For a nation engulfed in darkness for half the year and founded on strict Scandinavian sensibilities, a Swedish-made convertible sounds like the punchline of a bad joke. Drop-top cars are built for sunshine states, not a country that extends into the Arctic Circle.
But look hard enough and you’ll find method in the refined madness that is the Saab 900 Convertible. And, having recently blown out the candles on its 35th birthday, the tale of how the quirky-cool cabriolet went from an after-hours passion project to the pinnacle of preppy mobility is one worth recounting.
"It all started with a chap affectionately known as Uncle Bob..."
It all started with a chap affectionately known as Uncle Bob. Although Bob didn’t match up to the chic Scanidi car designer most had pinned as the creator of the 900 convertible, he was, thankfully, an astute American businessman by the name of Robert J. Sinclair.
Once the proud president of Saab in the United States, Uncle Bob was a self-made man. Born in 1932, Sinclair started his career in his father’s grocery store in Philadelphia. After flogging fruit and veg, he began selling medical equipment before joining the Swedish carmaker as a salesman in the late 1950s.
After a brief stint with rivals VW and Volvo, Uncle Bob had hit the big time in 1979, swooping into the hot seat as Saab’s US President three years before his 50th birthday. Bravo, Bob. But despite conquering the corporate mountain, his crowning moment was yet to come.
The 1980s were an exciting time for the world, let alone the automotive industry. The decade gave birth to some of the most radical cultural icons and moments from Prince and Princess Diana, to the Sony Walkman and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
While sci-fi inspired, computer-controlled cars were all the rage in the auto world, safety also became a major concern and no one did safety quite like the Swedes. In short, safe and sensible became bywords for Saab, much to Sinclair’s dismay. Lumbered with a lofty Stateside sales target, Uncle Bob needed to inject some va-va-voom into the new but bland and barebones Saab 900.
In a brainstorming session with his right-hand man, Bob picked up a picture of the new car, a pair of scissors and proceeded to cut the roof off. Legend has it Sinclair ordered one of his staff to immediately call HQ and demand they made 1000 convertibles.
Thankfully, Sinclair’s unorthodox approach to internal communications did the job and Saab all but handed Uncle Bob the angle grinder, permitting him to lop the roof off the company’s latest creation. Capitalising on his newfound freedom, Bob set about commissioning a prototype and handed the job over to the American Sunroof Company.
By the time the 1983 Frankfurt motor show rolled around, Bob and his team were ready to wheel in their carefully disguised homework. When the covers came off, the crowd went wild. “They took the top off, lowered the roof, and pandemonium ensued,” said Sinclair in a 2006 interview, shortly before he passed away. Uncle Bob’s handiwork had been a hit and Saab soon found itself with a bumper order book.
The first 400 cars were built for the US and demand was so high, people were snapping them up without a test drive. Some dealers couldn’t even hold on to their demonstrators. By 1986, the 900 convertible was in full production in Europe and still, hopeful owners were facing a 12-month wait to get behind the wheel of the Scandi drop-top.
Despite its unlikely origins, Saab went on to shift over 240,000 of the convertibles around the world. Key to its success was its curious aesthetic and its ability to withstand even the harshest of Arctic winters. Twinning its triple-layer weatherproof soft top with an exceptionally powerful heater meant the car was capable of top-down driving in all conditions.
Its clean lines, clam-shell bonnet and strange, collar-like spoiler that wrapped around the rear seats made it irresistible to everyone from architects and art dealers to stockbrokers and supermodels. Yasmin le Bon was such a fan of the 900, she even stood alongside the 1993 model on the stage during its launch at the Earls Court motor show.
But it wasn’t just Le Bon who fell for the topless Swede. Comedian Jack Dee, ol’ charmer Nigel Havers, broadcasting behemoth Des Lynam and TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson are all reported to be fervent ‘Saabies.’ While it’s fan club membership is up for debate, the greatest show of how far the safe and sensible Swedish carmaker had come arrived in 2001 when Jay-Z got behind the wheel of a cherry red 900 convertible in the music video to ‘Song Cry.’
Now, if that isn’t proof that Uncle Bob’s creation transcended Saab’s ownership ambitions in America, then I don’t know what is. It’s just a shame it wasn’t the hot 2.0 Turbo in Monte Carlo yellow. That was the one to have.
“They are particularly popular with professionals: self-employed, creative people,” said a Saab spokesman back in 2011. “It’s the kind of car that won’t pigeon-hole you. The Saab says the right things, but is understated. Saab is for individuals who make their own decisions in life,” he added.
Despite the insistence of its staff, it seemed there weren’t enough ‘individuals’ around to keep the company afloat and just one year later, Saab slipped into the icy abyss of bankruptcy. Then again, chasing after self-employed, creative people was never going to be the most profitable sales strategy, was it?
Despite the sombre end to Saab, the 900 convertible lives on as a cultural icon — an elegant four-wheeled monument to 1980s automotive obscurity. With values of the quirky convertible rising each year, it won’t be long until the cabriolet becomes unobtainable to the classic car buying masses, furthering its appeal even more, no doubt.
But for us all, birthdays are a time to pause and reflect on a life well lived. Had it not been for the perseverance of Uncle Bob, it’s more than likely this soft-top Saab would never have lived at all. “In this day and age…there are no bad cars,” said Sinclair in 2006. “You need something that has that cachet to bring people into the showroom… Someone had to do it,” he reasoned.
"It is a car that requires no explanation or justification..."
Now, more than 35 years on from that very realisation, we celebrate an automotive legend, well on the road to middle age. A car that requires no explanation or justification, while drawing admiring glances even from those fervently opposed to the idea of a convertible.
With a bright future ahead of it as a rising star in the classic car market, the 900 will live on. But for now, we say many happy returns, old friend. Here’s to your unlikely creator, Uncle Bob and to many more miles, come rain or shine.
Want more automotive history? Here, we present a short history of those longest of cars; limousines…
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