Dramatic Licence

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.

(c) Driven to Write

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.

(c) Driven to Write

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?

(c) Driven to Write

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

9 thoughts on “Dramatic Licence”

  1. Good morning, Eóin. Given the aggressive manner in which the authorities herded drivers into the diesel blind alley in the quest for lower and less harmful urban emissions, there’s every reason for you to hold onto your 900 until you absolutely have to change. That’s what I plan to do with our two petrol engined cars. I always prefer to be a late adoptor rather than a “crash test dummy”for new technologies. I feel no guilt about our decision because we never use a car for a journey where we can walk or take public transport and our combined annual mileage is less than 5k. It would take us many years to amortise the emissions generated in the production of a new car against the marginal reductions in emissions we might achieve by driving one.

  2. Oh, I should have added that your 900 looks amazingly good for a car nearly a quarter century old. Silver metallic really is the best colour for a “keeper”.

  3. I face a similar dilemma with a same age XJ6. The basic car is as strong as an ox, has never broken down and has years of potential use left…but totting up the cost of replacing the throttle body, re-bushing all corners, replacing an ABS sensor, stopping the tin worm in the arches and sundry more minor ailments leads me to a case of reluctant Jagicide. Look away now!

  4. I was listening to the radio the other morning and there was a guy on who runs a van-rental business. 30 months ago he’d bought a new fleet of vehicles for his business, all diesel, costing over £500k. Now, every one of them will be hit by the new ULEZ in London, rendering his business either unprofitable or uncompetitive, depending on whether he decides to pass on the costs to his customers or not. This can’t be right – I can’t believe that a car or van only bought as little as two years ago can be deemed as being unclean and so falls foul of the regulation. More time should have been given for people to make adjustments to their choice of vehicles. Everyone knows that buying a car is probably the second most expensive item purchase during your life, authorities have to take the financial punishment into mind when they go about introducing these measures.

  5. Given the alleged £43 million of taxpayer’s money squandered by previous incumbent, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson MP on the failed ‘garden bridge’ project, I have some sympathy with the current London mayor, who is getting a good deal of stick over the ULEZ. One of the issues as I see it is the lack of a holistic approach to the problem of encouraging people out of their cars onto an already overstretched public transport network.

    Some form of park and ride initiative might have helped ease the transition for the private motorist at least, but with land prices at a premium, who would sanction such a thing, and what size would it have to be? A recent trip to the fine city of Coventry illustrated how well these schemes can work, especially as I had no wish to navigate Coventry’s labyrinthine traffic system, or attempt to park in the city centre. There is a similar system in my home town of Cork and Dublin operates a number of them which link up with the LUAS tram network, which of course is a few steps closer to an ideal.

    I accept there are no easy (or cheap) answers and someone like London’s mayor can only do so much when so little real influence is vested in this office. Hence these half-baked solutions which end up pleasing nobody. But I do wonder if this will have the desired affect and if the results will ultimately prove to be worth the privation visited – especially upon the less well off. Yes we have lengthened your life chances, but you will now have to see less of your loved ones owing to your increased journey times.

    Excuse me while I go and wring my hands.

  6. Eóin, I think you’ve neatly identified the problem with London (and the world’s other mega-cities) by comparing it with Coventry, where the park-and-ride system works pretty well. Having lived for a couple of decades in central London, my nearest city is now Norwich, a relaxed 30 minute drive or bus ride away. It also has an efficient park-and-ride system. The city centre eminently walkable and (mainly) a pleasant place to spend time.

    I’m occasionally asked by acquaintances still living in London how I manage without all the amenities the capital has to offer. My reply is along the following lines: Marks and Spencer has roughly twenty stores in central London, whereas Norwich has just one. So, what is the additional amenity value of having access to twenty M&S branches, rather than one? The answer is obvious: zero.

    Of course, London offers a variety of cultural amenities (museums, art galleries, theatres etc.) that a provincial city could never match, and that is why we still visit the capital occasionally. For everything else, Norwich or the Internet fulfils our needs.

    There is a critical size beyond which the efficiencies and amenity value of having large numbers of people living and working in one place peak and, thereafter, begin to decline sharply, impacting negatively on the quality of life and productivity of its residents. Exactly where that optimal point occurs is a function of the quality and reliability of the city’s infrastructure. Hence, Tokyo appears to function better than London, despite having a population four times greater. (That said, residents of the Japanese capital put up with living and personal spaces that we would find intolerable.)

    The UK had a historic problem in that so much economic activity is centred in London and the South-east. There have been many attempts to redress this imbalance, but none that have had a meaningful impact on the lure of the capital for business and people. Hence, it feels like an alien and intimidating place to those who live outside the Home Counties. Every time we visit, we think ,”Was it really like this when we lived here?” We enjoy our visits, but are even happier to return home.

    Great Britain is a small and heavily populated island, but would cope much better with a more equal distribution of economic activity and population. How government achieves that is quite a conundrum.

  7. This is a planning problem and the transport modes have to be handled in relation to planning. That boils down to housing formats and density. Alas, we have lived through almost a hundred years of a failed shift to a strongly bipolar set of housing formats: very low-density single-family homes or tower-blocks set in acres of dead parking and unused lawns; both of those are part of a philosophy of separation of functions which was a reaction to the uncontrolled construction of the early and middle period of industrialisation. The overall result is of boxes on lawns and a blunt refusal to use the street format and medium density. Some people don´t like it but nobody loves suburbia or low-density deruralisation.

  8. Eóin, you’re rather tasty looking coupe picture at the seaside; was that on sunny Anglesey by any any chance?

    1. Andrew: The lead photo was taken at Camber Sands, East Sussex and the second image, taken by the shoreline was at Garretstown Strand, West Cork.

      Despite spending a good deal of time around Conwy and Snowdonia during a former existence, I never ventured over to Anglesey. When I used to take the Saab across the Irish Sea, I tended to use the Pembroke or Fishguard crossing to Rosslare, as it shaved quite a few hours off the journey time.

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