COAL: 1993 SAAB 900- The Most(ly) Intelligent Cars Ever Built

They’re like U2: Love them, hate them, or don’t know anything about them. Of twelve cars owned in fourteen years of licensed driving, this is by far the longest and most intense relationship.

I’m a lifelong gearhead. But, growing up in lower Michigan created a chasm in my knowledge of anything import. Detroit iron is/was the rule. Subaru fever hasn’t reached my homeland, to this day. If kid-me thought about SAABs at all, I interpreted them as yuppie cars, without the BMW/Mercedes status, that my parents would never consider owning. Kind of a weird VW. Hence, of little interest.

SAAB 900 in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”

The Lumet film “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead” features a SAAB 900. I was eighteen when the film was released, and remember thinking the SAAB to be a terribly ugly old car. Why would Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s sociopathic finance executive drive that thing?

About five years later, I start as a salesman at a Ford/Jeep/Chrysler/Dodge outfit. I’m quickly on my way to becoming an encyclopedia of product knowledge, and can fly through Ford’s web-based certification processes.

At my one month mark, Frank transfers in from some other franchise. I’m becoming halfway proficient at transitioning ups (people who wander onto the lot) into sales. He gives me his ups, and I do his online training. If Frank had another brain, it would be lonely. But, he has a god given knack for pegging people to the car they want, even if they don’t know it. Like watching Cupid shoot an arrow.

My trusty rusty J10

I’m driving a clapped out ’82 Jeep J10 (the pickup based on the Wagoneers). 55 feels like 105. Fun, but not for a 50 mile daily commute. Frank says something along the lines of “you should be driving a SAAB; you are a total SAAB guy”. It’s obviously a thinly veiled insult. Between the lines is “SAABists are pedantic know-it-alls, impossible to sell, and too nerdy to buy bimmers”. Somehow his comment resonates. His summation of my character isn’t too far off. If I must be painted in such light, at least the guy is accurate.

Being the new guy, with no established clientele, at a rural dealership, I have plenty of time for googling. I try to keep it automotive related, lest the sales manager think my job is reading The New Yorker. After thorough research, the SAAB classic 900 (1979-1993), seems ideal, considering my $3,000 budget. If I’m going to jump into SAABdom, might as well start with the icon of the breed. The car is nerdy, but for all the right reasons. Practical and thoughtful Scandinavian design.

Finding a non-rusty 5-speed (a requirement, the auto is a 3 speed slushbox) in Michigan proves to be a challenge. These cars were thin on Midwestern soil, even when new. After a couple weeks of intense craigslist-obsessive-behavior, I find one in Berkley, MI. A banker had purchased it on eBay, and the seller (an outfit famous for misrepresenting old Range Rovers), had conned him, regarding its condition.

My SAAB shortly after purchase. Not much has changed visually, other than wheels and euro headlamps. I ripped the fog lights off on the bottom of a steep hill, shortly after this was taken.

A black 5 speed 3 door, with the 2.1 liter non-turbo and tan Bridge of Weir leather interior. It has 100,000 miles, and is cosmetically clapped out. But, it has good bones, no rust, and the price is right.

I’ve come to know Dave pretty well. I should request some sort of frequent customer discount.

The next seven years cement my love affair with this car. It requires an active relationship. Seasonal visits to the mechanic, for whatever I can’t handle, seem to be a rule, rather than exception. The amount of work and money I’ve poured into it is pretty extreme, considering its actual value. Some parts are becoming quite difficult/expensive/impossible to source. But, wrenching has become a meditative process, and daily driving this old car is still less than the monthly note on a new car. Plus, guessing whether it will start (or not) is an adventure!

I’ve given up on trying to make it perfect. I’m embracing splits in the rear seat seams (already had them re-stitched once, not doing that again). I was pretty upset when my dog attempted to eat his way out of the car through the headliner, which I had already reupholstered. Now, it’s a fun anecdote of life with dog.

Bad dog.

Exterior paint is single stage enamel. It is a treat to polish; I now loathe clearcoat. The interior bits are pretty easy to pull apart. I’ve taken apart the dash so many times I could probably remove it while blindfolded. Overall, the car is a good ten-footer. I’ve never cleaned the engine bay. I have a (probably unfounded) aversion to the idea. Like I don’t want to wash away whatever oil is holding vital components together.

