The year was 1984 and our second Swedish car manufacturer was about to release an all new model, something extremely rare and when it actually happened would involve the whole nation. The tiny Swedish family car brand was undoubtedly a quirky little parenthesis in the big world, but at the same time it was widely known especially in the US that by far made up the largest and most important market. Apparently there were enough tweed-draped New England professors and other eccentric elements in the US to get rid of all these Saabs.
Sometime during the 70’s the down-to-earth strategies in Trollhättan, Sweden, understood that a new, larger car was needed to secure the future of the company. They seemed to have understood that the new Saab 900 that were about to be unveiled in 1978 wouldn’t remain modern for that long (it was actually based on the old Saab 99 from 1968) and the 900 didn’t really play in the league where Saab wished to play on the American market, read the BMW 5-series and similar German artillery.
As the development of new cars was extremely expensive also in the 1980s, a partner was needed to share the costs and the answer was found in Italy. The Fiat conglomerate also looked for a companion to develop a series of big cars that would give prestige and income to the Latin car giant. The culturally essentially different manufacturers eliminated the foreseen cultural shock and managed to co-develop an architecture that resulted in four different models under four different brands – three Italian and one Swedish. Fiat owned Alfa Romeo as well as Lancia and consequently the Latin/Nordic coexistence resulted in the Fiat Croma, Alfa 164, Lancia Thema and Saab 9000.
Compared to the old characteristic Saab 900, the 9000 was a somewhat bleaker figure. But in every other way the model meant a huge step forward and upwards for Saab, by penetrating the luxury car market and by introducing a completely new and modern technical base with transversally mounted 16 valve engines as well as modern design giving roominess and effective aerodynamics.
The Saab 9000 Turbo was unveiled in May 1984 and the stir was unparalleled. I was eight years old and everyone talked about the new car in the industrial town where I grew up – the kids in the schoolyard as well as the workers in the lunch rooms of the defence industry.
The new car was a five-door hatchback and the relation to the Fiat Croma and Lancia Thema was obvious, especially when looking at the doors and roofline. The Alfa Romeo 164 stood out considerably, with its own (and better-looking) body design signed no less than Pininfarina.
The new Saab offered excellent road manners with better balance and a crispier steering than the more nose-heavy 900. The big Saab would easily outclass its main Swedish rival when it came to road manners, the live-axled Volvo 740 that also premiered in 1984. Furthermore, the 9000 was class leading regarding interior space and the shapely dashboard offered nearly perfect ergonomics, a typical Saab quality. But attention to detail wasn’t really on a German level with squeakier panels and poorer fit in some details, and here also Volvo had a lead over its Swedish antagonist.
So top of the line 9000 Turbo was first off and a year later the less expensive 9000i (without a turbo charger) was shown as model year 1986. Except the turbo it also lacked the alloy wheels, the rear wing and some luxury equipment. The 130 PS didn’t make it a rocket but proved enough for common Swedish families. The 9000 Turbo on the other hand was as fast as anyone could expect with a top speed of at least 220 km/h, not bad for a four-pot family car in 1984.
Saab really wanted to prove the potential of the Turbo in terms of performance as well as reliability and did so in the crazy Talladega project that would result in a world record in 1986. FIA randomly chose three cars directly from the production line that were shipped to the Talladega race track in Alabama, USA. Without any modifications and with all spare parts tucked into the cars, they were driven 100 000 kilometres with no stops other than for service, gas and change of driver.
Full throttle was held constantly, day and night, in rain and sunshine. The best of the three reached an incredible average speed of 213.299 km/h during three weeks and the record received a lot of attention in the US. For instance, the Chrysler boss at the time, Lee Iacocca, called in every day to hear about the progress. Today one of the cars resides at the Saab museum in Trollhättan while one has a place at the Talladega museum. If anyone knows where the third car is located, please let me know!
In 1988, the 9000 span off into a more elegant four door sedan (9000 CD) to charm the more conservative buyers in the US. In 1992 Saab unveiled a modified five-door version (9000 CS) that received a new lower front-end and a completely revamped rear that offered considerably better stiffness to the structure, the foremost Achilles heel on the original five-door car.
Above: To the left the four-door sedan, the 9000 CD from 1988, that also got a more modern front-end as well as a bit softer suspension than the original five-door. To the right the 9000 CS, the new five-door version that arrived in the fall of 1991. A good car; roomy, safe, ergonomical and fun to drive!
The 9000 was never offered with a diesel engine and during the most part of its life it was solely offered with Saabs own four cylinder units with four valves per cylinder and double overhead camshafts. During the years, this engine family were built in 2.0 and 2.3 litre versions, with and without turbo charging and with outputs of between 125 and 225 PS. A V6 from Opel/GM was offered during a few of the last years but this is very rare.
The large industrial project (by Saab standards!) lasted until 1998 as the production of the 9000 CS finally ceased, and just like the old Saab 900 it became a typical component of the Swedish street image, with a more or less worn 9000 in each and every street corner. In the US it remained a rare choice of the well-off, intellectual types but on the home market it became a natural part of the Swedish streets image, with a more or less shabby 9000 in every other street corner. It became a faithful friend for middle class families as well as for bank robbers, the police force and the tuning-oriented youth in the countryside!
Crazy memories of the 9000 Turbo
Sometime in the fall of 1984, dad brought me and my brother to the local Saab dealer in Karlskoga (small industrial town in the middle of Sweden) where we grew up, to look at the new Saab, the 9000 Turbo.
Unreal for me and my brother, dad managed to fix a test drive and that’s probably still number one on my list of memorable rides. The test car was painted in metallic red and the inside draped in wine-red velvet, oh so Saabish in the mid-eighties! The car felt unbelievably modern and spacious, especially since we were used to bump around in the family’s Saab 99 GL (photo on the right). Surely, the development leap was nothing but giant.
As usual, dad was heavy on the throttle and we were fascinated by the “ketchup effect” as the turbo picked up in that old-fashioned Saab Turbo way, tickling our bellies. Before we knew it we hit 200 km/h on the country road towards Degerfors and dad made us promise not to tell mom. The first thing I did when we came back from the awesome ride was of course to run into the kitchen and reveal the secret. I just couldn’t hold it! In contrary to the murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme, our memorable speeding offence is no longer punishable and therefore I can tell the story today.
A more fresh memory of the Saab 9000 and Saab in general occurred during my UN internship in war-afflicted Sierra Leone in West Africa some years ago. Living in this severely under-developed and war-affected environment I was sometimes struck by a bit of homesickness. In such moments, it was a relief to spot the familiar shape of a Saab wafting along in the chaotic traffic. A few worn Saab 9000, one or two Saab 900 and one car that made me drop my jaw – a Saab 99 painted in taxi yellow!
It was a four-door version of the model year ’83 or ’84, the one with the last front end. It was one of those my dad owned at the time of the 9000 Turbo adventure about 20 years earlier. I tried to explain to my locally employed colleague what an important Swedish cultural heritage this odd creation really was, an explanation that was met with a rather lame reaction. He must have regarded me a bit peculiar to react so strongly at the sight of a strangely designed, old taxi car. So he put his cigarette out, put a gear in and rode off to new adventures in our diesel-driven, UN-labelled Toyota Hilux.