Essays: Why we love the… Saab 900 Turbo

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Another personal insight to those cars that tickle the fancy and stimulate the soul.

Mike Humble tells us why the Saab 900 seems so right when so much of it seemed to be so wrong…


Whoosh-whistle, whoosh-whistle

The legendary 900 Turbo 16S - I want one so bad it hurts.

This week at work, my colleagues and I were talking about our fantasy garage in great depth as we all hugged our mugs of well brewed tea during a well-earned break. Down in the workshop, we are all of a similar age but in motor terms, the similarities end there. Owing to previous on line mutterings, many of you will know that both Keith Adams and I are huge Saab fans – and our site editor has one locked away waiting to be put back on the road in the near future.

I have owned four over the last few years; one being a mint condition 9000 Ecopower Anniversary, and a trio of early 9-3s, two of which were turbos. When I ponder over my own fantasy garage, it quickly becomes obvious that my list of dream motors is far from being exotic.

Some examples include the Lancia Beta HPE, Ford Sierra Sapphire Cosworth, Lotus Esprit Series 2, Audi 200 Avant quattro and a Citroen CX GTi Turbo 2. Of course, its all down to personal taste and, with the exception of the Lotus, all of the aforementioned cars are roomy long distance vehicles with a performance theme of which I adored when they were produced – and still do. But if I could own any of them as my daily smoker, without doubt my choice would be, the Saab 900 Turbo 16S.

For me, everything that many consider to be a touch idiosyncratic or fussy with the classic 900 turbo is perfect. The crazy engine layout, the eccentric wiper sweep pattern, the key in the floor and those massive bumpers which could destroy a battle cruiser upon impact are all key factors that summarise a classic Saab. The way they drive is also an experience unlike many other cars of that era. Modern turbos are so well engineered; you barely know your plant is being force fed – which is such a shame. Slip the Saab 900 into a higher gear out of the power band and plant your Oxford brogue into the cut pile carpet and nothing happens for a little while.

The 900 Turbo in first generation guise from 1979.

But wait, what’s that faint noise rising in pitch? And with an almighty shove from the inclined 2.0-litre four, everything behind you is getting very small very quickly – only Roger Whittaker can whistle better than the Garrett turbo-fed sixteen-valve engine. The similarity with the Anglo-Kenyan crooner doesn’t end there either as most models were consumed by middle of the road middle aged people who simply treated them as a member of the family. This fact made sure that many examples gave sublime fault-free service with some models being owned by the initial buyer for more than 20 years. And also, brand loyalty was incredibly high.

Even motormouth Jeremy Clarkson has often gone on record stating that Saabs are ‘nice cars driven by nice people’. How very true. But to get the best from a Saab, they needed a certain level of care and attention, not being the kind of car to readily suffer abuse or neglect. All they required was servicing on the button with twice yearly oil changes coupled with a decent pilot. Mileages of over 200,000 were pretty much guaranteed. Vehicles that suffered at the hands and feet of a bad owner would simply suffer a catastrophic engine failure and die but most were cared for, loved and appreciated – maybe why even today, nice examples fetch strong money.

Of course, the 900 had its faults, the cabin for example was narrow compared to many rivals, but five-door versions had a vast boot area to compensate. The gear change quality was a curious mixture of what you would find in an early Maxi blended with a Rover PG1 with worn selector linkages. Not everyone found the engine bay layout to their liking either, routine servicing was straightforward but items such as the clutch or final drive were a nightmare to work on without specialist tools and main dealer repairs were not cheap.

The 900 Turbo Cabriolet: rock solid reputation and image mean good examples are not cheap!

Just like the Princess or Marmite, the Saab 900 Turbo was a love-it-or-hate-it kind of car; but one thing is for sure, the 900 range like it or not are an icon of a past era where car manufacturers were not afraid to show off their engineering prowess to the fullest. For me, the weird body shape with that seemingly endless bonnet and wrap around windscreen tugged my childhood heartstrings in my early teens the same way they do now in my early 40s.

They are an example of ergonomic excellence partly in thanks to their aeroplane expertise and the way they waft along at speed making you feel cocooned in a world of rock solid safety is really quite special.

It would be fair to say that Saab went way further than most to develop the now universally adopted trend of turbocharging in a passenger car. The APC (Automatic Performance Control) system was a clever yet simple method of taming the once aggressive power delivery by sensing manifold pressure and ignition timing during boost conditions. Knock and pinking will destroy an engine quickly. So by reducing boost pressure electronically when running at high altitude or on low octane fuel, the engine always gave the best balance of performance, refinement and reliability whatever the driving conditions. APC also made for credible emission output too, giving Saab an enviable reputation for high performance with ecological responsibility.

