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A recent poll conducted by CBn asked James Bond fans, “Which car from the James Bond novels is your favorite?” From a selection that included an Aston Martin DBIII, a Jaguar XK8, a Porsche Gambella, and four different Bentleys, the surprise winner was a fuel-efficient, mid-priced, Swedish-made “everyday” car, the Saab 900 Turbo.

But this was no ordinary Saab. This was what James Bond called his “Silver Beast,” a car that saw 007 through the first three novels by John Gardner; a car that saw as much action, and delivered just as many surprises, as the beloved Aston Martin DB5. If the DB5 is “the most famous car in the world,” could the Saab be the SECOND most famous car in the world? Okay, maybe not. (That honour may belong to yet another Fleming creation, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.) But the CBn poll reveals that the Saab is clearly a fan favourite and one that deserves to have its history told.

Turns out that history is very rich indeed.

Licence Renewed

James Bond shifted down into third gear, drifted the Saab 900 Turbo into a tight left-hand turn, clinging to the grass shoulder, then put a fraction more power to bring the car out of the bend.

Licence Renewed, Chapter 2

John Gardner

John Gardner

Our Saab story starts with one man, Gardner, John Gardner. In 1980, Gardner — a former stage magician, Royal Marine officer, journalist, and well-known English mystery writer with 23 books to his credit — was selected among a dozen candidates to revive the literary James Bond, which had laid dormant since 1967, when Kingsley Amis’s excellent James Bond “continuation novel” Colonel Sun was not received kindly by critics. Glidrose (now Ian Fleming Publications, Ltd, holders of James Bond literary copyright) had only two requirements of the new author.

First, Bond should be transported into the 1980s, updated but un-aged (something Gardner had independently decided he would ask permission to do); and second, James Bond should drive a new car, something with “gee wiz” features but something in line with the more realistic tone of the novels. With the help of knowledgeable friend Tony Snare, Gardner made what he expected to be controversial choice, a Swedish-made Saab 900 Turbo, a car advertised at the time as:

The Most Intelligent Car Ever Built.

In a 1981 interview for Bondage Magazine (a publication of the now defunct James Bond American Fan Club), Gardner explained his reasoning:

If you’re going to have a man of the eighties — conscious of the recession, with limited resources — he’s got to be a bit more like an ordinary human being. He’s got a bit of private money, and I wanted to put him into very much an eighties motor car.

But Gardner feared Glidrose might reject his idea.

One of the things I thought would be said was ‘You can’t use the Saab because Bond would have a British car.’ Instead, they said, ‘Just the car we want! Ian would have liked him to have this car.’

An early ad for the new 900 Turbo

An early ad for the new 900 Turbo

The Saab 900 was introduced in May of 1978. It was based on the Saab 99, but the entire front section was new and the wheelbase was longer than the 99. The 1979 line included three- and five-door models (counting the hatchback as a door). In 1980, Saab introduced a five-speed gearbox and a Turbo engine. This was the car 007 would drive. Some of the Saab 900 Turbo’s innovative standard features were Bondian in their own right: Self-repairing bumpers; electronically heated seats; headlight wiper washers; an air filter that removed dust, pollen, and some bacteria from the passenger compartment; all-in-one fuse box conveniently located under the hood; front-wheel drive; and a key ignition switch located down on the centre console between the gear shift and the parking brake, allowing for quick-start operation.

Gardner got right to work on his first Bond novel, which he originally called Meltdown. In it, 007 battles a tyrannical Scottish laird bent on blackmailing the superpowers by threatening to melt down several nuclear power plants simultaneously. Gardner also got to work on his ‘gee wiz’ Saab, deciding he would only outfit the car with feasible gadgets. To do this, he consulted with a real-life Q-branch; security and counter-surveillance experts, Communication Control Systems, Ltd. (CCS). CCS advised the author on how to create a car that would rival the Aston Martin, and Gardner was grateful. So grateful, he decided that CCS, not Q-branch, would get credit for outfitting Bond’s Saab in the book.

