The Saabs of my childhood and beyond

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I was born in a Sweden of the 1970s, and that means to a world that looked really different from what it looks like today. It was “Folkhem” (“people’s home”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folkhemmet) and Cold War and Sweden had become rich on heavy industry. Words like social exclusion, integration, globalization and Euro were not yet invented. The information society with broadband, apps and smart phones still lay far in the future. Instead, we watched Roger Moore Bond movies on VHS and were amazed with the Commodore 64s of our friends.

Some of my first memories in life originate from the early 1980s and I clearly remember a safe and swell childhood in a small industrial town where most of the Swedish military weaponry was manufactured in order to defend our mixed economy democracy from the Soviet threat.

I got interested in cars as soon as I learned to walk and therefore the cars of my childhood are forever welded into my brain. Those were the days when Saab and Volvo were Swedish for real, the times when BMW was a relative rarity on Swedish roads, when Mercedes had better quality than other cars and when people in general thought that Japanese cars were programmed to last for no more than 60 000 miles. Those were also the good old days when you had to really drive your car without all that electronic safety equipment to interfere.

Believe it or not, but in those days most Swedish car owners either drove a Saab or a Volvo. These cars were actually our Fords and Chevrolets and not the premium anachronisms of the export markets. In Sweden there were the Saab people and the Volvo people and they were different personality types that seldom crossed the line and swapped brands. My family belonged to the Saab people and we’ve never owned any Volvos (except for a short period of Volvo 244 ownership on my part!). So here are the Saabs of my childhood, and beyond:

Saab 99 EMS (1974)

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Above: A seven year old me during the yearly Easter trip to the mountains close to the Norwegian border. The year should be 1983 or a little earlier. In the background mom’s and dad’s sporty Saab 99 EMS from 1974, properly soaked in the obligatory Swedish winter road slush. Fuel injection and 110 PS, four-cog ‘box and a promised top speed of 170 km/h. In the background another typical Swedish family car, a white Volvo 145!

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Above: Road trip to England in the summer of 1983; what a nostalgic and time specific picture! Our 99 EMS again. I’m the one sitting in the sporty passenger seat of vinyl and brown cloth. And note the cool alloy wheels! The side stripe is the last detail that encircles a sporty Saab. The accompanying family’s forest green Volkswagen Passat from the early eighties can be glimpsed further back. A highly ordinary car but wasn’t it a bit lower and more slender than later Passats?

Saab 99 GL (1983)

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Above: Eternal summer at my family home in Karlskoga. Is that an unsuspecting bumble bee I’m aiming at? Beautifully blurry back there is a Saab 99 GL from 1983, the final edition of the old 99 series. Carburettor engine with 100 PS; it was the only option in the final years of the Saab 99. Apparently, dad seems to conduct some kind of service or perhaps he’s just tidying an already tidy car. The senior citizen feel is kept away with a sporty two-door body, black trim and door knobs, potently wide tires and a non-standard three spoke sports steering wheel. “5 Speed” is printed on the boot lid – In the 1980s oil crisis, Saab took the fuel consumption race seriously!

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Above: A clearer photo of our Saab 99 GL, a true entry level car being the cheapest new Saab on sale in 1983. A 15 year old design at the time, it was not a modern car, even though it was constantly modernized through the years. This late 99 was a quality item; simple and reliable but also a heavy drive in town with a reluctant gearbox, lack of power steering and a somewhat stubborn carburettor engine. The photo indicates a typical weekend drive to the woods for a mini hike, and what could be better for that activity than a Saab 99?!

Saab 99 GL (1983)

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Above: No, this is not the same car as the red 1983 99 GL further up. This red 1983 99 GL used to belong to my grandpa! The difference is clear if you notice the four doors and the more conservative chrome trim. Following grandpa’s passing his car was taken over by my cousin who later sold it to my brother in the summer of 2000. This picture (from the following summer) shows that my brother had taken good care of it!

 Saab 96 V4 (1973) 

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Above: Commute cars came and went during the years. In the background, behind my brother’s daring exercises, one can spot the sharp profile of a “half pear”, a Saab 96 V4 from the first half of the 1970s in a somewhat tatty condition. The photo should be from the mid eighties and it is early spring as it seems. At least, the girl from next door seems to be impressed.

