The first Saab 900 convertible rolls off the line at Valmet Automotive, a coachbuilder in Finland, on May 7, 1986.
Bob Sinclair, president of Saab-Scania of America, determined that a 900 convertible would boost brand sales. He had pushed Saab executives in Sweden to give cars more luxurious content and performance to move the brand upscale. In Sweden and the rest of Europe, Saab had a no-frills, affordable, workaday reputation, even with its quirky styling.
In the mid-1980s, Saab executives in Sweden wanted the American sales arm to accept an annual shipment of 1,000 two-door, basic economy cars. Sinclair balked and offered a compromise. He would take the cars only with high-end features: fuel injected turbocharged engines, a five-speed gearbox, cast-aluminum wheels, leather seats, metallic paint and, most important, convertible tops. Sinclair even offered to have the 900 convertible engineered in the U.S.
The first prototype was built by American Sunroof Co., or ASC. Lynx Motors International also produced two "convertible" models just before the official 1986 launch.
Saab's design department, headed by Björn Envall, based its version on the three-door hatchback while Valmet Automotive used the more stout two-door version.
ASC's Saab 900 cabriolet was first shown publicly at the 1983 Frankfurt auto show with an automatic soft top. In April 1984, backed by widespread support for the car, what Sinclair later called "pandemonium," Saab decided to put the car in production at Valmet Automotive.
The Saab 900, introduced May 12, 1978, as a 1979 model, was a front-engine, front-wheel-drive compact car with a longitudinally mounted, 45-degree slanted, inline-four engine, double wishbone front suspension and beam-axle rear suspension.
The 900 convertible proved different from most ragtops at the time. It was sleek with bespoke styling. And despite a stowed top, there was enough room in the back to comfortably accommodate two adults.
The Saab 900 convertible had a standard power roof and leather upholstery. The open-air car was designed to withstand the harshest of Scandinavia's winters. The triple layer soft top was durable, snug-fitting and weatherproof. Unlike many rivals, the convertible had a heated, glass rear window, not a plastic substitute prone to cracking and fogging. The exceptional power of the car's heater also encouraged the enjoyment of top-down motoring in cold weather.
It debuted with a 175-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged engine,
The first 400 cars were built for the U.S. Though new convertibles had virtually vanished from American roads, demand was so great that people ordered the 900 convertible without driving it. Some dealers couldn't keep demonstrators because of demand. When the convertible went on sale in Europe later in 1986 -- as a 1987 model -- demand exceeded production capacity and Saab soon had a 12-month waiting list.
Saab later added full and light-pressure turbo engines and top-of-the-line Aero variants. A Monte Carlo Yellow color in 1992 turned even more heads.
Over time, Saab sold more than 240,000 900 convertibles worldwide, Autoweek reported in 2006.
"In this day and age, with the exception of some third-world vehicles, there are no bad cars," Sinclair, who died in 2009, recalled in a 2006 Autoweek interview about the 900 convertible. "You need something that has that cachet to bring people into the showroom. Somebody had to do it."