A Modern Classic

Saab Tire and Automotive in Birmingham, AL has nothing to do with the now-defunct Swedish car company. Owner Charlie Saab pointed out the difference in spelling (the car’s name is an acronym, all the letters are capitalized). He also emphatically pointed out they do not work on SAABs. However, they do work on other European cars, along with anything else that comes in the door.

Originally opened in 1958 as a commercial tire business, it became a full service shop in the late ‘80s. Today, they do everything from fluid services to engine R&R, to diagnostics and driveability.

The shop has two diagnostic techs working in their own six-bay unit, and Charlie says technician Ron Leverett is “Very good at no-code diagnostics, (but) Ronny won’t work on a car unless he’s got full control, so he’s got maybe 15 factory scan tools.”

The shop is known for their expertise in BMW, Porsche and Volkswagen.

Tires and more

Wheel and tire service is still a major part of the business, and the tire shop is also a mini-museum of tire machines, wheel balancers, brakes lathes and alignment machines.

Charlie says they progressed from the original Coats 20-20 and a BADA bubble balancer “to different forms of European tire machines and computer balancers…(But) we still have a COATS 40-40.”

They also have two Hunter RoadForce balancers. “The one with Smart Track measures lateral force, helps you put a tire on the road with less chance of pulling.”

He told us his tire business is impacted by online tire sellers because “their prices are out where everybody can see, so if I match them I make very little margin. But you gotta get them mounted and balanced. If you’re looking for the cheapest place to get them balanced, that’s not going to be us, but our balance (warranty) is lifetime and nitrogen (inflation) is lifetime too.”

Shop expansion

Every time the business expanded into additional services, the building expanded too. The original building is 100 years old. When they became a full-service facility in 1989, they built a three-bay drive-through quick-lube addition and became a BG Products vendor. “I like their system,” says Charlie, “because you get good machines and they’re good products. And you get somebody to train you too … there’s so many different kinds of antifreeze now.”

Now with 24 bays and 14 full-time employees, Saab Tire and Automotive is one of the largest independent shops in the state. Charlie is the second generation owner, and he says the business is “all I’ve ever known, I haven’t had another job...to be successful in this business, you have to love it and that means you have to love people, which doesn’t happen every day, but … Our goal is to make it look like an art, and you can only do that after you’ve mastered the science."

“Rick Wakeman makes keyboard playing look easy; that’s because he’s mastered the science. He played all the classics first,” says Charlie, referring to the keyboard player from 1970’s progressive rock band Yes.

The classics don’t change; while Charlie's shop has some of the most modern equipment and business tools available, the classic principals of the automotive service business are deeply imbedded in the culture of Saab Tire and Automotive. Charlie has definitely made this business his art.