Swede Dreams are Made of These

A tale of some lesser-known Saabs.

Image: the author

Some will be of the opinion that ‘SAAB oddity’ is something of an oxymoron, in particular when it concerns the Swedish company prior to its acquisition (and homogenization) by General Motors. That may be so, but over the course of its existence, the Swedish marque produced and, in some cases, inspired its fair share of projects that were noteworthy and unusual, even by the company’s own sometimes eccentric standards. Today we will take a look at a handful of such oddities.

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9000 Fivebow

The idea came from Valmet, the Finnish-based manufacturer of several cars including the SAAB 900 Convertible. In order to make more inroads in the potentially lucrative but notoriously difficult US market, in 1989 the Finns developed a four-seater convertible version of the 9000, which was decidedly more modern than the 900, whose origins dated back to the late sixties, as well as a V8 engine to power it. The rationale behind it was simple but perhaps a bit naive: Americans like convertibles, and they are also very fond of V8s.

In the 9000 Fivebow, Valmet’s designers and engineers combined both proposals. The resulting prototype looked quite different from the regular 9000 and, apart from the taillights and grille, displayed little instantly recognisable SAAB marque DNA. Valmet built five prototype V8 engines with horsepower ratings between 230 and 280bhp. It is not known which one powered the sole Fivebow concept although, considering the difficulties that Lancia experienced in getting the Thema 8.32 to transmit its power through the front wheels, the lowest powered version might have been the wise choice.

In that same year, however, SAAB was restructured into SAAB Automobile AB, giving General Motors 50% control in the process. The Americans almost immediately initiated a development push for a replacement for the old 900, including a new convertible, and to prepare the 9000 to receive GM-sourced V6 engines in some of the top-end models.

These new developments meant that Valmet’s V8 Convertible concept had become irrelevant almost overnight. It is also conceivable that it might have cannibalized sales of the 900 Convertible, and its unique sheetmetal would have required unacceptably high investments. This relegated the 9000 Fivebow it to a plinth in the Finnish company’s museum in Uusikaupunki.

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SAAB Calibra

Staying with GM, the American giant’s Opel/Vauxhall division enjoyed success as 1989 rolled over into 1990 with the introduction of the Vectra and, soon thereafter, the svelte Calibra Coupé.

GM’s recently acquired stake in SAAB in combination with the successful reception of the Calibra engendered the idea of launching the new coupé on the American market as a competitor for cars like the Ford Probe and Toyota Celica; it was felt however that the Calibra’s very European aura would not gel very well with any of the GM brands then sold on its home turf, and bringing back the Opel or Vauxhall name was out of the question. But then the suggestion arose to explore the possibility of rebadging the Calibra as a SAAB and selling it through the Swedish company’s American dealer network. Detroit deemed the idea worthy of further exploration.

In a 1990 newspaper interview, then Opel CEO Louis Hugues confirmed that there were serious plans to market the Calibra under the SAAB brand in the USA, even if he admitted that some at SAAB were resentful about losing brand identity as the planned successor to the classic 900 would be based on the Vectra as well.

Valmet entered the picture again, since they produced the Calibra and had presented a convertible version concept which generated much interest from GM management. However, three factors would in combination kill off the SAAB Calibra: firstly, SAAB was at that time not yet fully owned by GM (that would only beome a reality in 2000) and simply slapping the griffin badge on an Opel was seen as a questionable act by the Swedes and they told GM so. Both parties also recognised the risk of a SAAB Calibra creating unwelcome competition for the sportier 3-door versions of the new 900 as well as its convertible version.

The second problem was paradoxical: because the Calibra was such a success, the limits of production capacity both in Rüsselsheim and Uusikaupunki had already virtually been reached. The final stumbling block was the realisation that, with a SAAB badge and corresponding better equipment levels and higher price, the SAAB Calibra would no longer be facing the Ford Probe, Nissan 200SX and Toyota Celica, but instead have to take on competitors like BMW’s E36 3 Series coupé and convertible.

Hindsight is, of course, 20/20 vision, but perhaps it was for the best the SAAB Calibra never materialised if the fates of the later Saab 9-2X and 9-7X are any indication.

