You built a time machine... out of a '74 SAAB wagon?!
September 4, 2010 5:36 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering going back to the good old days, when cars were simple and could be easily repaired by a competent home mechanic with basic tools. Problem is, I'm a SAAB junkie and the particular older car I'm considering (the 1970's era 95 wagon with the V4 Ford engine) is rare & quirky. Am I crazy to be considering a rare Swedish antique for basic transportation? Do I have the right idea but the wrong car? Help me, MeFi greasemonkeys!

I grew up in SAAB's - I was driven around in 96's, 99's and 900's as a kid. Later, I drove a 99 and a 900T in college; the solid winter handling hooked me. Lately, we've driven 9000's and love them, though the model is getting old. We recently bought a 2000 9-5 wagon to replace our aging 9000.

That's where the problems really started. GM has badly cluttered up an already tight engine compartment. I'm a capable mechanic; the 9-5 makes everything harder to do than it was on the 9000. The repairs are getting more expensive, and they're frequently electronic faults I can't diagnose even with OBD, so I have to pay the spendy specialist mechanics to do the work more than I used to.

The combination of a car loan plus frequent, expensive repairs makes the 9-5 much worse, economically, than the 9000. I have more time than money, and I'm a Luddite at heart anyway. I want out.

Here's what I want in my next car:
  • A spacious engine compartment where it's not hard to see what you're doing and reach it.
  • Little or no electronics
  • Ditto for complicated vacuum systems like the mid-80's Honda & Toyota cars I briefly toyed with
  • Inexpensive parts
  • Room for our family of 5 plus groceries or camping gear; additional seating for transporting an occasional friend would be nice.
  • Outstanding snow handling - we live in Colorado and like to go into the (not I-70) mountains in the winter. RWD American cars from long ago will not do.
  • Decent gas mileage. It's 2010, I would really like to get 30mpg.
  • I can admit that there's some sentimental value in sticking with the SAAB family tradition, but I'm willing to give that up if you have a better option.
Here's why I think the 95 wagon is the right vehicle:
  • Generous engine compartment and none of that confusing electronic/vacuum stuff = easy to work on and less to break to begin with
  • Ok, some parts will be expensive - but it's a Ford engine, that should help, right? And it's not like it could be that much worse than the 9000 and GM-era 9-5.
  • Seats 5, or 7 with the 3rd-row seat deployed.
  • Based on the 96 coupe, which was a successful rally car and a great choice for ice racing, too. Supposed to be fabulous in snow.
  • 30mpg in the V4 model, which doesn't pollute as badly as the 2-stroke versions
We'd probably keep our 9000 for highway trips and use the 70's car for daily commuting, winter excursions, etc. Having two cars also allows us to drive the other one when one is being repaired - we hardly ever really need 2 cars in any given day.

So here are the questions, finally: If any of you are familiar with old V4 SAAB's, what do you think of the 95 V-4 as a daily driver? If you've got an alternate suggestion for a cheap, simple, 5-seater that's good in the snow, tell me about it. And if you think there are compelling reasons to abandon this whole idea, what are they? Thanks in advance, and sorry for the tl;dr explanation.
posted by richyoung to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This is a very specific question about a pretty rare car, you'd probably do better to find a Saab board. Neat looking car BTW.
posted by doctor_negative at 5:53 PM on September 4, 2010

I know nothing about this particular car, but you should really ponder whether a 35 year old car is appropriate as a daily driver for the whole family in terms of reliability and safety. Sure, you can fix anything that may go wrong with the car. But you may also be doing that a lot more frequently than you'd like. Also, the safety features in this car are not at all comparable to modern cars.

As an alternative, how about getting more acquainted with the electronics in modern cars? I don't know about Saab, but Volkswagens have relatively cheap diagnostic tools available to the backyard mechanic (See VCDS) that plug in to the OBDII port and give you very specific information on each module, way beyond the standard OBDII output. Perhaps there is one for Saabs as well.
posted by dudeman at 6:08 PM on September 4, 2010

The two big issues are safety and pollution. Modern cars are ten times better on both scores. If you just want a hobby car, that is one thing, but if this is a regularly used family car, that is something else.
posted by JackFlash at 6:20 PM on September 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Why? For the money, time, and energy you'll put into keeping that thing on the road as an antique, you could buy a decent, late-model Honda or Toyota that will give you tens of thousands of trouble free, low pollution, safe miles?