This decision makes the Saab unique among the pantheon of famous James Bond vehicles. It’s not a Q-branch-made car. The Saab is Bond’s own personal property that James Bond himself has customised to his liking by the real-life CCS. This provides for some fun in the book as Bond wryly observes how Major Boothroyd and various Q-branch technicians sniff around the Saab while it’s parked at MI6, trying to discover its hidden secrets.

So which refinements did James Bond feel was necessary in the field? Here’s what Q-branch could never discover:

  • Water-cooled turbo engine modification per Saab Law Enforcement specs, producing a top speed in excess of 170 MPH.
  • Modified fuel system capable of running on gasoline or gasohol.
  • Halon 12 fire extinguishing system and fire-proofing.
  • Digital heads-up instrument display.
  • Remote text-messaging system via black box phone hook up to landline.
  • Mobile phone.
  • Four external tear gas ducts.
  • Filter to stop deadly gas from entering the car’s passenger cabin.
  • Oxygen masks under the seats in CO2-operated compartment.
  • Several hidden compartments in dashboard containing TH70 Nitefinder goggles (for driving without headlights), grenades, one unauthorised Ruger Super Blackhawk .44 Magnum revolver, and one Browning automatic handgun.
  • Fully armor-plated body.
  • Bulletproof glass.
  • Steel-reinforced ramming bumpers back and front.
  • Heavy-duty Dunlop Denovos tyres self-sealing even after being hit by bullets.
  • Side gun-port.
  • Remote starter kit.
  • Rotating license plates.
  • Two Halogen fog lamps.
  • Aircraft headlight hidden behind front license plate.
The Silver Beast's Secrets

The Silver Beast’s Secrets. Click to enlarge.

In the story, the Saab and its arsenal of modifications see plenty of action — first bringing Bond to Scotland, and then aiding in his escape from the villain’s Highland castle estate. Unfortunately, the Saab suffers much the same fate as Bond’s Bentley in Fleming’s own debut novel, Casino Royale (1953). After an exciting chase involving a helicopter, the Saab ends up unceremoniously smashed in a drainage ditch, and the unconscious 007 is dragged off as a prisoner. Happily, just like the Bentley, the Saab would resurrect in the next book un-scratched; and of course, James Bond would live to die another day.

To get an idea of the way a Saab feels, and moves, and performs, we would like to make two suggestions.
Read the book.
Or, better yet, come in for a test drive.
It could be the beginning of a real adventure.

Saab advert, 1981

While Gardner worked away on his story, Glidrose worked on how to promote the return of the literary 007. The Saab provided an opportunity. In a marketing move that would later be imitated by BMW and Ford in conjunction with the Eon-produced James Bond films, automaker Saab-Scania signed aboard the Bondwagon and agreed to participate in a massive cross-promotional campaign that would not only launch James Bond into the 1980s but would attempt to make Saab the car of choice for the decade.

Art from the U.K. paperback of License Renewed

Art from the U.K. paperback of License Renewed

Gardner’s debut James Bond novel, re-titled Licence Renewed, was released in May of 1981; and the cross promotion campaign began with a bang — literally. Saab outfitted a real 900 Turbo with the gadgets exactly as described in the novel, and the car travelled the book tour circuit with author Gardner, squirting tear gas as the photographers snapped away. Gardner recalls one amusing incident during that tour.

One morning we discovered what looked like an oil leak near the gear stick. This turned out to be tuna oil that had leaked from a package of sandwiches being taken home by the PR lady!

Gardner and the Saab were everywhere in the summer of 1981 (the same summer Roger Moore played 007 on screen in For Your Eyes Only). When US magazine profiled Gardner (“From Ireland With Love”), it featured a photo of the author sitting on the hood of the “Saab 007” (so read the license plate). The Saab appeared at the 3rd annual James Bond International Fan Club Convention at the We