Blog : Reviving the Saab, part 2

Work commitments had slowed down the pace for Mike Humble and his dead Saab 9-3. Patience, luck and plenty of hot tea seems to have paid off and now it’s time to enjoy!

Completed and ready for the winter weather.

When I took delivery of my Saab 9-3 last month, it didn’t look good to be honest; it was in pieces, a non-runner and delivered on the back of a flat bed Transit. Horror of horrors, the delivery driver turned up bang on 5.30pm just as the neighbours and commuters were returning home. I wanted to curl up and die as he slowly winched the Saab on to my drive as his van was blocking the road. I have understanding neighbours but do try to avoid making my driveway look like the set of scrapheap challenge. Besides, they can’t complain, as it tends to be my door they come calling on when one of their cars goes pop. Following the sale of my lovely 420 recently, I really couldn’t decide what to go for next.

After having Keith’s Alfa Romeo 156 for a short while I almost went for one of those. Or…did I want another Rover? I could have had a seriously cheap 75 V6 or a ZT 1.8 with a blown engine but in the end, I went for a car that I have always found to be as effortless to drive as sleeping, a Saab. Not being one for doing things by half, not only did I buy a Saab, but one that was dead and had a boot full of oily bits. It was however, very very cheap and complete with heaps of paperwork, along with lashings of lovely MOT. It has a nice spec too, including all round electrics, cruise, climate, heated seats, alloys and CD; in fact pretty much everything a middle aged man could ever require.

The car was sourced from a leading internet auction site via a trader who subsequently knew of and didn’t understand his cars. Phoning him before bidding, he blurted out that he had bought the car to sell on before it went wrong. The green slip had a name tippexed out. After holding the slip against my halogen torch, the trader’s own name and address was revealed. The turbo was lying in the boot with a snapped turbine shaft. How the thing had not munched the blades and flummoxed the engine remains a mystery. Regardless, I had bought a non runner (much to my partner’s disgust) and I needed to get the thing up and running.

Contrary to what you may hear or read, a Saab 9-3 is a lovely thing to steer around in; they are pretty well made, effortless to drive, well equipped and have a certain charm of their own. Even though many of the underpinnings are GM or Vectra based, what you can see and touch are indeed certainly Saab. Its chassis, braking and suspension system is pure Vectra, and while purists may complain about the GM input, parts such as pads, discs and dampers are cheap as chips from motor factors. They don’t even cost that much to run either, with consumable items being plentiful and no dearer than many other volume cars. They are superb at soaking the miles, and those seats are a simply amazing place to sit for hours on end, and are heated too.

Yes they have their problems like any other car; the steering rack for example is known for splitting the bulkhead on earlier cars. However, bearing in mind that the newest model shape such as mine will now be almost 10 years old, surviving examples will have either been modified or have no such problem. They don’t take kindly to abuse or skimped servicing though, but what you tend to find with a Saab is that they are mostly loved and cared for by previous owners.

As I have said before, they tend to be nice cars driven by nice people. Without a doubt, they represent a sound used purchase when bought wisely; a well cared for car can and will go on and on. Doors make a wonderful clunk when you shut them, the bonnet is heavy and vast while the dashboard is amazingly well crafted and an ergonomic masterpiece without the slightest squeak or rattle. Loadspace is vast even with the seats up.

Switches and controls operate with a reassuring feel. A Saab is a really are a nice place to be. I adore the overall quirkiness and idosyncracy that Saab have always been know for, and it’s this odd ball mix of quality and quirk which attracts me to these cars, and has for many years. People who have never driven one or travelled in would not even understand what I write. Think of them of as a loved old leather jacket, a pair of Loakes Oxford brogue shoes or an old Dennon hi-fi system – they look, feel or sound – just right!

Getting back to matters current, it was obvious the car had either run out of oil or suffered a starvation issue, a common fault with the B200 Saab engine, especially if skimped on servicing or run on the wrong oil. The dipstick showed the car to be overfilled with oil, a sure sign that the oil light has illuminated while driving.

The question in my mind was whether the car was okay. The sump was removed and my diagnosis was indeed correct, the sump was caked in carbon and gunge and the all important sump strainer was mostly blocked too. Removing said strainer, I left it to soak in a bowl of diesel, and filled the sump with a mixture of hydrochloric acid and diesel which emits an interesting smell, but boy it shifts the grime. I removed a bearing cap to see what the damage was, only to find average wear and tear. The valve cover came off once again revealing only general wear on the camshaft lobes.