Saab 900 GL (1980)

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Above: My uncle’s and aunt’s painfully handsome Saab 900 GL, the second model year of the classic 900, and painted in a gorgeous green metallic. So Saabs were the mode of transportation for my larger family as well. The environment is Swedish far north, exotic even by my (Swedish) standards. The sporty elegance of the three-door body completes the perfect picture!

Saab 9000i (1986)

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Above: Same uncle, same aunt visiting us in mid-Sweden (it’s a 1200 km drive!), but this time with their new 1986 Saab 9000i. We were amazed by the tremendously modern creation; the 9000 was so roomy and refined! Just like many American cars, it was draped in red velvet and that swoopy dashboard blew our minds. The 9000 was certainly an astronomic step forward even though it lacked the quirky charm of the classic 900. My uncle’s 9000i was the entry level version that was introduced a year after the famous Turbo. It was actually a condition for the model to become a best seller in Sweden (in contrary to the US where most Saabs were fully loaded and turbo equipped). The introduction of the base model soon led to that every other Swedish family would drive around in a Saab 9000, and still today they are fairly common on the Swedish roads!

Saab 96 (1964)

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Above: My first car, and what a car! It was mid-1990s, I was in my twenties and my cousin’s renowned royal blue two-stroke Saab 96 from 1964 was up for sale. The car was beautiful and driveable and cheap so I just couldn’t avoid buying it, could I? This crisp photo displays a youthful summer of 1996, or perhaps 1997, at my family home. Washing Ann was certainly a pleasure, letting the sponge glide over her curvaceous body (even though I seem to use a brush at this particular occasion).

Ann was a celebration to drive, with perfect balance, sweet steering, a gearbox with a nice mechanical feel and a rich three-pot soundtrack not second to a Maserati. Its 38 PS, though, didn’t make it as fast as one! I shouldn’t have sold her, but being a poor student who couldn’t take care of her properly, I chose to after only two years of wonderful ownership. I hope that one day I can buy her back.

Saab 900c (1988)

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Above: It was just a matter of time for me, I guess, before getting a classic Saab 900. The obvious Swedish family carrier in the 1980s, besides the Volvo 240, and at the same time a natural choice for the North American university professor draped in corduroy. The 900 was really different from other family cars, but for us Swedes it became the normality and we quickly forgot what a special vehicle it actually was. The 900 offered many qualities that made it a great family car and viewing the picture of my white Saab 900c from 1988, we can conclude that it also looks really good!

I got it for just over 1000 USD in the spring of 2005 to enjoy a cheap and fun car for the summer. It’s the face-lifted version that came with the -87 model year, the lower front-end being the clearest clue. The “c” indicates a carburettor instead of the more common fuel injection, specifying the base model. As you can see it was the three-door hatch version and equipped with the turbo model’s attractive alloys, making it a really pretty car. Also, despite the rather slow 100 PS engine, it was a feast to drive fast on curvy back roads thanks to a stiff chassis and sweet steering. I shouldn’t tell you this but I actually lost my license in it (got it back after two months)!

Saab 9000 CD 2.0i (1994)

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Above: Another Saab, another summer ride but still a very different thing. The Saab 9000 was the brand’s first large executive car. It sported a brand new chassis with transversally mounted engine (shared with Fiat/Alfa/Lancia), modern bodywork that made it much roomier and more aerodynamic, and Saab’s modern 16 valve four pot with double overhead camshafts. As you can see, my 9000 was the more conservative four-door sedan, the 9000 CD, and in entry level 2.0i form. This means no turbo and 130 PS, making a not so fast but a quiet and cultivated ride to enjoy on long journeys. Roomy, safe and comfortable and nothing beats those great seats!

Due to an upcoming long-term trip abroad I chose to sell also this Saab, but I don’t really miss it, not in the same way as I miss the 96 or 900. The 9000 just isn’t as much “Saab” as they are. Sure, it’s a better and more modern car, but at the same time it’s less quirky and a flatter design. So isn’t it time for the resurrected Saab to develop a new 9-3 in the same spirit as the classic 900? Former Saab chief designer Jason Castriota has a finished design, so why don’t they use it!?

Filip Ericsson

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