The look of an ’80s Saab in full IMSA GTO attire makes us really sad this isn’t a real thing

Saab, the now-defunct Swedish automaker known for its quirky models and its original parent company, also known as Saab, that made fighter jets among other things was never big on racing. While the company took pride in the myriad of technical innovations that saw the light of day in Saab’s cars, the track was never Saab’s main development lab. That’s why this brutal-looking Saab 900 Turbo is the stuff of dreams as it takes us to an alternate reality where Saab not only had a proper presence in the U.S. in the ’80s but also decided to spend money developing a race car for the popular GTO/Trans-Am rules that brought together American sedans and coupes as well as Porsches, Ferraris, and Audis.

This is one fire-spitting Saab

Saab Never Raced In IMSA But These Renders Envision A Parallel Universe Where It Did
- image 939087

The International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) is the sanctioning body behind the leading U.S.-based professional sports car series. Established in 1971, it became the go-to arena for American automakers to do battle with their European arch-rivals. Porsche dominated in the early days with a variety of 911-based models before IMSA’s co-founder John Bishop drew up the rules for the All-American GT (AAGT) class in 1974. Allowing more freedom to the home-grown automakers worked in undermining Porsche’s dominance as Chevy-badged tube-framed race cars were the class of the field in 1976 in 1977.

Then, the tides turned once more as IMSA allowed full-blown Group 5 silhouette race cars to join. While the AAGT machines were also silhouettes, they were never at the receiving end of a money pig coming from the manufacturers they represented.

That's why when BMW and Porsche were allowed to run amok with their 320Is and 935s, all the Chevys, Fords, and Dodges became obsolete.

To stop the 935s from winning everything (in 1980, the first 10 drivers in the GTX class’ standings had 935s), IMSA allowed prototypes to join in on the fun from 1981 onwards.

View this post on Instagram

Since the beginning of the project I know we wanted to see the S9 in action as if it was running a private testing lap to shakedown the car and adjust/tune/develops the various aspects of the car (I like to always think of the narrative behind things when I create). Thanks to our friend Larry Chen we were able to make this concept a reality. Larry kindly offered some amazing backplates (photos) that he had captured at the world famous Nurburgring. Thank you Larry!!! I was then able to take our S9 and place it in this scene/world to get a true sense of how it would look and feel. There are a few more action shots to share but I figured we would all like to see it jumping so let’s start with that :) - - Credits - Art Direction + Designer + CGI Artist - Ash Thorp Designer + CGI Modeling - @mattabellamy Backplate - @larry_chen_foto - . . . . . #cinema4dart #saabturbo #saabnation #rallycar #mgcollective #3dartist #c4dart #c4d #saab900 #saabplanet #saabnuts #3d #carsofinstagram #saabsofinstagram #mograph #turbocharged #trackaddict #enduranceracing #nordschleife #cargram #roadatlanta #car #rallye #racing #simracing #octanerender #fastcars #blendercommunity #motionlovers #saab95

A post shared by Ash Thorp (@ashthorp) on

It eventually backfired as the much-adored GTP cars (basically the American version of European Group C cars) became too expensive to run and wound up being sidelined in favor of cheaper and slower open-top prototypes. But, while the GTPs reigned supreme, a whole different world was growing in the GT ranks. There, in the GTO and GTU categories, the status quo had remained largely the same since the AAGT days as tube-frame cars were the norm. The thing was, however, that they’d become a lot wider and boxier with their appearance somewhat uniformed by the ruleset.

Still, you’d see everything from the Ford Mustang to the Mercury Cougar, Chevrolet Corvette, Pontiac Firebird, Ford Thunderbird, Toyota Celica, and even Audi’s 90 Quattro compete come the end of the ’80s. Saab never took part, but what if it had? Visual artist Ash Thorp is a Saab fan who split his time between designing Ken Block’s Mustang Foxbody-based Hoonifox and designing what you see here, the Saab 900 Turbo IMSA GTO.

View this post on Instagram

Let’s get into some of the details and profiles of the SAAB S9 project. When designing over an existing chassis it’s really important to me to not disrupt the original designers intentions unless that’s the goal. Since the concept for this build was to create a false narrative of the Saab 900 being entered as a world contender into the IMSA series it was important for us to keep that silhouette iconic to the original 900 yet giving it a new flow. @mattabellamy and I had a great time testing different lines and wing silhouettes to get the perfect ratio. This livery we simply called Livery 001 was an inverted version of the 002 livery. I will get into the design of all this stuff at a later posting but for now I wanted to show some fun angles and details that we felt captured the essence of this incredibly imaginary machine. . . . . . . #cinema4dart #saabturbo #saabnation #rallycar #mgcollective #3dartist #c4dart #c4d #saab900 #saabplanet #saabnuts #3d #carsofinstagram #saabsofinstagram #mograph #turbocharged #trackaddict #enduranceracing #nordschleife #cargram #roadatlanta #car #rallye #racing #simracing #octanerender #fastcars #blendercommunity #motionlovers #saab95

A post shared by Ash Thorp (@ashthorp) on

Officially known as 'Project S9', this 900 Turbo race car is worlds apart from the road-legal 900.

