Curbside Classic: 1971 SAAB 99 – Do You Remember Something Called Variety?

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If you’re currently looking for a four- or five-passenger car, you have essentially two formats from which to choose: Front-wheel drive, almost invariably with an end-on-gearbox, transversely-mounted engine; or front-engine/rear- drive. The latter is largely the preserve of premium (and wannabe premium) brands.

Just within Europe, however, things were very different. In the UK, in 1963, British Leyland alone offered three very different choices: the Austin/Morris 1800, which featured a transverse engine, a wheel at each corner, an OHV engine, an in-sump gearbox and hydrolastic suspension; the Rover 2000 (P6), with bolt-on panels, sliding-tube de Dion rear suspension, compact front suspension (to leave room for a gas turbine engine) and available boot lid-mounted spare wheel; and the Triumph 2000, which was more conventional than the others but still featured a straight-six engine and independent rear suspension.

The French offered us the Citroën DS–probably the most technically complex and complete car of its time ever offered–or the slightly smaller Renault 16 with a hatchback, column gear change, a smaller engine, and the transverse torsion-bar suspension responsible its famous asymmetrical wheelbase configuration.

Germany’s VW had the air-cooled Type 4; their associate, NSU, offered the rotary-engine Ro80, and also had developed the piston-engine, front-wheel drive K70 that was sold as a VW. Audi had the similar 100 series, whilst BMW and Mercedes-Benz had rear-drive saloons, at higher price points. Over in Italy, Fiat had similar but cheaper cars, but Lancia offered the intriguing Flavia range with front-wheel drive and longitudinally-mounted flat four engines,and Alfa Romeo had their 1750 and 2000 saloons, which had five-speed gearboxes and twin-cam engines.

Sweden gave us the Volvo 142/144 and 164 series, whose passive-safety-through-physical protection techniques were written all over, and SAAB’s recently launched 99 series was among the more interesting cars of the late 1960s.

SAAB9968-71

The SAAB 99 featured many eccentricities, most of which other manufacturers would never copy. The floor-mounted ignition switch was between the seats and interlocked with the gearbox (one had to select Reverse to remove the key); the doors wrapped over the outer sill in order to make entry easier (and keep trouser legs cleaner); there (usually) were wipers on the headlights; the wheels were relatively large, to cope with the rougher roads of Scandinavia; heated seats were available; the bonnet interlocked with the windscreen frame to help prevent it from going through the windscreen in an accident; the windscreen itself wrapped around, both to aid visibility and as a nod to SAAB’s aircraft heritage; there was a lever-controlled heater duct to the rear window, which later was replaced by conventional heating elements; the handbrake operated on the front wheels…

99.3.1

Other features hewed more closely to the norm: a four-cylinder engine, based on the engine of the Triumph Dolomite and therefore distantly related to the Triumph Stag’s V8, was mounted longitudinally, ahead of the driven front wheels but with the clutch up front. After SAAB had reliability issues with the Triumph engine, production was moved to Sweden in 1972. Only a conventional but distinctive saloon body with a choice of two or four doors was offered until 1975, when the three-door Combi Coupe became available.

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Such features did not appeal to all; many people were left cold by what seemed to be idiosyncrasies that, once studied and understood, were often appreciated. It’s said that the typical level of education of SAAB drivers was higher than Mercedes, Audi or BMW drivers right to the end; indeed,one UK magazine summed up the car as “a thoughtful car for thoughtful people”. Even so, it is hard to see a SAAB 99 or a later 900 as an impulse purchase.

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The 99’s greatest moment–perhaps SAAB’s greatest moment–came in 1978, with the arrival of the all black Turbo three-door coupe. Whilst not the first turbocharged car, it was the one that showed the way for turbocharging as a key to accessible and practical power for an everyday car, as well as being an image booster for the brand. It offered 145 bhp and could do 124 mph–remarkable figures for a 2.0-liter engine at the time–and performance to at least match a Rover 3500 V8, Mercedes-Benz 280E, or even a BMW 528, all with the SAAB individuality (and quite possibly the best-ever alloy wheels). It still gets a slot in my fantasy garage.

The 99 had a rally pedigree as well, though not to the extent of the earlier 96. It won the World Championship Swedish rallies in 1977 and 1979 before being outgunned by the four-wheel-drive Audi Quattro.

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This particular example is a 2.0-liter model, registered in 1971 in the UK and seen at a BMW dealership (possibly a former SAAB dealer?) in southwest Scotland by CC follower and sometime commenter Big Paws. Answers to discreet inquiries suggested it was a service customer’s car. Certainly, it bears all the hallmarks of being properly cared for–an owners’ club badge is always a good sign. UK records suggest there may be as few as 500 99s of all types left in the country, so whoever is keeping up this one deserves recognition and respect. He gets them from me.

And SAAB’s next new car after the 99? With a longer front end and new interior, the 1978 900 was the evolution of the 99. It was not replaced until 1993, fully 25 years after the 99 appeared. A 1984 joint venture iwith Fiat created the larger (inside, at least) SAAB 9000 along with the Alfa Romeo 164, Fiat Croma and Lancia Thema. The next new model was the 1993 900, based on the 1987 Vauxhall Cavalier/Opel Vectra, that arrived after SAAB came under GM’s control in 1990. Thus was the 99 SAAB’s first all-new car since 1947, and its last independently-developed one.

99 Turbo advert

I think there’s a part of each enthusiast that misses SAAB for one reason or another–but perhaps mostly for the individuality, the 99 Turbo, and those alloy wheels, even if the wrong ones appear to be spinning!