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The Saabs of Sturgis: establishing America’s Saab Heritage Car Museum USA

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Images are courtesy of Tom Donney.

There have always been fine private collections of Saabs in the USA, but as far as we know–unlike in this automaker’s home country–there’s never before been a large-scale American museum, open to the public, whose core mission involves the preservation and display of Saab cars. Noted Saab collector and racer Tom Donney is in the process of changing that, with important help from key players in the Saab USA world.

Tom and his wife Patti, who are proprietors of Iowa’s Fort Dodge Transmission, have been collecting these Swedish cars for decades, and came to own a large number of Saabs that cover the entire production range, from the 92 to the New-Generation 9-5. They now have the majority of the beautifully restored cars that were once part of General Motors’ Saab USA Heritage Collection, along with their own Saabs, and the Donneys have established the 501(c)(3) non-profit Saab Heritage Car Museum USA.

This museum, which has been self-funded, is being set up in the popular tourist destination of Sturgis, South Dakota. Tom offers his thoughts on that location: “Black Hills is a vacation spot, and the city of Sturgis is very willing to work with anything we want to do. Hopefully we can draw some revenue off the [annual motorcycle] rally, and eventually figure out how we fit in with the 300,000-400,000 people who come out there every August. We’re right there, off the interstate, very easy to find and visible.”

Two 9000 Aeros and a 99 riding on “soccer ball” alloys arrive at their new home in South Dakota.

The Saab Heritage Car Museum USA’s existing building covers an impressive 38,000 square feet, and we ask about the plan for the space. “I would think we would want somewhere in the 85-car range on display. We’ll also try to sprinkle in a mix of domestic cars, which may raise that number. We’re going to dedicate 24,000 square feet to the museum, and 14,000 will be the restoration and storage section,” Tom says. “Museums typically have a back room where they keep cars that aren’t on display. I see ours as all being on display in some fashion. You’ll have the section where the cars are all clean, and in the restoration center, you’ve got cars being worked on, and other cars stored on pallet racks. We’ll also have a library section, which falls under the education part of our mission statement.

“It will be a different environment than most museums; I want it to be very dynamic,” he continues. “What makes a Saab, a Saab, is the experience of being in it as a driver or passenger; otherwise, it’s just another car. I want you to be able to sit in, to ride in, and hopefully, to drive the vehicles. If people are to feel the spirit of Saab, they can’t do that by just looking at these cars. So we’re collecting cars that we’re hoping we can give people rides in, and we could allow some people to take cars out. We’re even looking at having some Saabs you could rent! People have said, if you had Harley-Davidsons, we’d rent them from you. If you had a Saab, we’d rent that from you! So we’re going to try to be creative with what we do out here.”

A Sonett II (green) and Sonett V4 (red) are joined by a 9000, a 95 V4 wagon, and a “Classic” 900 sedan and convertible

Of course, a museum of any size requires a substantial amount of money to run, and the Donneys’ personal funds can’t support this one forever. “We’ve got a $75,000 predicted annual budget for just our fixed costs: property taxes, insurance, utilities, phone/garbage/water bills, sprinkler system, security monitoring, upkeep, all the things you’ve got to do,” Tom reveals. But he also recently revealed an exciting partnership that promises to provide the Saab Heritage Car Museum USA an income stream to help keep those lights on.

Orio North America, the parts-importing company created out of the former Saab Automobile Parts, recently designated this museum as a Saab Official Service Center, and the museum has just partnered with the Saab-specialist online parts supplier, “eSaabParts must be part of an Official Service Center in order to purchase parts from Orio, and they were in a position to make a move. Matt Nicklay–the inventive guy behind eSaabParts–and I talked with Orio North America CEO Tim Colbeck, and they agreed that this would be a good way to support the museum. Now, with this partnership, when people choose to purchase their parts through eSaabParts, a large percentage of the profit has been dedicated to the Saab Heritage Car Museum USA.”

The new relationship between the museum and this parts supplier will not be a one-way street, Tom notes, as he hopes to help Matt source vintage-Saab parts not available from Orio. “We spent $10,000 in up-front money to have two-stroke pistons specially made by Wiseco Pistons in Cleveland; we did the same thing with connecting rods for the three-cylinder, two-stroke engines. We can produce all the main components to rebuild those engines, which really haven’t been available, at least with quality components, for a long time,” he says. “We’re hoping we can do the same thing with ‘Classic’ 900s, and eventually 9-3s and 9-5s, as those parts fade away, too. We’ll find out what people need to keep them running, and find a vendor to source them. Hopefully, we’ll have enough avenues to sell them and turn a dime on them, and a portion of that profit will benefit the museum.”

A restored two-stroke 93 stands in front of a 9000CS autoshow cutaway once part of the GM Heritage Collection, and the green 96 Monte Carlo 850 that starred in an episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

So, when will the Saab Heritage Car Museum USA open its doors to the public? “We’re projecting about a two-year window to open,” Tom tells us. “The building is going to take a lot of work, and because it’s self-funded, Patti and I are taking it slow. People are welcome to stop out if we’re around, we’ll be glad to show them stuff. I’d be real glad if they’d stop out and give a hand! We need all kinds of stuff done: painting, lights changed, floors cleaned, washing cars, and putting air in tires–you name it, we need everything!” he says with a laugh.

There are many ways to support this museum: buy parts from; make a tax-deductible cash, stock, or IRA distribution donation; donate Saab parts and historic materials (or scans of literature and other documentation) for the library; help start a fundraising committee; even volunteer to drive cars from Fort Dodge to Sturgis, participating in what Tom calls a “Saab Stampede!”

This smiling Swedish steer symbolizes the near-600-mile northwestern migration of the Donney Saab collection.

“Everyone can play a role if they can get out here, and if they can’t travel, maybe they can help through other means,” Tom says, “We’re only limited by what we can’t think of.”

Now, there’s the old Saab-spirit.