Buyer’s guide: Saab 900 Turbo

| 14 Jun 2019
Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: Saab 900 Turbo

Why you’d want a Saab 900 Turbo

Saab made automotive headlines in the late 1970s with its 99 Turbo, extracting unimagined torque and power from the Triumph Dolomite-derived slant-four.

Incredibly, the firm kept it reliable and long-lived, even with twin overhead camshafts and 185bhp. Where other early turbo vehicles were all about high revs and suffered huge lag, Saab engineered its cars more along the lines of its Scania lorries. Boost came in at lower revs for superb overtaking, without dramatically increasing fuel consumption. That’s provided you used the gearbox – punch below 2000rpm was still not great until the turbo spooled up.

As Motor put it in ’77, ‘between 40 and 100mph (in top), the Saab accelerates faster than just about any four-seater saloon’. But the 99 was already 10 years old: a replacement was vital, so Saab stretched the wheelbase, further improved the front suspension and crash protection, and launched the Saab 900 in ’78.

Testers raved over its quality and integrity, its performance and refinement: by ’83, Saab led the world in turbocharged cars, having sold 100,000.

The elegant Cabriolet was added to the range in 1985, with its rear spoiler around the lip of the fully retractable, double-insulated hood, which featured a unique opening glass rear screen.

Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: Saab 900 Turbo
Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: Saab 900 Turbo
(l-r) Cabriolet, launched in ’85, features a clever powered top; early cars had signature Inca alloys; note side-impact bar

With excellent build quality and engineering thoroughness, it shouldn’t be a scary classic to own or buy, but there are rusty and neglected examples out there and durability is very dependent on good maintenance and driving practice. 

A careless driver can wreck a gearbox in 30,000 miles (Motor broke its when road-testing the T16), whereas others last 300,000 miles.

There are many variants, in body style and mechanical spec, so it’s worth searching for the one that suits you best: most sought after is the last of the line Ruby. Full-pressure turbos have a boost gauge above the fuel gauge; low-pressure turbos don’t.

Rot is the biggest issue: although the cars were built to withstand Scandinavian winters and last better than most, it is still the main killer.

Check carefully, also for signs of accident damage (wrinkles in chassis legs, poor panel gaps) and for mods that may put excessive strain on other components.

On Cabriolets, run the hood up and down a couple of times to ensure that all is well – the hydraulic-cum-mechanical system rarely gives trouble. 

Images: Tony Baker


Saab 900 Turbo: what to look for

Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: Saab 900 Turbo

Bodywork

See above for trouble spots

Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: Saab 900 Turbo
Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: Saab 900 Turbo

Engine

If well maintained, the engine can exceed 400,000 miles without a major overhaul. Look for oil leaks from crank front seal/timing cover and rocker cover, also water-pump leaks. The timing chain should be replaced at about 125,000 miles, in situ on 16v; it’s officially an engine-out job on an 8v, but apparently there are ways…

Turbos can last 200,000 miles: blue exhaust smoke when revved, or rattling, reveals one on the way out. Wastegate can stick shut, overboosting engine.

Bosch injection is reliable. Saab’s novel Automatic Performance Control (APC) electronic knock/boost monitor can fail, causing pinking or poor performance.

Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: Saab 900 Turbo
Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: Saab 900 Turbo

Driveshaft

Ensure that driveshaft boots are intact and listen for clicking CV joints; look at bushes, for power steering leaks and corrosion around suspension mounts.

Gearbox

Gearboxes can top 300k miles if used with respect, but can fail much sooner: check for jumping out of gear (notably reverse), rattles and bearing noise.

Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: Saab 900 Turbo
Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: Saab 900 Turbo

Interior

Early seat covers pull apart from ribs and fade. Look for dropping headlining and dash cracks. Hide was a desirable option. Secondhand items can be found.

Electrics

Circuit boards/ancillary controls fail. Check all the electrical kit, esp on T16: sunroof, mirrors, windows, lamp wash/wipe, locking, heated front seats etc.


Saab 900 Turbo: on the road

Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: Saab 900 Turbo
Saab handles well, with strong grip and limited roll, but offers a decent ride on standard set-up; they’re all quick, too

The engine’s idler shaft and drive gear were removed from late 1980, saving 12kg, and a smaller, lighter turbo was fitted. Oil-change intervals went up from 6000 miles to 10,000 on late versions, although many prefer to do it every 3-5000 miles; it blackens quickly due to the turbo’s high operating temperatures.

It is wise, especially on non-intercooled cars, to let the engine tick over before shutting down. Hydraulic tappets, on 16v models, may chatter on start-up from cold, but should soon quieten. Eight-valve tappets are shimmed, and fiddly to set up. If the engine rocks when revved, budget to replace the hydraulic engine mountings quickly before the gear selectors are damaged.

Cooling systems worked hard – battery acid could boil in hot climates due to turbo heat! – so look for head-gasket issues, as well as a corroded rad, plus leaks from it or the water pump. APC engine management on 16v is costly to repair; it monitors and controls induction pressure, allowing 0.85 bar boost on a 9:1 compression engine.

Tuning is popular but more than 200bhp will shorten the life of the whole drivetrain. Gearbox problems mean a costly engine-out repair; new parts are scarce but specialists have used stocks. Auto ’boxes are not cheap to rebuild, either.

Brakes can seize (especially the handbrake, which works on front discs up to 1988 and is a common MoT fail) and corrode; check that they respond well.

