We recently featured a rally prepared SAAB 96 as our Prime Find. You’ll no doubt vividly recall that I mentioned the 96 was still an effective competition car a full eight years after the more modern 99 made its showroom debut. You could therefore be forgiven for thinking the 99 was a bit of a damp squib and a dead end, but it was nothing of the sort. The 99 offered Saab buyers a different proposition to the 96 and set the template for the future, taking Saab upmarket. We’ve already given the 99 range some love this year with Claus pondering if it was the best SAAB ever, and Anders choosing a 99 Combi as a Prime Find. However, we haven’t taken the story to its conclusion yet and showcased the future that the 99 ushered in. It’s time to put that right, so this week’s Prime Find is a SAAB 900.
The SAAB 900 was produced in two distinct generations but for today we’ll restrict ourselves to the original, manufactured between 1978 and 1993. However, there are two clichés that need to be dealt with straight away. The first cliché is that only intelligent people such as architects drove SAAB 900s and this was evidence of the car’s design credentials and general air of Scandi-cool. I didn’t go to the kind of school that trained budding architects and my social circle tends to revolve around people with oil under their fingernails, but I still know people who have owned SAABs. From my scruffbag perspective I can confidently assert that although the 900 had an aspirational appeal, SAAB wouldn’t have sold over 900,000 of them if they were only purchased by those who knew their Bauhaus from their Brutalism. A far greater proportion were sold to people who simply recognised good engineering. It’s a cultural inaccuracy to claim that all Saab drivers were decent middle class people. I bet some proper lowlifes also bought them, such as conmen specialising in exploiting recently bereaved widows, benefit cheats, people who drop litter, people who like Mariah Carey records and actual murderers.
The second cliché to demolish is the whole “inspired by aircraft” thing. Yes, I know SAAB Automobile was a group company of SAAB AB, an aerospace and defence firm originally called Svenska Aeroplan AB; literally “Swedish Aeroplane Company Limited”. Yes, I know they took their knowledge of aerodynamics and engineering and applied it to car manufacturing and this made a palpable difference to the early cars. That’s all fine but let’s not go over the top with regard to the 900. SAAB exploited the aircraft link in their marketing but the 900 is still very much a car. Its wings are intended for downforce rather than lift. It doesn’t have a jet engine operated by witchcraft. Cabin crew don’t bring you a choice of chicken or fish on a long drive. It doesn’t sometimes just inexplicably fall out of the sky like a lead weight. It’s very definitely just a car whichever way you look at it and I doubt you can rock up at the offices of Scandinavian Airlines and blag a pilot’s job just by casually tossing your Saab keyring on the reception desk. No, the 900 is certainly a car, but it’s not a completely conventional one.
You can trace the lineage of the 900 all the way back to the 99 family, which launched in 1967. The 99 is basically a shorter forerunner of the 900 and they shared many mechanical principles and styling quirks. Both models are front wheel drive which was unusual amongst mid-sized cars in the 1970s, but not exactly ground breaking. However, things get genuinely unusual when you open the quirky front hinged bonnet and look inside. The 900’s engine was developed from the Triumph Slant Four and mounted longitudinally, instead of the more conventional transverse position that most front wheel drives adopt. Notably, the block was rotated 180 degrees and fitted backwards with the clutch ending up at the front. With the gearbox underneath and to the rear, a system of chain and gears was used to turn engine revolutions into wheel revolutions. SAAB had indulged in such eccentric behaviour before but I’m yet to understand why. It adds complexity and makes servicing more complicated but for whatever reason they just stuck with it. It seems to be wilfully strange. For additional oddness the parking brake operates on the front wheels, a feature that is totally counter intuitive for a car born on winter roads. Why deprive the driver of his last line of defence when facing a terminal understeer moment? Whilst we’re looking at the handbrake lever, that’s where you’ll find the ignition barrel, right there on the floor. Of course, it’s not just a matter of turning the key to start the car. The engine will only burst into life with reverse gear selected and the clutch depressed. Similarly, reverse gear must be selected to release the key. This eliminates the risk of accidentally lurching the car forward on the starter motor, but unless I’m missing something it simply introduces a risk of lurching backwards instead. There is no sensible reason for any of this, it’s all just deliberately peculiar.
At least the body engineers took a more sensible approach. 900s were strongly constructed and extensively crash tested with safety initiatives such as flush fitting wrap-under doors and impact absorbing bumpers. The bonnet cantilevered forwards ensuring that airflow couldn’t flip it open whilst on the move. The designers also paid attention to passive safety to avoid having an accident in the first place. The windscreen wrapped around in order to maximise visibility and the cockpit was laid out so the most frequently used controls were within the driver’s immediate reach and line of sight. Inspired by aircraft, you see. Add some supportive seats and pilot fatigue was minimised. Even those seated in economy towards the back of the cabin were given seat belts in case of turbulence. A troupe of intelligent architects could be whisked around in perfect comfort and safety. From a technical point of view, the SAAB 900 may have been frequently strange but it was a very capable package.
Although the first generation 900 has been out of production since 1993, it was built well and there are still plenty remaining on the roads. We’ve found a likely looking candidate for sale at the forthcoming Brightwells auction at Leominster on 27th November. Lot 174 is a 1989 Convertible 2.0 Turbo 16v described in the listing as a “Modern Classic”. As if to prove its credentials the car was previously owned by Kelsey Media and featured as a project by Classics World magazine. This could be a boon for the prospective purchaser as its recent history will have been well and publically documented so there shouldn’t be any nasty surprises. Apparently it’s benefitted from some work under the magazine’s ownership including new brake pads, a new radiator, new fan assembly, new water pump, new dash and interior lights, new inlet manifold gaskets, a full set of boost pipes, a full service and four new Toyo Proxes tyres. They also saw to some corrosion and we’re assured the electric hood is fully operational. Showing 160,000 miles, the car is apparently just run-in by Saab standards and it’s hardly starship mileage in any case. It has an MOT until June 2020 so it should at least get you into next summer, and it’s offered at the tempting price of No Reserve. With the convertible market notoriously flat in the middle of winter, aspiration has potentially never been so accessible.
With our Saturday instalment of Prime Find of the Week, we’re offering our services to the classic car community, by passing on our favourite classic car for sale from the week that passed. This top-tip might help a first-time-buyer to own his first classic, or it could even be the perfect motivation for a multiple-classic-car-owner to expand his garage with something different. We’ll let us inspire by anything from a cheap project to a stunning concours exotic, and hope that you will do the same.
Just remember – Any Classic is Better than No Classic! We obviously invite our readers to help prospective buyers with your views and maybe even experiences of any given model we feature. Further to that, if you stumble across a classic which you feel we ought to feature as Prime Find of the Week, then please send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org