Swedish Math

All too easily dismissed as somewhat of a crude hash-job, the 90 nevertheless sold well by SAAB standards and stayed true to traditional brand values.

All images from the author’s collection

In the eighties SAAB was still an independent manufacturer enjoying a relatively small yet very loyal customer base, but the lack of available finances for the development of new products was starting to hurt. Flirtations with Lancia in an effort to continue serving the lower price field after the discontinuation of the 96 with the Lancia A112 and SAAB-Lancia 600 proved unsuccessful; the cooperation in the Tipo 4 platform project did allow the Swedes to introduce a brand new large sedan, the 9000, in 1984.

SAAB’s entry level car however -the 99- was by then sixteen years old and in dire need of replacement – but the plucky Swedish brand simply did not have the cash. What to do? The solution was to apply a bit of Swedish math (although technically it could also be Finnish math as the end result would be produced at Valmet in Finland) by face lifting the 99 with parts of the 900, a car that itself was heavily based on that same 99.

The result, 99 up to the B pillar and 900 behind it, was christened 90. Honesty is the best policy as they say, and the 26-page brochure does not attempt to hide the 90’s origins – in the opening sentence it is clearly stated that “the 90 descends directly from the 99“.

By grafting the hind section of the not often seen two-door 900 Sedan onto the virtually unchanged 99 front, the Swedes managed to create a car that was still very much in accordance with the SAAB styling idiom. Whether it really looked appreciably more modern than its predecessor is a matter of personal opinion, but with the ex-900 rear end the 90 did offer more luggage capacity than before as well as a larger fuel reservoir.

Inside there was virtually no changes apart from the nicer 900-sourced steering wheel, looking somewhat out of place with the old 99 dash behind it.

Mechanically the 90’s only available engine was the trusty 1985cc carburetted four delivering 100 Bhp. The only options according to the pricelist accompanying this Dutch market brochure were metallic paint, cruise control and a sliding sunroof – power steering was not offered.

The 90 was primarily aimed at the Scandinavian market but also sold in selected European countries among which Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom; over the course of four years Valmet produced 23,578 cars.

There is a refreshing aura of honesty sometimes lacking in present day cars that radiates from the SAAB 90 – it is a what you see is what you get kind of vehicle – nothing more, nothing less. It gained the same reputation for robustness and reliability its parents did and today makes for an inexpensive yet interesting and characterful youngtimer; the same goes for the printed material that accompanied its publicity effort.

1984 Saab 90

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

60 thoughts on “Swedish Math”

  1. Good morning, Bruno. I think I have this brochure and the one of the 900 from the same era as well. There are 4 900’s in my area, but it’s been ages since I’ve last seen a 90 or 99.

  2. In the spring I saw one and have the photos to prove it. The odd Frankencar nature of the 90 comes as a reminder to me but it helps to hear it explained again. The example I saw could only be described as charming. Among the attractive feature were the inviting interior which you could appreciat also by looking through the huge back window. I can imagine Saab did a good job with the outside visibility. The bonnet has very sublte and delicious scultping. So, what kind of car is like this today? I can´t really think of an existing one other than the 3-door Volvo C30 (I think) which our Leinster correspondent used to run. The styling is from the now-dead school of very refined idiosyncracy. It seems to my eyes like a shape honed by a few people and without a very clearly expressible high concept or else a complex one that Ford and Opel would not have used. To have driven one of these in the middle 80s must have been quite a statement. The Lancia customer might have been dismayed that Saab managed to offer such a solidly-made car for the sort of money that bought you a Prisma, albeit in top spec.

  3. Bruno, thanks for reminding us of a strange car, but oddly typical for Saab.

    The company seemed to have had a touching loyalty to those who had bought the 95/96, and for many years tried to offer something within their reach. The Saab-Lancia 600 wasn’t doing the job, so the 90 arrived in 1984 at a low enough price to distance it from the 900.

    In the UK in late 1984, a 90 was priced at £6995, while 900 entry level was £8315 for a carburettor 3 door. There wasn’t an equivalent 900 2 door at the time, but a 900i 2 door was £8510, a 3 door £8995. For comparison, a Sierra 2.0GL cost £7734.

