Our Cars : Mike’s Saab 9-3 Vector Convertible

As we enter another new year, we start it with another new motor. Say hello to Mike’s new steed for 2019 as his mid-life crisis decrees he must go topless…

From ten paces the Saab looks really smart. The truth be told though, it needs some serious TLC, but I’m getting there!

Obsolete cars, are great aren’t they? I move out of one and straight into another only this time it wasn’t exactly my idea – a little more about that in a short while. As the title heralds, you will have no doubt by now guessed my Rover 75 has moved on to pastures new – and pastures afar they most certainly are.

To summarise and close the Project 75 chapter, it’s been sold to a rather eccentric top-level Psychiatrist of Greek origin, who resides in the Italian city of Milan and that other grand place known for its stunning history, beauty, fashion cat-walks and architecture of world repute – Crawley.

Dr Dimitrious works as a consultant in the UK for part of the year and scarpers back to Italy when the weather turns sour. It transpired that he is also a serious fan of British cars, telling me about his past vehicles which have included numerous Jaguars, MGs and Rover 3500s. It was the classic scenario of first to see will buy and, dare I say it, the most effortless transaction I have orchestrated in my 30 years of pedalling old tat. He came, he looked, he viewed, we haggled over a pot of tea and a cigarette and within 48 hours… it was gone – text book used car dealing, and to an appreciative owner, too.

Out with the old: Rover 75 goes to a good home

Dr Dimitrious intends to use the 75 for commuting between work and his two homes in Sussex and… erm… Milan! C’mon… well, what else did you expect?

The handover ceremony was a low-key affair. I delivered it to his offices at a nearby hospital on a cold, dark, damp evening. We did the required paperwork, I was handed a grubby brown envelope full of money, we pressed flesh and bode each other a cheery farewell.

At first, there was no real emotion until I walked back to the missus waiting in the car – she had a tear in her eye. Turning to her and glibly saying ‘oh well, that’s that‘ we both knew it would be the last time we would see BD02 EHY. It seems my neighbours miss it as well – three locals have asked where it’s gone.

In with the new: Saab 9-3 breezes in

So what with the Saab? Well, it was all bit weird really. Our very own Keith had done his well-known party trick of buying a knackered car and quickly getting bored of it, so up for sale it went at a very cheap opening gambit – at first, it wasn’t on my radar until the other half, who was flicking through her i-Pad while in bed, asked me if I had seen his Saab up for sale. I retorted that I had and, just as my eyes were flickering into the land of nod, she asked me if she – not me I hasten to add – should buy it. Recalling the moment, I think my answer was something like do what you want.

Awaking the next day for work, I asked her ‘did we buy a car last night?‘ and the rest is history. A couple of days later its power steering pump did something naughty and Keith suggested we cancel the deal owing to potential expense, the aggro of moving it from Cambridgeshire to leafy Sussex and the horrible used car potential scenario: falling out with with a good pal over a clapped out old motor car.

After a moment of risk assessment, we decided to proceed so some pennies were electronically transferred and my wallet checked for my all-important RAC membership card.

Coming to terms with a lack of turning power

No, it’s not the gloss of newness. It’s copious amounts of expensive PAS fluid spewed out of the noisy leaking pump. The smell in the car was glorious when sitting in stationary traffic…

Then came the day when we arrived in Peterborough to collect the car. Keith couldn’t be there for the official AROnline hand-over picture, so we discovered the hidden keys and paperwork, kicked the lights and flashed the tyres… and then almost died of horror at the huge pool of power steering fluid covering the engine bay and ground.

The journey back was painful but, in true Bangernomics style, I hadn’t even brought with me so much as a screwdriver. The only equipment I had for the 120+ mile return journey was my missus in tow, a bottle of water and a bag of Rowntrees Randoms.

Poorly PAS aside, there was other issues that we had been told about. The front suspension was making noises like nothing I had ever heard before. With more clattering, banging and groaning noises than you’d hear from an upstairs travel-inn bedroom and with the PAS pump sounding like a sawmill, the 150-mile journey was going to be fun. Stopping every twenty miles or so to top up the fluid reservoir made the journey somewhat tiresome – not to mention that oh-so-evocative and lovely smell of leaking oil on a red hot engine… I can sense your jealousy as I type.

The job of fixing it begins…

What with a knackered suspension and other issues on the list, it pays to prioritise the jobs. So I kicked off by replacing and renewing the blown speakers and wiring connectors and fixing the fire hazard cigar lighters party trick of flying out white hot and duly disappearing under the seat

What else? Well, the brakes leave a lot to be desired. The front discs have more lip to them than a petulant child, the pads are pretty much life expired and I kind of get the overall feeling that a previous jockey has replaced them at some point with some ultra-cut price aftermarket items.

Considering the car features the EcoPower 1.8t (even though it’s actually a few cubits under 2.0-litres) that’s simply a modified General Motors plant, there was a fair bit of boost noise when you really pushed hard through the middle gears – a good parchment scroll of faults to be getting on with eh folks?

