COAL: 1983 Saab 900 – My Saab Story


 (The pictures in this post are borrowed from Google image search.)

 This COAL is dedicated to my Mom who was there for me through this ordeal.

 It was the Spring of 1998, my Grad School career had abruptly ended a year earlier. I found a job working for a small company for not much more than minimum wage. Money was tight and my automotive luck had run out. My 1986 Pontiac Grand Am had just suffered transmission failure. The loaner Chrysler LeBaron from my Dad’s fleet was severely damaged in a hit and run. My Mom was generous enough to lend me her 1987 Chrysler New Yorker Turbo. Unfortunately, the New Yorker was totaled in a one car accident a week after she had loaned it to me. I was utterly humiliated!

I thought I had hit the lowest point possible. I had no more than $400, zero mechanical skills, and needed a car for work. With the world wide web relatively new, I relied on Auto Trader to help me find my next vehicle. Due to my limited funds I had three options:


Option 1: Two 1981 Ford Thunderbirds. Neither vehicle was running but the seller guaranteed that I could make one operable vehicle out of the two hulks. 


Option 2: 1980 Dodge St. Regis. I so wanted this car. It was brown and seemed relatively straight. However, the owner assured me that although it ran and drove it would never pass Maryland State Inspection in part because it had no exhaust system and for other reasons that he did not really want to get into.


Option 3: 1983 Saab 900 sedan. Ran and drove with 180,000 miles dealer serviced. I called the seller who told me that it was her daughter’s daily driver. While she could not guarantee that the car would pass inspection, there was no reason for it not to since it was driven daily by her daughter.

I really wanted the St. Regis but needed something that would pass inspection because I needed a car for work. The two Thunderbirds sounded intriguing but I had zero mechanical skills, space, or money to tackle such a project. At the time, it seemed like the Saab was the logical choice so I called the seller to make the appointment.


I showed up there with my girlfriend (who would eventually become my wife) expecting an ugly rusted eyesore of a car but was very pleasantly surprised. As far as I know, the above is not a picture of the actual car but it looked identical to this picture I took from the Internet. The fact that we lived in Maryland and the pictured car has D.C. plates makes me wonder if it’s the same car. 


The car was a base non turbo model with the 2 liter four cylinder model with 116 HP. The only “luxury” features on the car were air conditioning, automatic transmission, cruise control – which I never used – and an aftermarket tape deck which funnily enough, was the same unit that came with my ’76 Camaro. Small world, I guess.


I immediately fell in love with its styling and European flavor after having only owned American cars. I liked the full set of gauges and especially liked the novelty of the ignition key in the center console which was a Saab hallmark at the time. The AC blew ice cold, the car started right up and sounded strong, there was a new oil change sticker, and there were no dents and very, very little rust. The interior was spotless except for a slightly sagging headliner. To top it off, I loved the folding rear seat, something none of my previous sedans had before. Little did I know how handy it would come in later.

The seller gave us the keys and told us to drive for as long as we wanted to, so the two of us got in the car and drove it for a good hour. The car accelerated well with no strange sounds. It was the first car I had driven with four wheel disc brakes so I was amazed at its stopping ability. Everything was great until the very end of the test drive when we heard a hissing noise. At first I thought flat tire or other mechanical failure until I looked at my girlfriend who seemed so much shorter all of a sudden. Apparently, her seat bottom had broken and she was now practically sitting on the floor! No problem I said, we’ll just get some throw pillows to boost the seat back up. If this was the only problem with this “exotic” car, to me, it was still a bargain.

So we want back to the seller who unexpectedly took $50 off the price of the car with one proviso: once we took possession of the title, we were to  take the car, and never ever contact her again. This made us a little suspicious but aside from the seat, there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the car so we gave her the money and I took ownership of my first and to this day only European car. 

