Turbocharging was once the domain of the fast and exotic, till Saab got to work and offered the 900.
Prior to the 1980s, mainstream motoring was largely devoid of turbochargers. During the 1960s, Chevrolet and Oldsmobile had experimented with turbocharging in the US, and BMW and Porsche were to go further the following decade by developing two iconic sports cars the 2002 Turbo and 911 Turbo respectively. But neither of these were the sort of vehicles you’d see very often in the real world. Especially not suburban Wales!
The car that truly ushered in turbocharging for the common man came from an unexpected source, SAAB. The small Swedish manufacturer recognised that to remain competitive in the vital American market, the performance and economy of its cars had to go up, while emissions had to go down. Without the means to develop a new engine, it instead turned to turbocharging, a field in which it already had some considerable experience thanks to its links with Scania trucks.
The SAAB 99 Turbo was unleashed in 1977, but it wasn’t until 1979 that the Swedes got everything completely right with the launch of the 900 Turbo. This reincarnation of the 99 concept – styling was updated, a new interior fitted, and the wheelbase was extended by two inches – managed to pull off the near impossible trick of being reassuringly safe and solid yet hugely exciting at the same time.
Whether by accident or by design – and, being Scandinavian, it was probably very clever design – SAAB managed to create one of the most desirable performance cars of the 1980s. What truly made the 900 stand out from the crowd was its blend of performance with practicality, with everything wrapped up in a handsome automotive package that didn’t just appeal to Mr Average Driver but could also be afforded by him as well.
SAAB continued to refine the Turbo throughout the 1980s and on into the 1990s. Despite spawning a host of imitators – once the floodgates had been opened, it was inevitable that other manufacturers would come forth with their equivalents – the Trollhattan manufacturer managed to stay on top with the thinking person’s turbo of choice. The first cars offered 145bhp, almost 50 per cent up on the normally-aspirated standard versions. With the advent of the 16-valve model of 1985, that power jumped to 175bhp, while tuners could extract more than 200 if they tried hard. Which had a similar effect to strapping a jet engine to an IKEA wardrobe!
Bearing in mind today’s automotive environment of constant styling nips and tucks, you have to give respect to SAAB for ploughing its own distinctive path for such a long time. Like Volkswagen with its Beetle, Citroën with its 2CV, fellow Swede Volvo with its 140/240 range and BMC/BL/Rover with the Mini, SAAB hit upon a shape it liked and stuck with it. The 99 model dates back to 1967; for the 900, there was only a minor facelift necessary to take the car right the way through to 1993, a production run of 26 years! Even then, General Motor’s disappointing replacement aped the old design, taking the general look through to 2002.
This makes the 900 an instantly familiar and recognisable machine, and a reassuring one at that. The typical Swedish approach to engineering is to build with all the structural integrity of a pre-global warming Arctic glacier. That means the 900 exudes quality and robustness, from its stocky black moose-proof bumpers through to those hefty rear haunches concealing the capacious luggage area. On the two-door coupé – the body style that most Turbos came in – the doors seem massive and very heavy, far thicker than many cars of the era. They shut with the resonating thud that inspires total confidence. With no conventional sills to clamber over – they’re inset because the doors plunge down so low to envelop them – this is one of the easier classics to clamber in and out of.
Inside, the spacious – and thankfully heated seats – place you in front of an aircraft-inspired dashboard populated by plenty of chunky switches and circular knobs. The aviation theme is reinforced by the panoramic windscreen. Visibility is excellent, the A-posts hardly intruding into the driver’s usual visual sweep.
Where to put the key? Oh yes, down on the centre console, between the gearstick and handbrake (Saab’s favourite security feature being a transmission lock). Turn it and… To be honest, nothing much actually happens. There’s no meaty roar and great gulp of air as one of the great performance models of its era stirs into life. On the contrary, the polite metallic cough of the electronic ignition is followed by a small rush of revs that instantly drops back into a quiet and civilised idle.
And the 900 stays that way – at least until you can get it somewhere to properly exploit the Garret AiResearch whirligig under the bonnet. Around town and at slow speeds, it feels very normal, almost mundane. It’s responsive enough and an easy car to drive, with very well-balanced power steering that’s suited to what feels like a large, heavy vehicle. But there’s nothing much special going on.
Out in the open, though, the 900 becomes a different beast. At 1800rpm, the turbo cuts in, feeling for all the world like a giant has just put two hands on the Saab’s backside and shoved hard. You’re pushed back in your seat by a surge of acceleration that takes the unwary by surprise. Care is needed on bends, especially in the wet, for torque steer is provoked by the boost cutting in as the wheel is turned. But it’s on A-roads and motorways that the 900 excels. It is one of the great overtakers cruising along, there’s no need to drop a gear to get past a slow-moving obstacle, just floor the accelerator and the turbocharger does the rest. Top gear in a Turbo is like third gear in something else.
This level of performance is thrilling. But what gives it an extra edge is the knowledge that you’re in a car where the handling and safety are more than a match for the potential to get into trouble. The front-wheel drive is predictable and neutral, there’s little roll, the ride is smooth and well-damped, and the brakes are well up to the task of stopping this hefty block of Scandinavian granite. Even now that turbochargers are part of everyday motoring life, you can still see what all the fuss was about. Let us all hope and pray that we have innovation like this to enthuse about in the near future.