It’s the unofficial month of Saab 99 lovin, so I thought a primer on the Saab 99 was appropriate.
There’s a lot left out of this, but it’s just a primer, not a book. Those of you that have had the pleasure of owning and driving one of these magnificent and most quintessential Saaby cars, please feel free to smile at any time as you read this.
If you’ve got a 99, or have owned one previously and have photos of it, please forward your shots and stories to me via email for the month of 99 love.
Ever heard about the Saab – Daihatsu connection?
That’s one of the ways that Saab disguised prototypes of the Saab 99 during its testing phase – they crafted a “daihatsu” badge from a Saab Sport badge out of the Saab 96. The Saab 99 needed some disguising as it was the first all-new Saab in a long time and by the time it arrived it was the first new Saab model in around 19 years!
The Saab 99 was born from a project called Gudmund, named for the day on which the board took the decision to pursue the project – April 2, 1964 – Gudmund’s Day.
With the growth of the company and the growth of the motor vehicle market after the second world war, Saab knew that it needed a larger car to keep pace. The Saab 99 was to be this car. It’s initial design work was done primarily by Saab design guru Sixten Sason with the help of a young Bjorn Envall. Sadly, Sason died a short time before the unveiling of the 99. His work on the 99, though, and it’s use right through to the last Saab 900 in 1993 meant the Sason’s designs had driven Saab for 46 years from its inception as a car company in 1947. The fact that a late model Saab 900 can still look like a very contemporary car even today is a true testament to his creative skills.
Work got underway in earnest and the first prototype vehicles began testing in 1965. No-one would recognise them as 99s though as they resembled 96s in just about every way. These vehicles were known as “toads”. In effect they were a Saab 99 chassis and engine with a widened Saab 96 body placed on them. A 20cm section was welded into place down the middle, thus widening the 96 body to fit onto the 99 chassis. The Swedish newspaper Expressen managed to uncover the truth when a photographer managed to catch a ‘toad’ and a regular 96 together.
The Saab 99 made its public debut at a show called Teknorama in Stockholm, on November 22nd, 1967. It would be another year, however, before the model was released to the public for sale. Even the journalists had to wait, as there were only 50 cars available and these were being rigorously tested by a crew of engineers and carefully selected test drivers.
The 1969 Saab 99 was released with a 1.7 litre engine that produced 80hp. It used a 4-speed gearbox, the first Saab to do so with the shift mounted on the floor. The 1969 Saab 99 did the 0-100 sprint in around 18 seconds, though the last of the Saab 99s would bring this down below 9 seconds some 9 or so years later.
The initial body was a 2-door coupe and because the seats in the rear folded down to allow access to the trunk, the car was also described as a ‘semi-estate’.
This was no small claim, either. The one thing you note when you get into a Saab 99 is the amount of space – much more than you envision when you see the car from the outside. With its forward-mounted engine and no need for a driveshaft tunnel through the middle of the cabin, the Saab 99 was a very roomy vehicle for its size.
There was a great deal of evolution through the 99 series. It was perhaps the most dynamic vehicle that Saab has ever built in terms of its evolution through the years. Saab’s dual-circuit braking system was introduced a few years beforehand, but the 99’s lifespan saw the introduction of standard headlamp washers and wipers, heated seats, the combi coupe body style, electronic fuel injection, electrodipping for rust protection, self-repairing bumpers, side impact bolstering, head restraints as standard and of course – the biggest change of them all – the turbocharger.
Prior to this, though, Saab developed the EMS variant, which was the top-level and sporting choice for Saab buyers. The EMS debuted in 1972. The initials stood for (E) electronic fuel injection, (M) manual transmission, and (S) special equipment. This was the first Saab to feature the new 1985cc engine and even more, it came equipped with Bosch’s Jetronic fuel injection system. The special equipment consisted of specially designed wheels, leather trimmed steering wheel, halogen lamps and the addition of a tachometer on the dash.
In 1974, Saab introduced the Combi-coupe – a three-door hatchback body style for the 99 that gave it seemingly cavernous load space. The hatch door went right down to the rear bumper and revealed a totally flat trunk. With the rear seats folded flat there was a massive 184cm of cargo floor length.
Work had begun on the Combi-coupe body style as early as 1971 but it wasn’t released until January 1974. The body shape and utility quickly found favour with the public and it was synonymous with Saab design for over 20 years in the form of the 99 and 900. The hatchback style continued on until 2002 in the form of the first-gen 9-3.
The Saab 99 Turbo was a truly revolutionary car. Whilst other companies had tried turbocharging without success, Saab got the formula right with a smaller turbo that would spin quicker and not push the car to breaking. It was primarily available in Saab’s very successful three-door body, but a small number of 5-door and 2-door 99T’s were also produced.
Road and Track wrote of the 99 Turbo: “The Saab Turbo is exhilarating to drive…it’s so much fun the price is irrelevant”.
Anyone who’s had the pleasure of owning or driving one of these quite rare Saabs will tell you that’s the honest truth. The Saab 99 handled very well for a car of it’s weight and versatility and the added turbo rush made it one of the most fun cars you could ever own. To know and understand it’s place, not only in Saab history but in automotive history, makes the driving experience all the more special.
The Saab 99 range and production was scaled down dramatically in 1979 due to the advent of the Saab 900 range. It continued up until 1984 when the 99 was replaced with the Saab 90, a kind of hybrid using the front of the 99 and the rear of a 900.
There were 588,643 Saab 99s made between MY1969 and MY1984. The majority of these were produced in Trollhattan, but a large number including most of the Turbos were produced at the Valmet factory in Finland.
For a full run down on specs and model year changes in an online form, I suggest you visit The Saab Museum. If you’re looking for a good read on the Saab 99, I can personally recommend Lance Cole’s excellent “Saab 99 and 900”, Mark Chatterton’s hard-to-find “Saab: The Innovator” or Motorhistoriskt Magasin’s “50 years of Saabs”.