Turbo Legends: Saab 99 and 900

Updated: Apr 1

The Saab 900 has been once described as "The thinking man's BMW": that's one hell of a brand image to have, yet BMW is still around, while Saabs are museum exhibits. How could that happen?



The much-loved Saab 900 is the car that came to epitomize the Swedish automaker at the peak of its success.

Throughout the 1980s, the 900 has been the car of choice for a select audience of cultivated, discerning individuals who could appreciate Saab's thoughtful design and engineering integrity.

Saabs were just as safe as Volvos. Still, the performance of its turbocharged engines and the constant association to fighter jets in its advertising gave Saab a more dashing, sporty image than its Goteborg counterpart.

The Saab 900 has been once described as "The thinking man's BMW": that's one hell of a brand image to have, yet BMW is still around, while Saabs are museum exhibits.

How could that happen?

Well, there simply weren't enough of those cultivated, discerning people that appreciated Saab's qualities. On top of that, Saab cars were expensive, but not nearly enough for such a small sales volume to sustain the company.

Hell, that's partly the reason why the classic 900 we know and love existed in the first place: Saab couldn't really afford to develop a new car from scratch.

The origins of the 900's design dated back all the way to 1967 when Saab launched the 99.

Designed by Sixten Sason, the Saab 99's appearance was the result of pioneering aerodynamic studies. The curved "turret-type" windscreen allowed the airflow to split and sweep around the car with minimum turbulence, and, together with its dart-like front end, it resulted in a 0.37 drag coefficient.

It's a figure that would not become common until well into the 80s, while the vast majority of 60s cars stayed around 0.50.

Other notable features of the 99 were the big clamshell bonnet and the way the door frames overlapped the windscreen pillars. A design feature that wouldn't be widely adopted until 20 years later.

Such original thinking was a Saab hallmark, and it allowed the company to keep selling the 99 for well over a decade, as the car's design simply didn't seem to age. Then, in 1976, Saab went Turbo, and the automotive world would not be the same again.

In 1978 Saab sold little more than 72.000 cars, badly needed a new model, but had neither the time nor the resources to make one, so the new 900 it presented that year wasn't an entirely new car.

The 900 body, designed by Bjorn Envall, was a heavily modified 99 one, stretched at the scuttle by 50mm and further reinforced to better cope with upcoming American safety legislation. The 900 was, to all intents and purposes, a stopgap model to buy Saab the time and money to design a new upmarket saloon in cooperation with the Fiat Group: the 9000, which was launched in 1984.

Meanwhile, the 900 kept selling steadily to those cultivated people who appreciated its technology-driven design and its unique personality: a classic in its own time.

A fast one too, as the Saab turbo engine could now be had with 16v and up to 175HP. Upon request from its all-important American distributor, Saab developed the 900 Cabriolet, on sale from 1987 and an instant hit among those who enjoyed the finer things in life...

The last 900, a ruby red three-door Turbo, was built on the 26th of March, 1993. Some say Saab died that day, and it's not hard to see why.

The necessity of using GM corporate platforms diluted the appeal of subsequent Saab models: not because they weren't good cars, but because they simply became less and less "Saaby".

During the 70s and 80s, the Saab 99 first and 900 later established Saab as a purveyor of uniquely designed, engineering-driven quality cars... But once the uniqueness was gone, why bother buying a Saab at all?

Those cool "born from jets" advertisement kept coming, but the cars were simply too mundane for anyone to believe there still was any relation.

But was really all GM's fault?

I don't think so.

If one looks at Saab's numbers and the evolution of its market sector over time, the inevitable conclusion is that Saab wasn't really a viable automaker even in its best days. Blame GM as you want, but I'm pretty sure the commitment of its American "sugar daddy" actually allowed Saab to go on for much longer than it could have managed to do alone.

Car enthusiasts, me included, love characterful cars built by companies that march to a different drummer, but sometimes we simply aren't enough to support such companies.



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