Saab is in a bit of trouble again. Can’t seem to pay its way. Yet it is one make of car for which drivers feel affection. It forged relationships with journalists through events that involved lots of driving. In 1985 Ray Hutton, then editor of Autocar and I did more than 1000 miles in a few days. Best of luck Saab. It deserves better.
Saabscene was Saab GB’s magazine in 1985One of the few disadvantages attached being a relatively small manufacturer is that new car launches are few and far A between. As is common knowledge, the, Saab 9000 is the company’s first all new model for 17 years.
The larger manufacturers have not only infinitely greater financial resources but also the ability to draw together a larger demonstration fleet. For this reason, Saab has to make the most of every opportunity to present its developments to the press in the most attractive and imaginative manner possible. It has done this to remarkably good effect.
Leningrad, Baja California, Prague and most recently, the North Cape are four of the fascinating destinations chosen by Saab Scania to demonstrate Saab’s durability, roadholding or innovative design to the world’s press. But it’s not just a question of choosing an exciting location for a launch; a comprehensive itinerary to provide the journalists with a thorough examination of the car is essential.
We reproduce here, by courtesy of Fast Lane, Eric Dymock’s impressions of the 9000 Turbo 16 en route to the North Cape. [Saabscene] Saab’s 9000, due in the UK in October, proved to be the ideal transport for Eric Dymock’s foray north of the Arctic Circle. Fast Lane
Spain or the Seychelles are all very well, but you can’t expect people to be surprised any more. These days everybody’s been to Spain or the Seychelles, but say you’ve been fishing in the Arctic and see what happens. No need to waitfor a gap in the conversation. Just say, “Look here, I’ve just been fishing in the Arctic.”
You can’t beat it. Spain and the Seychelles become boring. You don’t even need to brandish holiday snaps. In fact better forget about holiday snaps because the place is about as photogenic as the Falkland Islands unless you actually like brown (earth), white (snow) and grey (sea and sky).
It is also not much use holding up a picture and saying you shot this at lam. Everybody knows about the midnight sun. Much better to tell about having dinner with Erik Carlsson one night and finding it broad daylight outside. “Ah well,” says Erik, “we’ll just have to keep drinking till it gets dark.”
Which is about September.
Erik Carlsson of course can mean only one car — Saab. And it was to show how good the Saab 9000 is for long, fast, tough drives that they hit on going to the ends of the earth. It is about the latitude of Alaska and Siberia, and well north of the Arctic Circle, making Iceland look almost tropical. It is fortunately milder than Alaska and Siberia on account of the Gulf Stream which one would have thought had lost most of its warmth by there but apparently not.
Further north you cannot go, in Europe at any rate, without falling over the edge. North Cape is a sheer 307 metres into if not quite the abyss that used to so worry ancient man, at least into the Arctic Ocean which must be about as inhospitable, Gulf Stream or no Gulf Stream.
We flew on a scheduled airline to Helsinki then by private charter to Rovaniemi, smack on the Arctic Circle. From there we set off in Saab 9000s across into the northern part of Norway and up to North Cape, some 350 miles further towards the Pole as a very frostbitten crow would fly, or about 550 miles the pretty way.
I must say I expected dirt roads, I suppose something like a gigantic Kielder Special stage, but for the most part the surf aces were quite splendid. They were tarmac, except where the ravages of winter were being repaired, and virtually free of traffic. You had to watch out for the occasional elk; one traffic injury in six in Scandinavia is caused by wandering animals and when they are elk-sized you have to take them seriously.
As we forged north through drenching rain, mild summer sunshine, high snow banks, and chill Arctic night, the forests thinned out. It was like going beyond the snow-line part-way up Everest. (This is a bit of artistic licence: I’ve never been part-way up Everest). Actually the trees get smaller before they disappear altogether, more like scraggy stunted broomsticks about two feet tall.
Up on North Cape itself it is scaly bare rock and except for the snow looks rather like the surface of the moon. I haven’t been on the moon either; it is what I imagine it would look like. Neil Armstrong driving the lunar rover would hardly have come as a surprise.
There are some cars that exactly fit the job in hand. I remember years ago Joe Lowrey, a distinguished Technical Editor of Motor, said of the Panhard 24CT that if he lived at one end of the Ml and had to commute to the other he could think of no better car. It had good aerodynamics, high gearing, and a very economical 848cc flat twin engine. He also said he could think of no other circumstances whatsoever in which he would like to drive or own one.
