Vermont is for (Saab) Lovers: Boost and Foliage
My first Saab 900 was the best gamble I’ve made on a car (yet). Entering my senior year of college I was still using my 1983 Alfa GTV6 as a daily driver. I had sold my rusty Jeep Comanche earlier in the summer and I can’t for the life of me recollect why because this left me without a winter car. A few months later the Alfa was starting to beg for a solid weekend in the shop with a laundry list of simple maintenance, none of which would fit in my increasingly packed schedule, and snow was on the horizon. My roommate was a hardcore Saab fan with a 4 door naturally aspirated 900S and a hotrodded Viggen-clone NG900. I had always gently mocked him for these cars; they were good, I admitted, but FWD? Psh, maybe for a winter car. His arguments had gotten to me and I was looking for a winter car. My mind hearkened back to a raucous drive in his brother’s clapped out 1991 Saab 900 SPG. I came away from the all too brief experience enchanted by the car’s comfort, engineering, looks, and most of all, the delayed but punchy boost from the slant four turbocharged motor.
Despite searching far and wide, the best candidate on Craigslist was about three hours away from college and just a few miles away from my hometown! Though almost entirely replaced with Subaru wagons, Vermont was Saab and Volvo country for decades. This car was an Edwardian Gray 1988 model, with around 150,000 miles and a reasonable amount of crustiness for a daily. What might have given a practical man pause is that it had been sitting on a farm for over 2 years. But I have not often been accused of being practical so I loaded up the Alfa with my travelling tool set, shifted around my schedule and drove home on a Tuesday with a test looming on Thursday afternoon.
The car was exactly as described, both the good and the bad. The deal was just complicated enough to keep me on my toes: the owner now lived in LA and the car was parked at his father’s house. Dad just wanted the thing out of his yard – presumably to make room for more vintage and obscure military vehicles such as deuce-and-a-halfs, M37s, plenty of Willys’, and a Studebaker M29 Weasel. After ogling his restored quarter million mile 1993 Dodge W250 5-speed Cummins (a harbinger for future acquisitions) we made some phone calls to California to negotiate a fair price and limped it home. I was on cloud nine, my stomach fluttering with those enamored early relationships butterflies.
The Saab 900 is a special car. Build quality like an old Mercedes but a surprisingly well sorted chassis and a demure but grunty turbo. The reverse mounted longitudinal FWD engine layout never caught on widely but it worked wonders in this car. The interior is an engineer’s dream: all rationally placed gauges and ergonomically considerate buttons. A far cry from the Alfa Romeo which required an explanation of Italian cultural norms to rationalize the interior design. The SPG version both usurps and embodies ‘80s norms. Dropped almost 1” over the base 900 with stiffer suspension, a tuned up turbo, and accompanying lag gave more than adequate scoot. Visually, Saab utilized shocking restraint; the unique but slick lines of the three door hatch were accentuated with broad lower body cladding and a lack of chrome trim or badges. I immediately knew I would miss the Alfa less than expected: despite funky wheel drive, lag, and bow-biased weight distribution the 900 handled as well or better than the GTV6 in any condition but fast transients.
The SPG’s to-do list was growing in tandem with my infatuation. The healthy turbo was apt to slip the worn out clutch and the exhaust was missing behind the down pipe. The brakes were at varying levels of disrepair and half of the interior electrical functions were unresponsive. Sitting had deposited a layer of grime over the entire engine bay that drained me of some confidence. It was late Tuesday night and my patient father and I were looking at a lot of refreshing before I drove back to school.
The following morning’s first task was a lightning trip to the Vermont DMV – a magical place sought by old car enthusiasts all over the Northeast where the lines are short and the only documentation required to register a 15+ year old car is a bill of sale, even if it’s written on the back of a napkin. Even without the 14-day grace period, inspection was already covered. How, you might wonder, since the car has been sitting for years? Vermont puts a big shiny inspection sticker in the middle of the windshield and change the color every year to make it easy to tell if a car is in inspection. They rotate through four colors and my SPG had been inspected last in 2005… exactly 8 years prior to my purchase. Right color basically means legal, right?
Work on the car progressed at a harried rate throughout the day and into the night. An Autozone Performance Special exhaust was fabricated, though most of the time was spent wandering the aisles trying to make the correct lengths and reducers out of cheap galvanized bits. The clutch was beyond our tight schedule so I was to attempt a light footed drive back. All four corners needed some kind of unseizing, brakes, pads, rotors, or other such tinkering. I also began a months-long process of taking apart switches and hosing them down with quick dry electrical cleaner. Believe it or not this technique restored almost every bit of lost functionality in the car! It was years before I would see an episode of Motor Trend’s Roadkill but after experiences like this the show was utterly and painfully familiar.
Late that evening the car was ready-ish. I tucked the Alfa in the back forty, threw my bags in the Saab, and headed back to Albany. I made it a few miles to town. The car shredded the alternator and water pump belt. We dragged it back home and I caught a few hours of sleep while we waited for parts stores to open. By first thing the next morning I had new belts installed and tried my vanishing trick again. This time it took and I flew south through the scenic Green Mountains, listening to the recently released True by Avicii and wondering if I should visit Sweden. I arrived in plenty of time for my exam.
For almost exactly a year the Saab was a stalwart daily driver. I would eventually put more and better parts on; that clutch, getting a proper exhaust (after the Autozone Special exited at speed), replacing the horribly dry rotted tires, and a continually successful revival of the vintage electrical system. The car never failed to start, I never had to dig into the basic Bosch fuel injection system, and I practically ignored the engine save for topping off fluids. The car carried me to Michigan and into my first job, where it’s now parked in my garage partially disassembled and awaiting an uncertain future. What could only be described as an insanely poor idea panned out and became one of the most trouble free cars I’ve driven.
That car truly stole my heart. Coming from (and being vocally dedicated to) a saucy naturally aspirated RWD sports coupe I didn’t expect to get stuck on a weird FWD turbo hatchback. I intended it to be a slightly more interesting than boring winter beater. But the Saab 900 won me over for being dedicated to thinking differently at a fundamental level and then going to great lengths of engineering to make their unconventional ideas practical and serviceable. It tickled my engineering brain as well as my right foot raucousness and that is a match made in heaven.