Five Classic Trials
Saab 900 Turbo Carlsson
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.