Saab 900: aircraft-inspired Swede that flew under the radar
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Saab 900: aircraft-inspired Swede that flew under the radar

By MarkOastler - 11 April 2022

The first-generation or ‘classic’ Saab 900 released in 1978 is considered the high point in the Swedish marque’s intriguing automotive history. It combined spirited performance with famously quirky features and unique aeronautical design influence.

With robust engineering (a US owner clocked up more than 1.6 million km in a 1989 model with original turbocharger) and stylish practicality thanks to a voluminous hatchback body, the original Saab 900 was a high-quality Swedish thoroughbred with idiosyncratic appeal. This was reflected in its sales figures, which even at their peak were modest compared to domestic rival Volvo and other European marques.

The Saab 900 was prized by those with a social conscience, the way many Tesla owners are perceived today. In the 1980s, at the height of its popularity, it also struck a chord with young urban professionals or ‘yuppies’ as they were known. A Saab was European without being pretentious, turbocharged and sporty without being taunting, spacious and practical without being dull, advanced in safety and environmentally aware without being, well, a Volvo.

The motoring media was generous in its praise: “It is difficult to put into words the charm and fascination of this remarkable car,” wrote Canada’s Autosport. “As a combination of performance, refinement and fuel economy it stands alone, and the integrity of its engineering and the quality of its finish are second to none. If you were to conclude from the above that this is just about the best motor car which is at present being made anywhere, you wouldn’t be far wrong.”

Saab has a proud heritage of commercial and military aircraft production.

German publication Auto Motor und Sport, in its annual selection of the world’s best cars, awarded the Saab 900 the gong for ‘Best Imported Car under 2.5 litres’ five years in a row. And Road & Track, in selecting its 10 best cars of the 1980s, chose the Saab 900 Turbo as the ‘Best Sports Sedan’ in the US. There were many more accolades.

The Saab 900, like its ancestors, was primarily designed to thrive on icy roads in freezing Scandinavian winters. Even so, it attracted scores of passionate owners on other continents including the US, particularly in snowbound northern states. Saab in Australia also attracted its fair share of passionate owners and commissioned one of the world’s rarest 900 variants, detailed later in this story.

The original Saab 900 was produced from 1978 to 1993, with the second and final generation from 1994 to 1998 produced under ill-fated General Motors ownership.

Original Saab 92 had aeronautical design influence which infused future models.

On a wing and a prayer

In the mid-1930s, with a growing threat of war in Europe, the Swedish parliament voted to bolster its air force through domestic aircraft manufacturing, prompting establishment of Svenka Aeroplan AB or SAAB in Trollhättan in 1937.

Following the end of hostilities in 1945, with reduced demand for aircraft, Saab expanded its design and manufacturing expertise to include car manufacturing. However, the company faced a sizeable challenge given not one of its employees had any background in automotive design, manufacturing or sales!

Even so, distinguished aeronautical engineer Gunnar Ljungström, perhaps influenced by Citroën’s Traction Avant, showed considerable foresight by insisting on front wheel-drive, according to SAAB 900 – A Swedish Story author Anders Tunberg:

“Ljungström was convinced that front wheel drive was a superior technical solution with respect to road handling, as well as space considerations. He defended his point of view in many publications and debates, in an era when front wheel drive was still regarded with suspicion.”

In 1947, when the prototype emerged of what would evolve into the Saab 92, the influence of aircraft engineers was profound and destined to influence future designs. Its overtly streamlined body, which included a smooth aeroplane-style underbelly, produced a drag co-efficient in the low 0.30s which was amazing by 1940s automotive standards and commendably low even by today’s.

It also had light but strong unitary or ‘monocoque’ construction derived from aircraft design, which allowed its light and compact 764cc twin-cylinder two-stroke engine to provide surprisingly spirited and agile performance with good economy. It also had commendable interior space.

The prototype also showcased safety features virtually unknown at the time, including steering gear mounted as rearward as possible in the engine compartment to minimise the risk of steering failure in a frontal collision, along with a collapsible steering column.

Saab 99 introduced a stylish and practical hatchback body that seamlessly transitioned to the 900.

Saab 92 sales commenced in 1950. Under chief designer Sixten Sason, who also worked on Saab aircraft design during the war, the 92 evolved into the 93 in 1955 with a larger three-cylinder two-stroke. The company exploited this with great effect, through success in both racing and particularly rallying with Swedish ace Erik Carlsson.

The model line-up expanded in 1959 with the launch of the 95 station wagon followed by the 96 the following year, which heralded the marque’s first four-stroke engine using a Ford-derived compact V4. The 96 was so competent and charming it remained in production for another two decades.

1967 welcomed the new generation 99 with modern styling, greater safety, four-wheel disc brakes, spacious interior and an all-new 1.7-litre eight-valve SOHC inline four with a 45-degree slant, supplied under licence by British manufacturer Triumph.

This engine, which was effectively one bank of Triumph’s new 90-degree SOHC V8 (destined for the Stag), would evolve into the Saab-manufactured B engine in 1972 with a larger 2.0-litre displacement.

Throughout the 1970s, Saab also won industry and parliamentary plaudits for numerous world-first innovations that proved Volvo wasn’t the only Swedish car maker at the cutting edge of safety.

Indeed, Saab was fitting seat-belts a decade before they became mandatory in Sweden. And in 1963 it introduced a diagonally-split dual-circuit braking system, which ensured that at least one front wheel and one diagonally-opposed rear wheel could maintain balanced braking if the other circuit failed.

Saab 99 introduced turbocharging, which the 900 capitalised on with its premium model.

Saab’s 1970s safety innovations included headlight wiper/washers (this later became mandatory under Swedish law), shock-absorbing deformable bumpers that were self-repairing after small collisions and thermostatically-controlled electric seat heating, designed to stop chilled drivers suffering restricted movement caused by overly thick clothing.

Side-intrusion beams were added to the doors to increase the strength of its evolving ‘survival cell’ which was a robust cage of steel members and reinforcements that protected the passenger compartment. And a new inner roof lining made from shock-absorbing compacted glass-fibre provided excellent impact protection, plus heat and noise insulation.

Saab also introduced a hatchback variant with a versatile load floor that could be doubled in length by folding the back seat flat, resulting in more than 1.5 cubic metres of load volume. This design was so efficient and versatile that it largely negated the need for a wagon variant.

Sweden’s Stig Blomqvist won his homeland’s WRC round in 1977 (99 EMS) and 1979 (99 Turbo) before Saab withdrew from international rallying. The 900 benefitted from this competition breeding, which proved the effectiveness of Saab's front wheel-drive on snow and ice.

The world’s first oil crisis sent car manufacturers in search of high engine output with low fuel consumption. Saab, with rare expertise in turbocharging resulting from a merger with Swedish truck maker Scania in 1969, introduced its first turbocharged version of the B engine in 1977 which offered the performance of a six or eight with the economy of a four.

Although now commonplace, this exhaust-driven technology was unusual in series production cars at the time (only BMW and Porsche beat Saab to the punch) and one of the most widely acclaimed innovations in the automotive industry.

Saab also showed environmental and OH&S awareness long before they were fashionable, claiming to be the first car maker to use freon-free air conditioning and asbestos-free brake and clutch pads.

By the late 1970s the Saab-Scania Group had more than 40,000 employees and was one of Scandinavia’s largest industrial enterprises, comprising three divisions - Saab cars, Scania trucks/buses and Saab aircraft. So, with such diverse expertise in advanced transportation technology, it was time to launch the long-awaited successor to the venerable 99.

Larger and safer Saab 900 earned widespread praise and record sales in the 1980s.

Saab 900: the first generation (1978-1993)

With exports in mind, particular the lucrative North American market, Saab wanted to build larger and safer cars with extended crumple zones that could primarily meet the USA’s increasingly tough vehicle crash safety requirements.

The new 900 launched in 1978 was designed with that enlargement in mind, becoming the new flagship of a remarkably durable model line-up which at launch still included the venerable 95, 96 and 99 models. Initially, body choice was three-door or five-door hatchback.

It was a logical evolution of the 99 hatchback, or ‘combi coupe’ in Saab speak. The new and much longer styling ahead of the windscreen resulted in a 52mm increase in wheelbase (2525mm) and 424mm stretch in length (4764mm). However, the body was virtually identical to the 99 from the windscreen rearwards, with kerb weights ranging from 1195kg to 1325kg.

With its extended front crumple zone and stronger windscreen pillars, the 900 easily exceeded the latest US safety mandates which was one of chief designer Björn Envall’s primary objectives.

900 was available in a variety of body styles to suit most buyers, including five-door hatchback and four-door sedan variants.

It also introduced another Saab innovation which has become commonplace in the form of a replaceable air filter for the cabin’s ventilation system which removed pollen, dust and even some bacteria from the incoming airflow.

Four versions of the 2.0-litre B engine were available across five model grades comprising GL with single-carb 100hp (74kW), GLS with twin-carbs 108hp (79kW), luxurious GLE and EMS (which originally stood for Electronic Manual Special in the 99 range but the name carried over) with Bosch mechanical fuel injection 118hp (87kW) and premium 900 Turbo with 135hp (100kW). There was also a choice of four-speed or five-speed manuals plus three-speed auto.

Four-door sedan and long wheelbase models later expanded the range, along with a popular two-door convertible in 1986. There was also a minor facelift in 1987.

During its long production run, the 900’s trusty B engine evolved into the H engine in 1981, with the H denoting high compression. It was a logical development, with relocated ancillaries and a more efficient eight-valve SOHC aluminium ‘hemi’ head.

Saab produced almost 50,000 examples of its popular first-gen 900 convertible.

It was initially offered as the B201 (denoting 2.0 litres, one camshaft) with either carburettors or mechanical fuel injection. Peak power came from the top-shelf turbocharged model which pumped out 143hp (107kW). An intercooled version released in 1986 raised that to 153hp (114kW).

In 1984 came the B202 with dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and EFI. This 16-valve design offered even higher efficiency than the eight-valve (which remained in production until 1990) and in premium ‘Turbo 16’ form with intercooler and Saab-developed APC anti-knock system produced 160hp (118kW) and 188 ft/lbs (288Nm). In 1991 an increase in displacement resulted in a 2.1-litre naturally aspirated version called the B212.

Like the 99 from which it was derived, the 900 had unusual engineering. The longitudinal engine challenged convention by being rotated 180 degrees. That is, it was mounted backwards, with ancillaries and their pulleys/belts facing the firewall and the flywheel and clutch housing facing the grille.

The engine was bolted directly to a trans-axle beneath it, with drive from the front of the crankshaft transferred downwards via robust triplex chain to the gearbox main-shaft, then rearwards through the gearbox and diff to the front wheels. This compact trans-axle casting incorporated the engine’s sump, but engine and transmission maintained separate lubrication systems.

Turbocharging of 900’s B engine prioritised torque at low to medium rpm to match six or even eight cylinder response. Note unusual triplex chain-drive from crank to gearbox main-shaft.

There were defensible reasons for this arrangement. One is that Saab wanted to maintain the handling prowess of its well-developed double-wishbone front suspension, which included pivoting spring platforms that ensured the coils always remained vertically straight. This suspension would have been lost (as seen in the second-gen 900) given the wider engine bay needed to accommodate an east-west engine.

Saab engineers also wanted to maintain what they saw as ideal weight distribution, by having a significant portion of its engine plus flywheel/clutch assembly ahead of the front axle line. Saab explained this in its engineering report:

“When carrying the driver and full tank of fuel, the approximate weight distribution of the Saab 900 is 60% on the front wheels and 40% on the rear wheels. Fully laden, the distribution changes to 51/49%. The Saab 900 thus still has a slight amount of understeer and consistent behaviour, with good directional stability.

“As opposed to this, a car with a curb weight distribution of, say, 54% on the front wheels and 46% on the rear wheels will have the reverse distribution when fully laden. The road behaviour and characteristics of the car will therefore change from understeer to oversteer. This may be risky on a slippery surface.”

And, of course, due to modest sales there were never lavish funds available for radical redesigns. So, from the 92 to the first-gen 900, development was guided by steady evolution rather than revolution, which had the added benefit of much longer showroom lives for older models.

Rear suspension comprised a lightweight rigid tube axle with coil springs and disciplined lateral location via Panhard rod. The longitudinal location, though, also differed from convention, with two lower trailing arms in front of the axle and two upper arms behind it, to counter axle rotation while braking.

900 had unique driver-friendly ‘cockpit’ design. Ignition key (not shown here) was in the centre console between the seats.

Aircraft influence

Like its ancestors, Saab’s aeronautical influence was evident in the 900. Its longer unitary body, refined in a wind tunnel, produced an outstanding drag co-efficient of just 0.34. To put this in context, it was several years before Audi’s 100 sedan stunned the world with 0.30 in 1982. Saab's wind tunnel work included harnessing airflow over the rear hatch in such a way that its large window glass was self-cleaning.

The deeply curved windscreen and A-pillar placement were also consistent with aircraft cockpit design in providing outstanding peripheral vision. It also reduced the likelihood of an occupant’s head striking the windscreen in a frontal collision.

The interior design, described by the UK’s What Car? as “one of the best dashboard layouts we have come across in recent times”, was also aviation-inspired, being curved around the driver to ensure all controls could be easily reached without leaning forward. They were also positioned according to frequency of use, to ensure minimal diversion of the driver’s eyeline from the road.

Therefore, the most commonly used controls for headlights, power door mirrors, radio/cassette and heating/cooling were positioned highest, with push-buttons for rear window heater, hazard warning lights and cigarette lighter immediately below. These buttons were also conspicuously large, in acknowledging that owners in cold climates often wore gloves.

Hatchback body was stylish and versatile with station wagon practicality.

More aircraft influence could be seen in the ‘Black Panel’ function which allowed all dashboard lights and instruments bar the speedo to be turned off to eliminate driver distraction during night driving. Of course, all warning lights would illuminate if required.

The ignition key was positioned lowest, uniquely in the centre console between the front seats. This moved it away from the steering column or dash to minimise the distraction of a swinging key fob and avoid possible knee contact in a crash. The key also could not be removed without firstly selecting reverse gear. This not only locked the transmission to deter thieves, but also acted as a second parking brake.

Another feature carried over from the 99 was a door design that fully overlapped the body’s lower sill and sealed against it. This ensured there was no debris build-up on the sill that could brush against lower legs and stain clothing when entering or exiting. It’s also claimed this design was very effective in pushing deep snow out of the way when opening the door!

Classic 900 production ended in March 1993, with 908,817 built including 48,888 convertibles. It was Saab’s most popular model.

Aero/SPG catered for those wanting a 900 with high performance ‘special vehicle’ status.

Turbo heroes

The Turbo 900 in its definitive Turbo 16 configuration matched 1980s performance icons like the Audi GT Quattro and Porsche 944, with 0-100km/h acceleration times in the mid eight-second bracket. It could also run low 16-second quarters and top 200km/h, which were strong numbers for its era.

It spawned numerous special editions like the high-performance Aero, or SPG (Special Performance Group) as it was named for the US market. This was the first Saab equipped with the B202 DOHC 16-valve intercooled turbo engine, plus a wind tunnel-developed body kit, flush-face alloy wheels, lower and stiffer suspension, increased engine output and luxury options.

Arguably the rarest 900 was the Enduro, of which it is claimed less than 12 were produced. Commissioned by Saab Scania Australia, the design and development of the engineering package was reportedly overseen by prominent Sydney-based Saab dealer (and touring car racer) Ken Mathews before the cars were assembled by Saab Scania Australia.

Wild-looking Enduro version of the 900 Turbo was unique to Australia and only a handful were built for special clients. One of those was Melbourne socialite/touring car racer Peter Janson, when he was a Saab brand ambassador. I was working for Janson at the time and have vivid memories of driving his Enduro, with its increased power and leech-like cornering grip.

Based on the 1980 model 900 Turbo, the Enduro had a wild composite-fibre body kit designed and manufactured by Allan Purvis (of Purvis Eureka fame) which included enlarged wheel housings, deeper front air dam and larger rear spoiler. There were numerous paint combinations, which included satin black highlights and unique Enduro body graphics.

The prominent guard flares were required to shroud fat Simmons three-piece wheels and grippy 225/50 Pirelli P7s. There were also extra dashboard gauges, lowered and stiffened suspension with revised steering geometry, plus increased turbo boost which with water injection raised output to a claimed 175hp (130kW).

New Generation 900’s GM influence diluted the unique ‘Saabish’ appeal of its predecessors.

Saab 900: the second generation (1994-1998)

The growing popularity of the 900 in the 1980s masked a worsening financial position for Saab and indeed many boutique brands, struggling to contain high development costs due to relatively small sales volumes. The 1987 stock market crash only added to their woes.

However, automotive giants in the US and Europe were on the hunt for prestige marques, with numerous mergers and buy-outs taking place including General Motors buying a 50 per cent stake and management control of Saab’s car division in 1989.

GM imposed an aggressive new strategy, with cars like BMW’s popular 3 Series considered within shooting range. It required increasing annual output to 250,000 units (almost double Saab’s previous all-time high of 134,000 units in 1987) and slashing production costs. While this economic rationalisation pleased GM’s accountants, it was fatally ignorant of the many idiosyncratic features that made Saab Saab.

Although styling of the second generation 900 was a respectful evolution of the original hatchback and convertible, its design and development time was slashed by adopting the ubiquitous front wheel-drive GM2900 platform shared with GM’s Opel and Vauxhall mid-size models.

As a result, the 900’s quirky slant four was replaced by a conventional range of upright transverse-mounted fours in 2.0-litre (naturally aspirated or turbocharged) and 2.3-litre displacements, plus Saab’s first six in the form of GM’s 2.5-litre V6. There was a choice of manual or auto, plus the ‘Sensonic’ option which was a complex and short-lived mix of the two.

The 900’s signature front-hinged bonnet was now rear-hinged. And Saab’s prized twin-wishbone front suspension was replaced with MacPherson struts, along with a simpler and cheaper torsion-beam rear axle design. For many purists, what former Saab president David J. Herman described as ‘Saabish’ had been lost.

Gone but not forgotten. The Saab 900 was quirky but its death is still mourned by many.

The New Generation or NG 900 launched in 1994 attracted promising initial showroom traffic but some underwhelming road test reviews and reports of inconsistent quality control (build time per unit had been halved) hurt sales. Inferior ride and handling were reportedly the most common criticisms.

The NG 900 was replaced by the heavily revised and renamed Saab 9-3 in 1998, but continuing dilution of the brand combined with GM’s GFC-triggered bankruptcy a decade later led to the sad demise of the Swedish marque in 2011.

Saab’s iconic 900 may be long gone, but it maintains an iconic global status (particularly the ‘classic’ model) for many enthusiasts, car clubs and online owner communities. As today’s cars become increasingly homogenised, the classic Saab 900’s unique design legacy will continue to fly high.