Was I in luck after all. Some previous mechanic had removed the turbo and slung all the nuts and bolts into a plastic tub in the boot so I was left with an automotive jigsaw puzzle, so I set to work putting some life back into the car. A used turbo was ordered from a contact in the North Midlands for a decent price of £140 and a few days later a man in a van brought me a large cardboard box. I was ready to rumble at last. Saturday came and I was up with the lark, looking resplendant in my “Roveralls,” spanners and tea in hand, it was game on!

Armed with a cup of tea and a fresh packet of fags, I set upon fitting the new turbo but after doing much head scratching, I couldn’t see where the various copper washers needed to go and which ones were best replaced. The dealer network on the whole is bloody superb, many selling the marque ever since it’s introduction in the UK. My local dealer is situated in the little village of Turners Hill which is about 15 minutes east of Gatwick Airport, a phone call was made to their parts department and they couldn’t have been more helpful.

I owned another 9-3 SE a few years back and they bent over backwards then, their parts guy Mark suggested e-mailing a screen shot from the parts computer showing an exploded view of the turbo and its related fixtures and fittings. Can you imagine your local Ford or Vauxhall dealer doing the same? – I printed off the diagram and phoned back after jotting down what I needed. Everything was in stock, so I leapt into the Focus and sped off to the dealer but then I hit trouble.

Traffic was awful, so I rang them back to ask if they could leave the parts and invoice in the showroom and tell me the total so I could hand over the right money, “it’s okay sir, I’ll hold on another half an hour for you” came the parts managers reply. Arriving back home, the work began and after a couple of hours the turbo was fitted, the coolant added, oil level checked – it was time to see if any life was left in the old girl.

The destroyed old turbo - not a pretty site, eh?

I fitted the charged battery and placed the key in the strange floor mounted lock, turning the key firstly to ignition, I then took a sharp intake of breath. The key was turned all the way with the same dread and fear of a late ’70s Northern Irish politician, teeth clenched, holding my breath with one eye closed and the other one half open – I started the engine. Rather than being met with the sound of a huge bang and components heading skyward, the oil light extinguished straight away and the B205 series engine simply purred on a fast idle with just the usual smoke from my grubby hand prints and WD40 burning off the manifold and turbo.

My efforts drew a small audience too, my next door neighbour is a retired engineering company director and when ever I am out doing a job on a car, he never fails to come outside for a look and a chat. Stella the cat, who also is my workshop supervisor continued sleeping on the parcel shelf unaware and disinterested of my toils but I was so happy I could have cried. Of course there has also been other items to attend to, but none were tackled until I knew at least the car would run under it’s own power, but first, the all important road test needed to be done.

After a quick shower, I threw in a gallon of juice and slipped the leather clad lever into gear checking I had my mobile phone with me. Close to where I live is the A264 and A24 which bypasses leafy Horsham, a dual lane by pass perfect for those sneaky test drives!

Second hand turbo almost fitted - not as easy as you might imagine!

My previous Saabs have been an automatic 9000 Eco – a 9-3 SE Turbo (185) and a 9-3 SE 2.3 non turbo, so a manual 9-3 Ecopower is a new experience. What a car, unlike the whiz bang of the 185bhp of old, the 9-3 Ecopower feels like a large six-cylinder with bags of torque and a steady increase in power as the revs climb. If you caught the turbo off guard in my old model, its would simply do nothing, but with the 154bhp Ecopower unit, it’s designed to pull low down and this coupled with very long legged gearing (70mph is indicated with 2600 rpm) and twin balancer shafts in the engine, makes for a brilliant refined cruising car that should give a decent fuel return.

The brakes were scary thanks to months of surface rust, but I can now say that the anchors now do the job nicely even though at first were almost non existent. Returning home I flushed the oil through one more time and called it a day – besides, it was dinner time and I felt sore and tired. A couple of longer drives followed to gain some confidence in the car including a nice high speed drive down to Worthing – a round trip of about 50 miles, returning a decent 36mpg – not too shabby at all bearing in mind the car weighs nearly as much as the County of Suffolk. The car has now been cleaned, scrubbed and hoovered within an inch of it’s life, and is now eight times the car it was than when it arrived covered in dust, cobwebs and bird lime.

Well, the very next day I thought I would nip to the paper shop Saab style, placing the key into the floor mounted ignition switch I turned the key – nothing! just the sound of a healthy battery and a cranking engine. Locking the car and setting the immobiliser, the car was then unlocked again thinking it was just one of those odd glitches – nothing, there was indeed a problem and I was mystified and baffled. A really handy bit of kit I own, is an OBD2 diagnostic code reader, this was duly plugged in to do a scan – no pending or stored faults.

