Cars Of A Lifetime: 1989 Saab 9000 Turbo – What Kind Of Story?

Perhaps readers will recall some of the cars that I have been given over the years. An LTD Crown Vic, a Ford Tempo, a VW Rabbit GTI; are you noticing a trend here? Little to my knowledge at the time I was about to continue the tradition by receiving one Saab 9000 CD, gratis. I think you can guess how that went, but let me expand on the “merits” of Saab ownership.

I have a friend named Walky who has a certain something for Saabs. Not just any old Saab; we’re talking the rescue dog equivalent. He can often be found driving a Saab that looks great until you see the other side, or that runs great, until it doesn’t.  When he came to this country from Haiti at the age of nine, he had no experience with cars at all. And Walky’s adoptive family has usually bought the most boring products from GM or Chrysler, so I guess I can see why something adventurous and different might appeal to him. But really, Saabs?

One day Walky comes by my house and says the words I cringe to hear: “can you help me with this car”? He reveals to me his newest fling, a 1989 Saab 9000 CD hatchback. It looks straight; I wonder whats wrong with it, hmm…


Turns out it had a few issues (surprised?). Firstly, the ABS motor was dead. In a regular (as in not Saab) car this would simply mean that the ABS would not work, but you’d never notice until you needed ABS. Not on this car, where it meant that the brakes were very, very hard. Of course the price of a new ABS unit was something akin to the US GDP for 1989. A used one you say? Not to be found of course, as all of them had been snatched up by other Saab owners who were less moneyed than Bill Gates.

So that’s issue number one. But then there was the matter of the key and ignition. Saabs of that era used a laser cut key that cannot be bought at the locksmith. One has to get one from Saab, and I will let your imagination fill in the blank price tag on that.  Someone had lost the key and now only the sharp little foreshortened wallet key remained. But upon insertion into the ignition cylinder any number of things might happen when one turned it.

It might turn over several times and then stop turning over, at which point one had to turn the key all the way to the off position to try again. It might turn over several times and then start, only to immediately die because one was trying to keep it turning over, and accidentally shut it off. Or, it might just click and do nothing; one never knew. But every now and then, just to piss one off, it might just start right up! But once running, it did run very nicely, that is until it came time to stop. Ah, the joys of Saab ownership.

I was baffled so I called the only local Saab mechanic. He seemed not to want any more business and not to give a crap about the one he owned. So I was at a loss and sent Walky away with the same problems he had come with.

Sometime latter Walky left the Saab at at my house because he was tired of its problems and was hoping I could magically fix it.  Eventually he called up and told me he wanted to give me the Saab. I told him I would just sell it, but he still wanted me to have it. Ok, I was grateful to him because I know he had paid money for the car.  I made one terrible mistake though. I began driving it now and then, when it would start. Indeed, when it was running, it did have a certain je ne sais quoi about it. I wished very hard that it was just a small problem that could be rectified with a minor outlay of cash. But I was fairly certain from my research that it had something to do with the coil pack. An expensive part of course, and I could not be sure that was it.

Coil pack in red

The Saab handled very well indeed and felt rather sporty. One day I decided to see if it would live up to it’s reputation as a fast car. I got it on a long straight stretch of country road and floored it. Acceleration was not impressive. As it gained momentum, the speedometer started to climb. At about ninety miles per hour the car started to vibrate. I kept the pedal to the floor and the vibrations grew in proportions squared to the velocity at which I was traveling. At around one hundred and ten miles per hour I had to back off.

Of course, that was another problem: stopping. The acceleration was so slow that I had used up alot of my road getting up to speed. Now as I was standing on the brakes with my back wedged against the seat, the road was quickly coming to an end. An end that T junctioned into a busier main road, beyond which was a muddy farm field. I visualized being T boned and both cars flying off into the field.  Now I began to worry that I would break the seat back, I was standing on the brakes so hard.

But it did come to a stop of sorts. I was now doing about thirty five miles per hour, as I approached the stop sign. I had enough time to see that the main road was clear to my left. If it had not have been, I would have had to have ditched into the shoulder on my right. But I turned it into a fast right through the stop sign and a fast left down another road to bleed off speed.  That was enough adventure for a day or so.

Eventually, the solution to my Saab problem became quite evident. I was parked at the downtown parkade. I had just come from meeting with a friend and had a job interview to get to. I was working for our church at the time, and had been in on the discussion about a lack of funds. I voted that we should eliminate my position, so I knew it was time to find some real work! I said a little prayer and turned the key of the Saab; click, click! I sighed a deep inward sigh . I had given plenty of time for this eventuality, so I tried again, and again, and again. It would seemed to start after about the one hundredth or so try, but in tring to make it go, I’d accidentally shut it off.

Time to try a hundred more times; the sharp little key began to make my finger bleed. I stopped. If one left it sit all day, it would always start on the first try. The only warm place to go was Starbucks, and I hate Starbucks. After using all of my allotted emergency time in Starbucks, I went back to the Saab.  The clock said I would be late for the interview if it did not start in the next few tries. I said a silent prayer, this time with a bit more petitioning and a bit less pleading. I turned the key, it started up, and then immediately shut off, not to start again. God seemed to be laughing at me (who wouldn’t, I was trying to drive a decrepit Saab from the 80’s like it was a real car or something?). I missed the interview, took the bus home, came back letter that evening, collected the parking tickets from the windshield, started it right up and drove it home to park and never drive it agian!

I put it up for sale on Ebay or one dollar starting bid with no reserve. I was careful to describe all of it’s issues and to take lots of pictures. A man from Ashland, Oregon bought it for twelve hundred dollars. He said he wanted to take the train to Salem and drive it back. I told him his chances of starting it were very slim and that stopping it was just as slim. But he insisted, so I picked him up at the train station and took him to the Saab.

He looked it over very carefully. I look of disappointment gradually crept over his face.  He turned to me and said “the pictures made it look better”. I said, I just took them and posted them, not betterment involved.  He said he was going to pass on it. I mentioned to him that his bid was final and that I had fully disclosed the condition of the car. He said even if I refunded him, he was out for the train ride and that he was aware of that and it was his own foolishness. So I gave him back his money, minus the listing and final value fees and re-listed it.  Eventually someone else bought it for nine hundred and trailer-ed it home to be used as a parts car for his other Saabs. He was very happy to get it and I was very happy to get rid of it. And that is the first and last Saab I have ever owned.