As Transport for London enacts its Ultra-Low Emission Zone, the case for DTW’s 1996 Saab 900S (and others like it) becomes scalpel-thin.
When it comes to motor cars there is absolutely nothing dull about metronomic reliability. I therefore hesitate to employ the adjective ‘boring’ when it comes to the dependability of my Saab, despite the undeniable fact that, in the almost six years I have been its steward, it has been an almost entirely trouble-free experience.
From a purely narrative perspective of course, a writer such as myself, for the sake of dramatic exposition might feel the necessity to introduce an element of jeopardy into proceedings. So I’m sorry to disappoint you (and especially those who were expecting Gorfian levels of mechanically-related angst), but there has been absolutely no drama whatsoever about this particular Scandinavian saga.
Despite a four month outdoor lay-up over the duration of the 2018/19 winter, while your correspondent was amusing himself in his homeland, the 900, once re-commissioned, fired upon the first twist of the floor-mounted starter, settling down to an even idle as though it had only been run the day before.
With now over 134,000 miles on its digital odometer, the Saab is hardly in its prime, and it’s pretty obvious when driving it that a good number of its original 130 Swedish ponies have deserted their posts. But apart from a number of age-related replacements over the past two years – rear silencer, front coil springs, anti-roll bar links and an exhaust heat shield, the only major work the car has required was some structural welding to the floorpan in order to pass its MOT two years ago.
Externally it looks almost pristine, the odd scratch and scuff notwithstanding and assuming it got one, a wash and brush-up would return the interior to a similar state of grace. Just about everything feels as though it will continue to give dependable service for decades to come. Say what you will about the NG-series 900, but Saab engineered and built them to last.
As befitting a fairly senior citizen, the 900 enjoys a pretty sedate life nowadays. Being resident in the outer reaches of NW London, the necessity to travel by car is not a daily occurrence, there being plenty of public transport alternatives to be found. There is also the option of the familial Jaguar XF, which can be pressed into service for those journeys where the 900’s age might tell against it.
But there were already signs that this blissful union might not be to last. Age and decrepitude has been creeping up on the Saab and even notwithstanding atrophy, the level of use it gets has been falling with each passing year. But now, courtesy of London’s mayoral authorities, the 900 and others like it face an existential threat; one which will most likely seal the fate of many.
According to estimates, over 2 million people in central London live in areas where air quality breaches EU-mandated limits for nitrogen dioxide, with asthma and other serious breathing-related ailments hospitalising on average over four Londoners a day. As of this week, an Ultra-Low Emissions Zone has come into force. It spans an identical territory to that of the existing London congestion charge (first introduced in 2003), and levies a £12.50 daily fee against all petrol and diesel cars and vans entering the zone at any time which do not comply with Euro-6 emissions controls for diesels or Euro 4 for petrol.
It’s obvious that something needs to be done to mitigate levels of vehicle-related pollution in our cities and it is known that the air quality in parts of the capital regularly breach safe guidelines by a significant margin. It’s also clear that as a society, we need to be a good deal more intelligent and therefore sparing about our car use. But in the absence of self-regulating initiatives, London’s authorities are taking matters into their hands by essentially mandating our vehicle choices.
In two year’s time, the ULEZ is proposed to be expanded into the suburbs, reaching as far as the boundaries of the North and South Circular orbital ring roads. According to figures supplied by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, this could affect a high proportion of the 782,439 Euro 0-5 diesel and 858,018 Euro 0-3 petrol cars and vans which are currently registered in Greater London.
Where are these still serviceable vehicles to end up? A sizeable proportion will undoubtedly be traded against more modern, ULEZ-compliant vehicles. Some of the more recent vehicles will perhaps migrate elsewhere, but many older ones will be scrapped. What is clear is that an era of relatively affordable motoring is drawing to a close with the risk that owners at the lower end of the social scale may be forced to contemplate a life without a vehicle at all. And while it’s difficult to defend the motorcar’s more noxious impacts upon our lives and environment, doesn’t this seem a shocking waste?
But closer to home, and notwithstanding the spectre of ULEZ, the Saab’s viability was already coming under a good deal of scrutiny. A decision on its ultimate fate will have to be taken soon, but as of now, disposing of it feels like having to put down a faithful, companionable and still reasonably healthy pet dog. So while my Tröllhatten experience has up to now been a relatively painless affair, it does appear as though the endgame is likely to be a good deal less so.