The Carchive: 1991 Saab 900

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 and the , 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?)

By |2018-08-23T15:00:10+00:00August 23rd, 2018|All Things Hoon, The Carchive|22 Comments

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RoadworkUK is the online persona of Gianni Hirsch, a tall, awkward gentleman with a home office full of gently decomposing paper and a garage full of worthless scrap metal. He lives in the village of Moistly, which is a safe distance from London and is surrounded by enough water and scenery to be interesting. In another life, he has designed, sold, worked on and written about cars in exchange for small quantities of money.

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