Oh… let’s not forget the non-working front-door audio speakers, the cigar lighter that flies out white hot and disappears under the driver’s seat, the milky yellow headlamps and the temperature gauge which works just like the Clap-O-Meter on that long-gone Hughie Green-presented TV show Opportunity Knocks – and I do mean than most sincerely folks.

Beyond the issues, the story’s not so bad

Joking aside though, it’s generally solid, oozes a rare kind of class distinction and, looking back after taking ten paces (a well-known salesman thing) still looks neat, tidy and above all… damn good looking.

Okay, so I bought a car without seeing nothing more than a picture or three on Facetube…. CORRECTION – the other half has I should say and so far it,s all looking rather promising. A few of the tasks have been dealt with and, as a result the Saab, has become good enough to be daily driver material. Here’s the lowdown to date:

  • Replaced broken shock absorbers, fitted new springs and strut bearings – well, one side so far
  • O/S anti-roll bar vertical link worn – parts in stock awaiting fitment
  • Fitted new cigar lighter barrel – done
  • Non-working passenger window switch – done
  • Oil/filter and plugs – parts in stock, but awaiting warmer dry weather
  • Life-expired front pads and discs – awaiting fitment
  • Repaired/replaced front-door speaker terminals and speakers – done
  • Power steering pump overhauled – done
  • Turbo noise and lack of power traced to a tear in the boost pipe – done
  • Climate control panel replaced with a new old stock item – done
  • New thermostat and coolant flush – done
  • Headlamps de-fogged and polished – erm… kind of done, but needs finessing 

It’s yet to break the bank

None of the work undertaken so far has cost an arm and a leg, but the shock absorbers were another story. Good all round egg and site fan Neil Rapsey recently visited us and with his Astra crammed full of tools and offered to lend a hand.

All was going swimmingly until one of the captive bolts that hold the strut top into the inner wing sheared a weld, making removal almost impossible. Various tricks and bodges were tried until we gave up and broke out the angle grinder, miraculously managing to save one the vital 13mm mounting bolts rather than destroying it.

The excessive turbo noise under hard load turned out to be a non-standard hose clip that had chewed a hole in the boost pipe. It’s amazing what a difference in terms of noise, performance and economy such a tiny split made. A replacement pipe, with the correct clip, was sourced from a local breakers and has transformed the car no end. I’m now getting a genuine 40mpg on my commute with ample oomph, too

Next on the list will be to replace the aforementioned front discs and pads. There’s a hint of brake judder, the pads are razor thin and the discs have more surface corrosion on them than the RMS Titanic. After that, it’s just a case of beautifying the car and getting the other minor or annoying things put right just in time for spring and summer. Early signs are looking promising I must say, especially the cruising fuel consumption and refinement. The commuting fuel economy is even better than a new MG3 I have recently had on test, it genuinely tops over 40mpg on the motorway.

Working out the General Motors parts catalogue

Being one of the final Saab platforms, there is a great deal more GM content than the previous 98 – 2003 model – not enough to dilute the quirk the brand is known for, but enough to notice. Also, the build quality varies from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Body rigidity is streets ahead of previous rag top Saabs – no longer does following traffic appear blurred in the rear view mirror on poor roads thanks to what’s colloquially known in the trade as scuttle shake. Where the cost has been squeezed out is in the fixtures and fittings inside the cabin.

You still have those large well-padded leather seats with trick head restraints and lots of buttons and switches to press – it’s really well equipped. Where it falls down is in the cheap feeling dashboard and laughably naff-feeling column stalks. The glovebox lid seems like it could snap off with a good yank and the sticks operating the wipers, indicators and cruise control feel loose, flimsy and cheap in action. However, to be fair, it was always the raw production cost of the car that ultimately played its part in the eventual death of the brand.

Mark Taylor – owner of Express Parts in Horsham, my trusted supplier of all bits for knackered and obsolete cars not to mention a good number of AROnline project cars – has every right to smile. He’s had half my bank balance already!

So, what have we bought? Are we happy?

A great deal has been said along with much mud slinging at General Motors being the sole party to blame for the death of Saab. Those in the trade know differently: on the one hand, GM wanted Saab to become competitive in terms of cost while, on the other hand, those clever but pedantic Swedish engineers just couldn’t drop the habit of re or over-engineering components – sometimes when it wasn’t really necessary.

Ultimately, the reason for Saab being a just warm fond memory boils down to the fact that the market for low-volume slightly strange but wonderfully engineered cars being bought in penny numbers simply vanished.

Where parallels can be drawn with our very own Rover is in the fondness that remains out there in the ether some years after their respective demises in the marketplace – two very different marques offering a little bit of something different from the norm in terms of presentation. Rolling along in the Saab does, though, bring another parallel with a Rover 75 to mind – you either dig ’em or you don’t and, if you have never owned or driven either at length, you’ll find it difficult to counter-argue convincingly.

