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!


clarkandrew45 said...


I must agree with you. That in a certain point, steering rack sometimes failed. and same as the other that you mentioned on your blog.

Unknown said...

We've thought of a couple of more characteristic foibles:
-Sunroof ramps which fall off and keep the rear of the sunroof from closing.
-Sunroof motors which disassemble themselves.
-Alternator mounting bushings. What other car needs new alternator bushings?
-Headlamp mounting bushings which break if you just look at them funny.

Auto Studio said...

Nowadays service centres have more than 5 or 6 bays in which Saabs of different models are checked and repaired.

Saab Service Adelaide

Campy10 said...

As a former owner of two 900S's one an '84 the second an '87 I can tell you that those cars suffered many of the problems you listed.

I enjoyed those cars but I don't miss them, I'll take the quality of my current '04 9-3 hands down.

Sabist said...

Remember in those days, most cars ended on the scrapheap in only 5 to 6 years, the Saab lasted much longer, but with some minor problems. And it was safe, most others were not!

Steve C. said...

Fortunately, not all of the complaints happened to my '84 900 but I lived through a good number of them. Mine went to 236K before I sold it, still with the original clutch and nothing done to the engine or transmission.

And Pierre was again right on with why we loved this Saab so much!

James said...

oh, lordy. I have to pop a comment in here about the 900's foibles.

-pinion bearings. ARRRRGH! I bought an 88 SPG two years ago, and spent about as much fixing things on it as I had on the purchase price (3k, for reference.) It ran beautifully. Lots of new parts in the engine (belts, water pump, A/C idler pulley, wires, plugs, distributor, plus am goodies like a Forge 007 DV, a Swedish Dynamics Red Box) along with mostly rebuilt suspension (shocks, ball joints, bushings) etc etc

I didn't touch the tranny besides changing the fluid every 5k with synthetic MTL because i'd heard bad things

the trans had a rebuild at 128k, and the pinion bearing exploded with no warning at 153k - even after frequently fluid changes, no abuse, etc

I DID love how easy everything else was to fix, though!

-James at