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1986 Saab 900 SPG

Saab900spg1 This is the big one, the big Kahuna, the lustiest of my Car Lusts. One year and nearly 300 posts into this blog, we've finally reached my favorite car. I've made a point of only writing about cars that genuinely inspire my passion, and in the process I've repeatedly bared my various automotive psychoses. Well, this car cuts right to the quick of everything I am. It is an inseparable part of my very soul.

Yes, it's a Saab 900--best-known for its center console-mounted ignition key switch, and slightly lesser-known for its quirky unreliability. To unbiased observers, the Saab 900 has a weak chin and a truly curious hunchback profile that looks oddly lumpen and mollusk-like. Like a stranger Renault Fuego, if that's possible. Sure, Saabs of this era were known for their durability and winter traction, but what makes them even remotely lust-worthy?

Well, I'll take a stab at explaining it rationally. For one thing, Saab's performance heritage exceeds both its early quirky Swede reputation as well as its later faux-yuppie car image. The Saab Sonnett was an interesting little sports coupe, the Saab 99 was a genuine force in the rally world, and in the early 1980s Saab was as much a leader in turbocharging and intercooling as Porsche and Buick.

The Saab 900 was a practical little car, with front-wheel drive, comfortable seats, plenty of headroom, and a yawning cargo area hiding under its hatchback. With the addition of some forced-induction Vitamin H, advanced boost control, double-wishbone suspension, and a 16-valve head, the Saab 900 Turbo was one of the under-the-radar performance stars of the 1980s. By today's standards it wasn't particularly quick, but with 0-60 times in the high 7/low 8-second range and the ability to cruise at more than 130 mph for hours at a time, the 900 was a unique combination of utility and speed. Automotive journalists loved it; AutoWeek's Satch Carlson was a Saab Turbo devotee, and I believe Car & Driver's Steve Smith owned a sinister monochromatic black Turbo.

Saab900spg2 The Special Performance Group (SPG) option added an aerodynamic body kit, special wheels, sport suspension, and interior upgrades. The aero kit and special wheels look pretty dated to today's eyes, but at the time ... oh, the effect was electric. Back in 1986, remember, American cars were chrome-heavy and sat high on their haunches; the hunkered-down monochromatic aero kit look was brand new, pioneered by AMG on the Hammer, and was refreshingly purposeful. The Saab 900 SPG was one of the trend-setters; unfortunately after the look was applied haphazardly to every horrible car around, it has become laughable cliche. But it wasn't always so.

The SPG option debuted in 1986, and 1986 SPGs were available only in Edwardian Gray. The following year the entire 900 line received a freshened nose with a aero headlamps, meaning SPG fans like me who prefer the older look have only one model year with a limited production run to find. It's not that I don't like other Saab 900 Turbos--I lust after them nearly as fervently--but it's the Edwardian Gray 900 SPG that really fires the imagination.

None of the rational stuff matters with this car. At the end of the day, what really matters to me is the fact that while other Car Lusts get my blood running hot, the 900 SPG gets my blood boiling to a degree I can't describe without falling afoul of Amazon.com's decency standards. This car is my sickness. I wanted one when I was 10 years old. I've wanted one every day since then. I'll want one when I'm 80 years old. On some level, I wanted one when neither the Saab 900 nor I had yet been conceived.

Saab900spg3 So, why don't I own one? Well, I've come close several times to buying non-SPG Turbos, but the cars in my price range were invariably way too cobby to be useful. Finding the right car is tricky; until recently these weren't really considered collector cars, so late model 900 Turbos are often knackered, abused, have upwards of 200K miles on the clock. Specifically regarding 1986 SPGs, as my budget slowly increases, values of these cars have been rising even more quickly. I am convinced that when the time is right, I'll find my '86 SPG and keep it forever.

I would normally mock the two commercials below (aviator sunglasses! purposeful shifting!), but they really sum up how I feel about these cars. Notice how the second ad even uses the word "lust?" I'm the guy washing the boring car, but steamily staring at the passing 900 Turbo. Neither of these commercials features the '86 900 SPG specifically, but ... close enough.

The lovely '86 Saab 900 SPG pictured above belongs to a gentleman named Gordon, who discusses his car's restoration here. Gordon, I envy you.

--Chris H.

Comments

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I had the same reaction to my CRX (future Car Lust subject) that you had to this one: "Somebody finally built the car I've always wanted! Squeee!"

Townsend, Massachusetts, 1985. A 10 year old car nut walks onto his school grounds and is stopped dead in his tracks by one of the most unique and, dare I say, beautiful cars he's laid eyes on...a brand new Saab 900 (not an SPG, but a new 900 nonetheless.) He later finds out the car belongs to his music teacher. After examining it closely, he resolves someday to own a Saab, no matter how long it takes.

Iowa City, Iowa, 2006. A much-old-than-10 car nut drives past the local Saab dealership, minding his own business, his two young children strapped in the back of a Volvo S70. There on the lot is a wonderfuly maintained, white, 5 speed manual-equipped, low mileage 2002 Saab 9-3...Last of the Hatchbacks. 48 hours later, the Saab is his.