The Lunar Rover must be a bit like that: fine on the moon but not much use anywhere else. Now the Saab, for this journey was sensationally good. It is one of these cars which, when the going gets a bit rough and tumble, or the surfaces deteriorate, or the weather
closes in, or the going gets slippery you feel, “Never mind. This thing won’t let you down. It’s not going to stop out here miles from anywhere. It’ll cope with anything and it won’t need any special skill to get out of trouble. And my goodness, isn’t it FAST.”
Driving very quickly indeed over these empty roads in Europe’s last great wilderness the turbo never got much of a chance to slow down, so the huge reservoir of power at the top end of the rev range was always in use; great long surges of speed in fourth and fifth taking you up to the maximum of over 22Okph (137mph) with great swiftness. How very satisfactory to find a car so ideally suited to the grand tour; I can think of almost nothing that could do this sort of job better, a true road car with 61 per cent of the weight in the front. It is beautifully stable, with little body roll and that wheel-at-each-corner feel that suggests a car developed by a driver such as Erik Carlsson, rather than one churned out by the cost accountants. You lope along and come to an. unmade stretch, slackening speed only a little, confident in the knowledge that the good ground clearance and the clean underside together with the big wheels and supple springing will all cope. Saab must have learned a lot about making strong cars when Erik was rallying them.
So like Joe Lowrey’s Panhard, the Saab does have one wholly ideal role. And conversely while there is hardly anything about it which is dislikeable, there are some aspects at which the market will look askance. Like most of its forebears for example, it is not a car designed with much of an eye to haute couture. The Swedes are far too practical for that. It has been designed, as you might expect like an aircraft, strictly for practicality, giving aerodynamics their place in the scheme of things but rejecting extreme solutions that get in the way of really important considerations such as seeing out. The 9000 does away with the feeling you get in the 90 or 900 of looking out through a letter- box slot.
However the result is a rather anonymous shape, which lacks the striking dignity of the new Mercedes-Benz 200-300 or the feline grace of the Jaguar. How often one has to compare any car in this class with these two bench-marks of automotive excellence. The Saab does look good from some angles, but by and large it does not appear distinguished.
Saab is fond of pointing out that it is a large car by the American Environmental Protection Agency’s standards of measurement. Subjectively it feels spacious enough in the front although the back seat cushion falls a bit short of a size suitable for lounging. Perhaps it helps the measurement from back cushion to front seat-back to have it like that.
The sweep of the broad, flat facia panel, curving into the central console is less successful aesthetically than the superb arrangement of the 900 with its splendid aircraft-style instruments grouped carefully according to function. That surely was one of the best-designed layouts ever. The 9000 has rather a lot of black with nothing to fill the space; if they didn’t surrender to the stylists outside it is surprising to find they have done
so inside. They have also given in to idiot American owners who became tired of instructing parking attendants in the mysteries of the Saab ignition key which locked the car in reverse. This highly effective thief deterrent has now been abandoned in favour of a conventional steering column lock which can be unpicked by any competent thief in about thirty seconds.
It is hardly relevant to discuss how close or how distant a relative of the Lancia Thema and the Fiat and Alfa Romeo Type Fours the Saab 9000 is. It is distinctively hallmarked as a Saab which is what was intended even though the differences of opinion between the engineers on what constituted a Saab and what Lancia turned out wider than anyone thought when the co-operative venture was conceived in the mid-Seventies.
Long-haul fast driving with the turbo boost well up much of the time is thirsty work for a 16-valve 2-litre. Just as well that the intercooler is reducing the temperature of the ingoing charge, really. Besides getting more oxygen in you can’t help feeling it must help prevent the whole lot melting down into one glowing incandescent mass.
Fuel consumption for nine cars over 550 miles averaged out at 22.3mpg, one pussyfooter getting 31.0 and a couple of hooligans around 17 and I refuse to be drawn on their identity. [This was Ray Hutton and me]
Taking fish from the Arctic can hardly be described as exciting sport, most of the cod etc seeming only too pleased to come up into the comparative warmth even if their eyes bulged a bit when you took the hooks out. Fighting denizens of the deep kept clear of the small group of hacks dangling their lines from the twin-hulled diesel Saab had thoughtfully arranged to take us to the northernmost tip of the Continent.
You can’t help thinking that what with no frozen lakes in June, real trees that grow real leaves, no elks and hardly a trace of snow, Britain is, as any meteorologist worth his isobars will tell you, comparatively mild.