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.


Anonymous said...

OK so no particular lesson, but a good story nevertheless!

And yes, that 1st gen 9000 series was indeed quickly forgotten once the 1993 model 9000s showed up.

But it highlights a successful paradigm for a Saab model. The "version 1.0" 1986-1992 9000 run was a good car, but the much upgraded, improved 2nd gen 9000 was far better and ultimately more popular

So it's strange to me, why they now feel the need to radically redo the current 9-3 series. The current 9-3 is a wonderful car with some minor flaws that could be worked out w/o radical changes. Hopefully, their next iteration is highly evolutionary but not revolutionary. (I'm not quite sold on the idea of Mini engines, efficiency arguments aside).

Paul ---

Anonymous said...

a well sorted mark I 9000 [flat front] is a good sleeper that the law usually ignore unless it has too much bling.

Steve C. said...

Great observations. I owned a 1990 9000S for 11 years and 150K miles and only sold it (to other Saab entusisast) because of a need for a 9-5 wagon to support transporting an electric scooter.

That was the year the 2.3l engine with direct ignition became available. This was a naturaly aspirated engine but mated to the 5-sp manual transmission it had great response.

I still have a picture of the interior (my wife in the driver's seat) posted on my office wall! I fell in love with the interior of this car and thought it was a great evolution of the classic 900. And I'm so happy the design continued the natural evolution into the next generations of the 9-5. In fact, the new 9-5 dash shape is more like the 9000 than the first-gen 9-5.

I could go on and on about my 9000 and can really resonate with Pierre's thoughts.

PaulE said...

I've had lots of Saabs over the years, but I've had a soft spot in my heart (and a spot in the garage) for an early 9000.

My first 'nice' Saab was an '86 9000T, which was sold for a 9000 Aero. After that? A new 9-5 Aero (still have that car)... but I felt like I'd made a mistake in not getting the wagon flavor. So, what did I do? Find another early 9000T.

I've managed to find a couple 9000Ts over the years in the southern and western US, and currently have an '86 that I brought to the midwest US from southern California.

It mostly gets used for truck duty these days, hauling everything from furniture and appliances to landscape materals, but still gets out on the road. Ironically, it was all but ignored at the last Saab owner's convention I drove it to, in Colorado.

Anonymous said...

Very true, the 1st Gen 9000 has been overshadowed. I owned a 1990 9000S and an Edwardian Gray 86 9000 turbo, and I will be on the hunt for another come springtime, put that Carlsson kit I have laying around to good use!