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"THE SILVER BEAST"
The Definitive History of James Bond's Saab 900 Turbo
Written by John Cox on 08 Mar, 2004
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.
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
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
The Saab 900 was introduced in May of 1978. It was based on the
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.
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
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 Wembley Convention Hall in London but was whisked away prematurely to a television taping for Australian TV, much to the disappointment of conventioneers. When the little town of Addleston in Surrey held its annual Gala day, amid the floats and marching schoolchildren was the Silver Beast, driven by Saab’s field promotion executive, Phil Hall, who periodically pressed a button on the dash and released tear gas into the delighted crowd (in reality, just harmless smoke). A second Saab was used in the U.S. promotion, but this car was without any gadgets and, in fact, wasn’t even a 900!
Artists had some fun with the Saab as well. When Licence Renewed was serialised in the woman’s magazine Cosmopolitan (a bizarre choice, I know), the artwork featured the Saab prominently. So did the cover art of various hardcover and paperback editions of the book, where the Silver Beast was sometimes coloured black and even red. It’s interesting to note that the synopsis on the dust jacket flap of the U.K. edition helps justify Bond’s choice of vehicle by noting that the Saab has “a lower pollution level than a Bentley.” The U.S. edition omits this sentence.
Saab/Bond promotional material
At this same time, Saab-Scania ran its own promotional campaign designed to capitalise on its 007 connection. “James Bond Has Just Traded His Bentley for a Saab 900 Turbo” ran the headline of a full page ads in all the major car magazines. Colourful posters and flyers were produced featuring original artwork from the novel along with the tagline, James Bond Is Back in Style in a Saab Turbo. At the Los Angeles Auto Show, attractive Bond Girl-like models extolled the virtues of the Saab, adding with a wink;
We all know Mr. Bond has excellent taste — at least in cars.
Did it work? Starting in 1982, Saab enjoyed five straight years of increased sales every month without fail. And in the interest of full disclosure, I was one of those people who decided, if it was good enough for 007, then it was good enough for me; and in 1983, I got my own Saab 900 Turbo. License plate: SAAB 007, of course!
With the announcement that Gardner would pen at least two more original James Bond adventures, Saab’s public relations manager, Lennart Lonnegren, said;
If these books do as well in selling Saabs as the first one, I am afraid we will very soon be out of cars.
For Special Services
“Nice little car,” Bismaquer said from the portico, giving the Saab a condescending look, which seemed somehow out of character.
For Special Services, Chapter 11
License Renewed sold 130,000 copies in hardcover and was an international best-seller. Gardner’s 1982 follow-up was For Special Services. In it, James Bond is loaned out to the CIA to tackle a resurgent SPECTRE. For his American mission, Bond made only one request:
“The Silver Beast,” Bond looked straight into M’s eyes, noting a flicker of doubt. Silver Beast was the nickname members of the Service had given to Bond’s personal car — the Saab 900 Turbo — his own property, with special technology built into it at his own expense.
“What about the Silver Beast?”
“I need it in America. I don’t want to be at the mercy of public transportation.”
M gave a fleeting smile. “I can arrange for you to hire one — with the proper left-hand drive as well.”
“That’s not the same, and you know it, sir.”
“And you know it’s not a Service vehicle. Heaven knows what you’ve got hidden in that thing?”
“Sir,” Bond retorted, “I’m sorry but I need that car and the documentation.”
M thought, his brow creased. “Have to sleep on it. Let you know tomorrow.” Sucking on his pipe, M left, grumbling under his breath.
For Special Services
Obviously, Bond got his request. The nickname “Silver Beast” first appears in this second book. Gardner’s recollection was that it was his son Simon who gave the car its now famous moniker. In his Author’s Acknowledgments, Gardner thanks Saab (GB), Ltd., and Saab-Scania of Sweden “for the amount of time, trouble, patience, and enthusiasm they have put into proving that the James Bond Saab really does exist.”
For Special Services features what is arguably the best Saab action scene in any of the Gardner books, when Bond races a Shelby-American Mustang GT 350 driven by henchman Walter Luxor.
Bond kicked on the accelerator, sensing the Saab’s spoiler push the rear down onto the road. His own body was forced back into the driving seat as full power took hold.
