By on May 26, 2020

1986 Saab 900S in Arizona junkyard, LH front view - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe original Saab 900 was a favorite of Colorado car shoppers during its 1979-1994 sales run, and I still see many of these cars during research expeditions to my local yards. So many, in fact, that I neglect to photograph most of them.

When I visited some of Phoenix’s excellent yards while on my way to work at the final 24 Hours of Lemons race before the Covid-19 menace shut down such gatherings, though, I spotted this ’86 900S and realized I need to document more of these interesting machines.

1986 Saab 900S in Arizona junkyard, engine - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe 1986 900 S came standard with a naturally-aspirated, four-valves-per-cylinder engine displacing 2.0 liters and generating 125 horsepower. If you go back far enough in this engine’s ancestry, you’ll find the Triumph Slant-Four as its grandfather. That makes the Saab 900 first cousin to the Triumph TR7.

1986 Saab 900S in Arizona junkyard, decklid badge - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe 900 S came between the entry-level 900 and the factory-hot-rod 900 Turbo on the Saab Prestige-O-Meter, with the 900 S sedan starting at $16,295 that year (about $38,120 in 2020 dollars). The ordinary 900 sedan went for $12,685; you couldn’t get a 900 Turbo sedan, but the three-door hatchback started at $18,695.

1986 Saab 900S in Arizona junkyard, speedometer - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsNot many miles on the odometer for a 34-year-old car.

The 24 Hours of Lemons race that weekend had a Saab 900 Turbo team, which sent a representative to the junkyard (several hours away from Inde Motorsports Ranch, located near the New Mexico border) in order to harvest some much-needed parts of today’s Junkyard Find. That’s a numbers-matching Saab 35 Draken in the background, by the way (though the original “Born From Jets” Saab — regardless of whether you’re talking about the car or the airplane— wasn’t quite as slick-looking as the Draken).

1986 Saab 900S in Arizona junkyard, interior - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsI’ll need to follow this up with a Saab 9-3 in the near future, and perhaps a few more discarded 9000s.

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45 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1986 Saab 900 S Sedan...”

  • avatar
    Roberto Esponja

    Brace yourselves…deluge of comments about how wonderful and perfect Saabs were before GM ruined them, about to start.

    • 0 avatar

      They were actually pretty wonderful back in the day, and GM did ruin the brand.

      • 0 avatar

        I think economics ruined the brand as much as GM did. These were expensive to produce and the brand survived for as long as it did by being better quality than the relative junk out there in the mass market. That used to be something special, but as the quality in the mass market gradually improved, Saab slowly got edged out of its market share. Almost the same kind of thing happened to Volvo about twenty years ago- its place in the market was always a high~ish end, semi-luxury car too, but in the late 1990s and early 2000s the line evolved into something wasn’t all that special anymore (or rather the market evolved in a way that made the product line less special).

        • 0 avatar

          Volvo was all about safety. If every car is as safe as a Volvo – which generally, they are – why buy a Volvo?

          • 0 avatar

            Volvos weren’t *all* about safety. True, for many owners they were and for most people who didn’t buy them or drive them they were.

            But to a lot of us they were also
            Long life engine and transmission
            Engineering (overhead cam engine, fuel injection, four wheel disc brakes, front and rear sway bars and panhard rod when a lot of mass market cars still had leaf springs and carbs and rear drums)
            The seats- they really were that good compared to the competition
            Some of us actually liked the boxy, utilitarian styling because it meant a small car with adult-sized headroom in the back seat

            A lot of these same things were the same things that appealed strongly to Saab people.

            There are pluses and minuses to all of the different things in a car but different things appeal to different people. What’s better for me isn’t what’s better for the next guy, but that doesn’t make either of us right or wrong about the other person’s choices.

            I’m not disagreeing with you, just pointing out that there was a lot more to it than only “Saab sporty, Volvo safe, both last long, both snob appeal.”

      • 0 avatar

        Mike, look at the Saab 9000 (the last vehicle from independent Saab), and explain what would have been done differently when it came time for the NG900 or the 9-5? The 9-7x was an abomination (albeit a powerful one in Aero trim), and the 9-2x probably shouldn’t have existed, but I think all GM did was put the brand on life support.

        Ironically, if they could have stretched it out another 10 years, and if the 9-4x succeeded, Saab would be where the rest of the luxury market ended up today.

        • 0 avatar

          What’s really interesting is how many other luxury brands ended up making small practical but premium cars with 2-liter turbo 4s. And many of them FWD-based. That was pretty much Saab’s MO.

          The SRX was… just okay. Overweight, and the 9-4x was even heavier. I think it could have been a useful car in the lineup, but it was not at all efficient and that was part of the Saab formula.

