While all of his high school buddies were driving muscle cars in tiny Carson, Iowa, Tom Donney was repairing and driving Saabs. And now he probably has the largest collection of the Swedish vehicles in the world.
At the tender age of 13 it’s doubtful Tom Donney had any thoughts about owning hundreds of vehicles and someday having so many he would consider opening a museum where people could see them. And those boyish thoughts probably never explored the idea that he might devote so much time to the old Saabs his Dad let him work on in the family’s back yard he would become a nationally known expert of the marque.
But today those thoughts are Tom’s (and wife Patti’s) reality, having not only turned that early Saab mechanical repair into an obsession, but also a collection no one in the U.S. has been able to match. And now the couple is on course to take that collection and house it so people can not only see Saabs of all shapes and sizes, but also learn about them and have them repaired.
“My mom told people I was taking stuff apart when I was three,” Tom has related in stories about how he began his Saab odyssey. His family owned a 1963 96 GT in the late 60s which his older brother drove until it found a permanent spot in the yard next to another ’64 96 3-speed with an identical bad motor.
Young Tom (remember he’s 13) asked Dad if he could make two cars into one and with his blessing managed to get the ’63 running again, cruising it around the family home in Carson, Iowa and on nearby streets much to the neighbor’s dismay. The kid was hooked.
Tom became so good at mechanically tweaking the little Swedish cars that by age 16 his dad managed to find him a job at Worldwide Imports in Omaha, Nebraska, some 50 miles from home where the dealership handled not only Saabs, but Fiat, Lotus and Suzuki. Service manager Ray Pharcher became Tom’s mentor and those in the Saab USA community will remember Ray (and wife Laurie) for their commitment to the Saab marque throughout its years of production and import into the United States.
This story could continue on into the many years Tom has managed to devote to his love of Saabs (with patient support from Patti!), but what’s important is he earned a two-year automotive degree from Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge, Iowa where he eventually started a successful automatic transmission repair and rebuilding company. That “decent living,” as Tom describes it, has allowed him to devote time to his cherished Saabs including becoming easily one of the foremost experts within the Saab community worldwide.
But back to the museum. Tom and Patti have managed to track and purchase some of the rarest Saabs over the years and quietly stashing them away, sometimes carefully restoring or repairing as needed, but mostly just keeping over 150 vehicles in proper condition so they would someday become a part of an incredible display that could attract enthusiasts from around the world.
Of course, creating a museum isn’t as simple as driving a bunch of cars into a building and then hoping someone will show up to see them. Tom and Patti jumped through all the initial hoops to create a bonafide 501c3 non-profit corporation which will take over all ownership of the vehicles and allow others to offer deductible financial support to keep the Saab brand alive and well into the future.
So where do you put a museum full of Saabs? In Sturgis, South Dakota, of course! It seems plenty of people have voiced some wonder on his choice of location, but Tom is nonchalant with a leisurely “why not?” for an answer. Visiting with Tom at the 38,000 square foot facility he has purchased just off Interstate 90 (exit 32!) he points out of one of the huge overhead doors toward a landscape that is nothing, if not some of the most glorious scenery in the world.
“This area is growing steadily,” he describes, as if he’s been appointed the area’s head development director. “We could pick most any place in the country, but it just happens that Sturgis is 9 hours from my current home, there’s opportunity to do something I’ve dreamed of doing for many years so, here we are!”
Sturgis, of course, is widely known for its annual motorcycle rally which draws thousands for 10 days in early August each year. The festival, now approaching its 78th year, has changed over the years, explains Tom, who himself has a 1955 Harley panhead tucked away. “It was wild and wooly for a lot of years, but today it has become a family destination with some pretty impressive events happening throughout the 10 days of celebrating.”
Sturgis is also home to the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame and the city has been actively working to bring more year around traffic to an area famous for its incredible landscape and scenery.
“We want to attract all types of automotive enthusiasts,” Tom says, “so we’ll be including some other vintage vehicles in addition to the Saab brand.”
The plan also includes a fully equipped restoration and repair shop and an expansion of Tom’s current parts sales business that will bring even more parts availability to Saab enthusiasts worldwide through his partnership with eSaabParts.com. For a number of years Tom has made available parts he’s been able to find to repair most any Saab built and feels the demand will continue to be strong for Saab vehicles.
Saab, during its run from 1949 to 2011, was known for its innovation in safety and performance. Swedish designer Sixten Sason created memorable exteriors that stayed true to Saab tradition over the years and helped to establish the marque as something of a “cult classic” which has helped to keep interest in Saabs high even after it passed from the active auto manufacturing scene.
Among many firsts for the company, Saab introduced the Saab 92 in 1947 with a streamlined, stressed-skin steel body and a completely smooth underside which provided a drag coefficient (Cd value) of no more than 0.32 which is right in line with vehicles today. In 1958 Saab was the first company to have factory installed seat belts as standard equipment while in 1964 the company introduced a diagonally divided brake system with double brake circuits.
Other Saab firsts included double-jointed collapsible safety steering column and front and rear “crumple zones” (1967), headlight washers and wipers (1971), electrically heated driving seat and self-repairing (up to 5 mph) bumpers (1972), passenger car turbo-charging (1976), passenger compartment air filter (1978), asbestos-free brake linings (1982), front-wheel-drive ABS brakes (1987), driver’s side air bag and traction control (1988), Freon-free air conditioning (1991), ventilated front seats (1997), and Direct Ignition system, which eliminated ignition cables and distributor (1985).
Saab’s history goes back to the end of World War II when Swedish aircraft manufacturer Saab AB (Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget) was looking to diversify. Automobile manufacturing seemed a natural fit for the company and its first project in 1945 was development of what would be called “Project 92”.
In 1948 the company’s Trollhattan operations were converted to auto assembly and four prototypes named Ursaab (Original Saab) were produced culminating in the introduction of the Saab 92 in 1949. The car was redesigned in 1955 and renamed the Saab 93 with the engine going from a two cylinder to three cylinders. In 1959 the Saab 95 (a wagon variant) was added and the 50s also saw development of the company’s foray into performance with production of the Saab Sonett, a two-seat open top roadster that eventually became Sonett models ll, V4 and lll.
Saab enjoys a rich heritage in the European markets and is celebrated at the Saab Car Museum in Trollhattan with its 120-car collection located in one of the former Saab factory buildings. The collection was scheduled to be auctioned in January, 2012 in order to cover Saab’s debts following the company’s bankruptcy proceedings but was preserved by a bid of $4.15 million made by the city of Trollhättan, Saab AB and The Marcus and Amalia Wallenberg Memorial Fund. Saab AB continues in business today as Saab Group and is still involved in aeronautics manufacturing, but it no longer has any direct link to the automotive company.
In the U.S., when General Motors stepped away from Saab ownership and became involved in a protracted sale/no sale of the company’s assets, the 10 vehicles in Saab Cars North America’s Heritage Collection were in danger of being split up and disbursed multiple directions. But with the teamwork of the Donneys and fellow enthusiast Bill Jacobson of Wilmington, Delaware, the three were able to purchase the entire lot of 10, each partner taking five vehicles.
Tom and Patti will, of course, be including those cars in the newly planned museum…a 1952 92 (the oldest known Saab in the U.S.), a 1956 Sonett Super Sport, a 1960 93F GT750, a 1960 96 RAC rally winner and a 1987 9000 Turbo Talladega record holding car.
The museum development is a slow process and Tom is looking at 2018 or a bit later to have everything fully functional and ready to welcome guests.