A tale of some lesser-known Saabs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?