Curbside Classic: 1990 Saab 900 Turbo SPG – The Sun Sets On Saab’s Independence

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Sunsets can be glorious to watch, even knowing that what follows will be much dimmer and less satisfying.  When I first spotted this limited edition Saab in the waning hours of an autumn day, that analogy was not lost on me.  This striking-looking car represents the pinnacle of the 900s development, for not long after it was built, Saab began its slow demise towards irrelevance.  Of course, this is no ordinary Saab; it’s one of only a few thousand 900 Turbo SPGs that were sold in the US.  And due to that rarity, it makes a great subject from which to glance back at the 900’s long and interesting story.

The 900 was an unusual car for the 1980s and ’90s, but to understand it, one needs to understand its ancestors.  Saab was a small company with a big history of innovation and creative engineering.  The company’s automaking roots stretched back to Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget (a Swedish airplane manufacturer with the acronym SAAB), and its first car, the Saab 92, debuted in 1949.  That car featured novelties such as front-wheel drive, aerodynamic design, and a monocoque body.  Importantly, Saabs weren’t exotics, but rather cars for the masses – the Scandinavian masses at first.

This Scandinavian and aeronautical heritage gave Saab’s products a unique appeal that slowly reached outside of its home country.  The Swedish climate demanded simple but sturdy vehicles, and consumers who appreciated those qualities formed loyal client bases in export markets.  Early Saabs were simple and sturdy, yet also very odd – with their rounded shapes and 2-stroke engines.  The 92 evolved into the 93 and then the 96.

The 96’s successor was the 99, introduced in the late 1960s.  Saab’s decision to make this a completely new car with a 4-stroke engine was probably the biggest single decision of the firm’s history.  Slightly more upscale and mainstream than earlier models, the 99 still maintained Saab’s unique and durable character.

During the 99’s tenure, Saab introduced two permutations that would become mainstays of the brand for the following two decades: A hatchback (originally called WagonBack, above) and a turbocharged model.  The 99’s legacy never left Saab, as it formed the basis for Saab’s next venture, the 900.

While the 99 was a breakthrough car in terms of character, the 900 was Saab’s Greatest Hit.  Introduced for 1979, it was clearly an update of the 99, but carved out its own distinguishable niche.  Visually, the 900 offered increased overall length (by 8.6”), a stretched nose, lengthened wheelbase, and a larger windshield.  Content-wise (particularly in the US, where the higher-end 99 GLE sold well), the 900 edged Saab even further upscale.  Increasingly, Saab became known as a premium brand, though one still focused on practicality and creative engineering.

Yet the 900 was still an updated 99, a design stretching well back to the 1960s.  If any manufacturer could revamp a decade-old car and transform it into its Greatest Hit, Saab could.  The quirky styling was immune to trends, so it didn’t look any less dated in the 1980s than it did in the 1960s – and Saab’s core customers valued individuality and practicality rather than trend-following.

In the US, Saab’s customer strongholds at the dawn of the 900 era were in cold climates such as New England, where front-wheel drive had been an early attraction.  The 900 brought many more people and regions into the Saab fold, partly by being in the right place at the right time.

1980s US-market car trends included front-wheel drive, compact size, turbocharged engines, hatchbacks, safety enhancements, and sports-sedan handling.  By the time most automakers began introducing these concepts into their fleets, Saab was a veteran of all of them.  All told, about one-third of the 900’s total output was sold in the US.

chart-3source of sales figures: www.left-lane.com

After averaging around 12,000 US sales over its first three model years, 900 sales began to boom, tripling that number in a few short years, and becoming America’s fastest-growing premium brand.  But just as quickly as sales rose, they began to fall again in the late 1980s.  Tougher competition from European and Japanese brands, as well as Saab’s own upmarket 9000 all ate into the 900’s sales.  And while Saab enthusiasts appreciated the car’s loyalty to its heritage, many buyers began to view the 900 as a relic, rather than a competitor to other higher-end cars such as Acuras and BMWs.

The 900, though, didn’t fade away with a whimper.  The turbo version remained a consistent favorite of performance enthusiasts.  Turbo engines were optional on 900s since the model was first introduced.  The original 900 Turbo’s 135 hp increased to 160 by the late 1980s, and provided the Saab with exciting performance.  Saab’s turbo, however, was not unobtrusive from a driver’s perspective.  To make use of the turbocharger’s blast of acceleration, a driver must keep the rpms within boost range.  This required a good amount of shifting, and the 900’s manual transmission could be somewhat balky, with its long shifter seeming almost out of place in a sporting car.

Throughout the 1980s, numerous changes were introduced throughout the 900 line, including a revised front end, additional equipment and safety features, the addition of a convertible… and, in 1985, the emergence of the Special Performance Group – or SPG…

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Since Saab didn’t see the need to explain the SPG’s purpose in life, we will here.  The SPG served as the 900 range’s performance flagship.  Coming only as a hatchback and with a manual transmission, it was always intended to have limited appeal.  Unlike many other companies’ special editions, this one wore no badges.  In fact, one of the items on the SPG spec sheet was a “badge delete” – it doesn’t say SPG, 900 or Turbo anywhere on it.

If passersby didn’t know what it was, Saab enthusiasts sure did.  The SPG came with slightly increased horsepower (15 extra hp for the 1990 model) due to higher amounts of turbo boost, and for 1987+ SPGs, a reworked suspension package.  This suspension included larger (195/60VR15) tires, shorter springs and stiffer shocks – resulting in about a 1” reduction in ride height, and noticeable handling improvement.