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Things were great for the first two weeks or so. We took the car on all our adventures, including trips to the beach. Trouble started when the passenger side door lock mechanism failed. You could lock the door but could not unlock it using the key. You had to manually unlock it from the inside. No problem, I still had one working door lock. Two days later I ate my words. Outside the grocery store, I filled my trunk with groceries and returned the shopping cart. I unlocked the driver’s door with my key like always and pulled on the door handle which promptly came off in my hands. The passenger side door was locked so I was effectively locked out of the car.

I had no choice but to empty the groceries from the trunk onto the ground, crawl into the trunk and force the rear seat down in order to gain access to the interior. All this while my fellow shoppers looked on with amusement. It’s a wonder that no one called the police! Until the broken door handle was eventually fixed, I had to open the door from the passenger’s side and I could never lock the car again. Driving home from the grocery store, the end of the turn signal stalk broke and was hanging by a wire…I ended up taping it back on.


And the fun continued…. the car left me stranded twice in two weeks, once in a rain storm, the other in the dead of night on the side of the road due to electrical gremlins. By this time the Inspection deadline had passed. I knew it was not going to pass inspection but I had to get to work so I drove it anyway until the Maryland State Police also noticed that my inspection date was up…they said inspect it or else!  I went to my bosses and told them the problem. They said to leave the car with them for the weekend. When I got the car back on Monday, it had a genuine, legal inspection certificate. I didn’t ask.


For the next month or so, the car was OK besides the fact that I couldn’t lock the doors (my bosses fixed the outside door handle that came off but the door lock was now broken). At this point the headliner began to disintegrate so whenever you exited the car you had what seemed like stardust flakes in your hair that you had to brush off. After this, the automatic transmission began to misbehave. In order to get sufficient power from the engine, you had to shift manually from 1 to 2 to 3.

By the way, the engine was actually very good. When it shifted properly, it was smooth and powerful and the car handled very well: it was the first car I had driven that could get me to triple digit speeds without feeling like I was at the edge of control. In addition, the AC blew ice cold all the time. Anyway, I did not mind the transmission so much…I just pretended I had a stick shift!  


The car then began leaking coolant from the recovery bottle. At this point I had neither the money to get a new one from Saab nor have it installed so I went to a junkyard and found one from there and did my first ever DIY auto repair job…still proud of that to this day. The ultimate disaster struck maybe a month later when it refused to start. In the glove box, I found an old receipt from the dealer in the town where I bought the car. I called them to seek their advice. They knew the car immediately!

They said that the car was a total lemon and they had told the previous owner that it was no longer worth their while to work on it and it was good for parts only…they were appalled and distressed that the car was still on the road! They urged me to junk it immediately! Over the phone, they diagnosed the problem to be the starter; banging on it hard enough would make the car start. After they helped me with that, as with the previous owner they told me never to contact them again because there was nothing more they could do and did not want to feel responsible for what would happen if I continued to operate the car. Great!


The banging on the starter trick worked for a while but inevitably, the time came when it no longer started no matter how hard I banged on it. I checked with a local repair shop and it was $600 installed with a used starter! I was utterly dejected since I did not have the funds. My girlfriend and I shared her parents’ reliable Mazda for a while until the need for two cars forced me to reluctantly make an SOS to Mom and Dad.


After the starter was fixed the car was actually pretty reliable and I took it on a few relatively long trips. However, I didn’t quite trust it after all it put us through and I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. At this time, my girlfriend was ready to buy her first brand new car, and we had gotten engaged a few months earlier so we used the Saab as her trade in.

One good thing that came out of this fiasco is that Mom and I bonded over it. She was encouraging and willing to listen to my Saab stories that I emailed her regularly to talk about what was happening with the Saab. She still has those e-mails to this day. In a sense, she was my first COAL reader.


At the time, because of my youth and extremely limited budget, I categorized this episode as my worst automotive decision ever. In retrospect, it really wasn’t that bad. The car had nearly 200,000 miles on it – not bad for an 80’s car – plus the entire experience cost me at most 1,500 bucks including the price of the car. Nearly ten years later, I would spend eight times that with nothing to show for it in what amounts to the worst auto decision I ever made. But that’s a story for later on in this series.

My next COAL marks my return to my more traditional automotive choices.