The idea itself makes no sense except as a personal folly. You don't need to know how to work on the inner workings of most modern cars because they don't need to be worked on nearly as much. But if you want to, there is plenty you *can* learn to do to keep your late-model car in decent running shape. Changing belts, brakes, filters, and fluids (and maybe a clutch) is all you really need to do on a Honda or Toyota or Mazda with fewer than 100K miles on it that's been well maintained. Maybe the occasional timing belt or oxygen sensor. None of this depends on knowing the electronics in detail, or getting the engine block or transmission opened up.

Admit it, you just want the old car for the joy of it. I can relate. I spent many happy hours trying to make my cars run back when I was young and poor and a little more stupid.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:34 PM on September 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I confess to knowing nothing about cars, but I grew up in a Saab family as well (and I've sadly seen my mother deal with the mess that GM made). One thing my parents instilled in me when we bought my first car ('89 Saab 900) was that the reliable way to go was to find a Saab that had only one owner, and preferably one being sold by someone who was buying a newer Saab because true Saab lovers take care of their cars. However, if you find a 35-year-old Saab that's only had one owner, odds are it has seen it's day and they are parting with it because it's started having serious problems. (I may stand corrected if you find someone who has to move cross country and just can't deal with taking the car.) Again, knowing nothing about cars, you might try a older Volvo. My recollection from when we were shopping for my Saab was that Volvos were similarly reliable and very sturdy. But maybe that was a family bias for Swedish cars (despite having no family ties to Sweden).
posted by Terriniski at 6:36 PM on September 4, 2010

Seconding JackFlash. Modern vehicles help you avoid accidents, and keep you safer when they do happen (beyond airbags, think high-strength steel and computer-aided designs). They also pollute the air less. While I know know nothing about Saab V4s, as a daily driver for a family I would vote no.
posted by pmurray63 at 6:43 PM on September 4, 2010

Modern cars are not that hard to work on. Yes there are lots of electronics that just a black box to the home mechanic (or really anything but factory techs) but all that electronic wizardry makes the car much more reliable and so you don't need to work on them as much. For what you want I would get the last generation Subaru. They are fairly reliable, engine compartments are large enough to work on the car and lots and lots of aftermarket support. All are AWD and have tires in common sizes to get good snow tires in. Lots have been made and sold over the years so you should be able to find one in good shape and lots will appear in junkyards from wrecks and what not-and all that electronic wizardry lasts pretty good in junk yards and parts are cheap.

A good scan tool is under 100 dollars and with that the computer will tell you what needs fixing or at least where the problem is.

Modern cars don't have a lot of the old stuff that is hell to maintain at peak efficiency-like points, carburetors and push rod valve trains that need adjusting every 5k. And this is why they make incredible power for such small displacement and great gas mileage while lasting 200k or more with just regular maintenance-like oil changes and air filters, with the occasional new timing belt and water pump. You would have to do all that and a tune up every 5k with new points and maybe even a valve job and lucky to get 100k out of it, and maybe a new differential or such in there. So don't be too intimidated by the new cars. I learned how to work on cars starting with a 62 corvair (which is about as high maintenance simple old tech as you can get) and have move up to swearing I will never own a car without fuel injection or electronic ignition.
posted by bartonlong at 6:46 PM on September 4, 2010

Am I crazy to be considering a rare Swedish antique for basic transportation?

Yes. Seriously, I didn't even read past that sentence. As someone who drives a rare Swedish antique for basic transportation, the answer is: YES.

I have a 1986 Saab 9000, which I cannot afford to repair, as my sole means of transportation. That's bad enough. The thought of driving an OLDER one literally gives me the shudders.

