$300 Saab turbo

The shenanigans of others can be a great and terrible inspiration. After wistfully reading blogs and journals of past BABE Rally participants, I too longed for a misguided cross-country adventure in a clapped-out heap. These are the kind of automotive "enthusiasts" that are a guaranteed good time. When the S.O. was interested, it also became a great opportunity to add another car to the stable. Oh, and it might as well be obscure and quirky as hell.

Why, a low-mileage, low-dollar early Saab turbo ought to do the trick. A short trip down to bustling Argyle Illinois yielded at first a decoy 900 turbo. Yes, there were two silver, early-flat-nosed Saab 900 turbos in the Argyle Illinois, unincorporated. Mine was a 1982, 95,000 mile garage-kept darling. Though rust and dings had taken there toll on it, it had been very well loved by its owners who had it since 1985. Throw in mint (I mean MINT) interior and a very recent cylinder head rebuild, and the $500 asking price was more than agreeable. Luckily I had a seasoned used-car buyer with me who immediately under-offered $300 (also told me privately that if I don't take it, he will). Apparently this 900 was destined to be parted out at a Saab salvage yard. Even if a full rotisserie restoration is out of the question, I'm sure I can offer a better future for this little Saab with lots of life left.

Oh, what's the catch? Well the car had some "issues." Apart from minor cosmetic blemishes, there were some more, err, obtrusive mechanical faults. There was a mini-flashlight stored near the instrument cluster because the dash lights sometime failed to light up. The tires was dry-rotted and unevenly worn. The exhaust manifold was cracked and made a fantastic tick-tick-tick when under throttle. And the best of all: the car would stall when turning left. Across traffic. Sweet. Count me in!

The good: the motor was still strong and gave lots of wait-for-it-WOAH 80's turbo power. The clutch was good and the gearbox was too, even if it had a bit of the classic Saab crotchety-ness.

The bad dash lights were great: Saab has two dash rheostats and one was blown. Saab (born from jets or something like that) had a feature in there cars that allowed the driving to extinguish all the interior lights expect the tach and speedo. Those had there own rheostat. Which had crapped out. I was able to take the dash apart and repair the rheostat. I don't putz with it anymore, and all is well.

The right-turn-only feature turned out to be a bad fuel pickup. Make that a completely dissolved, non-existent fuel pickup. The fuel pump sits, inverted, in an opening on the top of the gas tank. Removing and dissembling the tank/pump system was no small task and it cost the girlfriend and I a piece of pizza. Damn squirrels, who knew they would gnaw through the box and extract one perfect piece of delicious pizza? We took the opportunity to clean out what was left of the old pickup: a quarter inch of tar lining the tank.

Fabricating a new pickup was relatively straightforward but figuring out the correct orientation to avoid future fuel starvation was not. We got it right, and the car now has a leg up on dirt track racers everywhere.

The next biggest issue was the death shimmy that appeared at 55 mph. This was due to a combination of ancient, uneven tires and piss-poor toe settings. My lovely assistant and I put the car on the lift and did a down-and-dirty alignment, getting the toe as close to zero as possible. We moved the less-terrible tires to the front and made the cursed vibration move to the cargo area. It's better now but not perfect. The car needs new tires something fierce. I am having a hard time putting ~$200 of tires (about as cheap as TireRack has 'em) on a $300 car.

Next: install the crack-free manifold and hunt down the cause of the reluctant cold starts. Minor issues.

March 2010 update: After tracking down a "crack-free" manifold, I began to clean up the piece before installation. I discovered the rust hid two tiny cracks, but the manifold was still in far better condition than the one currently in the car. I toyed with the idea of brazing the cracks, but decided to try Thermosteel instead. Wirebrushed the area around the cracks, ground a groove following the line of each crack, and stress-relieved the cracks by drilling the end points of the crack with a 1.5mm drill bit. I cleaned the part with acetone and applied the Thermosteel.

 The next step was removing the current manifold. This proved a bit harder than I anticipated. Eventually, I removed the turbo outlet elbow, all the manifold stud, and some heat shields before extracting the manifold. After pulling the part, I quickly discovered that the cracks in the manifold were likely not the cause of the obnoxious ticking sound. The manifold heat shield, which protects the spark plug wires, and the exhaust gasket were burned and corroded through.

This wasn't a big deal, I would just order a new heat shield. I already had a cleaned-up, unobtainable T8 manifold and new gaskets. I ordered a new shield from The Saab Site for a reasonable price of about 30 bucks. I got a call the next day explaining that that part is on order from Sweden and won't be here for a few weeks. The completion of this job is going to have to wait until then. For now, the Saab sits in the garage with a dead battery while my Passat endures Milwaukee's streets.

March 28 2010

After learning that the heatshield is on order from Sweden and won't be ready, in Sweden, for 4+ weeks I elected to reassembled the car without it and look elsewhere for heat insulation. Reinstalling the manifold was every bit the pain in the butt and removing it. Still, after liberal prying, cursing, and hammering everything was sealed up and the car no longer sounds like a rusty two-stroke. I replaced the (terrible) spark plugs as well and alleviated much of the hard-starting issue.

Taking the car out on the road for the first time in weeks was great and the whoosh from the turbo is no longer masking by the hissing-ticking manifold. Apart from a new cluck from the rear exhaust hangers (how does this show up if the car hasn't moved?) the Saab is behaving like a regular, drive-it-anywhere car instead of a destined-for-dissection parts car it was.

May 2010

The Saab is running great, so obviously I should enjoy it, right? Wrong, I'm trying to sell it. Why? I don't have the time. I'd love to restore this 900, but I need to finish the Subaru and take care of 100 other things. Besides, after the Saab is gone I get a chance to add something new to the stable.

If you'd like a decently clean, running 8V Turbo, let me know! Just look at all that baby blue velour!