Five Clas­sic Tri­als

Saab 900 Turbo Carls­son

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - CONTENTS - Words & PHo­tog­ra­PHY Richard Gunn

This brood­ing Saab 900 Turbo might look fa­mil­iar if you at­tended the Prac­ti­cal Classics Clas­sic Car & Restora­tion Show, with Dis­cov­ery, ear­lier this year. It was on dis­play there as part of PC’s High Mile Club, hav­ing notched up close to 300,000 miles. We were im­pressed by it there – no un­re­stored 28-year old car should look as good as it does af­ter that sort of stel­lar mileage – and we’re about to be im­pressed by it again, al­beit in a whole new way. There, we just got to look at it. Now we get to drive it.

Just 600 Carls­son 900s were built, purely for the UK, be­tween 1990 and 1992. They came in black, white or red and fea­tured colour-coded body kits, a whale­tail spoiler and up­graded gear­box to han­dle the ex­tra power – 185bhp in­stead of 175bhp – from the en­hanced en­gine. Larger three-spoke al­loy wheels and red ex­te­rior lin­ing with ‘Carls­son’ C-pil­lar brand­ing com­pleted a pack­age that was even more pur­pose­ful than the stan­dard Turbo.

There’s a sense of men­ace to this Saab, with its bulky skirts and a huge spoiler that even a Porsche 911 would be proud of. And it con­tin­ues inside, too. The only splashes of colour are the red sig­na­ture insert on the steer­ing wheel, and in­stru­ments and heater con­trols. It’s all black and dark grey plas­tic and leather ev­ery­where else. But this isn’t as claus­tro­pho­bic as it sounds, thanks to all the glasshouse, es­pe­cially that avi­a­tion-in­spired panoramic wind­screen. Pre­mium class and func­tional, with­out over­do­ing the lux­ury.

Start­ing in­volves that Saab in­di­vid­u­al­ity – the key down by the gear­box, lock­ing the trans­mis­sion in­stead of the steer­ing wheel. The en­gine comes alive, sound­ing qui­eter and more re­fined than we’d ex­pect from a 285,512mile mo­tor.

It’s con­firmed good prac­tice to al­low a Turbo to warm through thor­oughly be­fore you even think about fully ex­ploit­ing it – think of it as the grad­ual trans­for­ma­tion from Jekyll to Hyde. So we keep the revs low at first, dur­ing which pe­riod the 900 feels suitably Scan­di­na­vian sen­si­ble – well-en­gi­neered and safe, with neu­tral han­dling and brakes that rapidly bleed off any speed. The ride is a lit­tle on the hard side, but that’s part of the Carls­son spec­i­fi­ca­tion, for as much as this Saab can just pot­ter around town like a good lit­tle runaround, that’s not re­ally what it’s all about.

Prop­erly warmed up, the beast can finally be un­leashed prop­erly. And it comes as quite a sur­prise. A smaller, more ac­tion-ready Mit­subishi turbo means that the lag of old is cut to a min­i­mum, and, with a low whis­tle that cuts in at about 2500rpm, there is an enor­mous surge of power. Even with the thick, sticky tyres, you need to grip the wheel hard to keep the wheels straight – do not try this on a tight bend in the wet – as you’re pushed back into the body-hug­ging hide. This tow­er­ing power can be most ex­ploited on A-roads and mo­tor­ways, giv­ing al­most un­par­al­leled over­tak­ing po­ten­tial.

Un­for­tu­nately, if there’s a fly in the Carls­son’s oint­ment, it con­cerns the gear­box. The five ra­tios are well-cho­sen but se­lect­ing them quickly can feel a lit­tle laboured; it’s bet­ter to take your time. And then you re­mem­ber the mileage; how many of this car’s con­tem­po­raries would even have any gears left af­ter cov­er­ing such a colos­sal dis­tance?

This in­vig­o­rat­ing car is re­mark­able, in the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence it de­liv­ers and how it’s still able to do it so ef­fec­tively af­ter so many miles.

Hefty whale­tail rear spoiler is a ma­jor carls­son tell-tale, be­ing much larger than the one fit­ted to or­di­nary saab Tur­bos.

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