My latest project involved adding an iphone charger/aux input to the factory radio.

While working in car sales, I hung around the service department way too much, and got to know some of the body guys.  Hood was painted for a box of donuts + cost of materials.

It is a driver’s car, but not a sports car. With its long-travel double-wishbone front suspension, and decent ground clearance, it’s capable on rugged terrain, but not at the cost of composure at high speeds. I’ve traversed some pretty extreme forest roads; never bottomed out. Stuck off-road only twice. I keep a tow strap, and both times it was able to be extracted by a Jeep. No drama, or suspension damage. Top speed is 117 indicated, and it feels reasonably composed at that speed.

Compared to new designs, the chassis doesn’t feel particularly rigid. In comparison, my girlfriend’s Honda Fit drives like a go-kart. But, it feels very solid and safe, without being frumpy (like that other Swedish brand). Removing the interior door panels and viewing the massive side impact beams reinforces this perception. Narrow tires, and front weight bias, combined with whatever wheel geometry SAAB baked in provide excellent and very predictable handling and traction in snow/slippery road conditions. With winter tires, this car feels much more composed at speed than a traditional body-on-frame 4×4 truck or SUV.

For the uninitiated, the gearboxes on these things are pretty bad. First time I drove it I thought it had a bad transmission. It feels imprecise, rubbery, and notchy, all at once. The synchros feel synchro-ey. Once you get used to it, it is OK. The ratios are adequately spaced. I always rev match and take my time to switch gears. With seven years of practice, buttery shifting is second nature. Quality synthetic gearbox oil has improved the feel. At least it doesn’t have completely shot synchros or pop out of reverse, like so many of them. I would not recommend these as a vehicle on which to learn stick, and you may not borrow mine for such purpose.

The 2.1 liter dual overhead cam engine has never left me longing for the turbo. Power is very linear and there is plenty of torque. Horsepower is around 140. The car only weighs 2,750 lbs, so acceleration is fine. Although, engaging the A/C compressor completely neuters it. Being of a somewhat large displacement for a four cylinder, there is quite a bit of rotational mass, so it isn’t near as creamy as say a BMW I6. But, it isn’t a coffee grinder, either. No balance shaft, but it is oversquare. Compression ratio is 10.5/1, and it breathes well. Redline is around 5,500 radical penny munchers, and I’ve unintentionally pegged it against the limiter at around 6,000 a few times. It doesn’t complain. But, it doesn’t sing like a small displacement Honda at high RPMs, either.

Like the rest of the car, the engine feels like a good compromise. It has fat torque at low revs, plenty of passing power a bit higher in the powerband, no turbo lag, and doesn’t it get wheezy when pegged. Average MPG is around 25. Pretty decent, considering I’m a fan of the Italian tune-up.

OK, thoughtful little things that I love:

The door sills are recessed into the floorpan, so you don’t get your pant legs dirty when you get into the car. The hatchback is simply enormous, and there is no lip at the bottom of the hatch opening. With the rear seats folded, straight and flat from the bumper to the front seats. More of a wagon than hatch.

There is a setting on the climate control to simultaneously blow cool air from the dash vents, and warm air from the floor vents. The instrument cluster is lighted from the front, instead of being backlit. The headlight wipers are appreciated in the road-salt-grime season. The rear window was designed as to be enveloped by a blanket of air while driving at speed. So, no need for a rear wiper.

The seats are ergonomically designed and uber-comfortable. Visibility is amazing (fishbowl on wheels). There is a map light behind the rear view mirror for, you know, actually reading a map. The glove-box light is green, as to not impede night vision.

I don’t think any other SAAB cc articles have mentioned the Toppola camper, which replaces the rear hatch. Ultimate SAAB accessory?

There are so many more interesting tidbits about these cars, like the way the hood opens, the way the powertrain is laid out, etc. Not surprisingly, curbsideclassicers seem to respect SAABs, and there is plenty already written:

Paul’s SAAB 900 writeup

Road & Track tests a 1979 900 Turbo

bringatrailer’s SAAB 900 writeup