Doing Our Part To Save The Manuals: 1981 Fiat Spider vs 1990 Saab 900S

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Welcome back! It’s the second day of the week, and it’s already Wednesday! How cool is that? Every weekend should be a three-day weekend. If I ever run for office, that will be my platform… Anyway, we’ve got a couple of far more interesting cars today, after yesterday’s snooze-fest. Let’s see how the vote turned out.

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So that means Rowdy won? He was in the Ford, right? I know it wasn’t the Dread Pirate Roberts, he shows up later in the movie. (I had to make sure I got in a Days Of Thunder reference, after missing the opportunity yesterday.)

Now. It has become a rallying cry among enthusiasts: “Save the manuals!” And believe me, I’m right there with you all; I’m wearing a T-shirt that says “Two Pedals Are For Bicycles” as I write this. (Not kidding.) So it’s encouraging when someone goes to great lengths to keep a manual-gearbox car on the road, and an opportunity to keep the worldwide fleet average up when a manual car shows up that needs to be revived.

Today, we’ve got one of each: a Saab that’s been to the moon, and a Fiat that’s a bit of a fallen star. This could get interesting: we’ve featured two Fiats and two Saabs before, and they’ve both won both times. Someone’s undefeated record is about to fall. Let’s see whose.

1981 Fiat Spider 2000 – $1,600

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter inline 4, 5 speed manual, RWD

Location: Garden Grove, CA

Odometer reading: unknown

Runs/drives? yep, but has been off the road for a while

Last time we looked at a Fiat Spider, it was a basket case. This time, it’s at least all in one piece, and even runs! It does look like it’s been sitting a while, and possibly with the top down. The interior is nasty. It’s all there, at least, even the amusingly tiny back seat. They call this a 2+2, but the back shelf-with-seatbelts is completely useless to anyone who doesn’t represent the Lollipop Guild. Might be a nice place for your dog to ride, though.

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By 1981, the Spider’s Aurelio Lampredi-designed twincam four had grown to 2 liters and gained Bosch fuel injection, so at least there’s no carb tuning to worry about. You’ll have to smog it, though, if you live in a state that requires it. And as always, “runs and drives” doesn’t mean you can hop in it and head straight for a run up PCH; depending on how long it has been sitting, there might be all sorts of soft bits that ought to be replaced. And you absolutely, positively must replace the timing belt immediately, if not sooner.

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It looks like it’s worth saving, though; I don’t see any obvious rust, and while the interior is ugly, all that is fixable. Or gut it and go for the race car look. The outside is faded, but more or less straight; I’m pretty sure it used to be sage green, but it’s hard to tell. That lovely Pininfarina coachwork deserves to shine again.

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1990 Saab 900S sedan – $2,200

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter inline 4, 5 speed manual, FWD

Location: Sacramento, CA

Odometer reading: at least 240,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep

Ah yes, our old friend the Saab 900, the sport sedan market’s weird uncle. This is sadly not a hatchback, nor is it a turbo, but all the Saab greatest-hits-of-oddities are present and accounted for: the backwards-facing engine, the ignition switch in the center console, the gearshift that has to be in reverse before you can take the key out, the massive ’50s style wraparound windshield. But there too is that sure-footedness and that rock-solid feel.

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The seller says they saved this car from the crusher in non-running condition, got it going again, and then the transmission “kersploded,” to use the seller’s term. After that, both engine and transmission were replaced with lower-mileage used units, along with a new clutch and a bunch of refreshed seals. It’s said to run and drive very well now.

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Inside, things aren’t quite as rosy: the seats look like they had a date with Jack The Ripper, and the airbag is disconnected. But a thirty-year-old airbag is a little suspect anyway, and seats can be reupholstered. You could even throw some cheap covers on them and ignore the tears, if you want. Outside, it looks just fine; I swear, Saab 900s don’t age. They all seem to look about fifteen years old, no matter how they’ve been treated.

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Ignore the “Turbo” badge on the hood, by the way; the seller says the hood has been replaced.

So there they are: one manual that needs saving, and one that’s well on its way to being saved. Both are worthy of some attention, and either one would make a cool runabout with some elbow grease. Which one will it be?


