Born from jets.
Every gearhead knows and loves Saabs to some extent. From the plucky Sonnet to the iconic 900 to the sleek 9000 Aero, we knew them all, if not by name, by reputation. The Sonnet was a 2-stroke rally screamer and the 9000 was the one you always saw next to a jet, but it was the 900 that, for most, defined the brand.
At some point, GM got involved. It was the beginning of the end. Saab-badged Impreza wagons. Saab-badged Chevy Trailblazers. As much of what made Saab great remained—style, handling, safety—it wasn’t long before it was all underpinned with watered-down Chevy parts.
There was a final flash of hope in the absolutely gorgeous, second generation 9-5, but it was short-lived, with scarcely over 11,000 units sold worldwide before Saab Automibiles was hung out to dry, a storied brand beloved the world over, passed from billionaire to billionaire, kinda maybe sorta making EVs or something, maybe in China, maybe not.
But let me tell you how I really feel, right? At least they still make jets.
Today I’d like to introduce Jeff, aka: @talladega_90. He’s got a 1990 Saab 900 SPG.
It’s an Amazing Machine.
[tgp] Introductions: My understanding is you have a Saab 900 SPG. Is that correct? Anything else you’d like to mention?
[you] Yes indeed. “Special Performance Group” was a factory upgrade kit that added a few horsepower to the 2-liter engine by way of an upgraded turbo and APC (Automatic Performance Control, which is a knock and boost control system), some side skirts, and a slightly lowered suspension.
There were 771 SPGs imported into the US in 1990, either in red or black. The Talladega Red models were available in 1990 and 1991. This car is my second red SPG, and came from California after a nearly 2-year back and forth with the seller.
Since getting it a couple years ago, I have made some upgrades, including suspension, engine management, exhaust and, of course, lots of vintage SAAB accessory catalog goodies. I’ve also slowly found used replacement parts, which is often the only available option when replacing things on a SAAB. I’ve done a lot of the work myself but have been lucky to have some very knowledgeable friends to help me along the way.
[tgp] The most important automotive opinions are those of real, actual owners. As a Saab owner, could you share a little unvarnished truth with the rest of us? What do you love about them? What do you not love about them?
[you] The classic 900s are very well built, over-engineered machines. They were ahead of their time in many ways. These are some of the reasons they are so enjoyable to drive even after all these years.
These are also some of the things that can make them a challenge. A simple example could be the inability to have paintless dent repair performed because the metal is too thick. However all of the minor inconveniences and quirks can be avoided and dealt with if you take a little time to think it through.
Make sure you buy one with a good transmission, replace the vacuum hosing immediately with silicone, make sure your Bosch ignition system is tuned up, and you should be okay. The engines have been documented to hold factory compression at over 500,000 miles. With the exception of perhaps the APC/turbo system and ABS on 90 and later models, fundamentally they are fairly simple machines.
The elephant in the room is the fact that SAAB is no more and this lack of manufacturer support can present challenges. This can be an enjoyable challenge or a pain in the neck—it’s all about perception.
Parts are relatively cheap but not always easy to source. To someone that wants to be able to call NAPA and grab any part the same day, a classic SAAB may not be for you. To someone who doesn’t mind seeking out their parts sources and networking with other SAAB owners it can be an enjoyable process. I’d recommend the guys at the SAAB museum in Sturgis (esaabparts.com) for new stuff.
The same can be said about performing the maintenance. If you want to pull into any garage and get out the door inexpensively, this can be difficult, as experienced mechanics are hard to find in many parts of the country. However with a Bentley manual and some spare time, most shade tree mechanics can figure things out, especially with the abundance of help from the SAAB community.
All of the technical speak aside, to me, the lines, the sounds and unique features make the classic 900 a piece of art that is a joy to drive.
[tgp] How did you end up in this camp? Why have you stuck around as long as you have?
[you] As a kid growing up in Vermont, SAABs were always around. I have always been really attracted to the styling and the reputation of being sporty, useful, and less pretentious than some of their European competitors.
