years that followed, I had more panic attacks and put myself in countless situations in which I deeply feared having one, but I had found a place inside where I believed I would survive. It was hard to reach at times and often needed talking to, but it usually came around. After Perrysville, each success, small or large, served as a building block for a life of travel that now includes 30 countries on six continents. In fits and spurts, I did what I wanted. Not without fear, but in spite of it.         

When I was 28, I moved on to a new job in women’s health care (that required driving and flying) and met John. He was a builder and drove a bright-yellow construction van. He wanted a comfortable car for around town and liked my Saab, so he bought himself a silver Saab turbo. His engine was newer and faster than mine, but still needed more fixing than an engine should. John, too, started driving to Perrysville. We double-dated with our cars, having breakfast at the cafe while Frank and his assistant worked on both vehicles.

A few years after John and I married, my lovely car developed an expensive gas leak. John’s turbo also needed serious work, and Frank offered to buy my car to pay for John’s repairs. It was a sensible household decision, so sadly, I said goodbye to my orange pumpkin. She and I had faced a lot together—no journey more important than that first trip alone to Perrysville. John and I eventually gave up on high-maintenance vehicles and entered the world of Japanese and Korean cars that purred down the road without fuss for years. 

Thanks to my Saab, I was on my way to doing the same.