The 1978 Saab 900 could be dismissed as merely an evolution of an older model, but it became far more than that. It became the ur-Saab.
“The car has become an indispensable part of our everyday life. We need it so that society will not grind to a halt and so that people will serve society efficiently. looking ahead a little further, will the car continue to be as essential in our everyday lives as today?
Yes – provided that: We design and build it sensibly; we manage to adapt it to the wiser way of life which future realities will demand of us; we use it sensibly. At Saab, our whole development effort has been aimed at meeting these basic demands. And we have now created a new car – a car incorporating greater consideration for man and his future needs.”
As an opening paragraph for a sales brochure, this probably struck a somewhat unusual note in 1978, but forty years on, it seems wholly otherworldly. But if we can accept the principle of the past being a foreign country, then we can in this case reasonably conclude that the country in question is located in the Scandinavian kingdom of Sverige.
And while Sweden’s post-war non-aligned politics and permissive culture may have informed Saab’s attitude towards matters of social responsibility, it was its Northern European location, where 15% of the landmass lies within the Arctic Circle which both formed and dictated the Saab-Scania industrial group’s technical ethos.
Of course, what this entailed was a range of vehicles ideally suited to a very specific set of environmental and user requirements, yet Saab, largely through one model in particular, managed to convince increasing numbers of buyers across Europe and the US of their virtues almost despite this.
In the Autumn of 1978, Saab introduced the 900-series, billed as an entirely new range of more upmarket cars, to sit above and complement the existing 99 range. Saab could not afford an all-new model and their ethos dictated gradual evolution over reinvention anyway, so while the 900 was based on the platform and bodyshell of its well-regarded forebear, it was longer overall, wider across the body, with its wheelbase lengthened ahead of the scuttle, both to improve stability and crashworthiness.
Additionally, the nose was lowered, with a bigger, lower mounted windscreen, which retained its unusual curvature both for aerodynamic reasons, but also to provide maximal distance from occupants in the event of a collision. Technically, the 900 retained the 99’s double wishbone front suspension design, with pivot mounted springs, while the rack and pinion steering, with collapsible column was located further back in the engine bay for protection. “As far as we know, no safer steering system exists”, Saab confidently stated.
Rear suspension while of similar design consisted of a new ‘unsplit’ beam axle, with two trailing and two leading Watts links and a Panhard rod – Saab claiming advantages of light weight and low unsprung weight. With wider wheel tracks at both ends the changes were aimed at improving stability and providing more consistent road behaviour under all conditions.
Inside the more commodious cabin, a new design of instrument panel, mounted on an energy-absorbing frame consisting of just five parts, brought a new level of clarity and ergonomic logic. The instruments and switchgear, all grouped close to the driver, placed safety, lack of driver effort and ease of use above aesthetic concerns.
The major push upmarket however came with the Turbo model. Previously seen in the 99 body the previous year, Saab’s exhaust-driven Garrett AiResearch blower combined with a charging pressure valve (or wastegate) provided mid and high-range power outputs from 2.0 litres commensurate with that of a larger capacity 3.0 litre power unit. Originally marketed as something of a halo model, the installation into the 900 saw it as more of a suave, lavishly equipped range-topper.
Of performance there was an abundance, the 900 Turbo developing 145 bhp, with Motor magazine recording a 0-60 time of 9.3 seconds in a 1979 test, ahead of larger-capacity rivals. However, the down side was noticeable turbo ‘lag’ and a somewhat peaky power delivery.
The glamorous Turbo however, provided not only a performance boost, but the image Saab hoped for; certainly, through the 1980s, Trollhatten made much of the Turbo’s performance and putative aviation synergy, one which played well with the ‘Top Gun’ generation. However, it would be the more demure versions which would make up the bulk of the 900’s sales and arguably its raison d’être.
Stylistically, the 900 reprised that of the 99 model, but was given a lower, more penetrating nose and distinctive 5-mph impact absorbing bumpers. Sharing door pressings and several other body panels aft of the A-pillars, the Bjorn Envall supervised design retained the Saab ethos of practicality and aerodynamic logic over fashion or frippery. Pretty it was not, with several UK publications going as far as to describe it as ugly.
1980 saw a three volume saloon added to the range. Throughout the decade, the range was further broadened, as the 99 was phased out. 1985 saw the introduction of a convertible version, while two years later, the nose treatment was revised. More power was also extracted by dint of 16-valve cylinder heads but until its ultimate demise in 1993, the aesthetics remained largely unchanged. Over a 15-year lifespan, more than 900,000 were built.
Owing to its lengthy production run; the basic silhouette dating back to 1967 and the initial concept to a Sixten Sason styling sketch from the late 1950s, the 900 became so embedded within the Saab iconography that its 1994 NG 900 replacement was very much a stylistic cover version. Unfortunately, owing to its Rüsselheim parentage, it was, technically speaking at least, a pale and somewhat disappointing shadow of its forebear.
In a similar manner to how the eternal Nunelfer defines Porsche, the Golf defines VW, or indeed the XJ once came to symbolise Jaguar, the 900 will forever remain the essential visual and emotional shorthand for Saab, especially now that the carmaker is no longer with us. But more than this, the original 900 also defined the marque both in engineering fitness for purpose and socio-demographic terms. A long-life car, in every sense of the term. Is there a finer epitaph?