Last week’s COAL on my Datsun 510 ended ignominiously in the Catskills when I borrowed my boss’s car and drove from Vermont to New York to retrieve my belongings from the deceased Datsun. My boss loaned me his 1975 Saab 99 EMS and days later as the summer of 1981 was waxing the Saab became mine.
I don’t recall having any awareness of Saabs growing up in Ohio, but in the latter half of the 1970’s they were abundant in the Peoples’ Republic of Vermont as they combined a unique esthetic with incredible winter capabilities. The 99s were just reaching an age where those of modest means – a ski bum/college student like myself – could acquire one. At $1,200 the used Saab was the most expensive car I had purchased to date. It also represented something I greatly admire – an iconoclastic product from a company not compelled to follow the automotive pack.
My boss at the ski area, Bob, had always been a bit of an iconoclast himself. Originally from the Midwest like me, he had seamlessly transitioned from school teacher to lobster fisherman to ski patroller to running a major New England ski resort. He typified the Saab customer – someone who, with apologies to Apple, was not afraid to Think Different.
Bob had purchased the 99 EMS two-door coupe new in 1975. The fuel injected EMS (Electronic Manual Special) was the sportiest of the 99 models. It featured a normally aspirated 1.985 liter in-line four-cylinder engine that made 108 horsepower and a four-speed manual transmission. Like all Saabs it was front wheel drive but Saab was not afraid to compare its handling to more conventional rear wheel drive sport sedans of the day. The car was peppered with small technical details not found on its competitors. It had four-wheel disc brakes but the emergency brake operated on the front wheels, not the rear. Safety fanatics, the Saab engineers put the ignition on the floor and not on the steering stalk as they felt the incidence of driver knee injuries from bumping against the key in an accident was too high. Consequently, the ignition lockout locked the transmission not the steering. Saab was not alone in having a front-hinged hood, but the feature was not exactly mainstream.
During its later General Motors years Saab was not afraid to remind us they were “Born from Jets”, but that was obvious to me in 1981. The instrument cluster was all function and featured a soft orange glow at night that made me believe I was alone in a jet fighter at 40,000 feet. The rest of the Saab interior was equally unique, a modern Scandinavian environment that Volvo was never able to capture as well in its cars.
The seatbelts had no buckles. Instead the belt itself clipped directly into a retaining mechanism between the front seats. If you were to watch the uninitiated’s first drive in the 99 it would start with confusion on how the seat belt worked followed by a period of puzzled searching for where to insert the key.
The space, oh the space! With a total length of 171” the 99 was just 4 ½” longer than the BMW 2002. But front wheel drive, an upright driving position and the first fold down rear seat I’d ever experienced meant the Saab was cavernous and could swallow bikes and ski equipment with aplomb.
The Saab proved a blast to drive in good weather and bad. In summer its road manners and its unique cockpit environment made every drive special. It was even more fun in the winter where Saab’s rally heritage could be tested. By mid-winter Vermont dirt roads would develop a washboard surface. While this would result in an uncomfortable undulation at low speeds, I discovered that the car would plane out and ride smoothly above 50 miles per hour – a most satisfying solution. Cornering methodology also changed during Winter months when tightly packed snow berms lined the dirt lanes. When cornering you could steer into the inside berm and hold tight against it through the corner. Apex? We don’t need no stinking apex!
Naturally there were mechanical issues foremost of which was the brakes. The Other Michael and I decided to rebuild the Girling calibers. This makes it sound like a proactive decision, but as is usually the case the car decided for us and we were left to execute its directive. Vermont winters are hard on a car. When we think of rust we think of damaged rockers and deteriorating fenders, but we forget that the salt equally abuses any exposed mechanicals. After six years the biggest issue in refurbishing the brakes was unbolting the Girlings so that we could service them. They were attached by 18 millimeter bolts. The Other Michael had always purchased Sears Craftsman tools. They were good quality, reasonably priced and guaranteed for life. At his suggestion I had picked up some Craftsman sockets myself. Between the two of us we had four 18 millimeter sockets. We broke three of them removing the calibers. The Sears representative, cheerful but perplexed, replaced all three sockets.