Get something contemporary, efficient, and safe to drive your family around in. Then buy this wacky-ass old car that you've fallen in love with, and use it as your personal car. And don't forget to keep your AAA membership renewed, of course!
posted by ErikaB at 6:47 PM on September 4, 2010

Please reconsider doing this. The 95 lacks basic safety features taken for granted on all modern cars, like airbags, seatbelt pretensioners, crumple zones and front disc brakes. The idea of driving a family around in this car on roads filled with heavy SUVs is frankly a little scary.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 6:53 PM on September 4, 2010

With cars, the good old days are now. There is something to be said for driving a car you can work on yourself. But generally, owning any car that old will pretty much be a guarantee that you will be working on it yourself. Much more regularly than a modern car. Almost any modern car, across the board.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:40 PM on September 4, 2010

Best answer: I owned a '71 V4 96 for 12 years and I just junked it last fall. Here's what I can tell you.

* A spacious engine compartment where it's not hard to see what you're doing and reach it.
Yes, the 70s era 95/96 has a nice compartment to get around in. I did some wrenching myself, and hung around with people who did more than I did, and in general it's pretty well set up. You'll run across the odd element that will drive you crazy trying to access, but no more than most other cars of the era.

* Little or no electronics
Fuses and an updated stereo were about the most complicated things I ran into electronically.

* Inexpensive parts
Parts were generally findable and not crazy expensive. I believe the '74 had the Ford-based engine so that helps accessibility because there are some parts crossovers. was invaluable for sourcing parts and getting advice. I highly recommend the folks there.

* Room for our family of 5 plus groceries or camping gear; additional seating...would be nice.
The 96 would not fit 5 adults comfortably. Two adults and three kids, maaaybe (depends how old/tall/big). The 95 is simply the 96 as a wagon, so I don't think you get much more passenger space with it. That said, I did know a couple families with 95s. The kids were 10 and under, so that could work. Go for the 95 if you want more cargo room. One thing the '70s 95/96 does not have is comfort. I drove mine as a daily driver for about 4 years and it was a total wild-at-heart, kick-ass, that's-right-mother-f***er-you-better-believe-it ride, but it was not comfortable. I wore earplugs for my highway commute. I sewed new seat cover cushions to prevent springs from poking me and foam from escaping. I considered using insulation foam in the engine well and doors to improve "cabin comfort." Not a cushy ride, but a ride that lets you know you're alive.

* Outstanding snow handling
I really enjoyed mine in the snow, but more for play than serious hauling. It's a light car, and has good handling, and with the right set of tires is a ton of fun. I would *not* equate it to today's AWD or 4WD vehicles, though, in terms of safety. If you like a car with some movement in the rear end (and I did), then go for it. I think some people added anti-sway bars but I could be misremembering that. Note: one other reason I liked my 96 in the snow is that I was pretty sure it wouldn't threaten to overheat, like it did on many summer days.

* Decent gas mileage. It's 2010, I would really like to get 30mpg.
I didn't keep mine ultra-tuned, but I was never able to get more than about 16-20 mpg. I also struggled with emissions. The car was grandfathered in and so I had lower standards to meet, but I didn't feel great about that. If I had decided to keep it, I would really have had to address these two things from a cost-benefit point of view. But, as a New England car, it was really rusty and at a certain point any mods/improvements were just wishful thinking.

* I can admit that there's some sentimental value in sticking with the SAAB family tradition, but I'm willing to give that up if you have a better option.
I think most of the VSaabers who (sadly) gave up their 95/96s opted for the 99 or 900 (or a brand new Subaru). If you're willing to go old but don't think the V4 will work for you, I'd look to one of those as another option. Personally I'd go for a Subaru. I replaced my Saab 96 & Honda Insight tag team with a Volvo V70R which is fun and nice powerful, but not the same. And it has needed more, and more expensive, maintenance than the 96 and the Insight put together. Go figure.

I see a couple people have mentioned safety. Though the Saab 96 doesn't have auto-locking seat belts or airbags, it does have a heavy gauge steel shell that was designed and built to handle impact in a way that today's cars are not. These examples from 1967 come from The Saab Network (TSN):
Thirty SAABs, being transported to this country from Sweden, were stored in the hold of a ship which encountered a major storm in the Atlantic, with winds in excess of gale force whipping waves to fortyand fifty-foot heights. As the waves thundered against the ship, the lashings securing the thirty automobiles were snapped and, to coin a phrase, all SAABs broke loose. To quote the captain of the vessel, "The cars bounced around the hold like ping pong balls in a cage."