While the two-door coupe’s 143 horsepower engine is in the front and sends its power to the front wheels, the 900 Turbo features a mid-engine arrangement with the power dispatched to the back axle. Thorp acted as the Art Director, Designer, and CGI Artist for the ’S9’, while Matt Bellamy also helped with the design process and was the main CGI modeler. The duo went for an all-out, ultra-wide body kit that barely envelopes those huge rims complete with body-matching turbofans (those funnel-like things covering the rims).

The body panels - including the removable front and rear clips - are made out of carbon fiber and that’s also the case for the two-piece rear wing. The designer of the latest Batmobile (yes, Thorp is behind that as well), envisioned huge, boxy flares that narrow down towards the car’s nose that features covered headlights and a multi-element inlet incorporated in the splitter. The massive flares connect to the skirts along the sides which, while providing support for the exhaust pipe, extend far beyond the edges of the doors. The flares in the back match those in the front in terms of width and the wing is as wide as the car’s tail section.

There are no specs together with this outlandish project but we think a car like this would be insane. Why? Well, because IMSA GTO cars from the late ’80s and early ’90s were insane. Take, for instance, the Jack Roush-built Mercury Cougar XR-7. Powered by a 5.5-liter N/A V-8, it develops 675 horsepower and 560 pound-feet of torque. Everything gets sent to the back axle and the whole car weighs less than 2,300 pounds. This Saab is cut from the very same cloth.

View this post on Instagram

HERE IT IS EVERYONE! A look at the next build… the SAAB S9. The concept was simple and pure. Take a car that was somewhat forgotten, modernize its design, and reinvent its narrative to be a leading contender in the world-renown IMSA racing series. - We adore the IMSA racing era of the late 80’s early 90’s and I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the body shape and lines of the SAAB 900 turbo so we thought… sure, why not. That is the fun and power of doing these projects. - This project like all passion projects was a product of long hours, weekends, nights for months and months. It’s a total labor of love and we had a great time bringing it to life. For me I have learned a great deal about how to push the quality of my materials, post processing, shaders, renders and how to better light and build projects. One of my personal goals in CGI has been to match or attempt to match the quality of work that Alex Roman captured in his masterwork - The third and the Seventh. I am still a ways away from that goal but with each project I get a glimpse of what is to come. Cheers to the future and for setting insane goals! More renders/details/breakdowns to come in the following weeks. If you would like to see the entire project please visit my site (link in the bio) with all the high res images your heart can consume) - Massive thanks to my friend @mattabellamy for taking this journey with me and dealing with my antics (xoxoxo) and to the brilliant @aephmusic for the amazing score’s he consistently creates to pair with the visual madness. - SAAB POWER! - . . . . . #c4d #c4dart #render #dailyrender #3d #cinema4dart #cargram #art #digitalart #carsofinstagram #b3d #mograph #cinema4d #renderzone #3danimation #cgiart #fastcar #substancepainter #3dartist #automotive #car #cars #design #carlifestyle #3dfordesigners #3dart #speedhunters #swedespeed #instacars

A post shared by Ash Thorp (@ashthorp) on

The rise and fall of Saab

Saab Never Raced In IMSA But These Renders Envision A Parallel Universe Where It Did
- image 939085

It’s been almost a decade since that dark, cold day in December when we caught word of Saab’s bankruptcy. We could see it coming for a while, given Saab’s misfortunes since the moment GM decided to cut the Griffin badge out of its portfolio. It all began in 2008 when the brand was placed under "strategic review" which is fancy talk for the death row. In short, Saab’s days under GM ownership were numbered and, in fact, many pundits thought it wouldn’t survive at all. Sadly, they were right.

You see, Saab, the defense company established all the way back in 1937, didn’t really know half-measures. After all, the Swedes were busy building stuff like fighter airplanes up until 1945 when World War II ended, and, for some reason, there wasn’t that big of a demand for planes featuring bombs and machine guns on them anymore. To avoid going bankrupt, Saab did essentially what both BMW had done a few decades earlier - they built a car.

That first car looked weird and it spawned an entire series of weird, bulbous, compact automobiles that looked like they came from a company that had no business building cars. While that was, at first, very true, it was also very true that, given its background, Saab had a different approach when it came to making cars. No corners were cut when it came down to the safety features that would go on each model and that meant designing each of them was costly. Really costly. So costly, in fact, that the famous 99 debuted in 1968, almost 19 years after the 92 was put on sale.