    The hidden inhibition to buying a 90 was the non-availability of power steering. By 1984 power assistance had long since been standard fit across the entire 900 range. I’ve never tried a 90, but the 99 was hard work. more evident as I had access to a 900 Turbo at the same time. Power steering was available for the 99 in its final years, even in RHD versions, but seems to have been discouraged as the space available for installation was restricted, and it was known to be troublesome.

    After the 90’s demise, a low-power, low-spec 900c was offered in some territories, built at Uusikaupunki or (badly) at Arlöv. It had the desirable power steering, and also the option of 2, 3, or 5 doors.

  4. Was the 90 one of the intended recipients of the planned downsized (via a narrower cylinder bore) 91 hp 1.6 litre (at 5400 rpm) prototype version of B201 (fitted with Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection) by Valmet, which was conceived to better suit Finnish vehicle tax laws?

  5. I think the existence of this car is incomprehensible without explaining a particular Swedish demographic. The Swedish made cars always sold well in Sweden, Volvo had close to 50% of the domestic market. In the seventies, literally every other car was a Volvo 240. And because both the Volvo and the Saab 900 was fairly big cars, there’s always been a need for a stripper no frills alternative. At Volvo they went under the “L” designation, it wasn’t even a “DL” or “GL” but a mere “L” bottom feeder like the Ford Escort Popular. At Saab there was a need for a car cheaper than the 900, thus the 90 was born even if it was old hat already. The thing is, that demographic wouldn’t have payed up for a more expensive car, they would’ve migrated to something else. It was the same demographic that in England bought a Morris Marina and migrated to a Volvo 360 in the eighties. Therefore it was the right decision by Saab to continue with the 90 even though the total sales was in the low twenty thousands. And it was right to only have the carburated base model and have people wanting more turning to the better equipped 900 instead. As Robertas pointed out, the 90’s successor in the line up was the base model 900C with more or less identical engine option as the 90.

  6. Good morning Bruno and, as others have said, thanks for the reminder of this ‘hybrid’. I’ve always liked the 90 and thought it better proportioned than the two-door 900, on which the nose was a little too long for the rest of it. Here’s a nice one on lovely alloy wheels:

    With only 25k made over three years, I suppose they’re now pretty rare, so the chance of finding one for my fantasy garage is pretty small*.

    * but not as small as the chance of me actually having a fantasy garage. ☹

    1. Everyone can have a fantasy garage Daniel, it’s its counterpart in real life that is difficult. 😉

      That 90 does look well-balanced. Remarkable, for what was effectively a factory cut-and-shut job…

    2. That light blue 90 is a whole different kettle of fish compared to a even a 320 from the same period. It ´s also not a Cavalier or a Cortina (nice and all as those cars could be). I don´t feel there´s a car available that feels as distinct from its peers (the buyer was spoiled for choice in the 80s : stripped out CX, Lancia Prisma, Alfa Giulietta to name just three)

    3. The blue one is really a gem.

      Apart from the huge indicators/position lights. A Swedish peculiarity at that time, Volvo had that too.
      I thought those giant lights were too ugly back then, and it always stopped me from shortlisting a Saab (or Volvo).
      Those giant lights scream “safety” and I don’t need screaming safety. I drive in such a way that no one is endangered by me – and if a 10-ton truck (you know, The Smith)…. yes then so be it and oversized indicators or position lights wouldn’t really help then either, but I’d have to look at them every day.

    4. Fred: In mitigation one could potentially view them as a light that never goes out…

  7. Thank you for the article, Bruno – it made me smile first thing on a Saturday.

    The 90 is wonderfully eccentric, but stylish, too. The Swedes somehow do ‘modern, tasteful cosiness’ really well. They’re another brand that didn’t rely too much on polished wood. They would have made a good partner for Lancia – I wonder how easy SAAB found it to work with the Fiat group – SAAB seemed to have very firm ideas about what was and was not acceptable.

    I’m amazed (but delighted) by certain details, like the 1972-onwards dashboard. They ought to have gone for the 1967 to 1971 dashboard for the full effect.

    How long had the 99 been out of production when this was launched? I’m amazed / impressed that they could resurrect some of the components.

