Your Cars: Graeme Lambert’s – Saab Turbo’s forced infection

It’s a cliché, but Saab owners are a terribly loyal bunch, often appearing misguided and blinded by their love for the brand. The bug has bitten many, myself included, and no matter what happens with the company’s future you can guarantee it’ll continue biting.

As a 12-year-old petrolhead who had grown-up around a series of Volvos, the announcement that my father fancied a change of brand instilled a sense of brio in me. The prospect of trawling round the local dealer network, scooping up scores of brochures as we went, was one of pure un-rivalled excitement.

It didn’t take long to end up in the Saab dealer, and after examining various 9000 hatchbacks and saloons I sat back thinking my job was done. Until the weekend after when I discovered a sales sheet for a Volvo 460GLEi. Betrayed, there were tears before I informed them they’d made a mistake. Two years later my tantrum was justified, and the ever-troublesome Volvo got the boot, replaced with a black Saab 9000.

It was by no means perfect – early on the DI cassette failed and the tailgate often jammed shut, requiring deft back-seat folding to retrieve the luggage, usually at the most inopportune times. On the occasion that it did open, the gas struts would often cry wolf and the expanse of Swedish metal, glass and rubber would come crashing down on your head.

But it didn’t matter; this car had character and it had got under both my father’s and my skin. It was almost a decade later that I bought my own first car – a comparatively late purchase for a true petrolhead but one ruled by finances and the convenience of inner-city student living. I’d spent much of my final year dreaming, procrastinating and trawling Autotrader for my very own Saab. My peers looked upon me with disbelief (something you get used to as a Saab owner) – after all, not many young men lust after a car more often associated with Werther’s Originals, flat caps and driving gloves.

Forums and club sites duly joined, my hunt ramped up towards graduation and I’d set my search upon a classic Saab 900 – one of the last true Saabs. With insurance likely to be an issue, it was with surprise that I saw myself replying to an email about a full pressure turbo model – or T16 S in Saab-speak. In black, with a rare interior trim and optional red box APC (Automatic Performance Control) endowing it with 185 rather than 175bhp. And so it was I found myself on a train to Inverness one July, brown envelope of cash in my hand, away to pick up my first ever car.

Character, performance and something that bit unusual

At first life was pretty uneventful with the Saab, consisting of some routine servicing and fitting 16inch Carlsson alloy wheels. Initially I refurbished the rims myself, but eventually relented and had the job done properly – one of the best things I ever did, the numerous positive comments far outweighing the bill.

And then it started… things began to go wrong. Yes it was 12 years old, with around 125,000 miles on the clock, but the last thing I expected was for the gearbox to fail. And fail spectacularly, in the South of France, on the way back from the F1 Grand Prix in Monaco, 800 miles from home. Baulking at the thought of having to install a brand new box direct from Saab, the ensuing road-train journey to Paris followed by limping to Calais on limited cogs is one that will stay with my friends and travelling companions for the rest of their lives.

Parts car bought, my Saab specialist installed its working gearbox – the 900 coming back to me with a renewed sense of vigour thanks to the shorter final drive ratio. It was this pick up in performance that was to prove the car’s, and my, downfall.

Modifying is a slippery slope, and here I was stood at the top of a black run with no way back but down. The previously acceptable performance was soon enhanced with a manual boost controller, and the suspension and exhaust replaced. On the rolling road it made an acceptable 220bhp, the tiny Mitsubishi TE05 turbo blowing as hard as it could and it wasn’t long before I took the car on track, and another bug had bitten.

Which is where the gearbox broke… again. It had been a good run though, with only a spectacular blow of the headgasket souring the tour of Britain’s best circuits. And this time, when the box went I was prepared – even if my bank balance wasn’t. As the gearbox is bolted to the bottom of the block, the engine using the casing as its sump, changing it involves removing the whole lot. So it made sense to make the leap off the top of that slope – you know the one that would make this 900 one of the most powerful classic 900s in the country.

The turbo was swapped for a TD04 from a 9000 Aero, a USA spec 2.1-inlet manifold matched to the 2.3 N/A head and the ubiquitous eBay front mount intercooler installed. A swept elbow for the 3inch JT exhaust meant the battery was relocated to the boot and an incredibly rare Abbott Racing EFi ECU installed, along with a modified APC box.

On to the gearbox, and a previously refurbished unit was installed – the straight-cut style whine within a few hundred miles the only sign that the pre-load on the pinion bearings was set too high. Out and in again, this time with a re-inforced steel differential cover, and rebuilt properly, it was time to hit a rolling road. I still remember the day, where I expected around 240bhp, and the screen flashed up with 261bhp (a figure it consistently repeated on other dynos) and 281lb ft, or 380Nm in real money – all thanks to my specialist, Weston Moore at Nottingham Saab.

Impressive figures for what was essentially an engine designed in 1985, and a bodyshell and chassis related to the 1968 Saab 99. It all made for a complete sleeper – sure people expected it to be fast, but not this fast. And the introduction of a Quaife ATB limited slip differential to the long-suffering gearbox meant it could suddenly go round corners better than many of its modern counterparts.

Performance speaks for itself 261bhp and 281lb ft

Then, after nearly seven years, it was time for a change. Much to the disbelief of my family and everyone else who knew me, the car was advertised, and then sold – it was definitely the end of an era.

In my time with the car I’d joined local Saab owners clubs, attended many classic car shows, become the c900 registrar for the SOC, helped organise national events, travelled abroad for international meetings and crucially – made some great friends who I’m proud to know to this day. It was replaced with something much more modern, much faster, much smaller, much more extreme and much less retro. People often ask me if I regret making the change, and to that I simply answer that I have absolutely no regrets – but that doesn’t mean I don’t miss it.

It wasn’t plane sailing, but the taste of Saabs had only just begun

And of course that bug I mentioned earlier? Well I’m well and truly bitten – which might explain why there’s suddenly another black Saab on our drive…

You can follow Graeme here

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3 responses to “Your Cars: Graeme Lambert’s – Saab Turbo’s forced infection

  1. Saab is indeed a difficult bug to rid of, but an early 9-5 will do a pretty good job of putting many a Saab owner behind the wheel of an Audi.

    The classic 900 & 9000 however, are simply amazing cars that ooze charm, quirk and quality!

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