When the cars were finally unloaded from the ship in New Haven, Conn., there was a curious reaction among many of those at the SAAB headquarters in the United States. We were sad at having lost 30 fine automobiles, but the sadness was tinged with pride-because not one of the 30 cars had its passenger compartment crushed. After being tossed around for hours, one car on top of another, not one SAAB had its roof penetrated or its doors buckled.

Another instance of SAAB durability occurred during a competition endurance race in Canada. A SAAB traveling at about 75 miles per hour encountered another car which had slowed suddenly. Seeking to avoid a collision, the SAAB swerved from its course and as a result turned two end-to-end somersaults and ended its forward momentum with five barrel rolls. The driver then unfas- tened his harness and crawled out of the car, which was lying on its side, through the windshield. (The windshield had popped out on the first som'ersault as it had been designed to do.) Although this crash involved speeds and stresses of far greater proportions than would normally be encountered in a "routine" highway accident, the main structure of the car had suffered no basic deformation and after five rolls the roof had not collapsed.
YMMV. Feel free to MeMail me if you have other questions, but I really recommend the VSaab list for more knowledgeable wrenchers. Skål!
posted by cocoagirl at 8:00 PM on September 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Beware. My V4-powered 1973 96 chewed through two transmissions before I finally bid it goodbye. I was told by an old Saab-master in Jonesboro, TN (hi Ken!) that the tranny was built to be attached to the 2-stroke three-cylinder engine that the 9x series was originally equipped with; the Ford engine in the later models was too powerful for the rest of the drivetrain. The last rebuilt transmission I bought cost over $1k, and that was when Bush I was still president. Great car though- built like a tank and with that heavy engine right over the front drive wheels I could have used it for a snowplow- I've had to restrain myself from getting another via eBay.
posted by squalor at 8:41 PM on September 4, 2010

Best answer: Oh, good choice! The 95 is my favorite car ever. I drive an '88 900S now days, but the first car I ever drove was my Dad's car, a 1970 95 V4. That was his regular car until four years ago, so I don't think you're out of line for seriously considering getting one. There are a few caveats though, which I'll get to in a minute....But first, let me tell you this story: My pops loved his 95, it was gorgeous and he kept it running for years on his own, with occasional professional intervention. My folks purchased the car when they were traveling in Sweden for their honeymoon and had it shipped back to the states. Both my sibling and I were brought home from the hospital in that car. We took it camping, skiing, everywhere.

It ran up until the very end, when it saved my Dad's life. One evening on his way home from work, a large vehicle ran a stop sign at 45 miles an hour and directly T-boned my Dad on the DRIVERS side. Dad's car flew through the air and rolled three or four times. My dad walked away with a scratch and a stiff back. The other large, american car was totaled. When I got to the crash scene later, the emergency crew was amazed at how the car had held up and prevented major injury and informed me that the frame had saved my dad's life. The car, while "totaled" by insurance, is in relatively good shape, though currently undriveable. Those cars are as safe as a mother-f*cker in a crash.

I will say you may have a good deal of trouble tracking down a decent 95. My pop has been having trouble finding a replacement frame and parts donor for his. You can get certain parts easily, the web really helps, since years are interchangeable, but a excellent running 95 is essentially a collectors item, and people who love them are not keen to part with them. ALSO: When I drove the 95 gas mileage was about 20-25 mpg. This was the about the same for the '68 96 V4 I owned (and drove through blizzards!) when I lived overseas. The 95 by today's standards is a pretty small car. It will not fit 5. When I was a kid it fit 2 adults, 2 kids, minimalist camping gear and it was comically packed. It only fit 7 if five of those people were children.

I know it doesn't meet all of the needs you outlined, but what about the 95/96 heir, a late-80's 900? They handle similarly, are equally great in snow, a little roomier and can seat 5. I have a 3-door, similar to the 95, and I'm able to haul quite a bit of gear or four adult friends with ease. Mileage is about 30 on the highway and I do about half the work on it myself with some fatherly assistance. I would recommend a 80's era 900 over a 95. Feel free to memail me if you have any more questions.
posted by Maude_the_destroyer at 9:27 PM on September 4, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone.