Took me 20+ years, but I finally satiated one of my Car Lusts! I don't regret a moment of it. Chris, this was a truly excellent post.

The 900 is a really nice car. The hatch and cargo space are amazing. I remember loading the back of a friend's 900 with more and bigger things that I ever imagined could fit. Nice car.

I purchased a brand new 1984 Saab 900 Turbo in Slate Blue (more of a gray color, actually), drove it for 6 years and loved it to death. There was no other car I wanted. That car led to more Turbos from that other Swedish automaker (one of which I have today), and was the genesis of my on-line handle TurboDave. I had a friend who traded a blacked out 1982 900 Turbo for a new 1986 900 SPG like the one in the photos. A terrific car!!!!!!!

You mention that the 86 Saab 900 was one of the first with the lowered and aerodynamic body. My 85 Dodge Turbo Z scraped the ground going into driveways and was probably more aerodynamic than the Saab. It wasn't monochromatic, but all the areas you would expect to see chrome were blacked out. It was a great car capable of keeping up with the 5 liter Mustangs and other muscle cars of the time.

Amen. I will own another classic Saab 900. The NA one was entertaining enough. I can imagine the turbo will be more so.

How did I know you were a huge Saab fan? A friend of mine had a Sonnet, what a totally unique car.

I don't know why you don't buy one, they're like $2000!!
http://anchorage.craigslist.org/cto/792049885.html
Ah, that Sonnet is SO cool:
http://seattle.craigslist.org/tac/cto/817465731.html
I mean, you ought to be tripping over them in Seattle. This one might be a good "cautionary tale"
http://seattle.craigslist.org/tac/cto/815483661.html
Trade in your daily driver for one of these puppies!

Chris,

You didn't mention the sound of the SPG's engine. I grew up in Boulder, and I would swear that there were SPG's in the double-digits here in '86. The color, the design, the whistle of the turbo. Insanely great.

Brian, yeah, with those prices Chris should definitely pick one up. Life is too short. I picked up my SVX for $3600, and have loved all.. jeez... I guess it's been over 7 years now. Insane.

In the first third of our 31-year marriage we owned four Saabs, '72, '74, and '76 99s and a '67 96. Used ones were relatively cheap to buy and we had a good mechanic nearby to help fix my mistakes. When the yuppies drove the price of them out of our payscale we would still lust for another but knew we couldn't afford one anymore.

Well, circumstances have changed a bit for the better and last summer we needed to replace a '95 Neon. Cruising the local used car lots I found a '95 9000 CDE with just over 60,000 miles on it at a fair price and bought it for the wife's daily work commute. This stirred up the old juices as, when our '88 Ford Club Wagon went kaput, we ran across an '87 900 Turbo with 120,000 on the meter. With the hatchback it has near as much hauling space as the van behind it's rear passenger bench seat. It has an automatic but we didn't care it was a SAAB! Sunk over $2000 in getting it road worthy but we again live close to an excellent Saab mechanic to fix my mistakes. It is a great car for our teenage son to use to go to school and work. The money spent, though, put our restoration of a '59 MGA on hold for awhile. Still, we have no regrets.

i owned an 86 turbo in slate blue which i converted to spg specs, except for the interior. it still is to this day my favorite car i have ever owned. i spent months tracking down a momo steering wheel, and i was fortunate enough to purchase the car with a Carlsson exhaust. it was my baby. but unfortunately, the little niggles that hamper this car really took a toll on my wallet and i was forced to sell it. one service tech told me once as i argued about the price of an insignificant little part, "but sir, you own a Saab!" this car was an under-the-radar missile, and what still leaves me smiling was the steering, and the unexpected power surge between 50mph an 100mph, just unbelievably quick. if i ever get to the point where money is not an issue, this car is at the top of the list as one that i would buy again. its a shame what a once great car company has been reduced to by the likes of General Motors.

Luke, your last sentence nailed it - I always wanted a Saab, but now that GM has a hold of it, forget it. I mean, GM's idea of a Saab is a rebadged Impreza - ugh.

Oh well. A man can dream...

David, we can only dream that GM sells off Saab, and they can start making great cars yet again, Saab that is, not GM.

David: Yeah, gee how awful. A saab that is actually reliable and has some rally cred. Sounds horrid.

PS: The Impreza based 92-x Aero is no longer made. They quit making it in 2006, and I haven't wanted to own a Saab since.

Rob: Yeah, I agree. I like a lot of the older Saabs, but the 9-2X was really the only recent one I've had much lust for.

Rob, Ian, no offense, but if i wanted a rally based sports car, i would buy the original, the impreza, not an impreza rebadged as a saab. there was something about those old saabs that just isnt there since GM took control. yes, reliability was spotty at best, but that doesn't change the experience, just like a classic alfa or mg, etc. there is a personality inherent in those cars that is theirs and theirs alone, including the impreza wrx. i think the impreza carries on that same tradition in the way it makes people want to drive because its fun, agile, fast, and so on. saab today, just does not have it. in an attempt to sell more cars, GM has completely sucked the soul out of these cars.

