Project Car Introduction: The Dumpster Fire Saab
What happens when you pay a huge sum of cash to rescue your first car from a field? A years long wallet drain!
Once upon a time, I was a teenager that couldn’t drive stick and desperately needed a “cool” set of wheels. Instead of something low slung and sexy, I was bequeathed the family’s albatross: a 1984 Saab 900 8-Valve Turbo 5-Speed Sedan. Previously given to my brother, who rejected it after a short time because he had to, gasp, check the oil, and before that my uncle, who gave it away after he blew the head gasket, the Saab had been in the family for a long time and was never not trouble. It used oil, had dirty upholstery, needed a radio and new headliner, and was pretty far from “cool”… but wheels are wheels.
NOTE: Parts of this post are taken from my original project introduction on OG Oppositelock (RIP) in 2017.
Over the years, the Saab took me on many an adventure. From getting a flat in the middle of an abandoned military base during a full moon, to moderate off-roading, to just cruising around town. From Washington, California, Louisiana and later Oklahoma, I put a lot of miles on that car and, in my own way, loved it. After deciding to go to college in neighboring Oklahoma, the Saab dutifully carried me, my junk, two arcade style DDR pads, and a 10-disc changer full of burned j-pop CDs (yes, I was that kid) to and from Tulsa six or so times a year through my freshman year.
After a year of holidays back home, grocery runs, and just driving around, my dutiful Saab was nearing 200,000 miles and starting to show the strain of heavy use. After a breakdown during the journey home (cooked starter) my parents, reasonably concerned about the extended reliability of a 20 year old Swedish sports sedan, presented me with a 2001 2-door Honda Accord EX V6 as a bribe to keep coming home and actually making it there without the use of a tow truck.
At the time I saw leather, automatic climate control, actually cold AC, six cylinders, and three liters and it was good. I didn’t really give a second thought to the fate of the Saab, let alone that I might miss it. Why would I? It was in the rear view, both figuratively and literally. I left it with my parents and didn’t really give it a second thought.
Plus it isn't like one person could own more than one car! That is preposterous! :cough:
Thousands of years later... (Ok... like 12)
Fast forward to the year 2013 and I am now an adult, allegedly, an engineer, allegedly, and a certified petrolhead. Several project cars under my belt, an empty parking bay in the garage, and a Top Gear tribute to Saab (S18E5) have me thinking about my old, faithful daily driver. I wonder what it is doing these days…
Little did I know this was not going to an easy or cheap car acquisition. One text message is sent and it sets in motion three years of hostage negotiation for the car to return to me.
The Saab had been sent to the mechanic some years previous (2004 I think?) for a starting issue and never returned. It wasn’t a priority for either of my parents, me, or the mechanic, so it'd been sitting in the mechanic's yard ever since, collecting pine needles and slowly returning to the earth.
Fast forward to 2013 and as you would expect the Saab needed some work. The mechanic had worked on my family’s cars, but especially the Saab, since 2001 and we had a good, friendly relationship. He couldn’t fathom returning the car to me without it being in running order, so he got to work bringing it back up to spec. Not having a good way of dealing with a non-running car, I figured this was a win-win. So I waited.
Finally, after two years of texting, calling, pleading, and threatening on a weekly basis… I gave up. Yes, that’s right. I said “screw it” and forgot about my dreams of bring the old beast back under my care again.
More time passes...
An additional two years later, I found myself once again with an empty space in the garage.
A lot had changed since I was last looking at the re-acquiring the Saab. I had sold my dune buggy, bought an older Yukon, went on an epic Top Gear style road trip, and I’d also expanded the garage.
I’d been casually looking for a new car to fill the niche of “interesting four door” as while I love my C30 and my Spider, neither are convenient if you have 3+ people. Since I’d sold the buggy (which, weirdly COULD fit 4 but was hardly an all-weather vehicle) we end up using the Yukon pretty much any time a group of us go out to dinner. And, again while I love Bessie (the Yukon) she isn’t exactly ‘interesting”. If you’ve every pulled up to a valet in a dune buggy, you know exactly why this is important.
Anyway, I'd decided I needed something interesting, closed roof, with four (or more) doors, a stick shift, a good heater, and preferably good AC too. I looked at a some candidates: Two Honda N600’s, an Alfa Romeo Alfetta and a 164, a couple old Mercedes, and even an old Saab 900, but none of them felt “right”.
In the back of my mind I knew I had such a car, but had no way of like getting it. At some point I had the thought: “You know, I have a vehicle that can tow (the Yukon). If Dad can get the car to his house, I can just come pick it up and get it running myself... ”
So I make the call. Again.
As you could imagine the conversation was much the same. The mechanic wants to get the Saab running and just needs a few weeks. Just a few weeks and it'd be good to good.
This time, however, we’ve got a deadline. We told him no matter what, we're picking the car up at the end of the month. Start the clock!
Weeks go by and still no word on the car.
I plan the trip, request the time off, and reserve the trailer.
Still no car.
I pack my bags and get the garage ready.
Still no car.
I load up the Yukon with tools, supplies, and dogs and start heading south.
Still no car.
Around noon, about two hours into the drive, I get a call.
The car is in my dad's driveway, CD changer still full of j-pop. Years of effort solved in weeks by simply having the thing towed. Why we didn’t do this years ago?