Of course, no henchman plays fair, and we get to see some defensive mechanisms on the Saab that we didn’t see in Licence Renewed — such as an automatic fire extinguisher system, which Bond uses when the race becomes a little overheated.
Promotional Saab interior
For this mission, the Saab’s secret dashboard compartments are also modified to include a compartment that holds rare prints (as Bond is undercover as a rare print dealer in this book). A favourite feature — the blinding aircraft landing light hidden behind the front license plate — also gets nice play in this book.
Once again, the Saab takes a beating aiding Bond’s escape from the villain’s Texas ranch estate (this time, launching aboard a moving monorail); and once again, the book made the best-sellers list. The new series was working. There was even a rumour that a Saab may appear in the next James Bond film (ultimately, this proved to be false). James Bond and his Silver Beast would return the following year in a book generally considered to be Gardner’s best. But it would be their last ride together. A “million-dollar prostitute” would soon come between a man and his Beast.
You have a car here, I believe. A Saab 900 Turbo. Silver. Delivered in the name of Bond, James Bond.”
The girl at the long reception desk gave an irritated frown, as though she had better things to do than check on cars delivered to the hotel on behalf of foreign guests.
Icebreaker, Chapter 6
Published in 1983, Icebreaker sees 007 sent to the Arctic Circle to do battle with a Neo-Nazi army. Once again, the Saab sees action, this time facing off on the icy roads of Lapland with three menacing snow-plows.
There was no doubt. They were going in for the kill, prepared to slice the Silver Beast in half. Silver versus yellow, Bond thought, and raised his right arm, the left hand still clutching the stun grenade.
Gardner with the promotional tour Saab
Icebreaker is a fan favourite and remained Gardner’s personal favourite Bond novel for many years, mainly because of his own experiences in the Arctic Circle, a trip hosted by Saab-Scania. Gardner shared his Arctic adventures with the James Bond International Fan Club magazine, 007.
As I had already managed to skid a Saab into snow drifts on three occasions, I had a very good driver who promptly managed to do the same — but right on the Russian border. Happily, the Finnish army was on hand, and an officer walked the best part of two miles through icy conditions to bring help. We were finally towed out and all ended well.
The author’s photo on the back of the U.S. edition shows Gardner on a snowmobile and is credited to Saab-Scania, Sweden. Gardner offered additional thanks by including one of his Arctic travelling companions, international rally racing star Erik Carlsson (aka “Mr. Saab”), in a passage in the book. When Bond is preparing for his own journey deep into the “land of the rising sun,” he finds a note in his glove compartment:
“Good luck, Whatever You’re Doing… Remember what I’ve taught you about the left foot!!! -Erik.
Bond smiled, recalling the hours he had spent with Carlsson learning left-foot breaking techniques, to spin and control the car on thick ice.”
Saab once again helped promote the paperback release of the book with a WIN BOND’S SILVER SAAB TURBO! contest arranged in conjunction with Berkley Publishing. Large standees (called “dumps”) containing the paperback edition of the book had tear-off coupons attached, which customers could fill out and send into the Icebreaker/Saab Consumer Drawing. The prize was, indeed, a silver Saab Turbo, “the driving machine of a lifetime for some lucky Bond fan.” The winner was announced on May 31, 1984.
1984 Saab giveaway entry form
As Gardner was set to embark on his fourth Bond book, one of his main contacts at Saab (the man who had given Gardner a 900 Turbo for personal use) left the company for Bentley. The move proved to be a silver bullet to the Silver Beast.
In a 1995 interview for 007 Magazine, Gardner explains;
He called me one day and said he wanted to see me. He brought a Mulsanne Turbo and said he wanted me to see it and he thought Bond should be using it.
Gardner was invited back to Bentley for a test drive on Bentley’s private racetrack. The author was seduced. He compared the car to “a night with a million-dollar prostitute.” To help seal the deal, Bentley gave Gardner the use of a Mulsanne Turbo for one year.
So in Gardner’s fourth book, Role of Honour (1984), James Bond comes into an inheritance via a rich uncle and uses the surprise windfall to buy himself a brand-new British Racing Green Bentley Mulsanne Turbo. Per Bentley’s request, the car had no modifications other than a long-range telephone. No explanation is given as to what happened to the Silver Beast.