The three spoke wheels may in fact be the initial feature that caught my eye. I don’t think any other car has managed to pull them off; perhaps the Viper… kind of. I really wanted a red SPG as a 15-year old which didn’t happen… but fast forward 15 years, following graduate school, and it FINALLY happened. I think the reason I have maintained my interest and will likely always have a SAAB in the garage is the people I’ve met and how unique and customizable they really are.
The Saab community…
[tgp] How’s the Saab community doing these days? Where do y’all hangout, share tech, and whatnot?
[you] The SAAB community is one of the best things about owning a SAAB. Depending on where you live, it can be a sparse crowd, however the internet breaks down that barrier when needed. I like to share my projects and updates via Instagram.
The “OG” website for classifieds and discussion is saabnet.com. The big shows which I hope to get to are SAABs at Carlisle in Pennsylvania, and the annual SAAB owners convention which is in Albany this year. I’d also like to check out Swedish Car Day at the Larz Anderson Museum in Boston. It’s also always a fun moment when you pull into a Cars and Coffee or a small show and another SAAB is there.
One fun aspect of SAAB ownership, by virtue of it being a relatively small group of people when compared to other manufacturers is, you meet people from all over the country, and the world in many cases.
Yesterday I bounced wheel questions off friends in the Netherlands and Toronto, and the week before that was on the phone with friends in Florida and Buffalo figuring out how to remap vacuum lines from a rising rate fuel pressure regulator. In Maine, where my wife and I currently live there are still a lot of SAABs roaming around and I hope to continue to meet more SAAB owners.
This gearhead life…
[tgp] When you think about automotive culture in general, what stands out as being the biggest issue we should be working on together? What’s your biggest concern and what should we be doing about it?
[you] I think one of the biggest issues is what seems to me less of an interest in cars from younger generations and the loss of knowledge being handed down. I don’t see as many people my age (33) and those near me in age enthusiastic about cars. Of the ones that are, working on cars and restoring them certainly isn’t an interest.
I think an emphasis on making sure vocational programs stay alive and well is important to empower kids to love to work with their hands and hopefully continue to enjoy automobiles regardless of what they decide to do career wise. A surgeon I encountered once said small engine repair was the most enjoyable class he ever took.
On a community level, I think it’s important younger folks who are interested in cars come together and make it a community event like so many before us have. My concern is that, although I am perfectly content working alone in my garage on a car, people need an outlet to inspire them to start their own project and share that work.
When I go to a car show or a Cars and Coffee any kid who wants to sit in my car or have me rev the engine will have their way, because looking back on my life, I know there were moments that hooked me on automobiles forever, and it’s important for kids to be able to have that a-ha moment.
Speaking of barriers to entry one of the nice things about a SAAB is you can get into a turnkey, fun, European car for the price of the engine service on a Porsche 911.
[tgp] Who’s made the biggest difference in your life with cars? How so?
[you] I never really got to know my maternal grandfather growing up as he passed away in a motorcycle accident, but he was a very accomplished mechanic and racecar driver. Seeing the old pictures of him and hearing some of the stories helped inspire me in some ways I think.
My father, although not much of a car guy, had an interest in dirt bikes, snow machines, etc., always made a point to make sure my brother and I had toys to play with, and made sure we understood basic mechanical principles. So I think my ability to think through problems came from those early lessons.
My mother- and father-in-law enjoy cars and supported my projects, and allowed me to use their garage for a couple years (along with their 84 911 and 73 240z), so I owe them a shoutout for sure.
I think the biggest overall influence was growing up in what was a really fantastic, blue collar town in Vermont. There was always an abundance of cool cars, an annual car show on Main Street, and a short track racetrack which was the focal point of town every Thursday night in the summer. We also had a SAAB dealer…
Our first Saab story.
That concludes our first Saab story here on TGP.
The Saab we used to know is gone, but the fine automobiles born from jets they made in Trollhättan still roam the streets. They’re getting rare, which makes them all special in their own right.
Like every amazing machine, they have their ups and downs. One gearhead’s pain is another gearhead’s pleasure. We’ve all got Saab stories. What’s yours?
Would you like to know more?
Add a little Saab 900 to your life by following @talladega_90 on Instagram
And help keep car culture alive by visiting the Saab communities, events, and vendors Jeff mentioned. Aside from being something interesting and different to look at, it’s always nice to know where to direct a fellow gearhead in need.