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SAAB 900 LYNX Cabrio

Two years before SAAB’s own 900 convertible went on sale, British company Lynx introduced their version- although it was not really a true convertible but rather more a targa in the mode of the Triumph Stag and Jaguar XJ-SC.

Founded in 1968 by Guy Black, Chris Keith-Lucas and Roger Ludgate, Lynx’s best known creation is probably the Jaguar XJ-S based Eventer shooting brake. The St. Leonards-on-Sea company must have been aware that a mostly production-ready prototype of a SAAB 900 convertible developed with ASC(1) had already been displayed in 1983. Given the positive public reaction, it was to be expected that SAAB would put it into production and they indeed did so in 1986. This made the Lynx SAAB 900 with its manually operated top and much less comely appearance at once superfluous. Consequently, just two 900s were ever converted by Lynx- if nothing else,  making it very much rarer than the factory version.

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SAAB 006 Turbo

It was built in Finland, but not by Valmet this time, and powered by a Honda engine. Lokari, a company specialising in plastic products, offered this cute but costly mini-900 from 1986 until the end of that decade through the SAAB dealer networks to celebrate the launch of the 900 convertible.

Slightly over two metres long and a little more than one metre wide, the 006 Turbo was equipped with a 27cc Honda engine that developed 3.5bhp. Just seventy-five were sold, as it was quite expensive for what was, after all, a children’s toy. These days you will probably pay considerably less than its original price (if you can find one, that is) making the 006 Turbo an interesting addition to any SAABophile’s collection.

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SAAB 900 007

Moving up one digit, we encounter the 900 that James Bond drove in no less than twelve novels, although it never made an appearance on the big screen(2). In 1981, writer John Gardner was entrusted by the heirs of Ian Fleming to revive the James Bond books. Gardner decided that the Bentley and Aston Martin that had served 007 so faithfully in the past were no longer a good fit in the socio-economic timeframe of the day. His choice for a replacement was the SAAB 900 Turbo, equipped with various special options from Q’s workshop of course: infrared vision, tear gas dispensers, bulletproof glass, remote control and much more.

Eon productions, the producer of the James Bond films, purchased the rights to the novels written by Gardner but elected not to put Mr Bond behind the wheel of a SAAB but rather, at least initially, retained the British vehicles of yore – it would not be until 1995’s Goldeneye that 007 switched to Continental Europe by using the BMW Z3 as his transport of choice. To some, this was an outrage akin to seeing Douglas Bader in a Messerschmidt.

The fact that its 900 Turbo failed to make it into the movie theatres did not stop SAAB from attempting to milk the connection commercially by building a special 900 Turbo 007 fitted with all the special Q niceties – in dummy form of course – and using it in several promotional activities. Today, it is all but forgotten that SAAB ever had anything to do with 007, so it would seem the Swedish firm’s efforts failed to cement the connection in the public conscience. The 900 Turbo 007 was displayed at the company museum in Tröllhättan for years until SAAB went bankrupt in 2011 and all its assets were liquidated; the car has since been sold to an undisclosed new owner.

(1) American Sunroof Company

(2) Even so, your author vaguely seems to remember Bond sitting in, or standing next to, a light-green metallic 900 Turbo four-door in a wintery scene of one old Bond movie. Can you identify which one?

Author: brrrruno

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

16 thoughts on “Swede Dreams are Made of These”

  1. Good morning, Bruno. All Saabs posted here are new to me, so thank you for yet another schoolday 🙂 I can’t figure out which James Bond movie featured a light green metallic 900 Turbo four door either. I wonder if the commentariat can help us out here.

    1. Thanks for that Dave. Would that have spurred, Audi-like, the earlier adoption of AWD? Or would they have settled for FWD like the Thema 8.332, Olds Aurora, or Cadillac Seville? Renault went AWD in the Safrane Biturbo didn’t they?

    2. Thanks for the video, Dave. I somehow find the 9000 V8 quite appealing.

    3. Saabs were often bought by people with above average intelligence. This specific kind of customer should have had enough brain power to keep their right foot under control – as opposed to journalists with a digital on-off control of their relevant extremities.
      In theory it would have been possible to convert the Tipo 4 platform to AWD as Alfa did with the 164 Q4. Saab would have had to drop their rigid tube rear axle if they didn’t want to end with a live rear axle, Alfa 133 Q4-style. But almost surely Saab didn’t have the necessary money and GM had no interest.