There was a wide range of suspension settings and alloys; original Turbo 16S had the firmest set-up, and 195/60 tyres (standard on three-door) are the widest that fit properly.


Saab 900 Turbo price guide

FPT hatch

  • Show: £9000
  • Average: £4000
  • Restoration: £1000

 

Convertible

  • Show: £13,000
  • Average: £7000
  • Restoration: £2000

2/4dr saloon c20% cheaper than 3/5dr hatch


Saab 900 Turbo history

1978 5dr 900 launched: 5dr Turbo has 180/65s on turbine alloys; 3dr has 195/60 P6s on ‘Incas’

1980 New seats with adjustable headrests

1980 Aug H-series engine, 5sp gearbox, smaller turbo

1981 4dr saloon added; later 2dr – more rear headroom and pocket-sprung rear seat

1982 All Turbos have turbine alloys

1984 Sep Turbo 16S launched: twin cams, 16 valves, intercooler, APC, 175bhp, 134mph

1986 Standard Turbo gets intercooler, up to 155bhp: Airflow bodykit, large rear spoiler, wheelarch flares; convertible added, 10,000+ built

1987 Slant-nose front-end restyle, 2in shorter

1988 Turbo watercooled; 2dr T16: boot lip spoiler, 3-spokes; Carlsson 3dr launched, 185bhp, black, white or red, special bodykit, 600 built

1989 Turbo Anniversary: black, whaletail spoiler

1990 2dr 900 T16 and light-pressure 8v Turbo replaced by 900S 16v with light-pressure turbo

1991 T16 Aero introduced with 175bhp; light-pressure Aero added later

1993 Mar Final edition Ruby: aircon, special wheels/seats, no bodykit. Production ends


The owner’s view

Owner Alwyne Bates (not pictured) says he would never buy anything else

“I bought a four-door 20 years ago,” recalls owner Alwyne Bates, “because we liked the styling. Since then we’ve had more than 40 and I recently bought a Full Pressure Turbo Cabriolet. I bought it unseen as an LPT, so was delighted to see the Turbo badge on the back that meant it was an FPT.

“It was one of the last built, with electric seats, aircon and full leather. The hood didn’t work but it was just low on hydraulic fluid, and there was a water leak that I’ve sorted. It’s done 177,000 miles, which doesn’t bother me, and was great value for £1500. I’m 65 now and hope to still be driving it in 20 years’ time.

“I wouldn’t buy anything else: they’re quiet, comfortable and easy to maintain. I’ve got everything that I need for them and know what to do if anything goes wrong.”


Also consider

Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: Saab 900 Turbo
Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: Saab 900 Turbo
BMW 323i (left) and Audi 90 are alternative buys

BMW 323i/325i

The sporty E30 packed a 141/169bhp ‘six’, with 5-speed manual or 4-speed auto in 2/4-door saloon, convertible or 5dr touring bodies; there was even a 4x4 version. Fun and good value.

Sold ’82-’93 • No. built 2,339,520 (all) • Mpg 22-35 • 0-60mph 10.3 secs • Top speed 129mph • Price new £17,975-22,235 (’90) • Price now £3-11,000


AUDI 90 20V

Sharing many parts with Coupé quattro made this an exciting car, with a galvanised shell, 20-valve twin-cam ‘five’ producing 168bhp and 2/4WD. A cherished one could be a bargain.

Sold 1989-’91 • No. built 184,907 (all) • Mpg 20-32 • 0-60mph 8.7 secs • Top speed 140mph • Price new £19,014-21,381 (’90) • Price now £1-4000


Saab 900 Turbo: the Classic & Sports Car verdict

Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: Saab 900 Turbo
The Saab 900 Turbo makes a great classic if you can find a good one

Stunning value because it has survived in good numbers, the Saab 900 Turbo is at a cusp.

Cheap cars are still being driven into the ground (and make a costly classic buy, due to the work involved in correcting that neglect), while properly maintained examples are beginning to be appreciated and rise in value. So it’s time to find a good one and look after it!

FOR 

  • Unmistakable Saab style
  • Intelligent, highly competent engineering
  • Hugely durable if well looked-after
  • Practical, usable year-round classic

 

AGAINST

  • Gearbox can be a weakness
  • Handbrake suspect on pre-1988 models
  • Everything wears out eventually, so beware cars with huge mileages

Saab 900 Turbo specifications

Sold/number built 1978-’93/908,810 (all 900s)

Construction steel monocoque

Engine iron-block, alloy-head sohc (or dohc 16-valve) 1985cc ‘four’, Bosch electronic fuel-injection with Garrett turbo (intercooled on T16); 145bhp @ 5000rpm-185bhp @ 5500rpm; 173lb ft @ 3000rpm-201lb ft @ 2800rpm

Transmission 4/5-sp man (or 3-sp auto), FWD

Suspension: front double wishbones rear dead axle, longitudinal links, Panhard rod; coil springs, telescopics f/r; anti-roll bar f/r on T16S only

Steering power-assisted rack & pinion, 3.4 l-l

Brakes 11in front discs (ventilated from 1988), 101/4in rear discs, with servo; ABS from 1989 

Length 15ft 41/2in (4687mm)

Width 5ft 61/2in (1690mm)

Height 4ft 81/4in (1420mm)

Wheelbase 8ft 3in (2517mm)

Weight 2960-3000lb (1342-1364kg) 

0-60mph 9.7-8.6 secs

Top speed 120-134mph

Mpg 22-30

Price new £16,395-25,895 (1990)


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