While the performance improvements were subtle, the appearance package was more apparent.  Distinctive 3-spoke wheels, urethane lower body fairings and a front air dam made the SPG stand out among more conservative Saabs.  Colors were limited: From 1985-89, SPGs were available in either black or gray (depending on the year).  The color palette opened up in 1990 to either black or Talladega Red, while in the SPG’s final year of 1991, Beryl Green was added as well.  All SPGs came with gray leather upholstery.

Our featured car is a 1990 model, and it was parked on a block with 6 other Saabs, which was either an incredible coincidence or evidence that a Saab collector lives nearby.  On the other side of the street was a gray 1988 SPG.  The stealthy monochromatic treatment worked particularly well with this package, and it’s a rare example where gray was a car’s most dramatic available color.

Driving an SPG was fun for drivers who enjoyed interacting with their cars.  The turbocharged engine delivered lively performance, but needed to be kept above 3,000 rpm to benefit from its 175 hp (peaking at 5,500 rpm).  This was an enjoyable engine for its time – remarkable considering that the engine itself traced its origins to the 99, and Saab sourced the blueprints from Triumph in the mid 1960s.  This is the same basic engine that powered Triumph’s Dolomite – it’s a longitudinally-mounted slant-four at a 45° angle, which makes it easy to envision how it is essentially half of a Triumph Stag’s V-8.  Of course, Saab modified the engine extensively, and by 1990 it sported a DOHC 16-V head and an intercooled turbocharger.

SPGs rode stiffly, but not jarringly, and the steering was light yet accurate.  Though other Saabs could exhibit noticeable body roll, there was very little with an SPG, thanks to the stiffened and lowered (but still comfortable) suspension.

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The 900’s interior seemed unconventional when the car was first introduced, but it aged well.  Featuring large, supportive bucket seats, the 900 presented a relaxed, yet no-nonsense approach to accommodations.  Jet-design influence is noticeable in the dashboard, as the controls were designed so that a driver could operate nearly anything without taking his eyes off the road.  Large circular dials operate HVAC and headlight functions, the radio is placed high on the dash, and all instrumentation is large and easily read.  The door panel looks plain because the power window controls are nestled between the seats, near the ignition.

Yes, that’s where the ignition is located – in the console between the front seats.  On manual transmission cars, the gearshift must be in reverse to remove the key, and then it is locked in reverse until the key is reinserted.  This was supposedly done in the interest of theft prevention – in any event, it worked.  Thefts of Saab 900s were extremely rare.

Rear seats were comfortable, with ample space for adults.  The real benefit of a Saab’s rear seat, though, was that it could fold completely flat – quite unusual for the times – revealing a 72”-long cargo area that could hold 56.6 cu. ft. of cargo.  The rear compartment of a Saab hatchback was long and flat enough for an adult to sleep in it.  Even with the rear seat up, the Saab could hold 22 cu. ft. of cargo, displaying versatility that was virtually unmatched by other cars of its size.

Saabs excelled at functionality.  They were not quirky just for the sake of quirkiness, but were rather full of thoughtful, if unconventional, touches.  The hood opened uniquely, clamshell-style, first sliding forward, then upwards for easy engine access.  The fuse box was easily accessible at the side of the engine bay.  Door sills were set back so that people wouldn’t rub their legs on dirty sills.  The cargo area featured a wide bumper-height opening for easy loading.  Bumpers were “self-restoring” – reverting to their original shape after minor impacts.  The wrap-around windshield and thin A-pillars ensured excellent visibility.  Many interior panels could be easily removable by large exposed screws, rather than hidden and fiddly clips.  The list can go on, but this synopsis provides a snapshot of Saabness.

Saab knew that its core customer base was impressed by such functionality, even if the end result looked unlike other cars.

Changes came slowly to the 900, so this 1990 model would be largely familiar to a driver of any earlier 900.  1990 SPGs gained an airbag (like all 900s), as well as a leather-wrapped steering wheel, ABS brakes, a slightly enlarged fuel tank, and 10 more horsepower than the ’89 SPG, thanks to a reworked turbocharger system.  Our featured car listed for $28,995.

SPGs are rare – only 7,625 were imported to the US between 1985 and 1991, including just 771 cars in the 1990 model year such as our featured car.  1990 though, was a tarnished year in Saab history: It was the year when General Motors acquired a 50% stake in Saab, ending the company’s independence.  Pessimists immediately predicted the end to Saab’s uniqueness under the giant GM umbrella.  They were right.  It was one of the worst corporate marriages in recent history; GM eviscerated Saab, and just over twenty years later Saab was kaput.

The auto world is a less interesting place without Saab, even if most consumers barely noticed its passing.  But  like watching an evening’s sunset, just looking at our featured car is a treat, even with the knowledge of what followed.  And for those who appreciate Saabs and their idiosyncrasies, there are few better examples of the species than a 900 SPG.

 

Photographed in Falls Church, Virginia in November 2016.

 

Related reading:

CC Capsule: 1991 Saab 900 – The Quintessential Saab   Brendan Saur

Curbside Classic: 1993 Saab 900 Turbo – Not Lagging In Appeal   Paul Niedermeyer

Saab: The Eulogy   Paul Niedermeyer