    4. I owned a 9000 Aero from 2006 to 2013. When I searched a good Aero, I wanted a 1996-1997 car, as they didn´t have the (effective but troublesome) TCS. Finally I found one and bought it.
      Some people told me I would be replacing the front tyres every 10,000 km due to continous traction loss, but that happened if you drove like a troglodyte; with a bit of restraint, it wasn´t so bad.

    5. I owned more than one powerful FWD Alfa and made much the same experience.
      If you start a 166 with 220 PS from a red light with the steering turned to its lock and throttle on the carpet than the car will go straight ahead (if you do the same in a BMW you will go around the corner boot first).
      But who would do this in real life?
      On my 916 GTV TB the front tyres sometimes needed replacement after 5,000 kms but these had very little rubber from new (Michelin Pilot Sport MXX3 – that was the era of tyre make and type being part of the type approval so these were the only ones allowed on the car) and hell, the GTV was a car to be driven hard.

  2. Since people keep on asking about this: Uusikaupunki literally means ‘Newtown’. Olle hyvää.

  3. Beside thinking of selling the Calibra in US as a Saab, I read somewhere that GM considered to replace the Camaro/Firebird with it. Perhaps it sounds unreasonable, but Ford was thinking something similar with the Probe and the Mustang.

  4. “….the 900 Turbo failed to make it into the movie theatres” doesn’t quite chime with my memory. Round about the mid-’90s/turn of the century a number of American B-movies seemed to regularly systematically destroy them during improbable chases – and in the UK it was the car of choice if the director of a TV drama – or even soap – wanted to blow one up….. I dread to think how many really nice Saabs were unforgivably destroyed in the process. And I never watched ‘Eastenders’ ever again!

  5. The SAAB V-8 is an interesting engine. An unusual feature was how the need for a reversed cylinder head problem was solved (in a V-8 the LHS cylinder head needs to be a mirror of the RHS cylinder head- necessary for DOHC* cylinder heads on a vee engine). Usually a different casting is employed for each side of the engine. This demands a different set of molds and core prints for LHS head castings and RHS head castings. That is expensive.

    To avoid the investment in extra tooling in this V-8 the same casting was used on both sides! To allow the exhaust to emerge on the outside of the vee of the engine one of the heads was deployed so that the inlet ports were used for the exhaust gasses, while the exhaust ports were used for the inlet mixture. This needed some port work and also swapping the inlet valve and exhaust valve position (inlet and exhaust valves are not the same diameter so the seats must be different/altered from before)- basically a machining job, which was cheaper (by far) than manufacturing new patterns, molds, core prints etc. It’s a clever dodge which wouldn’t work for all engine architectures, but in this one it works out AOK!

    *for OHV engines this is often not necessary.

  6. Very interesting – thank you, Bruno. In one of those (frequent) odd coincidences, I came across pictures of prototype SAAB 9-3s, recently. Something for another time, perhaps.

    Is that V8 related to the Stag one?

    1. Hi Charles

      It is distantly related but the lineage is not direct. The SAAB inline four started out as a version of the Triumph four. It was heavily developed from there. SAAB considered use of what was to become the Stag V-8 but declined to proceed with that engine. On the other hand the four was carefully developed over several iterations into the well-known dohc four-valve turbo-charged unit used to propel later SAAB models. The SAAB V-8 is in essence two of those fours on a common crankshaft (in a custom cylinder block) and without the tubo-chargers*. The Stag engine is quite different.

      *imagine what that V-8 would have been like when they got around to putting the turbo-chargers on it. SAAB history would have turned out quite different (assuming they got around to designing decent suspension and, yes, awd).

    2. Saab started very early to eliminate the troublesome features of the Triumph engine like exposed head studs sitting at an angle and water pump with a horizontal impeller that needed an extractor tool and had to be shimmed.
      The Saab H engine on which this V8 is based had next to nothing in common with the old Triumph engine, even the block was heavily modified and taller.

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