Hours later when I got to Louisiana I got to assess for the first time in years. As expected, the car is pretty rough. The tires are shot, the window seals are perished, a pre-existing crack in the windshield had spidered alarmingly, the sunroof was stuck, the brakes didn't work, the clutch appeared to be going out, and paint was ruined. There was more, but you get the idea.
On the bright side, the rust seemed minimal, the engine bay looked clean, and the interior had fared better than expected. Through some miracle I was spared a cracked dash too.
The rest of the story is pretty uneventful. We gave the old car a generous wash and the next day pick up the car carrier from U-Haul, with only the usual amount of fuss one expects from U-Haul. Load up was easy, if a little terrifying. We pushed the car down a hill and somehow managed to roll it onto the trailer on the first try without subsequently smashing into the back of the Yukon.
I miss that Yukon.
One day later me, my dad, the two pooches, and my first car are on the road back to Oklahoma.
Now the real work begins
I'd like to say that getting the Saab going again was easy and straightforward.
It was not.
Over the next couple of years I put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this car, detailing every step of the way on OG Oppo (RIP), eventually earning itself the moniker #ProjectDumpsterFire . Yes, I know the whole dumpster fire thing is played out now, but at the time it wasn't.
Even now, four years later, the Saab isn't even really near 100%, but work continues...
List of Ailments
Sitting here in 2020, it is hard to remember what, exactly, I thought was wrong with the Saab back then. Luckily, I have the "Everything that is wrong with my Saab and I have three weeks to fix" post saved.
The interior and exterior needed a deep clean, including the carpets, seats, and headliner, one power window was inop, the sunroof was rusted shut but also leaking, the car leaked fuel from multiple places, the brakes didn't work and wouldn't bleed, the clutch barely worked, the blower wouldn't turn on, the tires were shot, the radio display was fried, the wipers wouldn't turn off, the cruise control wiring was shot, the windshield was delaminating, the brake lights didn't work, I couldn't engage 5th gear, the boost gauge wasn't working, the odometer wasn't working, the turn signals didn't work, brake fluid was going somewhere but I couldn't figure out where, similarly coolant was leaving the car but there are no obvious drips, and the some of the wiring is very crispy.
Oh. And it won't start.
I got this?
My first attempt was to get it running for a Saab Club drive down Route 66. I found out about the drive about three weeks before and was confidant I could chase down all of the issues, or at least the ones required to get it back on the road, in that time.
This was my first of many marathon wrenching sessions on this car. Using a upholstery cleaner, I managed to get the interior cleaned up without much issue. The main fuel leak appeared to be an incorrectly installed fuel pump and was sorted by tightening the fittings after replacing the crush washers for good measure. While the tires were astonishingly dry rotted, they held air so I put that in the "worry about later" pile. Most of the electrical issues were sorted by cleaning connections and exercising switches to clean them internally. The clutch hose was leaking into a skid plate, hence the loss of brake fluid but with no drips, and a replacement and reverse bleed courtesy of a jello shot syringe got that going again. The coolant leak turned out to by dry seals in the heater control valve, which I ended up bypassing for the time being. The brake issue turned out to be blocked flex hoses, but unfortunately attempting to bleed through them damaged seals inside one of the calipers, necessitating replacement of both.
You'll notice I haven't talked about the engine yet. Well, that is because I still couldn't get it started! I went ahead and replaced the spark plugs and did a compression test. Compression was a little low but consistent, and given the cheapness of the gauge I wasn't worried. Going back to basics, I confirmed the big three: Fuel, air, and spark. But I was getting all three, so that was mostly unhelpful.
While I did have some luck getting it started and even running for a time, finally, my luck was intermittent at best.
Still is, even.
As I've come to find out over the years, the fuel injection system in this old Saab, Bosch K-Jet aka CIS, lives and dies by fuel pressure. The system is essentially all mechanical injection with very few electronics involved. As such, almost every aspect of this system is controlled via fuel pressure. Unfortunately, that meant buying a rather expensive fuel pressure gauge to better diagnose why this thing wasn't giving me any love.
Long story short (too late) the fuel pressures were, indeed, wrong, but not significantly. This could only mean issues with the warm up regulator, which controls fuel pressure, and therefore air-fuel ratio, based on engine temperature, or the fuel distributor, which controls fuel going to the cylinders based on air coming into the system and pressure coming from the warm up regulator.
Well... needless to say I did not make that Saab Club drive, but I made a good go of it. My marathon wrenching brought the car from complete basket case to running, driving car and that is something to be proud of.
In retrospect, the primary issue was and still is the fuel distributor. This complicated little fellow does a big job and doesn't like sitting. A donor from a junked '88 900 finally got the Saab going some semblance of consistently, but I still have hesitation issues to this day, which I am actually going to go try and fix as soon as I'm done posting this.
Over the years, wrenching continued
There were other drives and other marathon wrenching sessions, but to be honest I've never known a car to want to remain dead more than this one.
The first Saab Club drive I actually made it on was a 200+ round trip drive out to the mountains. The Saab made it almost 75% of the way before breaking down no fewer than 11 times and then finally needing a tow after the idle screw when AWOL and one of the fuel pumps died. I made a lot of amazing new friends that day, so I still call it a win.
The Saab is a horrible pain in the ass, but also family. Furthermore, my wrenching sessions and emergency repairs on this vehicle have forced me to learn so much more than your average home mechanic and I feel like I am a better car guy for it. My mechanic even calls me for help when he is having issues with a CIS car, which is both hilarious and flattering.
This Dumpster Fire will burn on, one way or the other.