(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.
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.
With the exception of the manual choke, the picture above reveals how the “center console” looked.
My 900 may not have had alloys that came with the Turbo, but these have to be among the most beautiful modern wheelcovers ever.
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.
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!
A very nice read! Reading this makes me miss Saab in general, and especially when Saabs were true Saabs. I can honestly say they’d be a next car consideration for me if they were still being produced.
Funny you should mention Bates, as two of my good friends go there and run XC and track for Bates. I’m actually planning a trip up there to visit some weekend this fall.
Let me extend a warm CC welcome and say that we look forward to the rest of your COAL series.
Thank you so much for the welcome Brendan and too funny about Bates! I was on the rugby club and I’ll refrain from sharing our Bates rugby song here in mixed company!
Putting it in first before engaging reverse will save your reverse gear. Since the ignition isn’t on the steering column they had to lock it to reverse gear instead of the wheel like most cars. My ’93 has the 16 valve n/a 2.1 motor and is actually pretty peppy/torquey. Lack of cupholders does get old after awhile.. I just spilled a 21 oz coke on the floor the other day.
Mine also had the 16V 2.1. I found them to be adequate at sea level, but driving over the Rockies, and over Tioga Pass gave my left leg a workout. The 75mph speed limit on I-80 was difficult to maintain.. I’m in the market for a 16V turbo now!
I remember the Saab 900. At the time I didn’t find it particularly attractive. It looked nice from the front, but looking at the rear of the car, I found it hideous. I couldn’t imagine, at the time, why anyone would want one. How times have changed. I was just a teenager at the time this car was in production, and my taste in cars was different.
Having driven both, I prefer the way the 8 valve motor runs, but like the shovel nose and better bumper integration on the newer cars. My dad SOLD me his 82 Nissan Sentra when I needed a college car…5 speed, vinyl seat, rubber floor mat no a/c car…A Saab would have been a lot more fun.
Does anybody know what the rationale was for having the ignition cylinder between the seats? I mean, other than being different? 🙂
I can see some benefit to not having junk hanging off the column or dashboard with the wad of keys that I carry. It also would seem to ensure your knees wouldn’t come in contact with keys and key chains in an accident.
But, as the author pointed out, the risk of getting liquid into that tumbler is a definite downside.
Since I’ve never owned a Saab 900, I wouldn’t know. I’ve never seen it on other cars. It could be a security system. It’d be difficult to start the car if you couldn’t find the ignition in the usual place.
I think it might have been marketed as a safety feature, but it was really because it was easier to design an interlock into the shifter rather than the unique (and rather fragile) steering column assembly.
It’s a shame then that other car makers don’t use this type of ignition system.
Saab safety researchers saw key impressions in the flesh of accident victims.
It’s also tied to the seat belt placement, allowing the driver to latch the belt and then immediately insert the key.
Why not? If you want to start your car, you buckle up. I do that anyway. 🙂
“Saab safety researchers saw key impressions in the flesh of accident victims.”
the correct solution to that- which the entire industry moved to- is to design cars which don’t fold up like aluminum foil in a collision.
The Smart Fortwo also has its ignition between the seats. I can’t think of any others.
I’ve never owned or driven a Smart ForTwo before.
There was a definite rationale. Saab’s thinking was that if a lock on the steering column acted up and locked when it wasn’t supposed to, you’d be unable to steer. Being unable to shift = much less bad.
I had the steering lock fail on my E30 once on my way to NJ late night from the Lower East Side…that was frightening. Managed to get the key turned just enough to loosen the wheel, but it wouldn’t turn to the start position. Finally I got it to the “run” position, somehow got it out of the parallel space with Armstrong steering and my feet, then a nice man helped me bumpstart it and I drove home with my right hand on the key, ensuring it wouldn’t turn off, shifting and steering with my left. The holland tunnel? Harrowing. So lucky.
Nice write up on a car that I would see frequently enough, but never actually knew even a remote acquaintance that had one. These were quirky looking cars, but I found them good looking in their own way. Quite the contrast to the Ford Tempo featured today that was quirky, but just rather ugly at the end of the day.
A very nice read. Our family physician owned/drove nothing but Saabs back in the day.
Odd with the ignition. Maybe its a gimmick.
