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…
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.
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.
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 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
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
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