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Man Maths: Saab 900 Turbo 16S

1 week ago

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James Mills | Managing editor


8 June 2024

Emotion often gets the better of us and given the memories I have of the Saab 900 Turbo 16S, it’s surprising I haven’t already succumbed and taken the plunge. You see, my old man owned not one, two, nor even three, but four of the things. He alone kept Kentish Saab, our nearest dealer, afloat at a time when most drivers looking for an executive express were making tracks for BMW and Mercedes dealerships. Perhaps even Porsche showrooms.

Dad wanted something more discreet. A car to fly under the radar in front of clients, simply because no-one other than an architect knew what it was. As a packaging consultant (okay, architects and packaging consultants) driving the length and breadth of Britain between factory visits, he’d clock a good 30,000 miles a year, and valued usable performance, seats fit for long days on the road and an outstanding reputation for safety. Saab’s Turbo 16S, the flagship of the 900 range in 1984, offered all that and more.

To illustrate this last point, here’s an anecdote from a chap at Kentish Saab. Three of them were in a 900 Turbo late at night on a B-road, and at one section – a dead-straight run up and down hills – a bloke in a Vauxhall Cavalier pulled out of a car park on the crest of one of the hills. The Cav wasn’t in good order: the battery was dodgy, and he stalled it across the width of the road, lights and hazards dead as a dodo. He ran back into the pub to get help pushing it off the road, at which point the 900 crested the hill at around 100mph, drove straight through the middle of the Cavalier, splitting it in two; inside the Saab the driver had a broken nose but otherwise they were largely okay, and the Vauxhall no longer needed a new battery…

(Image courtesy of The Market)

My abiding memory is of the 16S’s exhaust note and gearbox whine. The exhaust had an almost Subaru-esque flat-four offbeat thrum to it, and the noise from the transmission was inevitably a sign of things to come. The gearboxes, renowned for their fragility, had to be replaced on every example, at great expense to Saab’s warranty department.

For non-Saab geeks, the turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine was a Triumph-derived 2-litre lump, canted over at 45-degrees and mounted longitudinally – a rarity in a front-wheel drive car – with drive going forwards and to the underslung gearbox via chains. It’s why the engine had to be canted: the packaging would have had designers snapping their pencils in despair if it hadn’t.

The slender upright dashboard, elegantly simply dials, Tonka-like push buttons, ignition barrel between the seats and chairs that looked flat yet held you in once the fury of the turbo was unleashed were all charming 900 traits, a car that could trace its roots back to the 99, which first hit the road in 1968. Or, if you weren’t a fan – and more weren’t than were, let’s be honest – they gave the car a whiff of visiting a great aunt’s bungalow, where time stood still.

Perhaps the most effective demonstration of the 900 Turbo 16S’s quirky appeal was the fate that befell the third in the Mills household. Dad drove into a factory car park, parked and reported to reception. As they signed the visitors’ book, his colleague tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Isn’t that your Saab driving out of the car park?’

BMW or Mercedes? Mills' dad would never be so predictable

An unusual mechanical layout was very Saab

(Image courtesy of The Market)

(Image courtesy of The Market)

Sure enough, it was. Some light-fingered individuals had staked out the place hoping a 900 Turbo would turn up at some point. How do we know? Because when the police recovered it, the car had been used in a ram-raid – all the rage during the 1980s. The appeal of the Saab? It was fast enough to outrun any police car, narrow enough (again, another sign of its dated platform) to fit between a shop’s security bollards, and its tough hatchback body withstood being rammed backwards at speed through the jeweller’s shop front.

These days a 900 Turbo 16S is a rare and – hopefully you’ll agree – welcome sight on our roads. There are a few on Car&Classic, while The Classic Valuer points to rising values, since 2020, and a median price of nearly £9500.

As we know too well at Ti, cars are about so much more than facts, stats and road test verdicts. The 900 Turbo 16S is no E30 M3, 190E 2.3-16 or Sierra Cosworth, but if a really good one came along, my man maths would kick into overdrive, attempt to rationalise such an emotive purchase and see me pay whatever it took to secure a really nice example – even if it meant selling off a child or two.

A good job, then, I haven’t set up any classified website email alerts for Saab’s wickedly anti-establishment 900 Turbo 16S. Yet.

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