As Saab contemplates its future, Kilometer Magazine takes a drive in one of the most important and quirky vehicles in its history: the 1978 Saab 99 Turbo, one of the first cars to combine safety with turbocharged performance. —Ed.
If the 99 established Saab as a thoroughly modern car manufacturer, with its four-stroke engine and aerodynamic shape, it was the 1978 99 Turbo that cemented the brand's image as a builder of performance cars. Sure, a small contingent of Scandinavian rally kings could drive those smoky early Saabs to motorsports fame, but to the common public Saabs were just perceived as awkward little novelties. The 99 Turbo put the small Swedish builder on the radar for good.
In a 1977 road test of the Turbo, Car and Driver's Patrick Bedard noted that previous Saabs were "the stuff of legends — boring legends, mostly." He also noted their heated seats, high ground clearance, and wide-window defrosters: "Because everybody knows that Saabs are great for cold weather, but according to conventional wisdom, not much else." But then the 99 Turbo came along and Saab "jumped out of its pigeonhole."
99 aficionados will know that of the 4233 99 Turbos sold in the U.S. before the 900 Turbo was introduced in 1978, each and every one was a three-door hatch. You'll also notice that the one you see here is most definitely not. No, this particular car is one of just four notchback 99 Turbo sedans brought into the U.S. as early test cars, part of an overall fleet of 40 99 Turbos.
Paul Rossi was the original driver for this unusual subject, known as "Test Car 934." Records show that he drove the car for 17,909 miles, but the maintenance log found inside the car indicates it was used from 1977 until the end of 1982, at which point it fell off the map after 55,000 miles of service. Years later, the unique car was discovered lying in pieces in a northern New Jersey garage.
That's when Rich Kushner of Swedish Motors, Inc. in Marietta, Pennsylvania, came along. He saved the 99 and brought it to his restoration shop where it was reassembled and restored to its original brilliance by Ken "Kaner" Peiffer, his co-worker at SMI. That's where we caught up with the car and its current owners.
We must say, this car is truly fantastic. Sure, the three-door's hatchback rear end was iconic and cool, but this two-door sedan's swoopy c-pillar and trunk line is a thing of beauty as well. Approaching the car, it's easy to appreciate the quality of the rebuild. The immaculate Cardinal Red paint is pure 1970s funky and perfectly complements the wild burgundy interior with tweedy-looking tan floormats. The rest of the car seems pristine, with a slight patina and minor wear here and there.
Climbing into #934, we're immediately greeted by "old European car smell" — the distinct odor of '70s-era plastic, vinyl, and carpet. It takes you back to another time, as do the funky, period-typical trimmings like wedge-shaped inner door pulls and hookless seat belts that must be laid and locked into snapping jaws. Having just read Bedard's review, it's easy to see how journalists of the time appreciated the 99's clean, no-bullshit design. As visitors thirty-three years from the future, we wish that the cabins of some modern cars took the same less-is-more approach.
Saab also took a modern, sophisticated strategy with the new turbo engine's design. The few turbo cars of the era, including Porsche's early 911 Turbos, used wastegate systems that measured a predetermined intake manifold pressure to hold boost at its peak. This was a straightforward approach, and the result was an engine that spit out a crescendo of power and torque that usually peaked right before redline.
The 99 Turbo took a different tack. It used a new AiResearch turbocharger that worked with the car's Bosch fuel injection and new-for-the-era emissions control system to measure exhaust backpressure. The Saab wasn't tuned for peak power, but for more low-end torque and characteristics in line with what customers of the day expected from naturally aspirated engines. The 99's torque band crests early and then holds steady in the middle of the tach before falling off at the top. This quality made the Turbo easier to drive than other early turbocharged sports cars, and it also helped the car manage a quarter-mile time that was a half-second (17.5 at 81.9 mph) quicker than that of the normal, four-cylinder 99.
Despite all this, driving the 99 Turbo is not a lag-free experience. Keep in mind that only in the past few years have some manufacturers come close to reaching the dream world of imperceptible turbochargers.
As we reach down between the seats and turn the key, the old 99 protests just a bit until we coax a breath out of it with a slight stab of the throttle. The car warms up within a couple of minutes, at which point we mash the throttle. Boost builds steadily, but serious acceleration doesn't really happen until around 3500 rpm. The shifter is surprisingly direct and somewhat crisp given its age, and the transmission's four gears are well matched to the engine's characteristics. The Turbo's gearing was stretched a bit from the ordinary 99's in an effort to maintain boost pressure during acceleration. By allowing the driver to shift less frequently, Saab's engineers bypassed, as best they could, this drawback. The car feels quick taken in context of its era, though today it would be left in the dust of many family sedans. Such is progress.
While the rarity of this 99's silhouette makes our short drive feel particularly special, we're left with an even deeper understanding of just how important the production-spec 99 Turbo was in its era. At the time, vehicles offering practicality, safety, comfort, economy, and performance one package were rare. The base 99 had most, but not all, of those qualities; the Turbo simply filled in the gaps. As Bedard concluded, ""It comes as something of a shock to all of us to discover that safe, sane, snow-proof Saab now has fetched up a model that'll get second-gear rubber and double the double-nickel any day of the week." Thirty-some years later, Saab is still doing it, though a notchback turbo is no longer the rarity it once was.
Kilometer Magazine is a digital publication for European car and motorcycle enthusiasts.