Words: Stuart Fowle | Pics: General Motors
In case you missed the first installment, we've decided that the best way to distract ourselves from the uncertainty of the Saab brand today is to look back at the highlights of yesterday. We recommend starting at the beginning, with the original Saab 92 that kicked-off the first half of the list. Once you're caught up, jump right into the list below, which covers all of the cars in GM's Michigan-based Heritage Collection, from the 1970 Saab 99 on forward. Here's to hoping we'll be able to add just as many great cars in another 57 years. Well, not us, but our children.
1970 Saab 99
No official Saab collection would be complete without designer Sixten Sason's breakthrough 99. The flip-forward clamshell hood, the floor-mounted ignition switch, and the modern and aerodynamic shape that would be a hallmark of Saabs for decades all originated right here.
This baby poop example probably isn't the most attractive 99, but one can't say it doesn't fully capture the styles and tastes of 1970 popular culture. Ugly was beautiful. Bad was good. Oh, inverted world. Still, this car's interior is just fantastic. The rubber boot around the shifter and the real, metal key stuck in the console, the black headrests on brown seats, the two-spoke wheel; it's all just so, well, fantastic. We want one. Just maybe in a different color like red, or black, or even just a darker color of bodily waste.
The 99 continued with a tradition of Saab quirkiness. While the engine was a thoroughly modern four-stroke four-cylinder, it was mounted longitudinally despite driving the front axle, and was set atop the transmission and clutch assembly. To fit beneath the hood, the entire setup was rotated 45 degrees and the result was provided surprisingly good handling. After inspiring the 1978 introduction of the 900 model, the 99 continued on until 1987. This 49000-mile example found its home at the Heritage Collection in 2005.
1970 Saab Sonett III
Manual pop-up headlights! Those have to be the coolest components of Saab's third attempt at building a small sports car, the Sonett III. Like the updated version of the car before it, the Sonett III used a V-4 engine, this time producing a healthy 68 horsepower. Beyond that detail, the car has little in common with its predecessor other than two doors and a hood. The last of the Sonett line boasted a pop-open rear window for easy cargo area access and a hood that nearly flat rather than heavily bulged. Its wide, dark grille makes it look a bit like a pint-sized 1969 Mercury Cougar, though overall it was years ahead of many small sports cars.
The Sonett III was launched, like the 93F GT 750, at the New York Auto Show, in 1970. It was the result of input from both Swedish and Italian designers and, to meet American requests, featured a floor-mounted shifter and air conditioning. It sold fairly well, bringing lifetime Sonett sales to 10,236 cars. The final car, a yellow one, lives at the factory museum in Sweden. This blue example, one with the early, attractive pre-1973 bumpers, was restored and added to the U.S. collection in 2006.
1978 Saab 99 Turbo
Oh, the original Saab Turbo, the one that first inspired the name of this very website. It's hard to believe that within one decade, the Saab brand went from producing 50-ish horsepower two-stroke three-cylinders to creating the heart of this icon, a turbocharged, 135-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder with electronically-controlled port fuel injection. Additionally, it was one of the first cars to use a "closed loop" catalyst exhaust system using an oxygen sensor. Unlike most early sports cars in the turbocharger movement, the 99 was tuned for torquey, low-end aggressiveness, not top-speed insanity.
The 99 Turbo debuted at the 1977 Frankfurt show wearing a gorgeous pearl white paint, unique front air dam, rear spoiler, and iconic "Inca" alloy wheels. Additionally, the interior was appointed with special upholstery, a three-spoke sport wheel, and turbo-specific gauges.
This fantastic cardinal red-over-orange example in the collection is from 1978, the only year the 99 Turbo was sold in the States. A total of 4233 three-door hatchbacks were delivered before its replacement, the 900 Turbo, debuted in 1979. In Europe, the 99 Turbo carried on until 1982. Welcome to the era of TurboNines.
1986 Saab 900 Turbo Convertible
This car, the Saab most recognized in popular culture thanks to sources like Seinfeld and the movie Sideways, wasn't ever part of Saab's plan. And it wouldn't even have been possible had Saab not created a limited-run sedan version of the two-door 900. After all, hatchbacks don't make good convertibles, as trunks are generally part of the drop-top equation. Bob Sinclair, President of Saab USA through the eighties, recognized a void in the U.S. convertible market and lobbied hard to add one to the Saab stable. The company humored him, commissioning American Sunroof Corporation to build a four-seat 900 convertible concept for the 1983 Frankfurt show. It wasn't just a hit at the show, it was a hit through its entire subsequent product run, selling 49,000 units from 1987-1993.
I first encountered this red-over-tan example at the same time I met Bob Sinclair, on an event for the convertible's 20th anniversary in 2006. It's a beautiful car, a very early prototype that's been owned by Saab for its whole life. One can't tell from the photos, but this car was cobbled together with some hand-built early parts, such as the rear spoiler carved out of a slice of wood. It's also the same dark red color as the one Paul Giamatti would plow into a tree on film twenty years later.
1987 Saab 9000 Turbo "Talladega - The Long Run"
Saab and Talladega Motor Speedway go together like. . . actually, they don't really go together at all, one being a quirky Swedish car brand with limited racing history and the other, a NASCAR Superspeedway known for big American muscle and a Will Ferrell comedy. But in the fall of 1986, the two came together and this car was in the spotlight.