Bond would drive the Bentley in the next several books (Gardner would pen 14 original Bond adventures and two movie novelisations total), but somehow, it wasn’t the same. In the same poll where the Saab was named the favourite car from the novels, the Bentley received no votes.
The Bentley Mulsanne Turbo
Never Say Never
Bond left the room and hurried downstairs to reception to ask what self-drive hire cars were available quickly. For once, Bond seemed to making his own luck. There was a Saab 900 Turbo — a car which he was well used to — which only just had been returned.
Nobody Lives For Ever, Chapter 10
Gardner may have put 007 together with a “million-dollar prostitute,” but he still liked to revisit his $200-a-day call girl (sorry, he started it). Saabs continued to make cameo appearances in many of Gardner’s later Bond books. In 1986’s Nobody Lives For Ever, Bond rents a Saab 900 in order to make an undercover side trip to the Klinik Mozart just outside of Salzburg. Bond again rents a Saab for a dangerous mission in Dublin in 1987’s abysmally titled No Deals, Mr. Bond. M drives a Saab 9000 CD in 1991’s The Man From Barbarossa (the book which replaced Icebreaker as Gardner’s personal favourite). One gets a feeling that Gardner missed the old Silver Beast as much as the fans did.
The Saab 9000 CD Turbo
Then as the Gardner era ran down, James Bond and Saab were reunited. In Never Send Flowers (1993) and SeaFire (1994), Bond suddenly drives a Saab 9000 CD Turbo. (Gardner, who was now living in the America, drove a white Saab 9000 CD himself.) The Saab 9000 CD is a mysterious presence at the end of the Gardner era. Gardner never explains what happened to the Bentley, nor whether this Saab is Bond’s personal property or part of the MI6 motor pool. Is it supposed to be the same car we saw M driving in Barbarossa? The Saab 9000 is a conservative four-door sedan, Saab’s entry into the luxury car market. It’s no “Beast.” Still, it’s a Saab, and it seemed a fitting way to send Gardner’s Bond out.
In 1996, Gardner retired from the series; and Saab, now owned by American car giant GM, ceased to be the hot car of the ’80s and early ’90s. The last 900 rolled off the assembly line in 1993 (a special edition 900 was released in 1998). Gardner continued his prolific non-Bond writing career, producing to date an astounding 53 books (his new book, Angels Dining At The Ritz, is due out in April 2004). Gardner’s successor, Raymond Benson, outfitted Bond with a sleek gadget-laden Jaguar XK8; and today, some younger Bond fans question the wisdom of James Bond ever driving a car they now see as one their mothers might buy.
But there was a time when James Bond and his Silver Beast raced along the backroads of Surrey — clinging to the grass shoulder, putting a fraction more power to bring the car out of the bend — and the two together seemed to embody all that was cool, sophisticated, and European in the 1980s. The original promotional tour Saab 900 now sits in the Saab Museum in Trollhattan, Sweden, still outfitted with its deadly arsenal. On its hood is one of the bold colourful posters from 1981 — proof that at one time, a Saab 900 Turbo was the car of choice for that great connoisseur of motor vehicles (and other earthly delights) — Bond, James Bond.
It was a great ride.
The “Silver Beast” today
- Benson, Raymond. Gardner’s World? 007 Magazine #28. October 1995.
- Gardner, John. For Special Services. Jonathan Cape, 1982.
- Gardner, John. Email to John Cox. Feb 20, 2004.
- Gardner, John. Icebreaker. Jonathan Cape, 1983.
- Gardner, John. Letter to JBIFC president Ross Hendry. Reproduced in 007 Magazine #12, Jan. 1983.
- Gardner, John. Licence Renewed. Jonathan Cape, 1981.
- Gardner, John. Nobody Lives For Ever. Jonathan Cape, 1985.
- James Bond’s Saab Turbo Burns Up The Road, 007 Magazine #11. 1982.
- John Gardner Still Working on Bond. BONDAGE QUARTERLY, Vol. 4, N. 2, September 1983.
- Lonnegren, Lennart. Letter to John Cox. June 27, 1983.
- Schenkman, Richard, John Gardner: A Talk With the Man Holding James Bond’s Literary License BONDAGE #7. 1982.
- Schenkman, Richard, The 1985 Model John Gardner, BONDAGE #14. 1985.