Design Study: A look inside the Saab A/C Vent

I confess: I am a complete sucker for elegant and clever engineering/design.  Notice how I lump both “engineering” and “design” together, almost as if any distinction between the two only bear significance to the likes of Merriam and Webster?  No one could put it more succinctly than the late Steve Jobs: “Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.”  Yes, I admit, comparing the Saab A/C vent to let’s say, an iPhone, is pretty silly.  But, when it comes down to aesthetics and sheer ingenuity, this is a truly impressive piece of design.  While most auto-manufacturers are content with independent X and Y axis control: Saab has managed to engineer a vent that allows complete freedom-of-motion across the X-Y plane.  It’s a feature that I’ve always appreciated in my Saab 9-3.  But, I never expected to get an inside look into this curious contraption: until it was time to install a complete Hirsch interior upgrade package.

Ideally, when removing the various components to perform a replacement of the dashboard, each component should be extracted as one piece.  While this remained true for most parts, the air vents appeared to have this innate desire to spread it’s glory all over my 9-3s cockpit.  Granted, this maybe a testament to my utterly sad level of proficiency as an auto-mechanic, but no-one could ever fault me (or my wife) for executing such a task with great care, as we have.  After removing the Saab 9-3 air-vent, the sinking feeling of watching it’s internals separate, transformed itself into an opportunity to understand how this marvel of engineering actually works (as we would have to reach this level of understanding in order to properly reassemble it).   The vent contains two stacks of plastic grid plates.  When aligned in their central position, air flow will be guided towards the direct front of the unit.  But when the knob is pointed in any direction the alignment of these plates will change.  It turns out that these plates rest on a U-shaped peg, which is on the reverse side of the knob.  Rotating the knob in any direction will result in the plates reorienting in a way that will allow air-flow to point the same direction which the knob is facing.  While removing the Saab air-vent, aside from disengaging the tabs holding it in-place, we have inadvertently disengaged the the tabs holding the unit together.  This led to the plates separating from the knob, while allowing a few key pieces to fall from the unit, in the process.  These pieces happened to be crucial to ensuring that the plates remain in-place, as the knob is repositioned by the user.  Each stack of grid-plates must be supported by a plastic rail.  Each rail is intended to allow a plastic end piece of a stack to slide across it.  Our first attempt to reassemble the vent was disappointing.  While the left side of the vent was functioning perfectly, the right side felt a little stiff.  The end stack end-piece was not gliding across the rail very smoothly.  Clearly, something was missing.  Upon removing the plastic rails, we noticed that there was a missing piece.  One of the plastic rails was missing a thin metal rod, which was supposed to be positioned directly behind it. Fortunately, after looking around the cockpit, I was able to find the missing rod, resting below the driver-seat.  After placing the rod in the back-end of the unit, directly behind the plastic rail, the original smoothness of the knob’s motion returned and all was well.  But when reassembling the Saab air-vent, there are a few important considerations to take into account.  Firstly, the plates must be arranged in the proper order.  One indication that you have succeeded in completing this first step is that the top-most plates will contain a shelf, upon which the end pieces can be placed.  Once the metal rods and rails have been properly inserted into the vent end-piece, there is one final step: snapping both the front and back pieces into one.  This is easier said then done.  Not only will you need to line up the tabs that fasten the unit into a single piece, but you will also need to ensure that the plates remain properly stacked while the stack end-pieces are directly in-line with the rails, as both halves of the unit are brought together.  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself making multiple attempts to get this final step right.  Fortunately the A/C vent is easy (perhaps too easy) to re-separate.  If the knob motion is not smooth or the pieces appear to not be sliding in the expected fashion: you most likely have made a mistake, and should try again.  In retrospect, I am actually happy that I had a chance to take an inside look into the Saab A/C vent.  Yes, it was quite unnerving to see it unintentionally opening up while removing it,  but having a look inside: it’s design isn’t nearly as intimidating as one might think.  It truly is a model of elegant design and engineering.  In the process of replacing my dashboard, two of these vents had to be removed and reinserted (both the center and left driver’s-side vents).  While I unintentionally dissembled the center vent, I was able to remove the left vent without incident.  Thankfully, the remainder of my Hirsch interior installation proceeded relatively smoothly (minus some major annoyances: which I will get into later).  Do stay tuned for a complete discussion of my experiences in installing the Hirsch carbon-fiber dashboard, glove-box trim, shifter plate, and door trim!