My 1984 Saab 900 was likewise one of my favorite all-timers as well for all the same reasons you mentioned. Well put. I think you have to live with one of these cars to truly understand their appeal. I once read that the ignition switch was a response to a plague of people turning up in emergency rooms with keys embedded in their kneecaps.
Another cool thing about these is the way the door incorporates the door sill in one assembly, you just step right in instead of over a (perpetually dirty) sill. A true product of thoughtful design.
Nice story, good to see a COAL on a Sunday morning again, now all is right with the world! (well at least in this little corner). Lucky guy getting a brand new Saab, we’re about the same age it seems and I remember lusting after these back then. I still like them, the styling is unlike anything else out there, and the seats are oh so comfortable. I’m glad you enjoyed yours and look forward to reading more stories!
Thank you so much for all the nice comments! I was indeed a lucky guy and I heard that the rational for the key was related to the key to the knee issue, although I also heard it was harder to smash the ignition apart when stealing the car as well!
Thank you so much Paul for your edits and photos!
Ah the time old switch from European to Japanese, rarely made out of passion.
Great story, and one that brings back memories, because in the early 1990s I bought a used 1988 900 Turbo (in Edwardian Gray, probably the same color as yours). What you said about the 900 combining “nearly everything I like best in a car” holds true for me too. In many ways I wish I could have a 900 again.
Then again, a used Saab wasn’t really the wisest choice for me. Maintenance was expensive and often… more so that I could manage. Eventually, I too got the “clicking in reverse” problem, which was one too many repairs for me to justify. I sold it to someone who worked at a Saab dealership, who presumably could get the needed repairs done affordably.
But I loved that car — the comfort, the roominess, the versatility, and the excellent performance. Nothing I’ve owned since has quite matched it. When it ran, of course.
Thanks for sharing your story! I’ve owned 2 of these old 900s over the last 12 years, all through college, and even drove one NY-CA three times…I would never let anyone borrow the car, because I would need to write a manual to cover all of it’s quirks…To get the car into reverse without crunching, after coming to a stop, I would always shift into first gear before reverse to line up the gears…never crunched again!
Same with mine Matt. Nobody can borrow it because I’m the only one who understands all its charming idiosyncrasies
I heartily concur that driving a slow vehicle fast is when you have the most fun. I used to run around on a 1965 BSA C15 250cc. The BSA unit single was a willing little lump, but not super-powerful. The bike had a nice low centre of gravity and handled very well, for its time. I used to thrash the nuts off that bike everywhere I went and had huge amounts of fun, but I was generally within the speed limit and relatively safe. Bigger bikes I’ve ridden can’t get used to anything like their potential on public roads without danger of license loss and death.
Definitely agree with that sentiment. In my case it was a 1969 BSA A50R Royal Star. Which had the misfortune to look just like an A65 Lightning or Thunderbolt, but had all of 22hp. Just the same, it was a howl on the backroad twisties, throttle wide open and hauling butt.
Definitely different from the 1998 Honda 996 Super Hawk I just took ownership of. First shakedown ride this morning, and it was definitely treat it gingerly until I got a bit more used to it.
Syke, try riding a 75cc Honda flat out on a 50 mph (90 kph) rural highway with some hills and tight curves! I still wonder what the handling would have been like with sticky tires and maybe better gearing, but it’s hard to do much with 4.5 horsepower. I still remember countersteering through 25 mph curves at 35 in Third then upshifting to Fourth on the run downhill before crossing a creek and then the next climb and curve prompting a downshift back into Third. Fun times, but I sure envied my friends with their 125s and 175s.
Ditto on driving a slow vehicle fast.
My dd is a first generation Honda Insight. On one of my regular routes there is a long freeway on-ramp. I shift into second at the bottom, hold it there with my right foot flat to the boards and merge onto the freeway at 100km/hour before shifting straight into 5th for the cruise.
With its 1 litre, 3 cylinder-plus-electric-motor power plant it’s sewing machine smooth up to the 6,000+ rpm redline. Not a lot of power (even if pushing only about 850kg kerb weight) but I love hearing the little car giving its all right up that ramp.
And it’s within the speed limit!
