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The Carchive: 1991 Saab 900

Chris Haining August 23, 2018 All Things Hoon, The Carchive 22 Comments

It’s been a while since we last put the TV on mute, signed out of social media and drew the curtains to prevent the modern world from getting in, and turned our attention to the cosy, familiar and occasionally embarrassing past.

So far, dredging the murky depths of The Carchive has brought up the Saab 90 and the Saab 9000, but the middle model has somehow been omitted. This being my 900th Redusernab post, I thought it was a fitting moment to redress that egregious neglect.

Images can be enjoyed all the more if a given a swift clicking

“The Saab 900 doesn’t look like other cars. Instead of starting with an ordinary shape, building a car to satisfy the broadest tastes, we do the opposite: form is governed by function”

“Born From Jets” and “Aircraft Inspired” are just two of the aeronautically-linked slogans that Saab’s advertising bods trotted out over the years, but it’s fair to say that both were grounded in reality to at least some extent. Of course, Saab did have aircaft-building roots, although the car side of the business was rather more distant from the plane-making division by the turn of the 90s than it was when the first Saab cars rolled out of a shed in Trollhattan.

For me, it’s the car’s shape that provides the most tangible link with aviation, but not because of any aerodynamic resemblance to metal birds. It’s more from a philosophical perspective, creating a shape that works and then sticking with it for many years. Just as the 1960s-penned Boeing 737 has only received subtle visual changes as new aerodynamic tweaks were discovered over the years, the 900 shape evolved only subtly since first appearing in Saab 99 guise in 1968. I like this way of thinking. If the shape works, leave it alone. Perhaps it’s the Scandinavian way: the 900’s compatriot, the Volvo 200, changed similarly little between its 140 and 200 iterations, spanning almost 30 production years.

“Only a driver who has run a Saab 900 for an entire day, under a variety of traffic conditions, will discover what we mean by long-distance driving comfort”

There was aerospace-thinking inside, too. Again, not through any high-tech expedient, but in simplicity and invulnerability to fads and fashions. By 1991, the Saab 900 dashboard looked like a relic from an earlier age in comparison to the BMW 3 Series and Audi 80 that were seen as the 900’s de facto competition, but it worked no less well than either of its newer rivals. With its clear instrumentation, high-mounted radio and intuitive HVAC controls, the 900’s dashboard may not have been fashionable, but it sure served drivers well.

It’s worth giving Saab’s seats a special mention here, too, because my experience is that they provided such comfort and support that it’s hard to understand why their design hasn’t become accepted as industry standard.

“At Saab, we have a fondness for technology. But not at the cost of common sense”

This seems to apply especially to matters of engineering. Despite having been developed to meet the requirements of Scandinavia, parts of which can suffer the full force of winter at the least opportune moments, the 900 stuck firmly with the front-wheel drive layout that had served the 92, 96 and 99 so well before. It remained that way until the very end, despite rival German brands nurturing a four-wheel drive obsession in the 1980s. There was little change under the bonnet, either.

The 900 stuck with the same basic engine that had been amply proven by the 99, and which itself had its roots in a Triumph engine used in the Dolomite saloon. It’s fair to say that Saab extracted far more potential from this mill than British Leyland ever bothered, to, though – it evolved into the Saab “B” engine in the 99, and later the “H” engine, which would last until the Saab 9-5 ended production in 2009. Of course, Saab’s Eureka moment came when they thought to plumb a turbocharger into the 2.0-litre B to create the 99 Turbo, which formed the pattern that the 900 Turbo would follow for over two decades.

“It’s more than a name. It’s a commitment. The Saab 900 Carlsson is the sort of car that is appreciated by rally drivers and others who enjoy high-performance driving”

Exclusive to the UK, the 900 Carlsson was one reason that the twilight years were perhaps my favourite period of the 900’s lifespan. With the turbo boost notched up to 0.85 bar from the 0.75 bar of the Turbo S, power rose from 175 to 185bhp. The 0-60mph time was barely changed, hovering around 8.5 seconds, but there was more mid-range shove, and that’s was something of a Saab Turbo speciality. The Carlsson engine was as far as the four-cylinder, 1985cc “H” unit would be developed, or at least the most extreme factory version that would find a home beneath the 900’s clamshell bonnet.

And, of course, the enterprising would find more horsepower for the taking if a few choice modifications were made, although those who drove a 900 Turbo 16 S Aero would no doubt suggest that leaving it as its maker intended was by far the best policy – the model maintains a reputation for its fantastic balance between power, tractability and handling. The more extreme Carlsson was arguably less well rounded, while the light-pressure and normally aspirated models came nowhere near testing the full potential of the 900’s chassis.

The next generation of 900 was, objectively, a better machine where it came to the all-important (they say) areas of noise, vibration and harshness, as well as passive safety and convenience functions. It also had a slightly homogeneous feel; a consequence of its being spun from the GM2900 platform that so distinguished itself beneath the Opel Vectra and Saturn L-Series. By that point, General Motors’ grip on Saab was at its most controlling, and although the Trollhattan crew were a steadfast and determined bunch, the 900 NG, its facelift 9-3 and the Epsilon-based 9-3 to come were a far cry from the aircraft-influenced 900 of old.

It was a great shame that the 900 ever had to be replaced. Were it not for the horribly fickle requirement of having to compete with mainstream rivals, the late first-generation 900 could be considered as being in the prime of its life. It was being outstripped, technologically, by the competition, but was still a very capable machine. It didn’t look dated, as such, either – no more than a Boeing 737 or a corkscrew or a loaf of bread, or any other timeless design. Ultimately, the 900 was killed off by fashion and the public’s insatiable appetite for the new, with perhaps an undercurrent of GM’s hunger for profit and the odd safety and construction edict sealing the deal.

