The addictive turbo boost and distinctive burble from the exhaust make the 900 Turbo one of the most memorable performance cars of its era. As a classic choice today it’s also among the coolest looking.
Weighty, communicative steering and well-mannered handling are further attractions, but it’s the feeling of complete solidity and that iconic wraparound windscreen that really complete the package. With the engineering integrity that typifies a company with an aerospace background, Saabs of this ilk were far tougher than many other cars of the time, and proved that turbocharging could be made reliable and usable. Today’s automotive world owes a great deal to Saab.
Considering it had its roots in the 1960s, the 900 Turbo disguised its age extremely well, continuing right through to 1994. The convertible helped pave the way for a whole new sector of the market too; but whether it has a soft or a hard roof, the 900 Turbo remains an icon.
Although the slant-four engine can trace its heritage back to a Triumph design that was used in the earliest Saab 99s, Saab continued development of the engine after it took production in-house in 1973 to create the B-series. Other than in its basic layout it bears little resemblance to the Triumph unit. The later Saab H engine, as fitted to post-81 cars, was a further development with an alloy cylinder head, with a 16-valve version arriving in 1984.
One thing that couldn’t be modernised was the engine’s unconventional longitudinal layout, which required the gearbox to be mounted below – creating a few issues with the longevity of the higher-powered versions – especially when tuned or driven particularly hard. Which was unsurprisingly quite common.
Which classic 900 to buy?
The Saab 900 Turbo, especially in 16v Aero specification, has been a cult classic for many years, never really dropping out of fashion since it came to the market in the mid-1980s, and the best examples have always held strong values. Although two-door saloon models were built, it is the practical and (arguably) better-looking three-door hatch that most really lust after.
The 8-valve Turbo models are less desirable, and considerably cheaper. If you’re not bothered about the lack of body kit or the 16v’s storming top-end performance, it could make a much more cost-effective proposition. These were also offered in five-door guise, and still make great everyday classics. You could also seek out a non-turbo model. These cars are still usefully quick, and are even less stressed than the turbos, meaning that they are capable of huge mileages if well maintained.
Convertible models have an enduring appeal, and like the others, are most desirable in 16v aero specification. High mileages don’t have too much of a negative effect on values either, especially if the car is in tip-top condition. Ultra-low mileage examples are very rare and generally won’t be on the market for long.
The extremely rare Carlsson models – of which just 600 were built – are the most valuable. Featuring a unique bodykit, twin exhaust and different gearing, the Carlsson was the most powerful production 900 ever built. This was thanks to a red APC box, which increased boost and pushed power to 185bhp. This upgrade was also fitted to the run-out Ruby models.
One particularly popular modification is fitment of later Saab 9000 Carlsson alloy wheels, which at 16-inches fill the wheelarches very nicely. These wheels might not be original, but significantly enhance the looks, and are worth considerably more than the standard three-spoke 15-inchers, so don’t let them put you off!
Performance and specs
1984 Saab 900 T16S Aero
||1985cc slant-four, chain-drive DOHC, 16-valve turbo
||175bhp @ 5300rpm
||201lb ft @ 3000rpm
||Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
|Price when new
Dimensions and weight
• The 900’s 2.0-litre turbo unit is strong and, if properly maintained, will easily go for 250,000 miles without the need for a rebuild.
• Timing chains start getting noisy at 140,000 miles; sooner if the oil change schedule hasn’t been followed.
• Turbochargers pose little risk of failure, and are well up to the relatively low boost pressures of the 900. Saab used the Garrett T3, and failure is unusual as it’s a well-built bit of kit, but even when a rebuild is required it’s not a big undertaking.
• The five-speed manual gearbox does have a few weakness. A noisy layshaft bearing is not uncommon, and over time the car will start to jump out of third and fourth gear
due to excess movement within the gearbox. The reverse gear is also known to lose a tooth or two. A full rebuild will cost around £1200.
• The engine can take a lot more power but the gearbox can’t, so be sure that if a 900 has been tweaked, it’s been done correctly.
• Rust isn’t much of a problem compared to many cars of this age, but everything rust eventually. The bottoms of the doors are the most common place to see rot on any of the body panels, and it’s rare to find one now that doesn’t need or hasn’t had a repair.
• Rust can set in on the front wings, and the plastic bodykit fitted to the Aero cars traps dirt which can facilitate corrosion. The 900 is made from such thick, high-quality steel that rust doesn’t develop particularly quickly, and repairs are generally simple.
• On older 900s, the front chassis rails and wishbone mountings could be starting to go, so have a good look under the car if you can. Check under the battery tray for any signs of corrosion from previous battery leakages.
• Suspension and brakes are generally robust, although it’s common for the rear end to sag when the springs become tired. Original-specification springs and dampers are available, however upgraded items from Bilstein or Koni are worth considering.
• 99s and early 900 Turbos have a front-mounted handbrake, which will require regular servicing to prevent disc binding issues, although post-1988 cars switched to larger 9000 calipers with a rear handbrake.
• Electrical problems are few but headlight washers are difficult to replace, and you should check that the standard-fit heated seats are working. It’s common for the elements to suffer damage. They can be repaired with patience.
• Headlinings are notorious for sagging and dashboard tops can suffer cracking. The interior generally wears its miles well. Leather seats are preferable – mainly because they look nicer – but the cloth seats wear extremely well and rarely need repairs.
• Damaged convertible hoods are easy to change, and shouldn’t put you off buying an otherwise good car.
October 1968: Saab 99 launched
September 1977: Saab unveils 99 Turbo at the Frankfurt motor show in three-door Combi form
1978: Saab 99 Combi goes on sale in Europe
1979: Two-door 99 Turbo also offered. Saab introduces the 900, and continues to sell the 99 in parallel
1981: Saab introduces the new H engine across the range
1982: APC turbo control introduced
1984: Saab introduces the 16-valve cylinder head and 175bhp 900 T16S ‘Aero’
Spring 1986: Production of 900 Convertible begins
1987: Major front facelift with new bumpers and sloping headlights
1988: Minor update, with a few changes including the switch to larger 9000 brakes
1990: Special-edition Carlsson produced, with body-coloured AirFlow body kit. 600 built in total
March 1993: Production comes to an end, commemorated with a run of 150 ‘Ruby’ special-edition 16v turbos with 185bhp
Owners’ clubs, forums and websites
• www.abbottracing.net – Abbott Racing, specialist servicing, spare parts supplier and tuning company
• www.saabclub.co.uk – Saab Owners Club (GB)
• www.saabcentral.com – Saab Central forum, great for technical help and sourcing spares
Summary and prices
The last real Saab? Maybe that’s unfair on the later models, but the classic 900 is certainly the last of a unique breed. This superbly engineered Swedish car really is usable and dependable, making it equally suitable for everyday use and family trips out.
Convertible values are very hard to pin down, because generally they are worth whatever the right buyer is willing to pay. In the very best condition, the 900 Turbo Convertible will go for more than £10,000, but £3000-£5000 can get you a good car.
The best ‘Aero’ models – that’s the 16v Turbo with the full 1980s-style bodykit – will sell for around £6000-7000, but special editions – such as the Carlsson and run-out Ruby models – carry a premium of about £1000 over those.
Scruffy and unloved 900s are, on the other hand, more affordable. A rough-but-ready 16v Turbo can be bought from about £1500. Projects generally start from £500, though these are usually broken up for spares.