    • 0 avatar

      The story I heard was that when Jack Smith was running GM Europe he hooked up with an admin (who later became his 2nd wife) and after getting transferred back to the states and becoming the major domo, needed a good reason to visit Europe often.
      Strategic acquisition as it were….

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      It was an unprofitable, niche brand before GM. By the time GM acquired them traditional Saabs were a money loosing venture. GM was frankly wise in not allowing Saab to burn up even more money than they did.

      I am no GM fan of that era, but this notion that Saab was chugging along successfully until GM stepped in and screwed it up is idiotic. At that point in Saab’s history, they needed GM’s checkbook.

      • 0 avatar

        Art is correct.

      • 0 avatar

        That’s not entirely true. Saab was very profitable in the ’70s and early ’80s when favorable exchange rates made the margins quite high for both Volvo and Saab. Saab in particular had one of the highest margins in the industry. But Sweden suffered a real estate bubble in the late ’80s that tanked the economy and dinged the Wallenberg family heavily.

        That’s not to say Saab didn’t hurt itself. By investing in capacity instead of modernization and new product, the company was out of step and in massive debt by the time GM came calling.

        The shame, I guess, is that in typical GM fashion the recipe was good but the final product—NG900—was very underbaked.

  • avatar

    The 900/9000 Saabs are favored by a friend. He’s originally from a New England state and has related some histories of the Saab ability to navigate the snowy/icy winters there.
    He likes the turbo versions and knows all the special models. One, IIRC, is the SPG. It has special wheels, more HP, and different suspension settings. Along with different seats and a more deluxe interior.
    He finds examples in relatively good condition, often with a minor dent here and there. Or a easy to repair, for him, mechanical problem. Sometimes he fixes and sells them back East. Where the rust free California cars go at a higher price.
    Some he hangs onto, to drive, or for parts.

  • avatar

    People used to say “Saabism is a sickness”, and truer words have never been spoken.

    There were two kinds of Saabists: salesmen who got endless amounts of speeding tickets (they bought blue or green Saabs, turbo if available), and ultra-conservative, ultra-boring family men (who bought the brown ones, no turbo ever) who always drove below the speed limit.

    Of course, there was also the tiny crowd of Saab 99 Petro drivers. That model used kerosene or turpentine as fuel, and left a delightful odor as it passed by.

  • avatar

    “Not many miles on the odometer for a 34-year-old car.”

    Dateline 1985:

    A Chrysler survey a few years ago found that in the Northeast, a car that was on the road for two years had about a 20 percent chance of having rust perforation, a four-year-old car about a 60 percent chance, and a six-year-old car, 90 percent.

    General Motors is already using the first-ever application of rust-resistant, double-coated galvanized steel on all body panels of the restyled 1986 Cadillac Eldorado and Seville, Buick Riviera, and Oldsmobile Toronado, with perforation warranties up to five years or 60,000 miles.

    You need to check your survivorship bias.

    • 0 avatar

      Jeebus. How could it not have been more economical for everyone to run decent winter tires than to be using all that salt?

      • 0 avatar

        The winter tires at that time bore no relation to the winter tires now, most of them just weren’t that good, though still better than the summer tires at that point. Besides I am sure there was a salt lobby somewhere.

      • 0 avatar

        I agree with Scott – the snow tires in the 1960s were basically truck tire treads. They buzzed on dry pavement, and didn’t grip the road well, but chewed up packed snow.

        When I was a kid (1950s-early 1960s), they used sand. I remember watching a truck with a claw attachment clean the sand out of storm drains and dump the sand and debris into a dump truck, every late Spring. They’d sift the junk out and re-use the sand the next winter.

        A lot of road sand ended up in rivers and bays, but you would think the salt is even worse. Environmentalists, though, apparently prefer the salt. It gets diluted quickly and is a temporary condition, while the sand covers up bay bottoms and riverbeds and smothers flora that exists there at the bottom of the food chain.

        • 0 avatar

          “Environmentalists, though, apparently prefer the salt. It gets diluted quickly and is a temporary condition, while the sand covers up bay bottoms and riverbeds and smothers flora that exists there at the bottom of the food chain.”

          Hmm, I never thought of it that way, but it makes a lot of sense.

          One’s personal politics don’t have to be tree-hugging hippie, freedom-and-gun-loving-hunter-outdoorsman, or any other political vagary to want the food chain to function properly.

  • avatar

    Nice old SAAB. I’ve often wondered why Leyland didn’t plop the Triumph Slant-Four into the MGB instead of messing around with the MGC GT and MGB GT V8. The slant four swap would have been easy peasy lemon squeezy. Hindsight in 2020 I guess.