16 thoughts on “Design Study: A look inside the Saab A/C Vent”

    • It was not easy. In fact, I ended up leaving a few small marks in the process. But as the new dash is textured, the marks are not even noticeable. When, I first bought my 9-3, the center vent was damaged and the on-site mechanic replaced it for me. He left a mark that was more noticeable when I had the stock plastic dash in place.

  1. I had the same problem when I did my dash (which I bought through SU – cheers, Robin !)… only it was the side vent that came apart on me ! How did you hold all the grille parts together while reassembling ? – I looped a piece of string through temporarily to stop them separating. As you say, very ingenious bit of design – just a bit irritating that they can come apart when you don’t want them to.

    aus715, It’s not that difficult – take a look at tthe Hirsch video on the “Resources” tab of this site

    • Huh, it didn’t occur to me to use a piece of string: good idea! My wife actually helped me with this part. Basically the process was to visually line them up first and then carefully close both ends while holding them upright. It took a few tries to get it right.

      The side vent almost came loose on me but I was able to prevent it from opening up. That’s is mostly luck though, as the effort required to remove the vent is also enough to open it and since all the plastic tabs are next to each other: it’s nearly impossible to avoid disengaging the wrong ones.

  2. This one of the elements a lot of us Saab fans talk about – the Saab vent outlet control system! Take any other german or European luxury car, they have the same type of controls as the cheapest asian car. Saab has this unique one knob design – great detail!

  3. I always appreciate the vent design in my OG 9-3. It is one of the nice little extras that make the Saab seem thoughtful. Another one that I miss in other cars is the exterior lighting in reverse. In addition to providing lighting from the rear amps, the front side lamps send light back along the sides of the car so I won’t bump into anything as I start to back out. I also like the way the rear window wiper takes a swipe if I am in reverse and I give the main windshield wipers a tap. In the same vein, its nice how the wipers wait 30 seconds or so and take one more swipe after using the windshield cleaning fluid sprayers.

    It’s these incredibly simple things that add up to make a car special.

    • The final swipe feature of the wipers has impressed me as well. It’s even smart enough to only do the final pass if you just tap the control. If you hold it down, it won’t do it (presumably because its not needed after a longer rinsing session).

  4. That was my positive comment (see above) and now for my negative one. I was really put out when I saw the 2010 9-5 interior, specifically the way the “traditional saab pattern” from the air vents is carried across the dash, non-functionally, above and around the main gauge cluster. Someone apparently thought it would be a nice design touch to bring the horizontal lines across the entire upper section of the dash there.

    It irritates me when a functional design component (the moveable, transformable waffle design of the air vents) is transformed into an aesthetic pattern that has no meaning. I think it weakens the meaning of the functional source (the inspiration) that the non-functional pattern is derived from. Instead of seeing the waffle pattern, and understanding that a reconfigurable air source is located there, the knock-off pattern confounds the situation. If the entire area is patterned after the functional vents, then why not have air coming from the entire area? It’s suddenly good enough to look at, but not imbue with function?

    These are the types of things I worry about. I wish I was a little less detail oriented most of the time.

    • I actually like that design element :-). Personally, it creates a visually continuity across the gauge cluster that works. But, I understand why some folks wouldn’t like it. I guess one could argue it is similar to those pieces of furniture with a fake drawer (which I have always found to be rather stupid).

  5. I actually think the comparison to the iPhone is a fair one or to Apple in general. Like Apple, it’s not just about the product or what it does, it’s also the package it comes in. An air vent works fine with just an up and down switch but Saab didn’t stop there. Saab took it a step further and made it better.

  6. Amazing! While I always liked th air vent design, it never occured to me that it might be unique to Saab. But after having googled, it appears to be true! No other manufacturer seems to employ this Operating/Indication knob with a fixed front grill.

  7. Agree the vent controls in my 1998 900 and 2003 9-5 Aero are not appreciated until I drive a rental car. Another example of the Saab I hope to experience again.

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