Sur­vivor’s guide

Saab 900: How to keep one of these in­ter­est­ing Swedes in good or­der.

Classics Monthly - - Contents - WORDS IAIN WAKE­FIELD

An ar­ti­cle ap­peared in a Sun­day sup­ple­ment a few years back claim­ing how the ma­jor­ity of res­i­dents liv­ing in a re­mote part of the Scot­tish High­lands al­ways choose a Saab when it came to buy­ing a new car. The rea­son for this was be­cause the only way for these res­i­dents to ac­cess the na­tional road net­work was to drive across a semi-paved cause­way when the tide was out. Other makes of cars couldn’t cope with this reg­u­lar dose of salty wa­ter and quickly rusted away.

The is­landers’ Saabs on the other hand still looked good after sev­eral years of reg­u­larly splash­ing their way across the tidal cause­way and the essence of the ar­ti­cle re­in­forced the com­monly held claim that these Swedish built cars were as tough as old boots.

As well as the mar­que’s per­ceived longevity, con­tin­u­ing suc­cess on the in­ter­na­tional rally scene helped boost Saab’s im­age and in 1978 the com­pany un­veiled an im­proved evo­lu­tion of the Saab 99 badged as the 900. The new Saab was, how­ever, much more than just a facelift, as the 900 fea­tured a longer wheel­base and a brand new front sec­tion grafted onto what was ba­si­cally the out­go­ing 99’s sturdy cabin. In 1979 the 900 be­came the first pro­duc­tion car to fea­ture a cabin pollen fil­ter and four years later all 900s were fit­ted with as­bestos-free brake pads on the as­sem­bly line.

The new 900 fea­tured an un­usual front-wheel drive ar­range­ment where the car’s 1985cc in­line-four was mounted lon­gi­tu­di­nally ‘back­wards’ with the fly­wheel at the front and drove a four-speed gear­box through a set of chain driven trans­fer gears. The 900’s gear­box, or transaxle, had its own oil sump and the unit was lo­cated slightly be­low the en­gine.

A con­vert­ible 900 came on the scene in 1986 and two years later the 900 un­der­went a cos­metic re­vamp. Changes in­cluded a restyled front end com­pris­ing a new grille, re-pro­filed bumpers and new head­lights. ‘Clas­sic’ 900 pro­duc­tion even­tu­ally came to an end in Septem­ber 1993 when a new model based on the Opel/ Vaux­hall Vec­tra (GM2900 plat­form) broke cover.

This was the first new Saab to be launched since Gen­eral Mo­tors took a 50 per cent stake in the Swedish car­maker in 1990 and the heav­ily re­vised model was now re­ferred to in the show­room as the ‘new gen­er­a­tion’ 900. The all new 900 was pow­ered by a range of 2.0 and 2.3-litre transver­sally lo­cated B204 in­line-fours and from 1994 a 2.5-litre B258 V6 was of­fered on top of the range mod­els. Pro­duc­tion of the ‘new gen­er­a­tion’ 900 con­tin­ued un­til the in­tro­duc­tion of the all-new Saab 9-3 in 1998.


From vir­tu­ally day one the ‘clas­sic’ Saab 900 was avail­able as a two and four-door sa­loon as well as a prac­ti­cal five-door hatch­back and the car fea­tured sev­eral ad­vanced safety fea­tures for the time. Al­though Saabs were built to a very high stan­dard, the 900 can rust and one of the main ar­eas to keep an eye on is the in­side edges along the bot­tom of the doors. A clever de­sign at the base of each door elim­i­nated the need for a sill and this area needs reg­u­larly check­ing for rust.

Other ar­eas where the tin worm can es­tab­lish it­self with­out be­ing no­ticed are in­side the door shells, around the front and rear whee­larches and under the fuel flap. Rust can also start be­hind the screen rub­bers and ad­vanced cor­ro­sion will cause wa­ter to


The en­gine pow­er­ing the first gen­er­a­tion, or ‘clas­sic’ 900 was a de­riv­a­tive of the Tri­umph slant four unit found in the Tri­umph Dolomite and was fu­elled by a sin­gle carb on the 900 GL and a dou­ble car­bu­ret­tor set up on the en­ter the cabin. Rust can also start in the clenched seams around the bon­net, boot lid and rear hatch. All these ar­eas should be reg­u­larly checked and pro­tected with a gen­er­ous ap­pli­ca­tion of wax-based rust pre­ven­ta­tive.

As a co­pi­ous amount of rust proof­ing was ap­plied to the 900’s un­der­side at the fac­tory, the chas­sis out­rig­gers and jack­ing points have stood the test of time rather well. How­ever, it’s im­por­tant the un­der­side is in­spected care­fully at ev­ery ser­vice, es­pe­cially the ar­eas close to any sus­pen­sion mount­ing points. Any miss­ing or dam­aged un­der­body pro­tec­tion should be touched up as soon as pos­si­ble to pre­vent sur­face rust get­ting a hold. Fi­nally, don’t for­get to check the un­der­side of the footwell car­pets and boot liner for any damp patches. Wa­ter in the left-hand footwell could be down to a leak­ing heater ma­trix.

106bhp GLS. Fuel in­jec­tion boosted the GLE’s power out­put to 110bhp and top of the range was the 145bhp 900 Turbo, a fast and very civilised high per­for­mance sa­loon.

From 1981, all 900’s were fit­ted with Saab’s H en­gine and three years later the DOHC 16-valve B202 unit took over. Early cars can suf­fer from head gas­ket prob­lems and a sign of prob­lems ahead is a may­on­naise-type sludge form­ing under the oil filler cap due to coolant con­tam­i­nat­ing the en­gine oil.

