Saab 900 Turbo Offered High Performance with a Side of Weird
Dreaming about odd cars is a guilty pleasure of mine. Willfully strange engineering, whether an improvement over convention or not, simply appeals to me on a very base level—what that reveals about my character I’m not sure, but there it is. Of course I’ve dedicated future garage space to all sorts of Italian, German, and Japanese sporting exotica, but you’ve got to have a bit of levity, right? Citroëns, Tatras, early Lancias, Soviet hatchbacks, Wankel-powered things—I love them all, Saabs in particular. Perhaps it’s because of their relative abundance, really work my imagination and get me dreaming about torque steer, turbo lag, electrical fires, vodka, and super-comfy seats. The early two-stroke cars are especially amazing, their Panda bear-choking, blue-smoke belching exhaust and Paul Bunyan’s chainsaw soundtrack icons of earlier, more “who gives a shit?” times, but the one Saab I’ve always lusted for is a 900 Turbo.
Released in 1978 as a replacement for the 99, itself considered the first “modern” Saab, the 900 was heavily based on its predecessor but was significantly larger and more sophisticated, too. Built in two and four door sedan, as well as three and five door hatch configurations, the 900 gets a bit weird even before we delve into its inner workings. Joined by a convertible in ’86, just in time for the yuppies, one single line offered a range of body styles more typically spread across a range of models—call it Nordic pragmatism, or call it stretching a krona, the 900 appealed to young, urban, moneyed types of all stages of life.
Though I usually view front wheel drive performance cars with the same eye I’d view a vegan hamburger, the 900, and in particular the Turbo, sent that power to the wrong wheels with so much style that it actually moved the concept beyond merely an endearing quirk to become an outright asset. Mounted longitudinally and at a 45 degree angle, the 900’s four cylinder’s also delivered their power backwards—that is to say, twist was delivered to the front-facing end of the crankshaft. The transaxle, though running a separate sump, comprised the engine’s oil pan, with power transferred downwards through it by means of chain-driven gears before heading back towards the driveshafts—why? Because trolls.
Utilizing double wishbone suspension at the front and an unusual (notice a pattern?) beam axle rear with what essentially worked out to two Watt’s linkages per side, it offered a kind of quasi-independent movement capable of maintaining very accurate geometry over a wide range of motion. Ergonomics were also super-advanced, from the deeply curved windshield to the placement of controls according to their frequency of use, as well as front-lit gauges, it was all laid out according to aircraft design philosophy—an actual, tangible link to Saab’s roots, well before “born from jets” was watered down to nothing more than a limp marketing tag line for cars built from GM parts bins.
They were all weird, they were all great, they were mostly quite slow—the Turbo though, as previously mentioned, is the one to have, particularly an ’85-up version as they were fitted with a twin cam, 16 valve motor rather than earlier, eight valve designs. Thusly equipped, the Turbo offered 175 HP and a grunty 205 lb. ft. of torque, good for roughly eight second 0-60 MPH sprints and a top speed of 130 or so. Nearly three decades on, neither figure is all that impressive, but in the context of the times it was plenty quick.
An old acquaintance of mine traded a 27-inch television and a case of cheap beer for a decently nice runner about 10 years ago, and today they’re not worth much more. If strange cars do it for you, too, there’s no getting weirder for less cash, but best be prepared with a big tool kit, a parts fund, lots of patience, and an army surplus Siberian tank commander’s driving cap.