Friday, October 7, 2016

Quirky Swedish instant classic

LÄTT NÅGONSIN quirkiest bilen gjorde
I was strolling along the mighty Gowanus Canal this past winter when I stopped to regard a still-common car before it's too late. History is rife with cars that were taken for granted until one day you realize they've all disappeared. When was the last time you saw a Datsun 280Z on the road? (hush up you West Coasters). Without further ado:
This is a 1993 Saab 900S in Nocturne Blue Poly. I found a list of the original paint color codes for Saabs of this era and the names read like a J Crew catalogue; Eucalyptus Green, Derby Gray, and Imola Red to name a few.
This car is the definition of quirky, creative design.
Look at this cheerful mug!
The 900 was introduced in 1979 and continued on with little change through this model year of 1993. It was derived from the earlier Saab 99 that looked similar but was a bit more awkward.
The name Saab comes from the name of the parent company Svenska Aeroplan AB (the last 2 letter are an abbreviation of Aktiebolag, itself meaning LLC or corporation) which translates roughly to Swedish Airplane Company Limited. They were founded in the late '30s to build planes but had their first automobile in production by 1950. From the get-go their cars were like nothing else in the marketplace.
At first glance this is just a 4 door car but as you examine it a bit further odd details start to stand out. That seriously curved windshield harkens back to their aeronautical roots and makes for some of the best visibility in the business. The bottom of the doors wrap underneath the side of the body; another airplane design influence. That long, sloping hood is hinged in the front. Not only that, it actually slides forward 5 or 6 inches before opening, providing excellent access to the mechanicals.
When the 900 was first introduced it was available in only 3 and 5 door hatchback. The sedans such as this one quickly followed. In the mid-'80s the president of Saab US suggested that they try a convertible to increase sales. It was an instant hit and remains very collectible today.
Just about every 900 from '79-'93 had a 2 Liter slant-4 cylinder engine (there were 1.9 and 2.1 versions too). A popular addition was the turbocharged model which was available in all body styles. These cars enjoy a reputation for astonishing longevity and durability with 300,000 miles not being an unrealistic goal. One guy in Wisconsin drove his Saab a million miles with its original engine and turbo before donating it to a museum (Saab gave him a new car at that point).
There was a facelift in 1987 that slightly altered some details on the 900. These bumpers are more integrated into the body than the earlier models but that's about all from the rear. The grill and headlights changed and became a bit slanted. Starting in 1994 the entire Saab 900 line was changed though it still remained recognizable as a relative of this era.
Ah the sweet stuck-on emblems of the '90s. How many car washes or hot summer days does it take to lose one of these? Who knows but this is pretty common.
The S in 900S is up to debate. I always thought it meant sunroof but some online forums insist that it means it has several options of some sort. I had an '83 4 door 900S and it had a manual sunroof that would slide back into the roof itself. Since my car had almost no options whatsoever I'm going with sunroof!
From here you can somewhat see the lower doors and how they wrap underneath the body.
The first Saabs from the '50s and '60s look so alien it's crazy. Everything about those cars is so bizarre but they proved capable and won many a rally. The engines were 2-stroke in the beginning which required a mixture of gas and oil. The windows didn't exactly roll down but rather slid down in the front as if there was a hinge on the rear lower corner. They are known as Saab Scarabs as they look like little frumpy insects with a round exoskeleton.
This looks exactly like the manual sunroof my 1983 had so I'm guessing it's the same. There was no lock or handle on mine; you literally just pulled back on an indentation and it dropped down onto a track and slid back into the roof. Somehow when it clicked back into place it was watertight but I was always nervous it would just get loose and slide back when I hit the gas from a light.
The 5 speed means this would be a fun car to drive.
Saab took their airplane expertise into the design of the cockpit. The dash ever so slightly wraps around so that everything faces the driver and is within easy reach. In addition everything is placed in order of usage which is why the radio is so high on the dash. One truly odd quirk of the 900 is the key placement. The starter is a part of the transmission itself and the keyhole is in the console between the seats. When you turn the car off you have to leave it in reverse or you will be locked out. WHY SAAB WHY? I forgot a couple times and there's nothing as frustrating as having your key in your hand and the car won't allow the key to turn.
Well that's where we'll leave this little Swede. Unfortunately Saab was owned by GM during the 2008 financial collapse. GM tried to sell it but the deal fell through. It was finally purchased by Stryker a year before they went bankrupt too. It's such a shame for one of the most beloved and innovative small car companies but that's pretty much how it died; in a messy haze of custody battles and terrible financial decisions.
Over the years I had the 1983 4 door and two 1989 2 door hatchbacks, all with manual transmissions. There is something wonderful about the feel of a first generation 900 on the road. It gives the impression of being rooted firmly to the ground yet is very responsive to all controls. I would love to have a turbo convertible at some point. They are still available and many are still in daily use thanks to their reliability. If you like quirky design I wouldn't hesitate to recommend snatching one up now.

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