(All images are of original manufacturer publicity material, photographed by me. Copyright is presumably the property of somebody in China. I doubt they’ll mind too much, but you never know. Saabs tend to be driven by “nice people”, don’t they?)

  • Fuhrman16

    I owned a ’92 900S with the 140hp 2.1 na engine, and I agree, it was a car that didn’t need to be replaced. There was so much about it to like. They got great fuel mileage, handled wonderfully, were super comfortable, had a massive trunk (you could fit 4 full size wheels and tires under the cargo divider), and it always made you feel special. I consider it one of the greatest cars I’ve ever owned. I would love to get another one.

  • Zentropy

    My roommate in college had one, and I loved it.

  • “Saab 900 Carlsson” – ooooh!

  • Sjalabais

    Congrats on your 900th post, and “skål” to the next 900! The SAAB 900 has always been a favourite of mine, but the advent of the internet made me doubt its credentials a bit. A long, stable production run with well-proven tech should result in a reliable vehicle. That’s what this beauty is known for in Europe, too. But on sites like BaT the 900 is often lumped together with the more fickle cars of its time. There might be no objective truth, and competing against mechanically simple US fair of the time – even though they also earned their “malaise”-attribute well – might have been different than competing against European cars. I never figured this out though.

    • wunno sev

      i always like the idea of a Saab, but each time i get a ride in any one – admittedly, these have mostly been GM-era 900s and 9-3s, but there’s two OG 900s in the mix – it’s a bit of a disappointment. i love love love the styling of the OG 900, but i find that many of the things we enthusiasts like to chalk up to “Swedish ingenuity” is just weirdness that doesn’t really make the car a better car. as a result, i like the 900 as sculpture better than as transportation. if i want a Good Scandinavian Car, i’ll probably just buy a 240.

      • Fuhrman16

        If you don’t mind me asking, what are these things that you feel are just weird about the 900?

    • Vairship

      I think the biggest problem in the US that gave them (and most other European brands) a bad name was: lack of a dealer network. If you take your SAAB to a mechanic that’s never seen one before, doesn’t have any parts for it, and tries to retro-fit Chevy parts because he DOES have those, the car will never run right again. It’s the same reason why Renaults and Peugeots were considered unreliable in the US, but are run forever in Africa where US brands have a bad name.

      • Sjalabais

        Would shops really try to make parts fit that were not meant for a particular vehicle? I can imagine this approach in backyards or in an economy of scarcity – quite the opposite of the US. Never even thought of that as a possibility.

        • outback_ute

          I bet it happens when the right parts are going to take a month or three to arrive, assuming the mechanic can actually source them (may not be available from the ‘usual’ distributors).

          • Vairship

            Especially back in the pre-internet days, how would BillyBob in Smallville get parts for a Peugeot if there isn’t a Peugeot dealer in the local Yellow pages? It’s not as if NAPA would have carried many Peugeot parts back then… And as you say, ordering the parts from France (assuming BillyBob speaks French) would mean months of the customer asking “Is my car done yet?”

  • tonyola

    Maybe the Saab faithful didn’t want the 900 to be changed too much, but the numbers of the aforementioned faithful were dropping drastically by the late 1980s. I’ve said this before – Saab made a mistake in going upmarket and trying to compete with Audi and BMW. By 1990, Saab was left with collapsing sales of the 900 and 9000 (the latter never being a success in the all-important US market), there was no money left for a badly-needed new platform. It cost the company its independence. GM tried hard for the first several years to resuscitate the brand, but buyers stayed away and GM got embroiled in deepening troubles of its own. Saab was left to slowly wither away, but ultimately its death was pretty much self-inflicted.

  • Van_Sarockin

    900 still has plenty of fans, and a robust support network.

  • P161911

    Just saw a pre 1987 Saab 900 at my daughters school last night.

  • PaulE

    Even now, they’re nice cars to drive. While I currently don’t have any classic 900s in the fleet, I’d welcome another one, given the chance (and more driveway/garage space).

    Of minor interest is the different copy for the US versus the UK brochures. Going to have to see if I still have any 900 brochures left in my collection of Saab propaganda.

  • jb

    My ’88. I’m still a fan.

    • Rover 1

      That’s a great colour too.

    • Sjalabais

      It’s a fantastic classic, but what surprises most with today’s eyes remain the large overhangs/relatively short wheelbase. Helps with getting it spinning on ice, but it sure catches my attention again and again.

      • Fuhrman16

        Part of the reason I suspect it has such a large front overhang is due to the engine being mounted in the car longitudinally, with half of the transmission pointing towards the front. The other half of the trans is under the engine, and actually serves as the oil pan. The two bits are connected via a chain.

  • I want to own a 900 Turbo of this generation at some point. I semi seriously considered an SPG that was on Craigslist earlier this year. It looked like a solid car in need of a bit of TLC and the price seemed right at just under $2K. But the timing wasn’t right and it was 2 hours away and would have had to be trailered home so I never ed them.

  • SlowJoeCrow

    I almost bough a basic (non-turbo) 900 back in the summer of 87 unfortunately the seller reneged so I ended up with Scirocco. I still find pre GM Saabs interesting but I’m more interested in the 92/95/96 these days.

    Of course if you really want your Saab to look line no other car on the road you need a Toppola

    • I often wonder why the Toppola concept didn’t catch on more widely, given that there were quite a lot of big hatchback cars in Europe. I’d love one designed to suit the Rover 800 Fastback, for obvious reasons.

      • SlowJoeCrow

        For what it’s worth Toppola did offer a model for the Ford Sierra, but I think that was the only non Saab option. A Merkur XR4 Ti with a Toppola would be awesome.

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