Wednesday July 26, 2017
This year marks a double celebration for Saab, not only is it the 40th anniversary of the Turbo, it is also the 50th birthday of the 99. Of course, the Turbo wasn’t the first car to employ waste exhaust gases to enhance performance. The Chevrolet Corvair Monza dated from 1972 and eleven years later BMW introduced the 2002 Turbo with that distinctive mirror writing on the spoiler. The Porsche 911 Turbo was launched in the following year but what Saab intended, and achieved, was a practical sports saloon that would combine performance, practicality and reliability.
The original 99 was launched in November 1967 and was powered by a modified version of Triumph’s slant four unit and after 1972, and in response to complaints about the units sent out from British Leyland, Saab began making their own 2-Litre ‘B’ version of the engine. In that same year, the EMS with Bosch D-Jetronic injection offered enhanced performance and the company evaluated building a 99 powered by the Stag’s 3-Litre V8, but these plans were apparently cancelled in the aftermath of the 1973 Fuel Crisis.
A further challenge was meeting the emission control standards of California and so Saab opted to produce a turbocharged 99 that would combine high performance with a reasonable fuel economy. Under the bonnet was a Garrett turbocharger that functioned in tandem with the Bosch fuel injector. The system was primarily designed for low-speed torque and the maximum boost was around the middle of its rpm band and the fuel injector was monitored by a ‘closed loop’ catalyst system which was monitored by an oxygen sensor. This resulted in a turbocharged car that could be easily used for low-speed urban motoring as it would be on the freeway.
Saab thoroughly tested the 99 Turbo, with no fewer than 100 prototypes amassing nearly three million miles, before its debut at the Frankfurt 1977 Motor Show. One of its major intended markets was the USA and Car & Driver remastered that ‘One heroic blast down the highway is enough to convert anybody’. Here is the great car starring in a splendid PR film presented by Raymond Baxter: part one and part two.
With a British price tag of £7,950, the 99 Turbo was a highly expensive proposition competing against the likes of the Porsche 924 - but then it was a rather special machine. Autocar stated that ‘Very occasionally a car comes along which shocks the seen-it-all, driven-them-all staff of Autocar out of their complacency’. Motor similarly raved that ‘we can see why Saab has so much faith in the machine: it’s exceptional’ and two years later Car noted the Turbo's ‘exhilarating shove when it's on song’ and how it was ‘a beautifully poised car that remains reassuring composed no matter how hard you push it’.
The Turbo was distributed in the UK via 130 specially trained dealers and as compared with certain boy racer vehicles (I mention no names) that you might have encountered in a Fine Fare car park circa 1978, the Saab’s appearance was decidedly low-key. The UK colour choice was any shade you cared for, so long as it was black, with spoilers, Bosch auxiliary lights, ‘Inca’ alloy wheels and a boost gauge perched on top of the dashboard as the principal methods of distinguishing the Turbo from less rapid forms of the 99. This was a car primarily concerned with engineering excellence, as opposed to being first away from the traffic lights. ‘go-faster stripes’ and a taste for Woolworth’s finest faux-gold medallions.
The Turbo was originally offered with only the 3-door Combi body but in 1978 Saab made a limited run of 5-door versions, all finished in Cardinal Red, and in the following year introduced the two-door version. Production of the 99 Turbo ceased in 1981 by which point it was already widely regarded as a classic. It is not just one of the most important cars in the history of Saab but one that marked a watershed in automotive development.