Saab 900

From the sober to the iconoclastic, Lance Cole salutes an old crooner
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Classic cars come and go but the appeal of some remains constant. None more so than the Saab 900 - the last real Saab say some of the marque's cognoscenti. Think of it as a time-warped Sixties swinger but with MTV street cred. If this car were a person it would probably be Tony Bennett singing "I left my heart in Stockholm".

Classic cars come and go but the appeal of some remains constant. None more so than the Saab 900 - the last real Saab say some of the marque's cognoscenti. Think of it as a time-warped Sixties swinger but with MTV street cred. If this car were a person it would probably be Tony Bennett singing "I left my heart in Stockholm".

General Motors owns Saab now, and is bastardising the brand with ersatz Saabs - though thankfully only in America - where a flat four-engined Subaru estate has just become a Saab-aru, and the ancient cast iron lump that was the Chevrolet Blazer off-roader now has a Saab nip and tuck facelift. It's all been ordered by the GM's head of development, car industry supremo Bob Lutz, a classic-car enthusiast and aviation fanatic who ought to know better than to meddle with the only car maker - apart from our beloved Bristol - to possess a true aviation heritage.

GM's head of development maintains that this diversification is just a stop-gap measure. He said the "brand dilution" is short-term and the justification behind it is that it gives the dealers more cars to sell as they may abandon the franchise otherwise. "We have to sacrifice brand purity for a while, till the next generation," said Mr Lutz.

So for the true Saab enthusiast, that only leaves the classic Saab 900 as the car to own. But there is a wider audience; more and more people are catching on to the style and cool of the "boat shaped" Saabs - the last pure Saab before GM grabbed the firm from under Fiat's nose.

But hang on, did the first Saab 92 in 1947 not have a DKW derived engine? Did the Saab 96 not use a superb Ford V4? And let us not forget that the 99 model had an engine co-designed between Standard Triumph and Saab via some Riccardo engineering help. And even the Saab 9000 was a shared project between Fiat, Lancia, Alfa Romeo, and Saab.

So Saabs have always borrowed bits when they needed too. But the Saab 99 and its progeny the 900, were in every other respects the real deal. They were designed by men with names like Sixten Sason, Gunnar Lungstrom, Rolf Mellde and Bjorn Envall.

Saab's body designer, Sixten Sason, styled the Hasselblad camera, the Electrolux vacuum, and many other icons of industrial design: his shapes for Saab were very Saab, and are as timeless today as they were then - with a touch of Paul Jaray and Hans Ledwinka thrown in.

The old Saabs had aviation style safety structures, brilliant rally-inspired handling, aerodynamics which were checked out in the plane maker's wind tunnel, and a style and look that was as unique as Citroën's.

All of which is why the last Saab 900 - manufactured until 1993 - became an instant classic upon its demise, and remains a sought after second-hand car. Owning a late model Saab 900 is an easy way to being different. The iconoclastic Turbo models brought supercar performance figures to the mass market and remain a legend. The more sober versions are safe, reliable and cheap to buy - from £2,000 up to £10,000 for a last of the line Turbo convertible. They look good in black or silver - but then so does my camera, which is a Sason-penned Hasselblad.

Mileages of 150,000 without anything other than proper servicing are easily achieved and the Saab owners club has cars with 250,000 and 300,000 miles on the clock still running in original spec. With its swoopy styling, and endless range of alloy wheels and trim options, the old war horse belies its roots as a car designed in 1966 - the Saab 99. For it was the 99 that begat the 900 series by having a new longer nose grafted on and revised fittings added. Things like the world's first side impact bars, the first pollen and pollution filter for the cabin air system, and windscreen pillars made of 2.5mm rolled steel, were all unique Saab traits.

Lift up the carpet and you will find box section steel beams like no other car, reinforcing the floor. The 900 was so far ahead in safety terms at its 1979 launch that it stayed safe until its discontinuation in 1993 after nearly a million cars were made. Driving the Saab 900 is a world away from today's flat-screened greenhouses. You sit deep behind a unique curved windscreen with a dashboard that rolls away for acres. The windscreen is slot-like and your knees go under the fascia - not over it. It is more like sitting in a deep Victorian cast iron bath. There is a vintage feel to the gearbox too - which can best be described as notchy and at worst appalling. The gearbox is the old car's bug bear - they often break.

The seats are orthopaedic, and the boot space is massive. The faster versions are great fun on sweeping British A roads, with rocket ship-like boost; the slower versions can be asthmatic though. Even the Yanks loved the Saab 900. The US magazine Motorsports Weekly said the 900 Turbo was "in a class by itself ... the most exciting sports sedan in America". In the UK, Autosport mag- azine said: "It is difficult to put into words the charms and fascination for this remarkable car ... just about the best motor car at present being made."

Saab's old swinger, then, still stylish, still crooning.

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