    Here’s the full brochure, by the way, in case anyone wants to take a closer look.


    1. Thank you for posting the link to the brochure; it’s refreshingly matter-of-fact in its presentation of the car’s characteristics, isn’t it?

    2. The 99 went out of production when the 90 was launched, the 99 was produced until model year 1984. They didn’t resurrect any parts, it has been in continuous production since the start sixteen years earlier. With the introduction of the 900 in 1979, they ended production of the 99 combi-coupe three and five doors, thus the 99 was only available as a two or four door sedan for the last five years.

  8. Let me add my thanks to Bruno for the entertaining reminder of this car’s existence. I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever seen one…

  9. That photo of the blue 90 reminds me of the wide variety of colour-keyed interiors one used to see before greyscale came to predominate. Mind you, the ‘crushed raspberry’ interior in a Mk1 Vauxhall Cavalier was reminiscent of an abattoir…😲

    1. I may well regret asking this Daniel, but can you show us?

    2. That interior is superb. I understand if people don´t like it but I feel about dark grey the way people feel about mustard, burgundy and ivy green or deep blue velour. Or light blue velour. Or beige. About the only interior colour I really don´t care for is pure white. Even then I am sure a modern version of white could look very 2001 and technical rather than Boss Hogg kitschy. Sadly I have to live with a black & grey interior in one of my cars and total black in the other. The irony. If there was one strong reason to get another it´d be a compelling colour.

    3. Yes I wondered about reupholstering my new Clio to make a modern Baccara. But I can’t justify the cost.

    4. Richard, I inherited a black interior when my better-half passed her Accord to me ( steering too heavy and one pedal too many). It foxed me for a while, but there are surfaces on the console which are wood finished on some cars and fake carbon fibre on others. My car had a monochrome spotty finish, but a rattle can of Citroen metallic rasberry (?) sorted that.
      ( I was looking for the Renault version of Mazda soul red, on the basis that Halfords don’t stock Mazda colours – they aren’t great on Renault either )
      Anyway my black interior now has a welcome infusion of colour.

    5. Does anyone else notice that the Opel interior looks to be made of much nicer cloth and plastic than the next generation ever was? The photo here has the depth of colour you see on a much more expensive car. Whatevet it´s packaging or dynamic merits, the Opel Ascona C wasn´t all that appealing inside. They used a not-very nice plastic for the IP compared the Ascona B.

    6. In the late Nineties Alfa offered ‘Red Style’ and ‘Blu Style’ interiors which for the 916 looked like this

      (you could choose between black door cards with red inserts or red door cards with black inserts)
      and even the 166 was available in such colours

    7. Those Alfa interiors are just lovely, especially the seat upholstery.

      My 1997 R170 SLK was metallic silver with this interior:

      The plastic trim pieces weren’t self-coloured, but were simply spray painted. It didn’t happen to mine, but other owners reported that the paint wore off the contact points (glove box lid, sides of the centre console) over time. Another example of shoddy late-1990’s Mercedes-Benz quality!

    8. Painted plastic parts is such a design gaffe. The lovely quality of plastic is that it can be self-coloured and so you can avoid the extra time and labour of painting. This is a question for plastic experts: if you want to make the part in three colours e.g a blue one, a red one and a grey one, do you need a mould for each colour?

    9. You don’t need different moulds for each colour but getting a consistent colour on surfaces of different types of plastic is not easy. You can see it in the red Opel interior where every type of plastic and every type of surface has a different shade of red, something you’d try to avoid in more upmarket cars. Instead of properly matching the grain and shine of the base surface the surfaces are painted the same colour which is much simpler and cheaper.

      In case of the SLK there are companies who can refurbish worn interiors. They dismantle the interior, strip off the old paint and re-paint everything with better quality materials. It’s not cheap but often the only way to salvage a worn SLK.

  10. Thank you (I think) Freerk.

    Richard, after six years of a monochrome Passat interior I chose a Zafira Tourer as my next car, in part so I could have a different colour as a no-cost option.
    I thought metallic macadamia with a brown interior rather stylish. When my current Superb was delivered (sadly back to black) the driver who collected my Zafira looked puzzled and asked me in tones of disbelief “Is that brown?” He then opened the door and said “Christ, it’s brown inside too!”

