COAL: 1988 Saab 900 – A Bit Slow, But Is An 18 Year-Old Going To Complain About Getting A Brand New Car?

Saab 1988 900 gray

(our plea for new COALmen has been answered, and quickly)    In 1988, when I was 18 years old and a freshman in college, I was the lucky recipient of a brand new car: a 1988 Saab 900. It was a base model in dark blue with a light blue cloth interior; a 3-door hatchback with a 5-speed stick; an 8-valve, 4-cylinder engine and stainless steel hubcaps. I think it was the single car of my lifetime that has combined nearly everything I like best in a car: Stylish, but practical. Roomy, but easy to maneuver. Sporty and fun to drive, despite being fairly slow. And most of all, my favorite car color, dark blue!  I don’t have a picture of my car handy, but the image above is a very similar, except the American model did not have headlight wipers.




The ironic part of the story is that it was absolutely not the car I wanted, the car I read about, the car I begged for, the car I test drove, or the car I lusted after. That was the VW GTI. I wanted a red, 1988 VW GTI 16 Valve, and as my dad had also bought my older sister an new car, a 1986 VW Jetta, I thought for sure I could convince him.  It was a little more expensive, but he and I shared a love of cars and I thought he would see my logic.

Instead, he saw the danger of giving an 18 year old boy a fast, small car! The story goes that he went to the dealer (Pray Volkwagen Porsche Audi Saab, etc. in Greenwich CT) and explained his concern to the salesman who said “for $200 more I can put your son in a base model Saab, it’s safe and SLOW!” Dad was sold.

Saab 900 1988 ad

Dad called me up in college and said “here’s what the salesman said, and I like his logic, what do you think?”  And even though inside I was disappointed at first, I was raised well enough to realize and say aloud: “You’re asking me if I would like a brand-new Saab? Of course, thank you Dad!”  My buddy and I drove to the local dealer in Auburn, Maine, near my college, Bates College, and looked at the colors and immediately agreed on the dark blue. In April, when I was home, I went to my Dad’s office and there it was, a brand-new car with 36 miles and a transfer tag.

I didn’t know at the time that the front suspension was a double-wishbone design with long travel. I didn’t know that the transmission was located in front of the engine, rather than behind, nor that the engine was a slant-four. But I immediately became familiar with the ignition between the seats, with the requirement to put the car in reverse before removing the key, and soon became familiar with the need to explain the car to anyone I lent it to, lest they become stuck, unable to put it in reverse (which required lifting up a lever on the stick shift) or unable to find the ignition.

Saab 900 key

With the exception of the manual choke, the picture above reveals how the “center console” looked.

1988 Saab 900 hubcaps

My 900 may not have had alloys that came with the Turbo, but these have to be among the most beautiful modern wheelcovers ever.

Saab 900i

Here’s a picture of a similar Saab (in this case a European 900i) demonstrating the prodigious body lean of an 80’s Saab 900.

I discovered other capabilities more slowly.  For example, I used to drive regularly on the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, which is chock-full of highway speed hills. When driving in 5th gear at 75 miles per hour, if I downshifted to 4th gear I would lose momentum on the hills, falling to about 60 miles per hour and eventually I would downshift to third and try to recover the speed. One day I went straight from 5th to 3rd and floored the accelerator and 3rd gear would grab right at 5500 rpms and hold 75 all the way through the hill. What a blast that was, driving a slow car fast!

(In fact, my father had once explained that very paradox to me as he described trading in his 1961 Corvair Monza Coupe 4-speed for a 1963 Corvette 327/300 powerglide. He said sometimes driving a slow car fast is more fun!)

Another key feature of the Saab for me was it’s great traction in the snow, as I was a skier and went to college in Maine. Just about every time it snowed, I hoped in my car to go somewhere, with very nearly no problems, despite never using snow tires.

When I say very nearly no problems, I need to explain one of the two design flaws of the car: The ignition between the seats.

The ignition between the seats was at the very bottom of a concave plastic trim piece which turned out to be a very convenient place to rest a large soda in the days before cup holders. Little did I know that all the while, the condensation from the cold cup was dripping in to the ignition, and that on very cold mornings, my key would refuse to enter the ignition entirely, or to turn! I would keep a lighter in the car, and heat the key when this happened, trying again and again until it would turn. Only once did it leave me stranded in 1993 and after that I had to have the ignition tumbler replaced.

The other design flaw was the need to put the car in reverse every time you parked the car, as it would often clunk or crunch upon putting it in reverse, and at 35,000 it developed a clicking sound in reverse. I finally got around to taking it in to the dealer at 40,000 miles only to discover I needed a new reverse gear. Of course I had allowed the warranty to expire at 36,000 miles! I was able to get Saab to pay 60% of the labor and all of the parts, and from then on I’ve been a bit obsessive about getting things checked out right before the warranty ends on a car.

By 1993 the Saab was beginning to require more work than I wanted to continue to pay for, and I sold the Saab privately for $5,000 and leased a 1993 Toyota Corolla, the first new car I bought myself, and the beginning of having car payments. Since then I haven’t gone a single month without a car payment of one car or another.

1993 Corolla

The replacement.  (Actually, the replacement was Blue of course, an early 90s teal blue!)  Faster, flatter handling in corners, less expensive, and so much less cool.

Since my first Saab, I’ve had many cars, old and new, but I think to this day the slow and unique 1988 Saab 900 is still my favorite!