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42 Responses

  1. I would have voted for the Fiat if not for that interior. Blech. The Saab’s interior is worn out, but the Fiat’s interior is downright disgusting. That thing will still have an odor even after you strip it out. The Saab will look surprisingly good after you throw some decent covers on the front seats.

  2. Goddamn, this is a tricky head (saab) v heart (fiat) match up. It’s fitting that the voting is 50/50 at the moment, but I went with the fiat. Looks too fun to pass up, and gorgeous.

  3. This is MUCH more interesting than yesterday’s candidates. We’ve gone from two boring, interchangeable, plain-white-rapper disposable appliances to two interesting and quirky and very unique options.

    Yesterday was hard to vote because I didn’t want either, today is hard to vote because I want both! I went Fiat though, but if the Saab had been a turbo that might have gone the other way.

  4. As the current owner of a 1981 FIAT Spider 2000 (the correct name for the FI version), I have to chose it. Parts for those cars are still plentiful, and they are easier to work on for the average home mechanic. However, if you find a Miata a snug fit, things are tighter in the Spider, and the passenger might as well just put their feet on the dash because the FI cars also got an old GM style cat, so to make it “fit”, Pininfarina (who actually built them) just stamped an ottoman-sized bump in the passenger side floor pan which takes up roughly 77% of the passenger footwell.

    I love the weirdness and durability of SAABs but they are unique in ways that can make fixing them a challenge.

  5. There needs to be an option for “I’ll take both, please”

    This the rare sh*tbox showdown where I have owned both cars. I’ve had two Spiders (1979, and a 1982), and I’ve owned an 89 Saab 900S. The 82 Spider was a bit of basket case, but the 79 Spider was my daily f’ing driver for 3 years. During that time I was shuttling back and forth between Atlanta, where my work was, and Radford, VA, where my SO at the time was doing the college thing. Never left me stranded one single time. There were many episodes of roadside repair, but I knew that car inside and out, and I was always able to make it to the other end of the trip. Almost every weekend, drive 5 hours north, and 5 hours south.

    The Saab also gave me good service, but I never asked it to do the heavy lifting that little Fiat did. I think nostalgia means I vote for the Spider here.

    1. I know I already commented on this, and it’s also so yesterday.

      However: Torch, can we get a 19 part series about why Italians make such good looking steering wheels? Maybe throw a few articles in there about what those British folks smoke in their sheds that made them think 9-bolt patterns made sense?

  6. I’ve owned both at the same time! both were low mileage cars in the 1990’s. The saab was a tank, was rear ended by a steel truck carrying steel I beams. I walked away, car was a write-off though, frame was bent. I miss the thing still. (brakes were expensive, I think the disks were the largest on the market except rollsroyce or something at the time) The spider was a great car too once we got the airlock out of the cooling system. Mechanic tilted it on jackstands until it got out. Ran perfect after that, had to sell to buy our first house 🙁 Was a lovely bruno mogano…

  7. Oh yes, this is my gravy.

    I’ve owned an ’89 SAAB 900S hatch and a 1992 900S Convertible (with the weird 2.1…that’s right, not the 2.0). They were charming vehicles in their own right and not bad. Plus they had a very distinct SAAB aroma.

    Anyway, on to my point. Lots of automotive enthusiasts love the fastbackish style of the 900S hatch, which is sexy, to be fair. But there’s something about the 900S sedan, with its frumpy fedora styling that looks like something even a bookish, librarian nerd would turn their nose up at. It’s the one 900S I never got to have and I would love to be seated upon that absolutely nuked Fjord-water-blue interior.

  8. I want to love the Fiat but that interior… Also, people noting that the cabin is more snug than a Miata which I already don’t fit in doesn’t help.

    Meanwhile, having driven a number of my best friend’s Saabs they are quirky fun. A couple of weeks ago I got to borrow my best friend’s 9-3 Viggen convertible for a few days and had a blast with it. Throw some seat covers on today’s candidate car and have a good time.

  9. That was hard. The Fiats interior is just too gross for me to handle. As much as I love watching those interior restoration video’s I don’t fancy doing that myself. The Saab on the other hand is lovely. Plus anyone who uses kersploded as a verb is alright by me!