If I do this, I'll be keeping our 1993 9000 for highway driving (airbags, antilock brakes, tcs, etc., etc.) so the safety issue is not the deciding factor.

While y'all didn't decide for me, I think you helped me clarify the issues I need to think about before making a decision. Especially fourcheesemac, who asked the important question that I'm likely to hear from my wife, basically: "Why not just get a Camry?" I'm not sure I have an adequate answer.

Special thanks to cocoagirl, maude & squalor for providing firsthand V4 SAAB experience. I'll drop you guys a line if I end up buying one.
posted by richyoung at 9:31 PM on September 4, 2010

Rule of thumb: the easier something is to work on, the more often you will have to work on it.
posted by gjc at 5:42 AM on September 5, 2010

Best answer: I think everybody's advice here is sound -- modern cars are safer, cleaner, and more reliable. But you're never going to love that Toyota Camry. You'll also never hate it, or be passionate about it in any way. You want that Saab, and it will have meaning to you in a way that a soulless modern car never will. Do you get satisfaction from maintaining an antique? I think the question is, do you want to make an emotional investment in a vehicle, or just have something that gets you from A to B? And that's a question only you can answer.
The other point I'd like to raise is that while a modern car doesn't pollute as much, buying one means that you are consuming a bunch of resources. Buying a used car and maintaining it so it lasts means that consumption doesn't happen as often. If you don't drive much, then I think there's a good environmental argument for keeping a beater.
posted by Killick at 6:30 AM on September 5, 2010

Agree with most comments above. Wish I still had my '72 saab 96, at least to play with! But at least here in the suburbs of Boston drivers seem notably more aggressive than 30 + years ago, and the vehicles on average are heavier and more powerful. Way back then, the 65hp in the 96 was barely adequate; now the lethargic acceleration would be a safety issue. FYI - I drive a 2002 saab 9-3 turbo and really appreciate the acceleration reserve as an SUV defense. Maybe in a quaint Vermont village, where everyone is friendly and drives an old Volvo ...
posted by Kevin S at 7:39 AM on September 5, 2010

Response by poster: It's not Vermont, but we live in Fort Colilns, CO, which was recently named one of the safest driving cities in the USA by Allstate. So I don't have to deal with the infamous Boston drivers I remember from visits to my grandfather in Braintree, thank god.

gjc's rule of thumb was clearly written by somebody who never owned a Saab 9-5. It's a royal pain to work on, but it breaks a lot more than its older sister the 9000. The rule is probably true of the Camry, I'll admit.

And Killick, there, you've named a big part of my argument. I ride my bike to work year-round, rain or shine; my wife is a schoolteacher with 2 months off every summer, and she gets a ride from her carpool 3 days a week when she is working.

I know people who started saving money the day they got their Prius, but I did the math once, and it would take like 20 years for the gas savings to pay off for us. (I'd still love to have the Prius or a modern VW TDI, but it was enough to turn me off the expensive, efficient new car idea. )
posted by richyoung at 8:21 AM on September 5, 2010

Best answer: Well richyoung, I've driven one for 11 years. Had a 96 before that. My total time driving these cars and nothing else is about 18 years. It's the only car I own. I have driven these thing all over the country. Yadda yadda...

The idea at this point is very romantic. Parts are harder to get, getting a mechanic who won't charge you ridiculous rates for showing up in the thing is impossible. Assuming you can find one still alive and willing. About six months after I bought my first one, I learned that I was going to have to work on it to a much greater extent than I originally thought.

I could write pages on this topic, but I'm slow and don't have that much time. I was going to suggest you MeMail me last night, but I now know you're in Fort Collins. So at this point I'll just invite you over for coffee of a beer or something. That would be quicker for both of us. Get in touch if you're interested.

Were heading out on some errands now (one of them is picking up a tool I need to finish fixing the cooling system), but I'll check back in later.
posted by -t at 10:59 AM on September 5, 2010

Response by poster: Incredible, I figured there might be some vintage SAAB people on MeFi but I never thought I'd find somebody with extensive experience with the exact car I'm talking about, right here in Fort Collins. Dash-t, I'm writing to you now.
posted by richyoung at 3:12 PM on September 5, 2010

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