The 99 epitomized everything that Saab was about: cutting-edge tech that also lends itself to the safety department, where Saab was rivaling fellow Swedish carmaker Volvo and other executive brands as the safest of all, and a rare sense of uniqueness that became a rare breath of fresh air in the ever-modernizing automotive landscape that was already focusing heavily on volumes. In a battle between quantity and quality, Saab stubbornly chose the latter each and every time and that’s what cost them.

One year after the 99 was released, Saab merged with Swedish commercial vehicle manufacturer Scania to form Saab-Scania, the merger allowing Saab to increase its volumes and develop new models - all while retaining its uniqueness. But it didn’t work for long as the company was effectively focusing on up-market coupes and sedans while everyone seemed to want to buy much smaller, cheaper, and more economical propositions. Saab tried to get into the small car market by agreeing with Fiat to sell the Lancia Delta as the Saab 600.

Saab Never Raced In IMSA But These Renders Envision A Parallel Universe Where It Did
- image 939083

In the end, the car wound up on the market with the awkward nameplate of ’Saab-Lancia 600’ and, since it looked like a Lancia and even had the Lancia badge on the nose, nobody was gullible enough to believe Saab had a hand in making the product. As a result, the car was never sold outside of Scandinavia. But Saab did have a hand in designing the platform that was supposed to underpin the executive models for both it and partnering brands Alfa Romeo, Fiat, and Lancia. The three Italian companies got the 164, Croma, and Thema respectively out of the deal while Saab sold the 9000.

As the deal outlined, it was supposed to be just a slightly more expensive case of brand engineering. Saab would get to cooperate with Fiat on the new platform but, once that was over and done with, the 9000 had to be identical to the Croma, 164, and the Thema underneath the uniquely Saab body. But Saab didn’t like the platform. A new rear axle was designed by Saab exclusively for the 9000 which also had thicker body panels than its Italian siblings and many other bits that made it a lot more expensive. Once again, Saab refused to change its ways meaning the company lost money with every 9000 made.

It got so bad that GM had to effectively bail Saab out in 1989.

The Americans pumped $600 million into Saab at the time and again tried to coax the Swedes to give in and consent to some brand engineering that would save money. The new 900 would, as a result, be just a re-badged Opel Vectra/Vauxhall Cavalier. At least that was the plan. As a University of Cambridge study by Matthias Holveg and Professor Nick Oliver described, "Saab resisted GM attempts to standardize," and also "GM-Europe’s configuration as a high-volume producer of economy to mid-range cars sat uncomfortably with Saab’s individualism and technological sophistication."

You can see that in many of the details of the 1994 Saab 900. By many, we mean the two-thirds of them that aren’t shared with the Vectra. The story was much of the same with the first-generation 9-3 that didn’t even share the wheelbase with the Vectra B and, again, almost a decade later when the (what would become) last 9-5 was unveiled and proved to be vastly different when compared to Opel’s Insignia. By, then, Saab had finally accepted to make some crossovers like the 9-2X (based on the Subaru Impreza) and the 9-7X (based on the Chevrolet Trailblazer) but it was too late.

As GM finished its review, it announced that Saab was up for grabs and, after Koenigsegg together with some Norwegian investors and the Chinese car maker Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Co. Ltd. (BAIC) failed to buy the company, it ended up in the hands of another supercar maker, Spyker. This looked like a haphazard agreement that came together extremely last minute and Spyker would soon come to the same conclusion as it announced that it didn’t have enough funds to put Saab back on its feet and decided to look for investors. In early 2011, GM barred a deal between Spyker and a Chinese partnership of Zhejiang Youngman, Lotus Automobile Co., and Pang Da Automobile Trade Co. from happening.

Saab Never Raced In IMSA But These Renders Envision A Parallel Universe Where It Did
- image 939084

This latter deal, had it become a reality, had at least a theoretical chance of turning the tides for Saab. But GM, which had the ability to veto the re-sale of Saab-developed tech and also remained Saab’s source for engines (among other things) feared that the Chinese may also get ahold of some GM secrets along the way and it never happened.

After Spyker finally threw in the towel, Saab’s assets were purchased by a Chinese consortium called National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS). The consortium re-opened the Saab plant at Trollhattan and briefly put the 9-3 back into production before it too ran out of juice. We don’t know if there is yet another chapter waiting to be written in the Saab story but, for now, what’s clear is that NEVS still wants to build electric cars underpinned by the 9-3 platform but without the Griffin on them.

Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert -
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read More
About the author

Related Articles

2008 Saab Turbo X

What do you think?
Show Comments
Car Finder: