Vintage Views: Saab 900 SPG


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story by chip lamb

During the late 1980s and early ’90s, a turbocharged Saab 900 was among the must-haves on every über-yuppie’s wish list. It was this attraction—and especially the appeal of the top-of-the-line, three-door hatchback SPG model—that best combined the apartment-slogging capabilities of a station wagon with the get-up-and-go of a Porsche 911.

However, Saab didn’t always put out the ideal carport dressing for young urban professionals. From humble yet well-engineered two-stroke beginnings, Saab enjoyed a fairly robust degree of success through the 1960s and early ’70s in America. By the end of that decade, however, the brand had little to offer all but its most doggedly faithful.

Due to the lack of imagination in their primary export market, the Swedes countered by wooing Robert J. Sinclair, renowned marketing director and longtime Western Region director for Volvo, away from the Gothenburg-based company. Saab hoped that he could turn Saab-Scania of America into a turbocharged brand for the ’80s. Sinclair quickly simplified Saab’s confusing spread of barely different variants of the new 900 model, banished the aging 99 from American shores and, using powerful and effective advertising, made the product range desirable to a new breed of Saab enthusiast.

This success allowed for numerous product improvements to comfort and convenience, likewise led by Sinclair’s demands to take the brand upmarket. This cycle bore out over 60 consecutive months of sales increases during the first half of his tenure.

With the introduction of turbocharging for the 1978 model year, Saab engineers were kept busy back home, continuing to refine the delivery of increased power. A largely new four-cylinder engine for 1981 was followed closely by the Saab Automatic Performance Control system the following year.

This system allowed for greater boost and increased compression by opening the wastegate when ignition knock was detected. The Swedes had also experimented with a 16-valve cylinder head for competition purposes during the 1970s, but the refined production version was not released until 1984.

All of this technology helped make the company’s B202 twin-cam hot news for 1985. A limited-production version of the 900, carrying the SPG badge in the U.S., was the top model: It sported Special Black paint, unique side panels, three-spoke light alloy wheels, a tan Bridge of Weir contoured leather interior and a full slate of power options. To say that the SPG was a splash in a very still automotive pond is a remarkable understatement.

Production of the SPG continued throughout the following six years, and it was always the top rung of the 900 ladder. Meanwhile, Saab kept releasing additional handling, performance and aesthetic refinements.

By the end of the model’s run in 1991, the SPG had spawned a loyal following of performance-oriented buyers. Faster turbocharged cars have come along since the SPG, but this limited-edition Saab has aged well and now makes a great old-school daily driver.

Shopping and Ownership

The Saab 900 SPG is a great value in its segment. It’s a period performance car that’s easy to live with on a daily basis. It can also be a challenge to find a clean example that has never been wrecked or abused. How much to spend? Budget $2500 to $5000 for an average example and about $10,000 for a premium one.

Buy the best car you can find. This may be a trite suggestion, but parts for the “classic” Saab 900 are becoming hard to come by, especially ones in good cosmetic condition. The SPG was the least-common variant of the 900 and, not unexpectedly, the most desirable from the word go. Don’t forget, many examples are now nearly 30 years old.

Rust never sleeps: Saabs were particularly popular cars in areas of the country where snow and ice are the norm for months on end. These cars are tenacious, though, which is why many careless owners drove them right into the ground. Inspect front and rear suspension points, wheel arches and the underpinnings of the unibody beneath the floorpan and firewall for cancer.

Saab’s B202 engine is one of the longest-lasting performance four-cylinders of all time. Bottom ends have proved to last a million miles with only regular maintenance. Head gaskets are more prone to failure than timing chains.

The five-speed manuals used in the 900 series are relatively durable given that their design harks back to 1969, with fifth gear added in 1980.

The 1985 and 1986 Saab 900 and 9000 suffer from wiring harness insulation failure like that of similar-vintage Volvos. If you’ve found an especially desirable early SPG, look carefully under the hood—and beyond—for any bare wires, burned connectors or evidence of impending failure. There are no new harnesses, so repairs will be challenging at best.

SPGs built from 1985 through 1987 have an unusual front brake caliper; an integral rotating piston activates the handbrake. A clunky caliper is not uncommon on these cars and can be fixed. The 1990 and 1991 models have the ATE ABS system found also on some high-end GM luxury autos.

Early SPGs used the 900 Turbo parts through the end of 1986, but by 1987 SPG-specific shocks and springs were fitted. The aftermarket can still help with new hardware.

The “classic” 900 continues to be a popular platform for turbo upgrades as well as programmable engine management systems. The use of Bosch LH on these cars makes it easy to add MegaSquirt or a similar setup. However, many enthusiasts prefer a stock car; they’d rather leave the SPG as a testament to its impressive power for its day.

The 900’s geometry, particularly with modified suspensions, does not readily accept wheels over 17 inches without spacers or other modifications.

Spending a little more up front or waiting for the right car to come along is worth the effort. While the leather seat upholstery is replaceable, the rest of the interior can be difficult to restore.

Charting the Changes

1985: The 900 Turbo received the 160-horsepower, 16-valve, B202-spec engine, with the top-of-the-line SPG model getting unique cosmetic enhancements. Saab only offered the SPG in Special Black with tan leather interior; early examples have black ground-effect skirts while later 1985 models sport the gray panels used until the end of production.

1986: The 900 SPG was available only in Oduardo Gray Metallic—commonly known as Edwardian Gray—with gray panels and Buffalo Gray Bridge of Weir leather. Performance, handling and other mechanical aspects remained the same as the standard 900T, which received vented front-disc brakes this year.

1987: The 900 SPG got its first model-specific springs, anti-roll bars and APC control unit, requiring the use of premium fuel. The output bump over the standard 900T was just 5 horsepower, but the chassis work made a big difference. Edwardian Gray remained the sole color offering.

1988: Special Black returned to the SPG, while the entire 900 lineup received a redesigned braking system.

1989: The colors and offerings remained the same with no significant changes.

1990: The SPG received its first (and only) significant power increase with the substitution of a Mitsubishi TE-05 turbocharger in place of the Garrett T3 found on the standard 900 Turbo. Saab upgraded the suspension with even lower and stiffer springs. All 1990 900s now offered the ATE Mark II 3-channel ABS introduced in 1988 on the 9000. A brilliant Talladega Red joined Special Black on the color palette. Edwardian Gray became rare, even nonexistent, on 1990 SPGs.

1991: The final year of the SPG was offered in another new color, Beryl Green Metallic, in addition to Special Black and Talladega Red. A new speedometer could be found only on these cars. The entire American 900 lineup also received headlamp wipers, slightly changing the look of the car’s front.

Sources

Abbott Racing
performance parts
abbottsaab.com

eEuroparts
replacement parts
eeuroparts.com
(800) 467-9769

The Saab Network
enthusiast site
saabnet.com

Swedish Dynamics
performance parts
saabperformanceparts.com
(203) 791-8826

Saabs United
enthusiast site
saabsunited.com

Saab World
enthusiast site
saabworld.net

Swedish Auto Specialties
performance parts
sasab.com
(503) 630-7222


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Comments
View comments on the GRM forums
Chris_Webb
Chris_Webb New Reader
3/8/18 4:05 p.m.

SAAB 900s were common where I grew up but I didn't  run across the 900 SPG until '87 whereupon I fell in love with its un-sports car, sports car aesthetic and vibe. This was a great car. 

Feedyurhed
Feedyurhed SuperDork
3/8/18 8:09 p.m.

One of my all time favorite cars.

SPG123
SPG123 HalfDork
3/8/18 8:43 p.m.

Much love for C900.s. Still have 2 SPG.s in the yard. But the next resto is a Turbo Convert.

 

procainestart
procainestart Dork
3/9/18 12:53 a.m.

The five-speed manuals used in the 900 series are relatively durable...

<insert maniacally laughing eye-rolling emoji here> Only in a parallel universe are 900 transmissions "relatively durable." Here in this universe, there's no argument that they were not the cars' Achilles heal. On second thought, as boat anchors, I'd be inclined to agree with the "relatively durable" estimation. At least you don't have to pull the engine to replace the gearbox when the pinion bearings go south. Oh, wait... 

mad_machine
mad_machine MegaDork
3/9/18 8:25 a.m.

I picked up my Turbo for cheap due to bad pinion bearings. Eventually I will get it reassembled

DWNSHFT
DWNSHFT Dork
3/9/18 9:27 a.m.

Years ago a friend let me drive his 900 turbo to dinner with five of us in it.  I shifted into second and he said "floor it" so I did.  And got wheelspin when the boost hit.  I've always been fond of them since.

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