1986 Saab 900 4-door saloon.


There are some cars which really seem to be timeless - their design just being what it is, and never seeming to really look any older, no matter how many years pass by.  To me, the Saab 900 is one of those cars.  The main reason for that to be honest, is probably that it was so completely different to pretty much anything else on the road at the time in styling terms - and still is - that it doesn't really have a "look" which anyone can instantly pin down to any specific period.  The fact that the design was in production largely unchanged for around 15 years probably has a lot to say there too!

Personally, I prefer the 2-door out of all the body styles, but it's a 4-door we've got shown here.

A heads up to anyone ever considering buying a C900 (That's Classic 900 in Saab speak) in this colour...it looks real nice.  Do accept however that you will need to wax and polish it regularly if you want it to hold anything resembling a shine.

This being a car from 1986, just predates the facelift which saw the "face" of the car change somewhat, with new headlights, bumpers and radiator grill.  The chrome you see here also disappeared in favour of matt black parts after the facelift.  I'm of two minds about that - I'm a complete sucker for chrome - but also think it does give the car somewhat of a cleaner look...so you can come to your own conclusions there.

From the front, the low, wraparound bonnet and windscreen are unmistakable.

1989 Saab 900 Front Three Quarter View

1986 Saab 900 Rear Three Quarter View

The tow bar shown above isn't original - though judging from its attachments it's been with the car (and destroying unsuspecting peoples kneecaps) since many years ago, I'd assume the original owner had it fitted soon after buying the car.

From the rear, the saloon isn't quite as distinctively styled as the hatchback version - but is still very definitely a Saab, with the steeply sloped bootlid and massive bumpers - which are ideal for sitting on when you're at a classic car show!  Like the classic car show shown below actually - this was the annual Morris Minor Owners club arranged Classic & Vintage Rally held at Fyvie Castle in 2007.  Parked here next to a very good friend's lovely Jag XJ6 Sport.

1986 Saab 900 at 2007 North East Scotland Morris Minor Owner's Club Classic & Vintage Rally at Fyvie Castle

In 1986, while it was starting to become rather less of a novelty, it was still by no means a given that any car would have a five speed gearbox - so like a number of companies, Saab wanted everyone to know that their cars had this when you were looking at them - hence the little badge below tucked away by the number plate.  As with all of the badges on the C900, it's aluminium with a lightly brushed finish...no plastic here!

1986 Saab 900 5 Speed Badge

Opening the door - which is probably the first thing you'll notice purely by the fact that it weighs a ton - you're greeted with a cabin which while definitely not that of a car made yesterday, doesn't really seem an alien environment - certainly compared to many designs dating back to the closing years of the 1970s.  Having seen this trimmed in other colours such as grey or dark blue, I'll point out that the beige and brown is probably the worst combination for making it look dated!  Many cars (I'd go so far to say most) also had a centre console separating the floorspace between the driver and passenger foot wells, this car lacks that however.  

I should point out that these photos don't really point to a pristine example...the beige seats and door cards are a pain to keep clean, and are less than spotless in my example...still, it IS a 22 year old car...so I think we can forgive it for needing a darn good clean.

1986 Saab 900 Interior (Front Right)

One thing a lot of people comment on (well, those who notice such things anyway!) is that there's a huge amount of legroom in the front and that the floor's very flat.  This is due to some very clever - if hugely unconventional - design on the part of Saab under the bonnet.  The engine is mounted a long way forward, effectively backwards (so the flywheel is actually at the FRONT of the car), and sits directly on top of the gearbox, power being transmitted from the clutch to the 'box by a chain drive.  To fit this under the low nose of the C900, the engine's canted over at 45 degrees - making it look suspiciously like half a V8.

In the back things aren't quite as roomy as the front - but are still very good for a car of this era.  The fact that it came with seat belts, proper three point ones in the case of both the side passengers long before they became a legal requirement demonstrated Saab's safety consciousness.  Many cars also had a centre armrest in the benefit of passenger comfort in addition to headrests - not on this base-model example however.  The rear seat's unusually springy, but is quite comfortable actually, even on pretty long trips.

1986 Saab 900 Interior (Rear Right)

The only real thing to watch with this car is that you don't crack your head getting into the back...or maybe that's just because I'm terribly clumsy.

The rear doors on the 4 door C900 close with a REALLY satisfyingly loud, solid *THUMP* as well.