Even with properly functioning brakes the Saab had a propensity to eat through front brake pads after about 3,000 to 5,000 miles. My informal survey of other Vermont Saab owners found that their results were slightly better at 7,000 to 10,000 miles but still significantly less than most cars. After changing front pads the miser in me would store the used ones in the trunk. This proved to be beneficial one time when the Other Michael and I were driving from Vermont to Philadelphia after a week of skiing during my Spring break. I was giving a ride to another student from my school I had connected with through the school’s ride board. She lived on a rural dirt road high up on the Killington/Rutland pass in Vermont. After picking her up I began a spirited descent down to Rutland. Midway I heard and felt a crunchiness from the front pads that indicated they were shot. No problem. A quick stop in the Rutland A&P Supermarket parking lot to swap in slightly less used pads and in 20 minutes we were on our way.
Overall parts proved expensive. After following the Other Michael, now the owner of a Porsche 914, through an intersection with a steeply crowned cross road I achieved more lift than was optimal. The end result was that the Saab’s suspension extended so far during my short flight that one drive axle pulled out of the transmission and was damaged. I don’t remember the cost of the replacement part, but I do remember the Other Michael chiding me that it significantly more than his father had paid for a similar Mercedes part.
At a certain point the 99 EMS needed a full top end rebuild – a common issue with the model – and as usual I lacked the funds. I stored the EMS in a friend’s barn and sold it sometime later.
That was not the end of my Saab story, however. In 1988, married and now living in Maryland outside of Washington, DC, I got a hankering for another Saab. My wife Debbie and I did not yet have children, but we anticipated some would come along in a few years and cringed at the thought of becoming a suburban mini-van family. We preemptively and whimsically purchased a 1971 Saab 95.
The Saab 95 wagon, and its 96 sedan stablemate, were predecessors of the 99. The 95 wagon and the tear-shaped 96 were direct descendants of earlier Saab automobiles the first of which was the Saab 92, first manufactured in 1949. As Saab had previously only manufactured aircraft the Saab 91 was a plane. Early Saabs featured two-stroke three-cylinder engines. The 95 wagon went into production in 1959 and the 96 sedan went on sale in 1960. The biggest change during the wagon’s run, which extended to 1978, was the introduction of a 1.5 liter V4 four-stroke engine beginning in 1967.
My 95 wagon featured a three speed manual transmission with a vague column shifter. The Saab’s most anachronistic feature was the transmission’s freewheeling ability. The freewheeling feature would essentially allow the engine to spin separately from the transmission when coasting. This functionality harked back to Saab’s two-cycle days when the lubricating oil had been mixed in with the gasoline. It prevented the engine from running dry on lubricants when descending. In a descent you might not have your foot on the gas but, with the car in gear, you would nonetheless be revving the engine. Activating the freewheel thus allowed the car to descend at speed with the engine at idle assuring that the lubrication rate and engine speed were in sync. The wagon was a seven seater as in the back it had a rear-facing third seat accessible through the rear lift gate.
My 96 wagon never really made it into the daily driver rotation but it did entertain us on weekend spins around town and it was the car to have for a young married couple transporting a newly purchased futon couch. Children particularly loved its rear facing seats and all occupants were always guaranteed to smile.
With minimal use it provided zero mechanical problems. After a couple of years, I decided the wagon deserved a fuller life and sold it on to a good home.
Coincidentally, my Saab era ended about the same time as Saab lost its independence in 1990. Lacking the scale and financial strength needed to develop the next generation of cars Saab needed a partner. Saab’s automotive division was spun off as a separate company and General Motors took a 50% stake. Subsequent Saabs would share components with other GM divisions such as Opel and Buick but the Saab engineers continued to think different. With each new shared model, they made sure that the Saab editions were nearly as iconoclastic and over-engineered as always. While this assured a certain continuity with predecessor Saabs it was ultimately their undoing as these extra engineering costs were spread over such a small volume of cars that GM eventually deemed Saab financially unviable. GM sold Saab to specialty vehicle manufacturer Spyker in 2010 and they proved to be uniquely unsuited to reviving the marque. The last Saab as we knew it rolled off the assembly line in 2012 and at that moment the World become just a little less interesting.
Related Saab reading: