Friday, October 15, 2010

The Forgotten Saab

I noted at the most recent Swedish car Day that there was one car absent from Saab’s recent history—the first generation 9000. While the occasional heavily modified one might show up at some Saab events, these cars have largely disappeared from the landscape. Many in this area would have suffered rust problems, especially in the rear quarter panels and the doors. The 9000 was also just complicated and expensive enough to repair to scare some off. Perhaps the biggest reason these cars are forgotten is that they are overshadowed by the 1993-1998 9000, especially in Aero trim, which has become a darling of enthusiasts.

I recall that when the 9000 debuted, there was a hew and cry that it was not a “real” Saab. It had a transverse engine, a transmission mounted off the end of the engine instead of underneath it, MacPherson struts, and—horror of horrors—the ignition cylinder on the steering column cover. Still, there was plenty which did look familiar. The engine was the same 2.0 liter engine found in the 900, the solid rear axle with 4 links and a Panhard rod was similar, many of the switches, the steering wheel and the basic design of the seats were also carried over.

What carried over most of all was the way the car embodied the Saab brand pillars. It was safe. It was fun to drive. It was fuel efficient. It was comfortable. It was practical. In every respect, the 9000 carried out those traits better than any Saab which preceded it. Plus, it was enormous inside, while still shorter overall than the 900. It got better mileage than the 900. The 9000 had electronic gadgets never before seen in a Saab. It was just plain better in every measureable way, and in many subjective ways as well.

Not only was the 9000 the best Saab of its day; it might have been the very best all around car on the road. This was 1986. Manufacturers were just starting to figure out how to take all the restrictions created by emissions laws and turn them into performance features. Saab already had that one figured out. Have a modern Bosch fuel management system, install an APC managed turbo, and all of a sudden you have a car that will outrun not only every BMW and Mercedes, but most Porsches as well. Fold that rear seat down, and your BMW killer suddenly swallowed things like couches and refrigerators. All the while, you enjoy mixed driving fuel economy in the 20’s and get 30 or more mpg on the highway. The seats were the quintessential iteration of Saab seat design. Having just a bit more thigh support than the 900, these seats allowed one to travel endlessly in comfort.

One of my favorite stories regarding the 1986 9000 came from a customer. He recounted how he was on his way to New York, and was travelling on I84 between Massachusetts and Hartford. For those who don’t know the route, it is wide, has some curves, and long straights over rolling hills. And lots of sneaky enforcement. Our intrepid customer, tempted by power and stability of his new 9000 and lots of endless pavement, opened it up over the rolling hills. As he crested a hill, with the speedometer needle long past the final marking (135mph), there was a Connecticut state trooper with his radar gun. Knowing he’d been had, our customer let off the throttle, slowed down and pulled off into the breakdown lane to await his doom. Eventually, the police car pulled in behind him. As the trooper approached the car, he bellowed, but not what you’re thinking. “What the hell kind of car is this?” he wanted to know. “Do you know how fast you were going?” Yes officer, about 140. The trooper was more interested in the car than he was about writing a citation. Our customer gave the trooper a walk-around of the car, opened the hood, etc. The officer was duly impressed. At the end of their encounter, he advised our Saab driver that he really had to slow down, thanked him for the information on the car, and let him drive away without so much as a warning! There’s a lesson there, I’m just not sure what it is.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The (not so) Good Old Days
At times on various blogs and Saab fan sites, there is a wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over the lack of distinction in the current Saab line-up. The cars look ordinary (if handsome) compared to Saabs of old, there is too much GM in current cars, Saabs need to be hatchbacks…..the complaints are bountiful.

Let us not forget, though, the price we paid for having such “distinction” in our old Saabs. No one can question my adoration of the Classic 900. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve owned, and a 1992 900T is my current ride, so I know of what I speak. As much as I love the 900, one of its distinctions was the litany of common problems those cars had, many of which we are inured to when looking back at those cars through rose-colored glass.

I’ve compiled a list of favorite complaints for the Classic 900. I experienced these not just as a service advisor, but as an owner:

· Heater control valves. They liked to fail in two ways. In the summer, they wouldn’t shut off so you always had heat. At any time, they might decide to leak coolant all over your feet and pedals.
· Ignition lock cylinders. Real Saabs have to have them between the seats, right? In the 900, with its funnel down to the cylinder, it meant that every bit of dust, dirt and moisture found its way into the cylinder, and eventually they would stick or seize. The best failures were the ones where the key stuck in the start position—if this ever happened to you, you might recall that your radio, wipers and other electrical devices wouldn’t work, there would be an odd noise, then a cloud of smoke and the car would stop and not be able to start because the starter motor had stayed engaged and spun along until it fried.
· Exciter wires to the alternator broken. You’d be driving along, and slowly you’d lose all electrical power and the car would die. Your only clue might have been that the battery light on the dash didn’t illuminate when you started the car. Even better, if the battery light bulb was out, you got the same result: stuck on the side of the road.
· Water pumps. Saw lots of these fail at 40,000 mile intervals.
· Noisy engine drive belts.
· Steering rack failures. These got better over time, but the early ones all suffered from “morning sickness.”
· Parking brakes that stick. This was on the 1979-1987 900, which had the parking brake on the front wheels. The pivot in the caliper would eventually stick, and the parking brake would not release, thus causing damage to the pads and discs.
· Those early brakes also liked to clunk during parking maneuvers, especially in reverse.

-If the brake calipers didn't clunk, then the front wheel bearings would from shifting.
· Cruise control. Disengagement switches on the pedals were always out of adjustment or just failed.
· Speaking of pedals, was there ever another car where the linkage pivot on the clutch pedal wore so severely that the clutch wouldn’t disengage, thus forcing replacement of the pedal and linkage?
· Oil leaks. They leaked from everywhere.
· Headgaskets. Some variants were worse than others, with the 2.1 l being the worst for leaking coolant.
· Wiper racks. The cable would break and render the left wiper dead.
· Power window switches. These accumulated lots of dirt, and eventually the points in them would burn up, or the switches would just stick in one position or the other.
· The universal joint on the steering column would seize and make steering heavy and eventually impossible.
· Horn buttons. I don’t know how many hundreds of these we replaced.
· Taillamp circuit boards. On sedans, these would overheat from poor grounding and melt, thus causing comical combinations of lighting.
· Rattles. Some of the later cars weren’t too bad, but in the 1980s? There were hatch rattles, rear seat-back rattles, the support rod on the rear parcel shelf in the sedan, creaking door seals…..
· Pinion bearings. These failed at an alarming rate until a redesign made them more robust, and required rebuilding the transmission.
· Antenna masts. Always broken. On the power antennas, the masts would break internally, they wouldn’t retract, and then they’d get broken. Does anybody even notice that cars don’t have antennas any more?
· Bent wheels. I don’t know what alloy was used in those days, but it was soft as butter, and more cars than not had bent wheels, and this was before the days of low profile tires.
· Bumper extensions and bumper trim strips that came off during routine contact.

This isn’t to say that modern Saabs don’t suffer failures, but they occur far less frequently. We can see it in our data, that each Saab in service comes in for repair and maintenance fewer times per year. So why did we love the classic 900, with all its warts? Because it was, and is, one of the most visceral of driving experiences, and always engaged the driver’s senses. From the unique smell of the interior (if you owned one, you know what I mean), to the mechanical sounds of the power-train, to the feel of the steering, brakes, clutch and shifter, the 900 was like nothing else. Some sports cars may achieve this, but I cannot think of any sedans or coupes in the past generation which felt so….analogue!