I am forced to disagree here. While it may indeed be fun to drive a slow car fast (a friend’s Fiat 850 Spider comes to mind); what is even more fun is to drive a fast car fast. At least IMHO few things in life are more satisfying than the punch in the back you get when you floor the gas on a big inch, high performance car. I would not trade one run through the gears in a 454 Chevelle for six months of driving any Honda ever built, at least not one with more than two wheels. It is not just old fast cars that are fun to drive either, a couple of months ago I got to drive a late model Dodge Charger for a couple of hours on a pleasant afternoon. A very rewarding car to drive, and, unlike a 454 Chevelle, one that will actually go around corners and stop.
Obviously one can’t always drive fast (in any car) and you have to pick and choose your spots. The important thing is to enjoy yourself, have fun, and not attract the attention of the police.
Had one and liked it. It did not love me and I gave it one too many chances. It died through no fault of it’s own when it overheated and blew a hose while climbing the Houston ship channel bridge with slow traffic. I always wish that I could have bought it new. Felt the same about the similarly worn out Volvo that I had.
Went to a Saturn SL. No regrets. Driving a slow car fast is better when they don’t break.
Thanks for the story, Matt!
One thing caught my eye because I miss it so much in my current car:”….the front suspension was a double-wishbone design with long travel.” It’s that ‘long travel’ I miss. I wonder if there even exists a smallish car with long travel suspension.
Also, I just purchased a used car for my Nr. 2 son. I hope he will remember the event as fondly as you do yours as the years pass by.
Ooo, neat, a Saab! What a great car to have for your first time out, it was very interesting to read about. Quite a bit nicer than the Hyundai that served me faithfully for almost 4 years.
I went and looked at a lump of one in the back yard of a nurses house one time.
She advertised it for four hundred dollars in the statewide newspaper and I looked at it. The engine was locked up and it had been setting there for a couple of years at least but the sunroof opened with the first pull.
That impressed me, I want one.
Looking at new cars today, and how *hideous* most of them look, I’d choose this in a heartbeat.
Auburn had a Saab dealer?
Yes Auburn did! It was a combination Toyota and Saab dealer at the north end of the commercial strip (I think it was on route 4).
Fun fact: Bond/007 drove a turbo one of these in the John Gardener novels. Great series that continued on from Flemming. Who would have thunk it! A Saab 900 Aero a bond car.
Thank you for this story. It was so much fun to read.
When I was a child in RI there was a junk yard near my grandmother’s house and I used to go and sit in the cars; I was drawn to the European cars because their interiors were so much nicer than the American and Japanese cars. And Saabs were one of my favorites. I wanted my parents to buy one so badly.
Half-way through college my parents gave me their 1982 VW Rabbit with a diesel engine and manual 5-speed. I had never driven a small front wheel drive car before and I fell in love with driving it; even though it was extremely slow it felt fast and being able to shift the gears when I wanted made a tremendous difference.
Great story, Matt. You bring back to mind the brief but torrid infatuation I had with the Saab Turbo in 1985. But then I bought a GTI. I was spending my own money, and while the Saab 900 was pretty closely priced, the Turbo was quite a bit pricier.
And I agree with the joys of driving a slow car fast. Miataaaaaaa!
Nice writeup, and lucky you to be given a new Saab, even if it was a base model! I was also given my first car at age 16 but the car was one year older than I was at the time…
I feel your pain on the payments as well, as many of us do I’m sure. The first four cars I owned were bought (or gifted) outright, but since 2004, I haven’t owned anything long enough to pay it off completely.
Great write up Matt! As a SAAB fan and owner, the 900 is what drew me in, especially the convertible. I always pined for a 9000, but by the time money was available to buy one they were out of production. I finally took the plunge 8 years ago and bought a 9-3 Aero convertible…I love it for the rush of the turbo pull and the usual SAAB idiosyncrasies. Except the constant electrical gremlins (the passenger dock lock has never worked right; the passenger window goes all the way up and then down 1/3 most times, and as of yesterday the fan blower motor burned out….) I guess it goes hand-in-hand with European ownership.
Funny your dad’s reflection is the same as mine…beating a slow car like a rented mule is often more fun than a fast car…I had an out of body experience many years ago driving my ’81 Corolla 1.8 down the entire PCH….it was a blast.
Your Corolla was probably the apex of Corollas….the ’93 – ’97 series was over-engineered as Toyota was still spreading Lexus development costs throughout the extended family. Great and long-lasting cars.
Looking forward to chapter 2…