Once you've slotted yourself into the drivers seat, a few things will immediately spring to mind.  The first of which is that while it might not look quite as modern as cars coming off production lines today, that a lot of companies could learn a lot from looking at this cabin.  The fact that Saab also had experience in the aerospace industry really did show back in this time period.  Everything that you could possibly need sits right at your fingertips, from the indicator and windscreen wiper stalks to the heater controls, even to the stereo.  Yes, the stereo and heater controls, which even today manufacturers seem to insist on burying down by the gear lever on a number of cars.  Virtually everything is in your line of sight.  The one exception to that being the button for the rear fog lights which is obstructed by the steering wheel, tucked away just below the main headlight control...we'll forgive them that though, as I think I only ever actually needed to press it once when I had the car...and that was to check they worked the day before the MOT!

The instrument panel in front of you is another thing worthy of a mention, being an absolute picture of clarity, telling you everything you need to know and not needing you to really apply any thought to interpret it.  Especially of note is that the warning lights are actually large enough that you've got a chance of noticing them while driving, even if you're concentrating on dealing with heavy traffic and have the sun shining on the instrument panel - the fact that they're right at the top - hence as near as possible to your line of sight also I would think is by design rather than chance.  The main beam indicator on this panel is one of the earliest I've seen with a lighter dot added to - the purpose of this being to aid you in seeing that the otherwise rather dim light is lit if you've accidentally switched main beam on in daylight.  Finally, it gets a mention for being one of the few examples of a front-lit instrument panel which works well, managing to provide both a useful level of lighting and without introducing any annoying or distracting reflections.  Unfortunately, that didn't stop my camera reflecting its flash back off it terribly.  

1986 Saab 900 Instrument Panel

Just off to the left, you've got the heating and ventilation controls and the stereo (excuse the circa 2003 CD/Radio, which I realise spoils the originality a bit!), and the controls for things like the hazard flashers and rear windscreen demister.  In a car with air conditioning and/or a rear windscreen wiper these buttons would be on the opposite site of the cigarette lighter where the positions are blanked off on this car.  Unlike many cars of its age (and many far newer!) all of these controls are backlit very clearly.  In fact, Saab seemed to be downright lighting obsessed, with lights also making an appearance in the glove compartment and the ashtray.  Unfortunately, as the sidelights are on whenever the ignition is, this simply meant that after 22 years of use, that there were a heck of a lot of bulbs for me to change - those in the heater being particularly awkward to get to.
The fasten seat belts light (legal requirement in Canada - but common sense elsewhere) also lives down here.  What puzzles me however is why in addition to this light here - later C900's also had a fasten seat belt light on the instrument panel (between the oil pressure and low brake fluid lights if I remember rightly), which never appeared - at least on UK spec cars - to be used.  Can anyone confirm that this was in active service on cars overseas?  ...Okay, I'm a geek who finds instrument panel design interesting...you'll just have to deal with me.

1986 Saab 900 Accessory Controls

The heater controls are pretty obvious - though the one thing which may come as a surprise to many people is how light the air distribution control is.  This is because it doesn't actually do the moving around of the big, heavy flaps to control the airflow.  That's all done by a complex network of vacuum hoses and servos behind the dash.  This results in quite distinctive hissing and clunking noises emanating from deep within the fascia whenever the control is moved.  The fan is only ever actually off when the distribution control is set to "0" - the 6 o'clock position.  Useful, if like me you've got a heater fan which squeaks at low speed!
The heater in the C900 is one of the most effective I've ever encountered (probably not least because it's got a heater matrix not far off the size of the radiator on some small cars!), quite capable of making the air coming out the vents verge on being painfully hot.  It's also nice that it can supply cool air to the face while distributing warm air elsewhere in the car...I really miss that in a lot of cars.  Irrespective of what the ambient temperature is, I tend to like a cool breeze blowing at my face.

So you've familiarised yourself with the controls, and figure that you'd like to take a test drive...this is where you suddenly find yourself holding the ignition key in one hand, and scratching your head with the other.  Basically because you've just tried to put the key where all the likely candidates for the position of the ignition are - and failed to find it.  This is one of the wonderful idiosyncrasies of the C900 - the ignition is in fact tucked away between the seats, right down by the handbrake - while looking there you'll also find the choke on carb equipped models.  The ignition surround is illuminated when the interior lights are lit to help you find it.  The switch next to the choke being the override to switch the excellent interior lights on if the doors are closed.  

1986 Saab 900 Ignition/Choke Position

While it might seem a bit odd having that tucked away down there, it does make a lot of sense, both from a safety and security point of view.  Safety wise, it means that there are no hard structures right next to your knees.  Security wise, the steering lock is substituted in the C900 by a gear-lock.  To get your keys out of the C900, the car must be in reverse - and once the key's removed, you cannot get it out of reverse.  The location also makes it rather harder to interfere with than a conventional steering column mounted unit.

Also means that you've no excuse for your C900 rolling off if you've got a duff handbrake - as unless you've left your keys in it, it should be in reverse!  Automatics work just the same, but with park being the "safe" gear rather than reverse.

