Turbocharging was once the domain of the fast and exotic, till Saab got to work and offered the Saab 900.
Prior to the 1980s, mainstream British motoring was largely devoid of turbochargers. During the 1960s, Chevrolet and Oldsmobile had experimented with turbocharging in the US, and BMW and Porsche were to go further the following decade by developing two iconic sports cars the 2002 Turbo and 911 Turbo respectively. But neither of these were the sort of vehicles you’d see very often in the real world. Especially not suburban Berkshire.
The car that truly ushered in turbocharging for the common man came from an unexpected source Saab. The small Swedish manufacturer realised that to remain competitive in the vital American market, the performance and economy of its cars had to go up, while emissions had to go down. Without the means to develop a new engine, it instead turned to turbocharging, a field in which it already had some considerable experience thanks to its links with Scania trucks.
The Saab 99 Turbo was unleashed in 1977, but it wasn’t until 1979 that the Swedes got everything completely right with the launch of the 900 Turbo. This reincarnation of the 99 concept – styling was updated, a new interior fitted, and the wheelbase was extended by two inches – managed to pull off the near impossible trick of being reassuringly safe and solid yet hugely exciting at the same time.
Whether by accident or by design – and, being Scandinavian, it was probably very clever design – Saab managed to create one of the most desirable performance cars of the 1980s. What truly made the 900 stand out from the crowd was its blend of performance with practicality, with everything wrapped up in a handsome automotive package that didn’t just appeal to Mr Average Driver but could also be afforded by him as well.
Saab continued to refine the Turbo throughout the 1980s and on into the 1990s. Despite spawning a host of imitators – once the floodgates had been opened, it was inevitable that other manufacturers would come forth with their equivalents – the Trollhattan manufacturer managed to stay on top with the thinking person’s turbo of choice. The first cars offered 145bhp, almost 50 per cent up on the normally-aspirated standard versions. With the advent of the 16-valve model of 1985, that power jumped to 175bhp, while tuners could extract more than 200 if they tried hard. Which had a similar effect to strapping a jet engine to an IKEA wardrobe.
Bearing in mind today’s automotive environment of constant styling nips and tucks, you have to give respect to Saab for ploughing its own distinctive path for such a long time. Like Volkswagen with its Beetle, Citroën with its 2CV, fellow Swede Volvo with its 140/240 range and BMC/BL/Rover with the Mini, Saab hit upon a shape it liked and stuck with it. The 99 model dates back to 1967; for the 900, there was only a minor facelift necessary to take the car right the way through to 1993, a production run of 26 years. Even then, General Motor’s disappointing replacement aped the old design, taking the general look through to 2002.
This makes the 900 an instantly familiar machine, and a reassuring one at that. The typical Swedish approach to engineering is to build with all the structural integrity of a preglobal warming Arctic glacier. That means the 900 exudes quality and robustness, from its stocky black moose-proof bumpers through to those hefty rear haunches concealing the capacious luggage area. On the two-door coupé – the body style that most Turbos came in – the doors seem massive and very heavy, far thicker than many cars of the era. They shut with the resonating thud that inspires total confidence. With no conventional sills to clamber over – they’re inset because the doors plunge down so low to envelop them – this is one of the easier classics to clamber in and out of.
Inside, the spacious – and thankfully heated seats – place you in front of an aircraft-inspired dashboard populated by plenty of chunky switches and circular knobs. The aviation theme is reinforced by the panoramic windscreen. Visibility is excellent, the A-posts hardly intruding into the driver’s usual visual sweep.
Where to put the key? Oh yes, down on the centre console, between the gearstick and handbrake (Saab’s favourite security feature being a transmission lock). Turn it and... To be honest, nothing much actually happens. There’s no meaty roar and great gulp of air as one of the great performance models of its era stirs into life. On the contrary, the polite metallic cough of the electronic ignition is followed by a small rush of revs that instantly drops back into a quiet and civilised idle.
And the 900 stays that way – at least until you can get it somewhere to properly exploit the Garret AiResearch whirligig under the bonnet. Around town and at slow speeds, it feels very normal, almost mundane. It’s responsive enough and an easy car to drive, with very well-balanced power steering that’s suited to what feels like a large, heavy vehicle. But there’s nothing much special going on.
Out in the open, though, the 900 becomes a different beast. At 1800rpm, the turbo cuts in, feeling for all the world like a giant has just put two hands on the Saab’s backside and shoved hard. You’re pushed back in your seat by a surge of acceleration that takes the unwary by surprise. Care is needed on bends, especially in the wet, for torque steer is provoked by the boost cutting in as the wheel is turned. But it’s on A-roads and motorways that the 900 excels. It is one of the great overtakers cruising along, there’s no need to drop a gear to get past a slow-moving obstacle, just floor the accelerator and the turbocharger does the rest. Top gear in a Turbo is like third gear in something else.
