BOUGHT FROM A SAAB FAN 1983 Saab 99 GL ‘With 130,000 miles, it’s a great drive and barely run-in. This model came with the later Saab 900 unit as standard so it’s smooth and easy to fix.
BOUGHT FOR: £1450
Late last year, as Britainwas plunged into the coldest winter for years, I went in search of a classic for the twelve-mile slog through icy lanes to the office. I looked at numerous Eighties of-roaders but a weekend driving around Norway in a hired Renault Clio led me to conclude that all I actually needed was front wheel drive and a set of decent winter tyres.
A solution arrived during a chat with my Saab enthusiast friend Alex, who had uncovered a rare late-model 99 at a Saab specialist in Somerset. Owner Tony Parkhurst had cherished the car but was keen to find it a decent new owner, so I paid a mere £1450 and drove home via the A303, with a quick photo stop at Stonehenge. Clichéd comparisons between the Saab and the ancient stones is unavoidable, I’m afraid. The 99 really is beautifully-built. Poke, pull, prod and thump any part of the interior and not one piece of trim moves.
It’s difficult to believe the 99 was launched half a century ago. Since no other manufacturer copied it, the shape remains relatively timeless. That clamshell bonnet, with subtle humps either side, and the way the rear falls in a gentle curve stand out more than ever. It would have been hard to resist purchasing this 99, regardless of season, but there was no more suitable way of tackling an English winter than a car designed to cope with life above the Arctic Circle. Such is the fierce blast coming from the heater vents, one imagines there are a dozen trolls behind them, shovelling coal into a furnace. Even on the coldest of mornings, the cabin not only warms up swiftly but despite an outside world glistening with a thick frost, within miles you’re having to turn the heater down.
All the car needed was a set of winter boots. Ben Field from Vintage Tyres uses them on his MG Midget, having once slid several metres past a junction one icy morning. ‘A good winter tyre will grip better in sub 7 degree temperatures because its high silica compound doesn’t go rock hard in the cold.’ Suggesting I invest in a set of Vredestein Snow Classics for the Saab, he assured me I would definitely feel the difference. ‘The open tread pattern is designed to cope with snow, slush and torrents of water. All-season tyres are all fine but for regularly icy roads, a set of full winters is fine insurance indeed.’ These particular tyres even come with pre-drilled holes for studs – although realistically you’d only need them for pack ice.
It doesn’t snow an awful lot in Northamptonshire but one Sunday, it happened. A night of sustained snowfall sent me leaping outside at dawn and whilst curtains twitched across the street, I scooped the white stuff from my windows, hopped in and reversed out of the driveway, warily steering the Saab into the wild.
Even with winter tyres, the same rules of snow driving apply: Gentle throttle movements, high gears, low revs and gentle braking. In the absence of gritting, it also pays to avoid driving in the tracks of other cars since compressed snow is likely to have become ice. Not that it seemed to matter in the Saab.
With high ground clearance, the 99 is shaped not unlike the bows of a boat underneath the front bumper, enabling the car to ride over the snow with an engine and radiator protected from lumps of ice and rock behind a shield of thick steel. Just outside the next village, a chap in his Audi Q7 was less than impressed when I pulled over to offer assistance to his family. The giant of-roader was dangerously close to a ditch, slithering about like a wallowing hippo with its enormous low-profile tyres making no progress at all. Having declined my proposal of a lift into town, little faces peered through the Audi’s windows as the funny old Swede scampered effortlessly away.
Later that evening, I sat down to watch A Man Called Ove – a beautiful 2015 Swedish film about a man who is brought up on numerous Saab models. It’s a must if you’re a film buff, as much as it’s a feast for fans of Swedish cars. Amid the misery of Ove’s tumultuous life, during one scene he is smitten by the reassuringly confident words of his softly spoken father: ‘There is no better car than a Saab’.
Proof that bargains can still be found. The 99 is an appreciating classic with charm and genuine everyday usability.
Our James gets ready to perform a snow-dance… Blue-clad interior is oh-so comfy. Off to find modern SUVs to taunt.