The kettle was once again flicked on and I had a good long hard think about what it could be, no doubt something really obvious too. Returning back to the car, once again I turned the key and hey presto! it fired up – most strange, so I left it sat there ticking over for a while and while I stood there looking perplexed and gormless, the car gave an ever so slight cough – “a-ha you bugger” I said out loud, and almost as if it heard me, it did a little cough once more.

Re-fitting the code reader, it now had two pending codes and one stored – crankshaft sensor, the part was collected later in the week and fitted. Sounds simple, but anyone who has fitted one of these will know you need wrists and hands like E.T to get the torx bit onto the locating screw. Since this minor hiccup, I’m pleased to say nothing else has caused concern, and as the weeks pass, the confidence grows.

The crank sensor - buried deep down, was a nightmare to remove for just one bolt!

More recently I have swapped over a blown speaker in the dashboard, fitted new bulbs to some of the dash switches, got the heater blower working (an unplugged connector) the horn now blasts a twin tone sound rather than a squawk and occasional blown fuse, and the sometimes erratic electric self locking tailgate now functions as it should. Driving the Saab changes your driving style, don’t ask me why but it does.

Motormouth Jeremy Clarkson says the same thing – and he’s so right. When you indicate to overtake on motorways, people will flash you out, you no longer have the urge to be bouncing off the rev limiter, you find yourself stopping to let frail old ladies cross the road and you find yourself driving better, with more care, with more consideration. However, I can say that i’m still not quite 100% Saab driver, simply because I do not own nor indeed have a hankering for a dark coloured roll neck sweater, but other garments from the M and S Blue Harbour range do indeed grace my wardrobe.

The initial plan was to cash in and sell the Saab on for a small profit, but you know what? I can’t do it – well not just yet anyway. The heated seats, the utterly superb climate control, the vault like clunk when you close the doors, the space and ergonomics of the unmistakable Saab interior all add up to a lovely car – one of which I shall waft around in for a little while longer before the posters adorn it’s windows!

Mike Humble


  1. That’s a lovely car, a cracking winter motor.  Never seen a turbo in quite that state though!  Amazing that there was no other damage done. 

  2. Tell me about it Steve, I too was suprised. The timing chain sings slightly once hot,but it’s certainly no worse than many other SAAB’s with similar, if not more mileage on the clock.Would I buy another dead car without seeing it? well, no. Lady luck was on my side with this one. Had the car have been beyond help, It would have been sold for spares or repair, so cheap was the original purchase price. Whatever the outcome, I shall run about in it for a while before moving it on hopefully making a couple `o bob when I do!

  3. I have the 2.2 TiD engined variant of this. A fantastic little car, bought with 90k on the clock and a full Saab service history. It works very hard for it’s living, 20k miles in six months, but hasn’t missed a beat, needing nothing other than diesel, tyres and normal servicing. Those who predict doom and gloom with a 93 either have had a bad one, or are going by the rumour mill. Love my little car, and it makes a nice change from all the Audi and Mondeo bore wagons the other engineers drive. I presume you will have moved this on by now?

    • No, I dont think people have listened to rumor mongers, you have been lucky, on the whole a diesel SAAB 9-3 is a VERY risky option. Having known and spoken to many owners and being on good terms with an ex local dealer of 30+ years standing, my service manager contact quoted to me when I mooted a possibility of buying one…

      “you need your bumps testing”

      Great when they are on form, distressingly critical when they go conk!

  4. It seems to me the major modes of failure with the 2.2 engine are the fuel pump (expensive) and the turbo (not as expensive). In contrast, the later Fiat derived 1.9 unit dines on it’s water pump and timing belt. Meanwhile, the 3.0 V6 TiD enjoys dropping liners, rendering itself written off. At least the mechanical side of the 2.2 appears to be fairly hard wearing, there are a couple on the Saab forum heading towards 200k. Timing chain probably helps that. If the fuel pump goes on mine, I’ll be replacing it and keeping her on the road.

  5. It’s that big black coil pack cassette and the maf that’s the issue on those. I like the cars but that cassette is horribly expensive to replace compared to other cars coil pack sets 🙁

    Good cars though. I do like em 🙂

  6. “the same dread and fear of a late ’70s Northern Irish politician”
    Or 2013, the way things are going 🙁

    I know of 2 people with the 1.9 TiD – A later Saab 9-3 saloon and a 156. The Saab alternator went, but other than that he has had no issue, whereas in the 156 the timing belt went.

    Autocar reports that the Chinese are to make 9-3s in China. Not sure if solely electric, or a mix of EV and petrol/diesels.

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