  10. This Shitbox showdown Autopian-tastic. A quick scan of the comments leads me to believe about two thirds of the commentariat owned on or the other, and half of those had both.

    So I think Jason and David have hit their target demographic of people who spend a lot more time than money on cars.

    I have to take the Fiat. Roached interior or not, you don’t see any around for less than five grand that isn’t half rust, or paint over Bondo and rust, that is an amazingly clean body.

  11. I was once the proud owner of an ’85 Saab 900. It was a great car and I still wish I had it around from time to time. I’m pretty sure it is still out there somewhere getting someone from point A to point B–the Saab 900 rivals its Swedish cousin, the Volvo 240, for longevity.

    The 900S that’s for sale is just about broken in at 240K(?) miles. The mechanical refresh makes it the hands-down winner. A trip to a junkyard for some better seats and a going-over with Windex and Armorall will have the interior habitable in no time. I figure the airbag is definitely fixable, though it may cost more than what the entire car is worth.

  12. I just finished bleeding the clutch on my 1991 SAAB 900 SE, so the SAAB it has to be for me. I’ve never owned a 124 Spider, but I did have an 850 Spider back in the day. Replaced the floors with plywood on that one since the steel (or whatever they used) ones were gone and the car wasn’t worth a proper repair. This propensity for turning into pile of rust and the school bus steering wheel angle are enough to put me off the FIAT.

  13. This was one of the toughest vehicles to choose. I am a vert fan, but the Saab has a newer engine and trans, so that is what swayed my vote.
    When it comes to the interior, both require a lot of work. I happen to be a fan of the autoleatherdye#com products (no, I do not work for them) and have a guy to replace seat cover panels and foam as needed (he replaces panels, I color match). It doesn’t take much to restore an interior as it used to, if you have something solid to work with.

  14. This is a tough one. I have a soft spot for both. I had an ’87 900 hatchback that I bought off a lady for $300. Total DT experience. The car was originally $700. It was her son’s car and when he moved out he left it behind. After a year he finally told her to sell it. $700 was steal as is. I got in the drivers seat and pushed in the clutch and it felt mushy. Got the car out of gear and into neutral but it wouldn’t go into any other gear afterwards. Clutch just felt like stepping on a sponge. I get out of the car and she says “$300 and it’s yours” Sold! Got a U-Haul trailer, towed it home and quickly figured out the clutch slave cylinder had given up the ghost. Think I spent a couple hundred bucks on an entirely new clutch kit. Bonus – being a Saab, the clutch and all related parts sit at the front of the car and no transmission dropping required. I drove that car for years. When I bought a new car I gave it to a friend who drove it for a few more years before handing it off to someone else when she was done with it.

    So I guess I have to pick the Fiat.

  15. Saab! Always wanted one of these old 900s, when me and my dad went shopping for my first car it was between a 87’ Saab 900 Turbo 2 door which was a manual or an 89’ Volvo 760 Turbo which was an automatic; my dad got me the Volvo because he hated manuals and didn’t want to teach me; to this day I regret not getting the Saab.

  16. This one was TOUGH! I love these little Fiats, but that thing has a ways to go. $1600 is F* it money, though, and routine maintenance looks to be a little easier than that Saab. I’ve never been big on Saabs, but I’m digging this one for some reason, and someone has already gone to the trouble to get her on her feet mechanically. It looks pretty good from the outside, too. It would be very satisfying to give her the deep cleaning and buffing she deserves. I bet I would be surprised how good it looks, and I love true automotive rescues. Tossed the coin, and went Saab today. Checked the survey results, and my vote made it up to a perfect 50/50 split – very appropriate. I doubt it changes much as the day goes on….

  17. SAAB. The 2.0 NA isn’t exactly under-powered by its contemporary standards, but is a bit deliberate. I drove an ’88 900S and still miss it. The transmission pinion bearings will probably go (again) and/or it will start popping out of gear under load, but driving it will be satisfying until then. At least this one post-dates the automatic seat belt era. I like the sedans, too. They’re even weirder than the 3-dr.

    I like Fiat Spiders, but I have bad associations with the majority of people who drove them when they were more common. It was an near even split between clueless folks who just wanted a 2-seater convertible and complained about winter driving or the mesh driving glove dudes.

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