    1. Andy: I´ve seen some nice non-black interiors in recent Opels. The Meriva can be had with a creamy red or brown hide interior. And there is a nice warm option ont the penultimate Insignia. To their credit DS offer some nice interior options. Generally, customers are no more moved about their car interior than the colour of the bin bags they use. That is not so nice a realisation.

  11. I had that very interior on a Mk1 Cavalier as well! It was complemented superbly with the maroon exterior in my view. I’ll happily post some pictures if given some direction. Thanks

  12. Thanks, Freerk! Actually, I don’t really dislike it, apart from the fact that the (blueish) shade of red on the dash top clashes with the red elsewhere. There were less, ahem, challenging options on the Cavalier:

    1. Hi Richard. Yes, I believe steering wheel is original, although it might have faded from black to that creamy-grey colour.

      Why don’t cars have velour upholstery anymore? It looks very comfortable, was warm in cold weather, and seemed to wear well. My Boxster has leather, which is fine, but has quite a ‘matt’ finish, unlike my old Boxster, which had more of a typical leather sheen. Our Mini has black cloth, which seems very durable but is slightly ‘oily’ to the touch and seems a bit basic for what wasn’t a cheap car.

    2. It seems there’s is an emerging micro-trend for blue interiors right now – there’s a “bleached Smurf” leather colour available on the new Peugeot 308 (and the upcoming Nissan Z has been scooped with something similar), a BMW iX interior that looks like a postmodern take on ’70s velour, a very subtle (not very photogenic) dark blue/black combo available on the new Qashqai and C4 and the Mazda 2 and CX-30… It would be nice to start seeing more things like that – I have nothing against grey cars and black interiors but the greyscale-inside-and-out look is often not a good idea!

  13. Given the current automotive industry obsession for greyscale interiors, I thought I’d find out how much imagination creative types put into the nomenclature for this palate. I Googled ‘humourous names for the colour grey’ and found this list*. They are all real, taken from the US fashion industry:

    GRAY with an A: at Express.com 35 Items!
    CHARCOAL: Gap-City by the Bay T
    IRON: Rag&Bone NYC-Basic Tee
    GUNMETAL: Finally-Snoop Dogg Tank available at Topshop
    MOONLESS NIGHT: Gap-with their solid Oxford button down shirt
    MIDNIGHT: Rag&Bone-Grosvenor Waistcoat
    GRAPHITE: Obey-Juvee Jean
    GRANITE: Free People-The Printed Seamless Leggings
    PEWTER: Vans-The style 31 Sneaker
    HEATHER ONYX: VINCE Zip up Hoodie
    BOTTLE: Topshop-Moto Pyramid Stud Jamie Jeans
    CARBON: Elwood-Drifter Jeans
    RESIN RINSE: VINCE-Straight Leg Jeans
    HEATHER SHADOW-HEATHER SLATE: VINCE-Breton Stripe Cashmere Hoodie
    HEATHER SLATE: VINCE-Stripe Cashmere Sneaker
    HTHR CHARCOAL: J.Crew-Ludlow two button suit jacket wt double vented back in Italian wool
    MERCURY: J.Crew-Vintage Cord Pants in relaxed fit
    SMOKE: Spiewalk-Ash Field Coat
    DEEP HARBOR: J.Crew-Sunfaded Chino in Classic Fit Color
    CHARCOAL WAX: Comune-The Davis Jean
    SPECKLE BLACK: Crooks and Castles-The BullyBikerButtonDown Shirt
    BLACK ROCK: AH by Android Homme-The propulsion HI Sneaker
    BOULDERS: Kazbah-Fyasko Shirt
    CASPER: Kazbah-191 Unlimited Long Sleeve shirt
    SLATE: RVCA-Toiler Jacket
    COAL: Cheap Monday-Tight Fit Jeans
    CEMENT: KR3W-K Slim Fit Erik Ellington Jeans
    LITHIUM WHEEL WASH: Analog-Creeper Jeans
    TUMBLED MERLIN: Levis-508 Jeans:
    H CARBON: VINCE-Peacoat Sweater and double-faced top coat
    GRAVEL: Vans-V66 Slim Fit Jeans
    STEEL: Puma-Heritage Wind Jacket
    POOL: Gravis-Arto Sneaker
    LEAD: Adidas-AR 2.0 Sneakers
    ALUMINUM: Adidas-Ar 2.0 Sneakers
    STONE: HUF-Mateo Sneaker
    DARK SHADOW: Vans Footwear-The 106 Vulcanized sneaker
    WILD DOVE: Vans-The Sk8 hi Sneaker
    NICKEL: Alexander Wang-Zippper Sunglasses
    DUSTY BLACK: Obey-The World Tour Cut off Armhole Tank
    MINERAL: Obey-The Push Peace Tee
    STORMY SEA: Obey-The Waves Tube Skirt
    NIGHT: Funktional-Slash Leggings
    PEWTER ANIMAL: Dittos-The Dawn Mid Rise Skinny pant/pany
    SHADOW: J.Crew-Wallace and Barnes Slim Fishtail Pants
    DARKNESS: Denimocracy Anarky knit Sknny Pants
    ALUMINUM: Sol Republic-Amps HD Headphones
    BLACK SPECKLE: All Day-the short sleeve Henley
    GUNNY: Supra-Vaider Sneakers
    STONE WASHED METAL: Palladium-Pampa Boot
    STEEL: Puma-Blaze of Glory LWT Sneaker
    BLACK ICE: Creative Recreation-Cesario Sneaker
    BLUE NITE: Sebago-Docksides Boat Shoes