    • 0 avatar

      @ Pig_Iron – See conundrum’s post below. From what I’ve read (grain of salt), essentially Saab did a better job of developing the engine than did Triumph (eventually British Leyland). Conversely, Rover (eventually British Leyland) did do a good job of developing the Buick-Rover V8. So within the context of their corporate supply chain, the the V8 was the better choice than the slant 4.

      Apparently–please weigh in, actual MG owners–the V8 actually weighed a smidgen less than the regular MGB’s iron B-series I4 and fit actually was OK (see I haven’t scrutinized and MBG GT engine bay in person but the V8 seems to fit far better than, say, the Ford 260 in my late uncle’s Sunbeam Tiger.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes, exactly, Saab’s development of the slant-four was fairly rapid and the engine was quickly quite a lot different than Triumph’s engine.

        The V8 fit just fine in the MG and was actually lighter than the four! And handling was good, too. No downsides except MG never made any of the roadsters that way. I’m guessing engine supply was limited.

        Triumph actually did experiment with the Dolomite Sprint 16V engine—TR7 Sprint—but by the time this was happening, 1977, there was probably no money to make it happen.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    SAAB, drive by Dennis Quaid in ‘Smart People’ and by Jerry Seinfeld in his TV series.In both instances it provides clues into their character.

    Subaru has largely assumed Volvo’s old role in the auto market. Which manufacturer has taken on Saab’s role?

  • avatar

    As a Volovphile, I always thought these were sort of the “we’re not related but we could be” cousins. Four cylinder cars that were comfortable, safe, drove well, and most of all they weren’t built with the intent to provide transportation for about a year or two- before you’d had enough and headed back to the car dealer for the next model up (and start over again with never-ending car payments).

  • avatar

    I picked up a red one, and ’89 4-door S with 108k miles, at Manheim St. Pete for like $900 – a 1-owner car apparently traded in at a Hyundai store by Jewish physician from New Jersey (amazing, I know). Retrofitted the A/C – which this particular car apparently had issues with since it was 8 months old – changed the oil/filter/etc, replaced a marker lamp assembly, and had the piss compounded and buffed out of it. Sold it for like $3200 and I see the car literally. Every. Single. Day.

    The guy’s wife rolled her eyes the entire time and actually simply went home and left him at the lot after he said he was going to drive it a second time. He came back, looked all over for her, then came in my office and said, “Well, I guess I’m buying it.”

    I drove it for a few days before hand. It had a charm but for the same year, I’d much rather my ’89 Electra T-Type. It drives like an actual car versus the SAAB, which drove like some odd Soviet prototype of a people’s car.

  • avatar

    Just like snow skis are fun in the winter, but not really useful the rest of the year, so it is with Saabs.

    OK, my analogy WAY overdoes it.

    Here’s the deal: In the late 1970s, Saabs were well built (nicely finished, richer looking), well designed (unibody, not heavy, good ratio of roominess to exterior size), technologically advanced (Overhead cam, FUEL INJECTION), leading to good performance, room for four, and the ALL IMPORTANT fuel efficient; PLUS, they were front-wheel drive, which was “cool” in the late 1970s.

    My the mid 1980s, gasoline had gotten cheap again. More power was in.

    FWD and more power don’t mix well. Strike one.

    By the mid 1980s, the Saab 900, really a Saab 99 V 2.0, was essentially a late 60s design. Strike two.

    (That Triumph engine in the Saab 99, then 900, predates the 99…)

    The creature comforts, like A/C and power steering and ABS, that were pretty universal on premium cars were more of a cost penalty on smaller Saab, than on larger BMW, Mercedes, VW-Audi, and GM. Strike three.

    Audi evolved with “quattro”. BMW and Mercedes upped their power, and in some applications also offered AWD.

    Saab partnered with Fiat and Lancia on the FWD (again) 9000.

    By the 1990s, FWD was being dissed in the premium segment.

    GM bought Saab with the delusion that it would profit. Saab was stale when GM bought it. A waste of money for GM.

    The final, GM/Epsilon based (that’s Pontiac G6) Saab 9-3 had good dynamics–but wasn’t really a standout, was it? It was a proper G6 with Saabish sheetmetal, and the key on the floor.

    Saab. Textbook example of what happens when a company is unable to adapt.

    • 0 avatar

      Triumph didn’t fit the slant-four into one of their own cars called the Dolomite until 1972. I lived as a car nut grad student in London during that time. Saab had the engine exclusively for the 99 several years before Triumph/BMH got their rear ends in gear. It had some problems as you’d expect of a new British engine that finally ditched pushrods for an overhead cam and which took a good six years to design during extended tea breaks. Probably only two blokes and three draftsmen did it all. Its cousin the V8, two slant-fours in a V, came out in the new Triumph Stag in 1970 and was a complete disaster in the reliability sense. Saab were lucky that the four was much better, but it still was not great.

