Even by Saab’s standards, the Saab 90 was a bit of an oddball. One part 99, the other part 900, it could almost be described as a ‘cut and shut’. But we're talking about Saab, and Saab didn’t do cut and shuts. Saab had principles and standards – a reputation to uphold.
Take the 9000, developed alongside the Alfa Romeo 164, Lancia Thema and Fiat Croma. The ‘Type 4’ relationship was going well, right up until the point the cars were crash tested, when Saab and the Italians disagreed on how safe the vehicle should be.
What was good enough for the Italians was far from satisfactory for Saab, with the company returning to Sweden to develop a suite of changes designed to make the 9000 more structurally sound and safer.
For Saab, losing money was preferable to building a car that didn’t meet its exacting standards, especially in respect of safety.
Without this background, the Saab 90 could have been viewed as little more than a marketing exercise – a get rich quick scheme designed to eek a few extra Swedish kronor out of an ageing platform.
Make mine a 99
And the Saab 99 was undoubtedly old. The first sketches were drawn in 1964, a full 20 years before the first 90 rolled out of the Uusikaupunki factory in Finland.
Design and development of the Saab 99 – or Project Gudmund – consumed 400,000 engineering man-hours before the first car was unveiled in Stockholm in 1968. In the same year, cars were loaned to Swedish people for up to six months for evaluation purposes, with their feedback used to refine the final production model.
By the time series production had started in autumn 1968, the 99 had been subjected to a rigorous testing regime, with Saab hellbent on building a car that was better, stronger and could last longer than the competition.
The 99 wasn’t a status symbol or a fashion statement: Saab designed a car that majored on common sense and practicality. Indeed, were it not for the Turbo – introduced in 1977 as a 1978 model year car – the 99 name might have faded to grey, with barely a footnote in the Big Book of Motoring History.
The Turbo gave the 99 and Saab a new lease of life. It was like giving amphetamine to your aunt Mavis – who hadn’t walked without a stick for nine years – and watching her run across the living room carpet faster than Linda Haglund in a 100-metre sprint.
In the same way four-wheel-drive transformed the fortunes of Audi, turbocharging sent Saab on a new trajectory. In 1980, every fourth Saab exported was a Turbo. Over in the U.S., the Turbo share was 33 percent; West Germany 44 percent; Great Britain 20 percent; and Italy 90 percent.
But turbocharging could only do so much, and in 1984, the time had run out for the ageing 99. By this time, the 900 had been on sale four years, and the new 9000 was readying itself for an assault on the executive sector.
It left Saab without an entry-level model. Sales of the Delta-based Saab-Lancia 600 were restricted to Sweden, and a rebadged Lancia with a new heater wouldn’t have cut it as an export model. Saab’s decision to build the 90 was unconventional, but not without merit.
The Saab 99 was a good but elderly car. The 900 was a significant improvement, but also bigger and heavier. Combining the two could create the best of both worlds. Or, to look at it another way, it could result in a compromised solution.
Saab 90: flying tonight?
Saab took the plunge, with the first Finnish-built 90 arriving in 1984. “A direct descendant of the Saab 99,” proclaimed the brochure, before stating:
“We have taken all the characteristics that made the Saab 99 so popular and refined them. The result is the Saab 90: an extremely safe and well-built car that won’t disappoint you even under the most demanding driving conditions.”
Of course, Saab’s aeronautical past was never far from the surface, with the brochure going on to claim: “If you drive a Saab 90, you’re off to a flying start…”
Not that the average Saab 90 driver was going to be engaging in any flying starts away from the traffic lights. Power was sourced from a 2.0-litre carburettor engine developing 100hp, which meant the 90 was far removed from Saab’s turbocharged models. If only Saab had built a 90 Turbo…
It was by far the cheapest model in the Saab range, with one price list showing a cost of £7,195 for the five-speed Saab 90 – £550 less than the lowest-priced 900. It’s interesting to note that this carburettored 900 featured a four-speed gearbox – you’d need to spend an extra £520 for the five-speed.
The level of equipment was generous: standard kit included a heated driver’s seat, remote door mirrors, a folding rear seat, all-round disc brakes, velour upholstery and a brilliant headlight wash-wipe system. The 90 also premiered two new colours: Rose Quartz and Cochineal.
For Saab’s typically loyal customers, the message was clear: here is a new car that retains the familiar look of the 99, but benefits from the improved rear seat accommodation and the increased boot capacity of that new-fangled 900.
ABBA meets Roxette
Time has been kind to the styling, but it looked a little strange in the mid-80s. The short and stubby front of the 99 fused with the rear of the 900 saloon – it was like seeing two eras of Saab’s history merging into one.
The front half ABBA and the back half Roxette, although a 100hp Saab saloon was never going to offer anything akin to a Joyride.
But who cares that the Saab 90 was more comfort than joy? There were no short measures on the inside, with a cabin that looks comfortable and inviting, even today. Almost everything inside is covered in fabric, creating an ambience that only the Swedes can deliver.
By the time the last Saab 90 rolled out of the factory in 1987, just 25,378 had been sold. Even if Saab had invested more time and money in marketing it to a broader audience, it’s hard to imagine sales would have been any higher.
For Saab, it was a problem child: harder and therefore more expensive to build than the 900, and seemingly at odds with the brand’s desire to move further upmarket. The 90 never made it out of Europe, which is in part why it’s almost been forgotten.
The Saab-loving folk who bought them new have probably passed away, leaving the 90 to spiral into the abyss, its descent unchecked by all but the most loyal of Saab fans. Although How Many Left? isn’t necessarily 100 percent accurate, there are thought to be 12 Saab 90s on the road and a further 28 registered as SORN.
The least popular Saab?
It deserves so much better. Even a site dedicated to the Saab 90 declares it to be “the least popular car Saab ever made”. Harsh, perhaps, but entirely justified.
If nothing else, nobody could have done a cut and shut quite like Saab. You just know that the engineers would have put as much effort into the 90 as they did the more familiar cars to wear the Griffin. Making a profit was never a Saab strong point.
Perhaps 90 was the wrong name. It gives it the feel of something that is 10 percent as good as the 900 and not quite as polished as the 99. As a car that was half 99 and half 900, maybe it should have been called the 499.5. Or perhaps even the 999. What's Swedish for mongrel?
It isn’t quite time to dial 999 with an SOS call, but the Saab 90 is living on borrowed time. Listen to your heart and take a chance on this super trouper. One of us ought to do it.
Saab 99 information thanks to the excellent The Saab Way, by Gunnar A Sjögren.