The odd ignition location, having to remember to select reverse before taking the key out - and of course remembering you're in reverse when starting the car (that's important!) are all things you get used to very quickly though - even if it does feel a bit odd the first time you start the car with the wrong hand, away down by the handbrake.  It also means that you end up leaving every car or van you drive for ever more in reverse every time you get out.  This has caused my poor long suffering father much frustration getting into his car after I've been out in it...

Once you're on the move, it's very easy to forget how old the design of the C900 is - very easy.  While the basic 8 valve single carb engine only has 113bhp and is pulling quite a lot of car meaning it really isn't hugely fast, it's quick enough, and is a willing enough engine, revving quite cleanly through the band, though rather trashy at the top end.  The fuel injected 8 valve engine had far more torque, and the later 16 valve engine saw electronic multi point injection and a heck of a lot more power introduced.  Of course, there are also the turbo versions which don't hang around even by the standards of your typical family car today.  There is quite a distinctive whine produced across the rev band from the engines in all C900s (I believe the drive belts for the power steering, water pump and alternator may be partly responsible - as they are only a few inches behind the bulkhead), but noise levels aren't offensively loud.  Make no mistake though, this is an area where modern cars are well, well ahead of the Saab - there's a lot more wind and mechanical noise than you'd get in even quite a number of small cars.  The exhaust was designed when there were less stringent limits on the noise emission levels as well, so even that's quite loud by modern standards.  The earliest cars had systems which produce a very boomy note in the middle of the rev band, it's not really intrusive, and is very distinctive - a sound a Saab enthusiast can pick out from a good distance away!  The 8v cars after 1985 had the system redesigned, bringing an extra silencer into the equation, resulting in an unfortunately rather muted soundtrack.  The 16v cars have a very sporty rasp from around 3000rpm upwards - the reduction in mechanical noise from the timing gear though and just generally more refined nature of the 16v engine means that even taking into account the sporty, raspy exhaust, it's definitely the quietest of the lot.  Whether you prefer the more raw sound of the early 8v cars or the sporty soundtrack of the 16v is up to yourself really.  The turbo versions were fitted with a different system again, and while I've not really heard one of them used in anger, I can vouch for them having a lovely burble at idle.

The suspension maybe doesn't have quite the same ability to soak up bumps that a modern car of this type would - but even so it's certainly not uncomfortable by anyone's standards.  The car pictured here was in quite desperate need of a new set of rear springs - but I know from my other C900 how the car SHOULD ride, which is really not badly at all.

The steering however must have felt really quite incredible to the first few people who had shots of these cars.  The steering wheel is pretty much average in size, but with a satisfyingly thick, chunky rim which feels quite satisfying in the hands and is comfortable to hold for long periods of time.  The steering on all but the very first C900s is hydraulically power assisted, and they've managed to get it just right.  There's just enough weight left in it to give you a tremendous amount of feedback through the wheel - so you're completely confident in what the wheels are doing, but without making it prone to snatching, or too heavy.  All too often I find that where the steering's fine at low speeds, that it's terribly vague at higher speeds, a phenomenon that this car is free from.

After my first time behind the wheel of a C900, I found myself rather surprised.  There cannot be many cars of this age, this size (because it ain't a small car!), weight and level of comfort which manage to be quite so incredibly agile.  Once you get one of these on the twisty stuff, you can really forget the relatively low power output of the engine purely thanks to the incredibly nimble and balanced chassis.  If you do start to push it, the tendency is for the car to start to understeer when the grip starts to run out, but it does so in a very progressive and controllable way, there's no sudden transition from grip to slide, and it has really quite a surprising degree of grip, even with 22 year old, saggy springs on the back and less than stellar tyres!  The 2-door is reputed to be the best handling of the bunch, as it's got both the stiffest and lightest body shell - and my experiences back that up - though I'm by no means saying that the 4-door's to be overlooked...these things can out-handle a lot of hot hatches.

The only thing which really detracts at all from the whole driving experience is that the gear change is a bit vague.  It's not hard to use or anything, and is a very light shift (if it's not - check that the lever's adjusted properly - there are three screws around it under the gaiter which often work loose, throwing the alignment out), it just feels a bit vague and clunky when you're comparing it to the likes of the steering and brakes, which work so well.  The automatics are a fully hydro-mechanical 3-speed Borg Warner unit (Type 35 on the earliest cars, later ones fitted with the type 37), and shift smoothly if set up right, and are certainly very willing to kick down when you boot it.  My first C900 was an 8 valve injection car with an auto box, and that really seems to be a fantastic combination - the torque curve of the 8 valve injected engine seemed to be a perfect match to the gearbox, resulting in a very surprisingly swift motor.  I'm not a fan of automatics generally, but got along very well with the one in my first C900.  The only real problem is that it lacks a lockup mode for cruising - that makes for a rather noisy motorway driving experience, and dismal fuel economy unless you're very gentle (you'll struggle to see more than 25mpg (imperial)).  If it had a proper top gear...I'd really struggle to criticise it.

Brakes are almost incredibly good for a car of this age, well on par with the anchors in any car you'd get into today (ABS was an option on cars after 1988 I believe), and even though the caliper design on earlier cars tended to result in a rather temperamental handbrake - there was never anything wrong with the foot brake.  A very progressive pedal which makes stopping smoothly no problem at all, even at low speed.  There's easily enough power there to bring the car to a stop in a great big hurry from speed without any drama, even bearing in mind its not inconsiderable weight.

Around town it's a great drive.  Plenty of bottom end torque, a gentle clutch and fantastic all round vision make for a pretty relaxed drive.  Turning's no problem either if you do take a wrong turn, as despite only being a few centimetres short of five metres in length, it's got a very sharp steering lock, resulting in a surprisingly small turning circle.  While it's a long car, it's not actually very wide, so it's not too bad to park, the bumpers offering good resistance to the odd scuff and ding from inconsiderate (or incompetent) drivers who might nudge you while parking/existing spaces in front or behind you if you're parked at the roadside.

If you're looking at a C900 though, you're probably someone who enjoys driving though, not someone who's just looking for a city commuter car.  You want a proper classic which you can use every day, or at least regularly.  In which case, the C900 isn't a bad choice.  Just to bear in mind that even the latest of them first saw tarmac in 1994, so are going to need a bit more looking after than a car produced yesterday, especially where keeping corrosion at bay is concerned.  It's rust that kills the vast majority of C900s, the mechanical parts will generally go on for a long, long time, 200K miles on original engines not being at all uncommon.  Gearboxes have been identified as probably the weakest link mechanically - though problems seem to be most common on the higher performance cars such as the turbo variants, or 16V models which have been driven hard.  I'm not going to write a full "what to look for" guide here, as plenty of people have done that already, and those people have considerably more experience than myself.  Go take a look at the guides which you can find on UKSaabs, which is linked to from my links page, there are guides there, and a good number of people who should be able to answer any of your questions.

From a drivers point of view though, the C900's quite at home on today's roads.  They're comfortable, general maintenance is as easy as you could ever wish for (though lack of gearbox oil drain plugs is a pain on later cars, making changing the gearbox oil a lot more of a faff), and if well maintained, they're usually dependable cars.  

As far as reliability's concerned, the 8v carb cars such as that on this page are very simple under the bonnet, but can be more prone to niggling problems like carbs drifting off tune, sticking choke cables and the like.  The 16V cars are more powerful and a lot more economical, but do have a lot more in the way of electronic trickery to go wrong.  Turbo models of course are rather more sports cars, and are rather more highly strung cars, needing religious maintenance if they're going to be reliable.

Probably one of the most common problems you're likely to encounter are suddenly appearing electrical gremlins - more often than not, these tend to be tracked down to a dodgy earth connection.  More often than not, this tends to be traced back to the main earth connection for many vehicle electrical systems - down by the bottom right hand corner of the radiator.  This gets bombarded by all the spray off the road and baked by the nearby exhaust manifold, so tends to dissolve.  Remaking this and ensuring it's kept liberally coated with grease is a good idea, and while rather fiddly to do (the wires really aren't any longer than they needed to be!), will save a fair amount of repeated hassle in the long run.

I think it's fair to call the C900 one of the worlds real practical classics.  It's a car that's unique enough to have really attained proper classic status, and even if it was ten years newer, its looks alone would probably have seen to that.  The fact of the matter is though, that you really could (and I have done!) use one every day, provided you can look after it and afford to put petrol in it.

Pros:

Comfortable to drive.
Can carry four people in comfort...five is a bit of a squeeze though!
Visibility.
Luggage space decent in saloon - fantastic in hatchback.
Cabin ergonomics that many modern cars struggle to beat.
Excellent headlights.
Basic maintenance you can go with your eyes closed.
Excellent handling.
While not really up to today's lofty standards - for a classic, these cars are pretty safe.  Volvo and Saab have always been synonomous with safety.
16V and turbo versions don't hang around.
Some of the most distinctive looks of any family car from the last 30 years.

Cons:
Can be thirsty, especially autos.
Single carb engines could do with a bit more power - they struggle a bit with a full car load.
Some service items - notably exhausts for one - can be quite pricy.
Earlier cars with front handbrakes need regular adjustment of the mechanism if you want a working handbrake.
Electrical gremlins not uncommon - though these can mostly be traced back to one dodgy earthing point (right hand side of the radiator).


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