      Saab took the slant-four engine over to Sweden, redesigned a lot of it and manufactured it themselves well away from Triumph. Just looked it up, it was 1972. Triumph kept making their old one for themselves. By the time the 16 valve Saab engine shown in these Murilee pics was being made, it was a case of another new block and head starting from the early ’80s. Washington’s axe. But like the Lucas electrics legends, people still think it was that Triumph lump in the Saab 900 and 9000. Hell, people still think the current GM small block in aluminum is just a ’55 265/ 283 cast iron boat anchor mildly updated. Triumph themselves ditched their own engine after its inglorious career in the TR7.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      I had actually considered a G-6 retractable drop top because it was Saab Epsilon based and the 3.5 V6 is a decent motor. What made me leery was the quality of retractable mechanicals. I still wouldn’t mind a 9-3 convertible for a weekend cruiser. There’s a fair number of decent ones listed.

      • 0 avatar

        “I still wouldn’t mind a 9-3 convertible for a weekend cruiser.” You’re killing me, MRF 95 T-Bird. :-) An older relative moved into independent living last fall and gave me first right of refusal on her 9-3 Aero covertible. The negatives of taking on ownership very, very slightly outweighed the positives. On two or three nice days this spring, my brother has reminded me, “This would be a really nice day for you to be out for a drive in the Saab.”

        Age/condition/mileage were such that even my cautious, retired-mechanic uncle did not say, “No! Run away!” He said, “Hmm, this is a coin flip. I could give 5-10 years of great use as a summer toy; it could start to bleed you with multiple problems.” The deciding factor was that it had picked up some cosmetic damage that had turned it into a 20-footer. Up through 2018 it had been pristine, and it would’ve been relatively pricey to return it to that standard.

        Scribes were kind of ambivalent about the 9-3 Aero, but from my less jaded perspective it was a very nice car to drive. And at 13 years old, it was stiff and rattle-free over all but the worst pot holes. Closer to one friend’s 986 Boxster than to another friend’s first-gen C70 convertible in that regard.

        • 0 avatar
          MRF 95 T-Bird

          I see decent first-gen C70 convertibles listed for sale in the $1500-4500 range. Fairly inexpensive I know the 850/70 models aren’t as robust as earlier RWD Volvos but a well maintained low mileage one is a nice ride.

          • 0 avatar

            And I should clarify that I like the C70 as well. My friend’s is still going strong at 18 years and about 155,000 miles. He’s owned it since new. Special praise is due to the back seat, which actually seems to have been designed for a 6’0″ Swedish man rather than a Cabbage Patch Doll.

            Beyond the cosmetic damage, the Saab’s orphan brand factor dissuaded me a little bit. A different friend used to have a Peugeot 505. I’d honestly guess she was one of the last dozen people in the US who daily drove one. I enjoyed that challenge from afar but would not have wanted to take part in it.

    • 0 avatar

      The 9-3 is Epsilon, but it ain’t a G6: shorter wheelbase, different engines, different transmissions, different engine management, different suspension, and so on. G6/Aura/Malibu are all very much the same car. But the Saab feels like a different car.

      It wasn’t just FWD that was a problem for Saab. It was turbocharging. Nobody liked the lag, which is why almost every automaker shied away from them for many years. Fuel spikes in 2007 and better engine management tech prompted a return to turbos, and now everyone has a turbocharged FWD four-banger. Saab would have done just fine with FWD and big power if it had been given the resources to design the car properly.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Saab’s end was a true saab story.

  • avatar

    Have always had a soft spot for Saabs. I have a family member that had two of them. One was a 900, and the other was an early 9-3. I wasn’t of driving age then, but I do remember the ignition switch being in the center console area and thinking that was weird (quirky now) along with the significant turbo lag that was noticeable from the passenger seat. I echo some other commentators’ statements about this being a half sibling in a way to Volvo but with Saab being slanted towards sportiness and Volvo more towards safety. In a way, it seems like this is what Mazda is currently trying to do except with the benefit of a better reliability reputation.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Why take the SHO off the table? MSRP was less than the 929 and I’d rather have the SHO than any of these.

  • avatar

    Buy – Maxima. Its tidy and handsome in ways the Maxima never was nor ever would be again, sadly.

    Drive – the 929. Because. Its there.

    Burn – the Taurus. Or really let itself burn.

  • avatar

    I remember every horrible detail about these clunkers. The worst thing GM ever did was draw out Saab’s collapse by a couple of decades.

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