    * Yes, I know, too much time on my hands…

    1. That´s valuable research. I´d not have thought to do that. It is said the Inuit have 35 names for snow. Well, we have at least that number of names for grey. May I add “Effin Grey” (named after the place, of course; it´s in Ireland).


    2. Would that be a different shade to Gaggin Grey, do you think? (Also a placename in Ireland).

    3. Good heavens Daniel, that’s a Lot of costume changes for one evening…

  14. I couldn’t find any footage of 90s being made, but here’s the Finnish factory in the early 80’s making 99s and Talbots. I think they produce Mercedes, now.

  15. Firstly thank you for the reminder of this car, which had slipped my memory.

    If I’m to be honest this feels like a Swedish version of badge engineering but a worthy car nonetheless.

    Apropos Daniel’s picture of the delightfully blue hued 90 a question for the DTW massive, what cars are not improved by the addition of Minilite (style) wheels?

    I can think of very few although USA themed cars don’t do so well.

    Your thoughts?

    1. Hello Rick, I’d nominate the Porsche 911. Minilites can ‘cheer up’ in a cheeky way, a lot of quite staid-looking cars (Volvos, Austin Allegro, etc). To my mind, they just look wrong / cheap on the Porsche.

  16. I was aware of the birth of Saab, but was never taken by the way they kept tweaking the “teardrop” model, or their choice of a V4 motor for the final make-over. Consequently, in spite of the glamour of the 99 Turbo, I never had much time for the 99 or the 900 ( what an ungainly stretch !) until I found myself leaning against a 900 Aero (?) at a Dublin motor-show in 1984, waiting for the crowd of people around the new FWD Carina to abate. To kill time I started examining the 900 ( 3-spoke alloys – ugh! ) and gradually realised there was a lot of thought gone into it and a high standard of build. I eventually realised there were bonuses to the way they stretched the 99.At some stage I had a good look at a 900 saloon a workmate was selling, but I decided the power-train was not DIY friendly and never took the plunge.
    I notice that in the bottom photo of the 90 they have moved the fuel filler to the wrong side – presumably because the Swedes were driving on the wrong side of the road by then. The middle photo has the original filler location but has lost the untidy air vent over the wheel-arch.
    Such a pity Saab couldn’t survive ( and I don’t mean GM Saab or a Chinese Saab).

    1. Bonuses to the way they stretched the 99… Such as being able to pass the 1978 US crash regulations for survivability in a 35mph frontal crash, and having enough room in the footwell so the pedals didn’t need to be offset (mentioned in the review Charles has linked).