This level of performance is thrilling. But what gives it an extra edge is the knowledge that you’re in a car where the handling and safety are more than a match for the potential to get into trouble. The front-wheel drive is predictable and neutral, there’s little roll, the ride is smooth and well-damped, and the brakes are well up to the task of stopping this hefty block of Scandinavian granite. Even now that turbochargers are part of everyday motoring life, you can still see what all the fuss was about.
Torque: 201lb ft@3000rpm
Maximum speed: 126mph
0-60mph: 7.9 sec
Fuel consumption: 23-28mpg
Transmission: FWD, five-spd man/three-spd auto
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Despite a good reputation, the 900 isn't immune from corrosion. The wheelarches, sills, and door bottoms are all susceptible, and also check around the transmission tunnel where road muck accumulates. Look at the front bulkhead, battery tray, and screen surrounds too, as well as the double-skinned sections of the bonnet. Check around the fuel-filler and the sunroof too, as the latter suffers from blocked drain holes. And bear in mind that bodykits and plastic cladding could be hiding rot, so don't assume things are okay. Quality plastics mean the former can be repaired or there's the secondhand route.
Get down under
Don't ignore the underside either, as corrosion can attack the fuel tank and rear crossmember as well as the radiator support beam and the lower corners of the boot floor. If the jacking points are badly affected, rot could have spread into the floor and sills so be extra cautious. Suspension mountings will need careful examination, too, particularly around the front chassis members which act as lower wishbone mounting points. Front suspension turrets, rear damper top mounts and rear trailing arms mounts can become frilly as well.
Conscientious maintenance and regular oil/filter changes will see engines cover big mileages wihtout trouble. Head gasket failure or timing chain issues are uncommon unless the motor is neglected, and while the turbocharger itself rarely gives trouble watch for blue exhaust smoke on accelerations or overrun. Failed ignition modules can be an issue, while parts for the early Bosch K-Jetronic injection are getting scarce. You'll want to ensure the cooling system is healthy, too., so look for evidence of regular collant changes and signs of leaks from the radiator or water pump.
One problem that does rear its head (which is labour-intensive to fix) is broken exhaust manifold studs so check them carefully. The manifolds can crack, evidenced by a tell-tale ticking, and if the top-end of the engine is noisy bear in mind that valve-clearance adjustment is by fiddly shims on eight-valve engines while 16-valve units employed hydraulic tappets. A complete engine rebuild for a T16S can reach £5000 so be wary of tired or abused units. Lastly, high under-bonnet temperatures lead to brittle wirign and pipework while diagnosing problems with the APC (Automatic Performance Control) boost and knock-control system is best left to a specialist. By the way, a red APC control box indicates the uprated 185bhp engine is fitted.
Transmissions are a weak point, and while the lower power outputs mean the early four-speeder fares better, the five-speed 'box is another matter. Failure of the pinion bearing and layshaft bearing wear are the main issues, and a repair or rebuild is nigh-on £2000. Beware of a noisy or obstructive unit, or one that jumps out of gear, although the chain-drive to the box should be trouble-free. Ensure that clutch operation is okay as the master cylinder can fail, and listen for the clicking of worn CV joints. the three-speed automatic isn't espceially smooth but is reliable.
Aside from general wear and tear, brakes rarely give trouble. Lack of use can lead to sticking calipers, especially at the front where the handbrake operated on pre-1987 cars, and it's worth ensuring that ABS-equipped models aren't showing any warning lights. PAS fluid leaks aren't uncommon so check around the pump and pipework for any moisture.
Interior quality is sturdy but it's worth checking the fascia for cracks around the speaker grilles - as replacements are rare and expensive. Tweeter speakers that fit are also in demand, and command a premium. A sagging headlining is a common issue and time consuming to sort, while leather-trimmed seat bases in T16 models can suffer from collapsing foam. Using the foam bass from the 9000 model is a potential fix. Ensure that all the electrics and various motors are working although inoperative cruise control isn't unusual and may have been ignored by a previous owner. Dampness in the passenger footwell is a heater matrix or control valve that;s had it. Convertible hood mechanisms aren't known for giving trouble, and replacement hoods can be found for around £1200.
The 900 is quirky and distinctive compared with its contemporary rivals, and that makes it a very appealing proposition as a classic tinged with '80s nostalgia. Add the performance credentials of the Turbo, and it's a car that you really can use and enjoy every day. Major restoration work can get pricey, mind, but find a good one and look after it, and it'll last forever.