The 9000, a bigger and more luxurious car than the 900, was such a huge engineering project at the time that Saab teamed up with Fiat, who would sell its own versions of the car as Lancias, Fiats, and Alfa Romeos. It had a Saab look and a Saab 16-valve turbo engine, but the new model instantly drew some speculation about durability. That's the drawback of partnering up with any Italians.
To prove that the 9000 was indeed a Saab, rather than an Alfa in reliable car clothing, the company had the Federation Internationale de L'Automobile randomly snatch three 9000s off the Swedish assembly line. The cars were then taken to Talladega to be driven non-stop to 12 international and world speed records. The fastest-running car averaged 132 mph and recorded 60,000 miles on the odometer. That's three trips around the world or five times the average live expectancy of an eighties-era Alfa Romeo. All three cars finished the record run (read: PR stunt) and each was driven off to a museum. In addition to this car, the other two live at the Talladega Motor Speedway Museum and the Saab AB Museum in Trollhattan.
1990 Saab 900 SPG
Isn't it ironic, don't you think, that the iconic SPG name only existing because General Motors — not Saab's owner at the time — protested the original concept's "Turbo 16 Aero" name to do trademark issues with the "Aero" name? Nowadays, every Saab in the lineup is offered in "Aero" trim.
The 900 SPG (for Special Performance Group), known as the Turbo 16S in Europe, debuted at the 1984 Brussels show and went on sale the next year. By 1991, 7600 examples were roaming U.S. streets — not bad for a high-performance variant. It was powered, as most of you surely know, by a turbocharged and intercooled 16-valve engine producing 175 horsepower, while lowered suspension and heavy duty stabilizer bars boosted handling performance.
Of the four colors offered, we'd take ours in black, please. This example, once owned by former Saab USA President Dan Chasins, is dressed in Talladega Red (look, another Saab/Talladega connection!) and it's also attractive, riding on Saab's iconic three-spoke wheels. This car was rolled out to build hype and trace some heritage around last year's Turbo X launch, and Saab's PR staff claims it is most original SPG still in existence. If you've got proof they're wrong, please let us know so we can come photograph your car.
1995 Saab 900 SE "Pikes Peak"
This car recently left the collection, but it's still worth mentioning (maybe more so now that it's gone). It was sold at a Barrett-Jackson auction in January along with a larger collection of historical GM concepts and test vehicles and brought in a final sale price of $8470.
It's sad that this was the one GM let go, because the NG, or "New Generation" 900 was the foundation of the GM era at Saab. Money was tight when the company was working on this successor to the 99/900 throne, and had GM not cut in and taken ownership, the 900 and the company as a whole may have folded in 1989. Instead, the new five-door hatch was pushed through to production with as many Saab firsts as the 99 boasted decades earlier. These included a transversely-mounted engine, Saab's first V-6, and the eye-friendly "Night Panel" display that's still standard equipment on the 9-3 today.
This car was the Talladega 9000 of its decade, used in the same manner to demonstrate the toughness and reliability of another new Saab. Using the tried-and-true turbo four rather than the new V-6, the 900 Pikes Peak pulled its way up to the top of Colorado's meanest peak. Basically stock, the car was modified only with a roll cage, racing seats, and at least 10 hp worth of go-fast stickers.
1997 Saab 900 SE "Talladega Challenge"
In 1996, Saab's love affair with Talladega Motor Speedway was revived, the company not being totally satisfied with the exposure the NG 900 received for racing to the top of Colorado two years earlier. In late October, the car you see here completed 25,000 miles at an average speed of 140 mph, smashing the 9000's decade-old record. Exhaust temperatures passed 1800 degrees and the Garrett turbochargers of all six cars continued to spin at insane speeds for the entire distance around the equator. Again, Saab put its newest and finest up against incredible odds and again, the cars passed with flying colors.
2005 Saab 9-2X Aero
Oh, what could have been. If the 9-2X had been given some real thought, a larger budget, and a bit of foresight to be worked into the GM/Subaru alliance earlier on, this could have been a truly wonderful packge with Subaru reliability and all-wheel drive combined with a smooth Saab turbo engine, an understated exterior, and a quirky, upscale cabin. Instead, the WRX showed through from every angle but head-on, and Saab was slammed for the low-rent interior. At least the rear side windows look a bit like a 9-5 SportCombi's. Alas, the 9-2X was only popular enough to move 10,300 units before production and the GM/Subaru partnership came to an end in 2006.
The example in the collection sports the best color and trim combination Saab offered. It's an Aero, meaning it has a turbocharged 2.0-liter, a hood scoop, and bigger wheels. The Smoke Silver Metallic paint is just gorgeous, and the cabin has suede inserts to match the exterior. It's a very early production model that served time as a long-term tester at European Car magazine. We know those guys, and we're surprised it is still in one piece.
2006 Saab 9-3 Aero Convertible "20 Years Edition"
I was on hand for the press launch of this car, a special edition 9-3 convertible in top-spec Aero form meant to celebrate twenty years of topless Saabs. It was a successful launch that featured Bob Sinclair as a speaker, drive routes from Sideways, and a guess appearance from the '86 Turbo seen further up the page. The "20 Years Edition" used Saab's new gem of an engine, the 2.8-liter turbocharged V-6 that still powers Aero models today. A total of 412 individually numbered cars were sold in the U.S. with Electric Blue Metallic paint over parchment leather with blue inserts. It was also the first application of the 9-3's sport steering wheel with silver plastic inserts at 9 and 3 o'clock. The car shown here is serial number one, the first car to roll off the assembly line. Should make a valuable collectors item come the convertible's 40th anniversary.