Saab 900: How to keep one of these interesting Swedes in good order.
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.
SUSPENSION & BRAKES
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.
INTERIOR & ELECTRICS
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.