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

7 Comments

  1. Well yes since GM got it’s hands on Saab things definitely took a turn for the worse,I suppose the reason that The General bought Saab was the same reason that the Blue Oval bought Jaguar,as both Cadillac and Lincoln couldn’t compete with the new Japanese competition from Acura,Infinniti & Lexus. Not that there was much to show in new product from Saab during GM’s ownership the company introduced new Saab products in the US market by simply rebadging GMC & Subaru products,this certainly devalued the model range to the small but established Saab customers in the US. What could have been a promising collaboration with Subaru based on the B9 Tribeca was aborted by GM selling it’s share in Subaru. By the time the Mexican built 9-4X was ready for the market GM had hit the buffers and had gone to Uncle Sam for a bailout,Saab was flogged off to Spyker which didn’t last that long either. I think it was a tragedy that Saab bit the dust it was a relatively small company that produced some fine cars and effectively it was killed slowly but surely by GM’s ownership

    • Quite possibly but in the main it’s market faded away too. Unless your business module dictates thus, volume sales are the only way to succeed. Trad SAAB owners bought and kept their cars on average 10 years or when a new model was launched. Once a plaything demostrating their engineering excellence in the SAAB SCANIA portfolio, they quickly sank in a volume market place that moved even faster than their 900 T16S.

      Owner aside, they just couldn’t catch up despite some very pretty cars like the Sportwagon and latter 9-5

  2. I’ve had 2 9-3s – a series 2 model in Sportwagon form (a company car), which left me stranded in Nottingham when the power steering pump failed, then I bought an earlier 9-3 diesel hatchback which rattled and sounded like an old Bedford van, kept showing me the orange light of doom, constantly billowed black smoke on acceleration, then blew its turbo, landing me with a huge bill for a top end rebuild. Once that was fixed, the clutch failed, then one by one, every engine sensor. Finally the air con died. It was also cramped inside, albeit with a huge boot. My advice to anyone thinking of buying a GM era SAAB is, get a good credit card deal – you’ll need it!

  3. Both myself and my brother have owned SAABs. My brother had a rather nice 55-plate 9-3 1.8 Aero convertible and myself a 9-3 1.9TDI saloon. I loved my SAAB. What drew us to the brand was simply it was a bit different. Not German. Not Japanese. SAABs were for nice people. From the centre-mounted ignition to the night panel button they felt so much better than the tutonic boredom of an AUDI or a BMW. At the same time I soon learned that SAAB ownership comes with the need for a generous credit card limit.

    I miss SAAB tho. I think whilst SAAB themselves were far from blameless at their own demise, GM has to accept the lion’s share of blame. GM bought SAAB when the car industry was going through one of its consolidation phases. BMW had bought Rover, Ford was snapping up Mazda, Jaguar, Volvo, Aston Martin and would later get its paws on Land Rover. GM didn’t want to get left behind and it could be argued that GM was a decent fit. It gave SAAB that security of a big parent company and access to shared platforms. Whilst GM dominated mass-market, by buying SAAB it gained an upmarket European brand, in the way AUDI is to VW. It should have worked. But why didn’t it?

    I think the problem is that GM never knew what it wanted to do with SAAB in the same way BMW didn’t know what to do with Rover. It should have been developing models in tandem with Vauxhall/Opel. Had the done that, SAAB would have had a Corsa based 9-1, an Astra based 9-3 available as a hatchback, convertible, Estate and saloon and an Insignia based 9-5. Throw in a smattering of off-roaders and it’s likely SAAB may have been with us. Instead they basically kept SAAB as a two-model range, apart from some odd cars developed for North America based on Sabaru’s. SAAB was allowed to wither and die. Add in the Swedish company’s reputation for over-enigineering – the famous story of the SatNav – and it was clear where the company was going.

    The last 9-5 was a really handsome car but if was under-developed and launched before it was finished. SAAB have contributed to its own demise but GM were the real villains.

  4. It’s a pity Saab couldn’t have had an owner like Geely who appear to have left Volvo to get on with the job and are now prospering. With competitors like BMW, VAG, Mercedes and Jaguar possibly suffering with overcomplexity/poor durability (while PSA, Alfa Romeo and Infiniti fail to hack it) I think there still would be a niche for Saab although inevitably there would now have to be SUV’s in the range.

  5. I’ve owned 3 GM era cars and 1 pre-GM car. My favourite was the 99 (a 1983 model), the best by far is my current 9-5 Aero Turbo4 (2011 model). Having driven an Insignia, you can see why Saabs were costing GM money hand over fist, it is a vastly superior car. It is absolutely stunning to look at, even if the design is 10 years old now. The 9-3 would be 17 years old in May, it’s aged extremely well against contemporary cars. The one issue with the NG9-5 (and to a smaller extent older models) is the parts situation; my car is languishing in the works car park, MOT expired because of a stone chip which has resulted in a 4 foot crack. No spare (HUD and Rainsense) screens available, some are being manufactured, but for a true Saab fanboy the smile will only come back when I have a new screen fitted and I am back in my 9-5.

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