Truth to tell, even after reading your paean to the SPG I can't see its appeal beyond that of a standard black 900 Turbo. I spent considerable time riding shotgun in a then-new 1986 Turbo, with all badges removed. It belonged to my late friend Tom, who used it to convey me to my first Grateful Dead show. My (admittedly hazy) recollections of the smoke-filled room that was this particular Turbo are uniformly positive. The seats were wonderfully comfortable, the ride was supple, and the performance -- once the turbo spooled up -- was better than average for that era.

I drove that car several times, and aside from a slightly rubbery shifter thought it was just swell. The aero kit that seems to comprise the bulk of the SPG package seems like it would be fine in the flatlands, but would probably have been wrecked by any of the various angled driveways I've been saddled with.

The '86 was Tom's third Saab turbo, and he had a good relationship with the dealer's service manager. Knowing that out-of-warranty service costs were outrageous, Tom bought an extended warranty. One month before it ran out, he had about $4K worth of work done on the car under the warranty. I think it cost him a case of scotch for the service manager.

Me, I'd like a convertible from that era, much like the one in "Sideways" but in better shape.

Brian: "I don't know why you don't buy one, they're like $2000!!"

Yeah, while SPGs can be pricey, plain-Jane turbos aren't too bad. The trouble is that the inexpensive turbos can also be the ones that get you hardest down the road.

You're right, though, I have no excuse. It's kind of like dating, though. I know the Saab Turbo is my one true love, but as this blog makes evident, I have the mother of all wandering eyes. I've had some fun relationships with my Malibu, Celica, and Integra, and a lot of fun flings with other cars. Other cars can temporarily nudge the Saab out of the way (though not for long) - for example, if I was to buy a fun second car six months ago, it would have been a Fiat Spider or a big old Impala.

I guess I feel like when I come across the right Saab, I'll know. The stirring music will start to play, tears will come to my eyes, and our future will be bound together.

Yeah ... that's all a bit creepy. The upshot is, I just want to get the right one, and opportunity and the right car have not yet collided.

Luke/David/Rob: Predictably for a Saab-phile I was disappointed when GM acquired Saab, but to be fair the two core cars - the 9-3 and 9-5 - haven't been that far off what I think Saab the independent carmaker would produce nowadays. They're still pretty faithful descendants of the 900 and 9000, though upscale and a bit yuppified just as Saab was starting to go in the late 1980s anyway.

Saab has historically been about good traction, safety, turbocharged performance, and surprising practicality. In recent years Saab/GM has added AWD and wagons, which I don't mind - it's an extension of what FWD and hatchbacks were in the late 1970s and 1980s.

I'm of two minds on the rebadged cars. The 9-2 feels like it could mostly fit in the Saab lineup; it's a quirky looking little hot hatchback that maintains most of the Saab core values. I could see a car like the 9-2 existing as a little sibling to the 900 Turbo back in the Eighties.

That's not to say it feels quite normal to me as a Saab. I'm a big WRX fan, and obviously a big Saab devotee, but seeing the two melded together is like seeing Johnny Cash sing for Led Zeppelin - undoubtedly cool, but a bit odd.

In all, despite the oddness, I'm a fan of the 9-2. It has a bit of the under-the-radar thing going on, and there for a while it had some truly stellar GM discounting. And Jim on The Office drives one, so there's that.

What I don't like is the 9-7X. Why the Saab lineup needs a nakedly cynical rebadge of a Chevy Trailblazer is beyond me. That, more than anything, felt like the ultimate betrayal of the brand by GM.

David Drucker: "Truth to tell, even after reading your paean to the SPG I can't see its appeal beyond that of a standard black 900 Turbo."

In truth, the added appeal is minor. Slightly stiffer suspension and interior upgrades - both very subtle - and an appearance kit that looked fantastic at the time and a bit cheesy today.

I certainly do lust after the standard 900 Turbo - call it a 9.5 to the SPG's 10 - but the SPG is the car I fell in love with. It has an ever-so-slightly deeper, more special place in my heart.

the standard turbo is/was no slouch. thats the car i started off with. i am holding out hope for the much talked about 9-1x or the baby saab due to appear before too long.

Luke: "Rob, Ian, no offense, but if i wanted a rally based sports car, i would buy the original, the impreza, not an impreza rebadged as a saab. there was something about those old saabs that just isnt there since GM took control."

I don't really think we disagree. The newer Saabs aren't all that interesting to me, and I think most of my lust for the 9-2X was my lust for an Impreza.

Luke, Chris, Ian: One of my friend's drives a 2004 WRX Wagon. His fiance drives a 2005 Saab 92-X Aero. Honestly, I like the 92-X better. It has the STi steering rack for quicker, more precise steering, a more refined suspension (different struts), more sound deadening, and a nicer interior design. On the exterior, it looks classier, and you're less likely to have civics with chrome mufflers revving at you when you're at stoplights. In this case, I really do think the "imposter" is better than the original. It retains all that is good of the WRX, and peppers it with better driving dynamics, better interior materials, sophistication, and class.

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