Tim­ing chains on these en­gines have a life ex­pectancy of around 150,000 miles and rat­tles from the end of the en­gine close to the bulk­head on ‘clas­sic’ 900s will in­di­cate trou­ble in this depart­ment. On tur­bocharged cars the ear­lier oil-cooled units tend to give up the ghost sooner than a later wa­ter-cooled turbo.

The rule of thumb re­gard­ing turbo life ex­pectancy is down to how the car has been driven and a tur­bocharger can last any­where from 60,000 miles to 300,000 on some cars. Re­plac­ing a ‘blown’ turbo is a big job on the 900, with a new tur­bocharger cost­ing any­where be­tween £300 and £400 plus labour.

The 900’s gear­box is a ma­jor weak point and prob­lems can lit­er­ally start to make them­selves heard around 60,000 miles. Au­to­matic gear­boxes on Turbo mod­els have a hard life and these can let go first. Prob­lems with man­ual gear­boxes in­clude dif­fi­culty en­gag­ing gears (check the hy­draulic clutch slave cylin­der first), whin­ing in third and top ra­tios (fifth on later cars) and jump­ing out of gear, es­pe­cially re­verse. A rum­bling wheel bear­ing can of­ten be mis­taken for a noisy gear­box bear­ing and is ob­vi­ously the cheaper op­tion to put right, as a fit­ting a re­con­di­tioned gear­box can cost £1000 plus labour.


The 900’s sus­pen­sion set up com­prises dou­ble wish­bones up­front and a beam rear axle kept under con­trol at each end by a pair of Watts’ links and lower con­trol arms. Dampers should last for around 100,000 miles and rear springs can sag on high mileage ex­am­ples. Leak­ing seals can re­duced the ef­fi­ciency of the power steer­ing and any stiff­ness in the sys­tem, es­pe­cially when the car is cold, is a sign that the pump or rack re­quires at­ten­tion.

Worn CV joints in the front drive­shafts on the 900 will make a click­ing noise when full lock is ap­plied and all the steer­ing and sus­pen­sion joints on the 900 are of the sealed-for-life type. Any rat­tling go­ing over un­even ground or wan­der­ing around while be­ing driven in a straight line will be down to a worn ball joint.

All mod­els in the 900 range have disc brakes all round (anti-lock brakes were avail­able from 1990). Early 900s had the hand­brake work­ing on the front wheels and the mech­a­nism should be checked and lu­bri­cated ev­ery ser­vice in­ter­val. Reg­u­lar checks should also in­clude en­sur­ing the discs aren’t ex­ces­sively scored and that the pads still have plenty of ‘meat’ left on them.


The car’s al­most ver­ti­cal, wrap round screen was a throw back to the com­pany’s in­volve­ment with air­craft pro­duc­tion as was the curved and com­pre­hen­sively equipped dash­board. A use­ful fea­ture on the 900 is the abil­ity to turn of un­nec­es­sary dash lights at night, al­though blown dash lights can be an is­sue on early cars. How­ever, these are easy to re­pair and a use­ful up­grade is to fit brighter LED re­place­ments.

A com­mon prob­lem with the Saab 900 is a sag­ging head­lin­ing, al­though this is a rea­son­ably

easy DIY fix. After care­fully re­mov­ing the head­lin­ing shell from the car’s in­te­rior, the shell should be stripped, cleaned and re­cov­ered with com­mer­cially avail­able foam-backed ma­te­rial. The ig­ni­tion switch on a Saab 900 is down by the gear­lever and re­verse gear has to be se­lected be­fore the key can be re­moved.

Saab 900s were well-equipped cars and high qual­ity ma­te­ri­als were used in the in­te­ri­ors. Some mod­els had elec­tri­cally heated seats and if these stop work­ing, it’s usu­ally down to a faulty heat­ing pad or a wiring prob­lem. An­other com­mon prob­lem is non-op­er­a­tive or stick­ing elec­tric win­dows.

Reg­u­larly lu­bri­cat­ing the parts hid­den in­side the door shells helps pre­vent prob­lems, while re­place­ment sec­ond hand parts are in­ex­pen­sive and easy to fit.

Cen­tral lock­ing can be trou­ble­some on these cars for a num­ber or rea­sons and the hoods on a con­vert­ible 900 should be reg­u­larly checked for tears and the elec­tric roof ac­tion tested, es­pe­cially dur­ing the win­ter months.


As well as the stan­dard mod­els, Saab pro­duced quite a few lim­ited and spe­cial edi­tion 900s, in­clud­ing the highly de­sir­able 900 Carls­son. Only 600 three­door hatch­back ex­am­ples were of­fi­cially made to hon­our Erik Carls­son’s rally ex­ploits and only three body colours were pro­duced – red, white and black. Other spe­cial edi­tions in­cluded the Ruby, Lux and Tju­gofem, a name that trans­lates to 25 in Swedish. 300 of these mod­els were built to cel­e­brate Saab’s 25th an­niver­sary in the UK and sur­vivors are prob­a­bly the scarcest and most ex­pen­sive 900s around to­day. Saab’s car di­vi­sion filed for bank­ruptcy at the end of 2011 and the liq­ui­dated com­pany stopped mak­ing cars the fol­low­ing year. De­spite the demise of this Scan­di­na­vian-based car­maker, the parts sup­ply for the 900 re­mains rea­son­ably good, which makes own­ing an early ex­am­ple of one of these ex­cel­lently equipped cars an ex­cel­lent choice.

The four- door sa­loon joined the range early on.

Con­vert­ible roof needs reg­u­lar ex­er­cise to keep it work­ing.

Carls­son was a lim­ited edi­tion of 600.

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