The 900 turbo came in three body styles; hatchback, saloon and cabriolet, with the former being the biggest seller by far. There was also an ultra rare long wheelbase version known as the CD which was built in Finland by Valmet, which featured a wheelbase extended by 20cm. Production of the 900 continued until 1994, but by then, Saab was controlled by General Motors and losing money. The legendary quality engineering and intricacy of the design sowed the seeds of its ultimate downfall. Why? Because it costs money. Big money. Its replacement needed to address this serious financial issue.

The 900 'B' series turbo: Saab engineering was the likes of which we will never see again.

The 900 took 110 hours to build and featured some 50% of the total parts required to do so made in house by Saab. GM’s influence meant its replacement would be based on current GM content. GM-controlled Saab also introduced a streamlined production method, which brought the build time in hours down by 40%. This new 900 range pulled Saab out of the red and into the black, but by now the magic had gone and all future models would be based solely on current GM engineering platforms. The new car never matched the outgoing version for character or reputation – and even now after all the recent crisis, a ‘classic’ 900 turbo remains the ultimate Saab to own.

In a nutshell, you either get it or you don’t with a Saab. I certainly do and the 175bhp 900T16S remains right up there on my list of car to own before I die. I simply adore everything about them, from the distinctive whine from the chain driven final drive to the unique way the bonnet slides backwards and upwards. In tribute, I shall conclude and salute with the long running strap line they used in advertising throughout the high tech 1980s…

Nothing on Earth comes close

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

30 Comments

  1. Even the most GM of shared parts couldn’t escape the Saab look over.. the early 9-5 carried the common family V6….

    However… Saab (naturally) had messed about with the charging, deciding that a turbo WAS needed, but with true Saab subtlety, it would only take boost from one side / bank of cylinders, creating a kind of light pressure system that sent boost to all six cylinders….

    The torque curve on that engine is unbelievable..
    310nm constant, from 2000 -> 4000rpm. Motorway monster.

  2. Annoying anorak of the week – Roger Whittaker is Anglo-Kenyan. I wish I could remember more useful facts than that.. Owner of earlier black 99 3 door turbo – bought partly after seeing a 5 door 99 that rolled at 90mph and all its side doors still opened perfectly.

  3. A family relative has owned a Saab saloon since newly bought in 1998 and they still adore it. They are considering replacing it with another one (obviously secondhand). Great shame SAAB have closed down, to me they still project a “quality engineering” image.

  4. I’ve only ever been for a short ride as a passenger in one, but that was enough to cement a desire to own one. Nothing else looks like one- with that peculiarly upright windscreen, and styling that doesn’t seem to age (unlike most of its contemporaries).

    The only thing that Volvo (at the time) had in common with its more exotic countryman was crash-worthiness- the contrast between the two marques could not be more vivid.

  5. I’ve owned 3 900 Turbos. the first for 4 years; a Turbo 16S.I bought it on 148k miles and took it to 218k miles. That thing flew. Low speed ride was dreadful. Centre fresh-air vents were annoyingly switched off with some of the vent. settings. Steering was amongst the best I’ve ever driven (up there with MX5). Lag took some getting used to but 16v revved higher and was less laggy than 8v. It was so fast at accelerating it would stop conversations!
    I’ve since had an MX5, Lotus Elise and now have an E39 M5 but the 900T 16S still has a strong appeal of its own.

  6. Such a truly capable odd-ball car the 900Turbo.. that convertible is far better looking than any MX5, more practical and a darn sight safer too… gimme a lottery win and a near concourse example would be sitting in my fleet.

  7. Ah, one of the Turbos I had was a 16S Convertible. It’s far too wobbly, it really is. I’ve also had an MX5 and think the MX5 is a far better driving experience. The Convertible also has a reduced rake windscreen, which I didn’t notice until I sat in mine. The hatch is a better proposition for driving and practicality IMO.

  8. I’d love a SAAB 900 so much! One of those cars that I’ve very nearly bought several times; ever time someone bet me to it. My choice would be either the final high spec Ruby version (if I wanted tasteful) or the Carlsson special edition (if I wanted loud and lairy).

    900 Ruby:

    900 Carlsson:

  9. I love Saab 900s!

    My dad had three 99s then a 900 – it was only a GLs but as a young lad I would drool over the turbo models.

    Saw one a few cars in front of me just last week and thought how good it looked.

    • It was also Phil Oakey’s actual car too diddn’t you know?

      Also, the 900 Turbo was the motor of choice for some other cool celebrities also… SAAB 900 Turbo fans include golfer Berhard Langer & the master of unflappable cool… Des Lynham.

  10. Definite signs of the engine’s Triumph slant 4 origins, in-spite of having two camshafts and all of the head studs at 90 degrees to the block.

    Not seen Roger Whittaker on British TV in years, but he seems to still be popular in Germany.

  11. Nice to see a SAAB on here! I was converted in 2009 after buying a 1995 900S convertible, being a total car tart and changing regularly I’ve had 4 in total, and a 1999 9-3 Turbo coupe. I know the GM SAAB is not a real SAAB in the true sense but it’s still got something about it that grabs you and draws you in-like all SAABs.
    I now have a “real” SAAB, a 1991 900 Classic 16V convertible, it has 238k on the clock, looks great and drives as well as a younger lower mileage car. To non SAAB people I say try one, you might never want anything else..
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/27366531@N03/6862277236/

  12. The Saab 900! The Colest car in th 80’s due it’s great adverts (who believed the car had anything related with the Viggen fighter?) and owenership by everybody who seemed cool and did not configure to the German is best school of thought. Nearly bouight one a few years back (I had been driving only three years) but when I found out how much the insurance was I ran off and bought another Fiesta!

    And sorry Mike, not all Saab owners are nice – my brother is not with his 93 1.9 TTID. The new ones do feel cheap inside but that engine does have a huge amount of grunt and a bloody excellent mpg. Shame my brother is a maniac on the road, though since he has got the Saab he has calmed down a bit!

    P.S. I am confirmed Swedeafile. I drive an S60 D5, love Wallander & The Killing though don’t like music much (other than the Cardigans). Soft spot for Saab.

  13. You used to be able to tell in BBC Dramas who the good guys and bad guys where.
    Good guy drove a Saab. Bad guy drove an Audi.

    Lets hope that the new owners of Saab reinvent the 900.

    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-WQkahAE0_2g/TrBIp8_Wb6I/AAAAAAAFZvA/g64aZCmAHdU/s1600/SAAB-9-3-2012-4.jpg

    You can see what GM were attempting with the NG

    http://designcredo.co.uk/sites/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/ev2.jpg

    Unfortunately it went down as well with Saabistas as the Rangie P38a.

  14. 2 things:

    1: In the mid-1980s I had some plastic 1.20 scale Saab 900 toys cars from Buckingham and Stanley near Cambridge. Friends loved their 900s.

    2: I can also whistle like Roger. Two-tone you know. Talented me…

  15. Hmmmm, SAAB 900 16S 3-door coupe in graphite grey…….in my fantasy garage top 3 (after the Integrale and CX GTi Turbo) – still a classy, yet classless car of unbelievably subtle style and superb quality. Sadly the 2 SAABs I’ve run (’02 9-3 hatch and ’06 9-3 Sportwagon) fell a long way short of the classic 900s benchmark. I still give the early 9-5s a second look though, although I wouldn’t own another GM-era SAAB after my experiences with them…..

  16. Always had the itch for a 900 3dr turbo s. After reading this article, now looking at buying one, and swapping my 75 cdti.

  17. Love these.. lots.. but I find the comment about teh clutch intereting, as the onley one I have owned came to me with a faild clutch and I recall doing it with no spcial tools inside an hour and a half, fantastic bit of design

  18. @ 20 that will have been a plastic model made by Stahlberg, and they are now worth a fair old wedge. not that long ago I sold a Volvo 345GL for over £40! The Saabs are mega rare as they were known to split and fall to bits. I already miss Saab, with their quirkiness, and I’ve always loved the 99/900 range. When 900s turn up for sale, they all seem to have knocking on for 200k on the clock, and still appear to be full of life, unlike later Saab-Opel-Vauxhalls. The cabrios do suffer from bad scuttle shake, but the 3 door hatch, well, erm, yes..Yummy is the word I would use. Didn’t Leslie Grantham drive one in the series ‘The Paradise Club’?

  19. Owning an NG900 Convertible.. I can say its not as bad as they say. It suffers I think more from the same thing as the XJ-S did.. what went before was so iconic and well loved the repalcment was never going to be well recived. Very little of the cavalier is found in the NG900 and it probbaly shares more parts with the original 900 and 9000 than it does with the cavalier!

  20. I own three saabs,a2001 9-5, a1996 ng 900 convertible,a1992 900s 2.1 nt convertible there all great cars in there own right,I think GM only ever got 20% production control on saab.

  21. I travelled from the Ireland to the uk 6 years ago to pick up a mint 88 T16 3 door. The seller was obsessive about Saabs and it showed, there was a tint splutter on accelleration. The guy refused to sell it on the basis that he wanted to get it fixed first. I reluctantly passed – always regard it as the one that got away.

  22. There is a great book out there called the Saab Story written by Lance Cole and published by Crowood in 2012, which provides a very accurate insight into the company and its products. It also dispels many of the myths about the origins of some of the engines and platforms used in more recent examples. I bought a copy of it for a friend of mine as a Christmas present, who drives a 1992 900 XS which had one elderly lady owner until he bought it in April 2912 and to date has covered just 31,000 miles from new. Naturally it is in timewarp condition and is one of just twelve examples sold in the UK out of 200 made.

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