      Saab was a member of that rarified group of makers who were capable of and known for making true “world cars”, but the 90 was not one by default, so I think that it never should never have existed. I get a sense of visiting with an old friend who died and was briefly reincarnated in a dream, then waking up to reality.

    2. gooddog: That sense of a death denied is rather eloquent. It puts me somewhat in mind of Colm Tóbín’s haunting novella, “Testament of Mary” where he describes the biblical resurrection of Lazarus in distinctly morbid tones: “If he had come back to life, it was merely to say a last farewell to it.”

    3. It’s more likely that the photo is flipped than they moved the location for the fuel filler cap.

  17. In its day, the Saab 99/900 was, in the UK, in a category all of its own. You either “got it” or you didn’t – and if you did, then no other car of comparable price was worthy of serious consideration. It sold, therefore, to a very niche market and initial depreciation was considerable, meaning that I could afford to buy them at 3-4 years old, keep for a couple of years and then trade in for another. And although I bought my first 99 (4-door in bright orange) from my former Boss, I discovered that Saab main dealers tended to be true enthusiasts for the make; good deals went hand-in-hand with good after-service. Not that much ever went wrong and between the late ’70s and the early ’90s two 99s, four 900s and a 90 served us well.

    All good things come to an end, unfortunately, and coincidental with the acquisition by GM was a need on our part for greater load-carrying capacity. But I would re-home a good 99/900/90 in a heartbeat – and to this day my wife always puts her car in reverse before removing the key from the ignition….

  18. I own a nice example, pictured below:

    It was unusual in that it had the optional metallic paint, which reduced the already small price gap between it and a 900. What struck me was the spartan specification for what would have been regarded as a small executive car in the UK, which pretty much matched that of a contemporary Escort L apart from the heated driver’s seat. Windup windows, manual choke (carburettor engine) and unassisted steering bring back memories every time I drive it. And you could use the front bumper as a picnic table. But it still has that indestructible feel that cars built by Valmet in particular had.

    1. Lucky you. Having read this piece I was more attracted to the 90 and I was already keen on it. We need an owner of a LWB 900 CD to write in soon. Is there any chance of that?
      Can I ask if the 90 enjoys extra love in the Saab community over above the general admiration the 9-cars get? I´d really like to see how the 90 compares to Lancia´s Prisma since I have a prejudice that Saab owners cross-shop Lancia if they cross shop at all.
      And can I ask if there is anything like a 90 on sale today? I don´t believe so.

    2. Hi William. Photo added, and that is just a lovely example. The ‘Minilite’ alloy wheels suit it perfectly and add just the right amount of sporting intent to the 90. Is the registration number original? When I worked in Belfast I had a 1985 Montego as accompany car and it had the registration number FXI 4686.

    3. That is a super nice car. Gosh. It exudes quality. I wish you many more miles of driving pleasure. And thank you also for looking after a lovely bit of automotive design heritage.

  19. Thanks all. That is indeed its original Belfast registration plate, where it was sold new in 1985.

    1. Presumably it was cars like these I saw parked up in unusual concentrations around Fitzwilliam Sq in D2 in the late 1980s. The other car was the 2002 and 320. Sometimes I saw a 635. These were the most appealing cars for Dublin´s lawyers and creatives.

    2. Richard, yes, there did seem to be an unusually high concentration of Saabs, as well as 3-series, in that neck of the woods. Wasn’t Garrett Fitzgerald famously a Saab owner?
      The owner of the plastics company where I grew up had a succession of 900 and 9000 turbos. I think he eventually switched to a 7-series when Saab could no longer expand upmarket to follow his increasing revenue…
      My godfather had a 900 too, following a three series, although no lawyer or creative he. Its structural strength probably saved his wife and son when a truck knocked a substantial bough off a tree and it landed atop the 900. Eventually repaired after a protracted insurance case, it served his sister-in-law faithfully for many years thereafter…

  20. What is the spares situation for the 99/90 models – are there specialists producing them ? I remember reading that rear lights for the Vectra-based Saab wagon were non existent. These photos of 2-3 door cars on minilites are getting to me now.

    1. Well done, Konikov. I’ve tweaked your image slightly to remove the Imgur border and correct the orientation. 🙂

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