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In 1969, had you wanted something a cut above the average rear-drive repmobile, you could have splashed out just shy of £1000 on British Leyland’s freshly launched Austin Maxi.
Fast-forward 10 years, and for roughly the same price as a BMW 525 you could again find yourself behind the wheel of a Saab 99, this time a turbocharged hatchback pumping out 145bhp and capable of comprehensively blowing the Bavarian six-cylinder sports saloon into the weeds.
Much water had flowed through the fjords of Sweden in the interim, but the foregoing observation tells you a lot about Saab – and a lot about the 99, a model that became both emblem and lifeline for the Trollhättan firm.
When production of the final Saab 90 ended in 1987, nearly 600,000 of the 99 family had been made – to which must be added more than 900,000 of the 99-derived 900s, the last in 1993.
It would be mean-spirited, perhaps, to remind you that BL turned out fewer than 500,000 Maxis, a car that was largely unchanged over its 12-year life.
Saab’s recipe for success was thoughtful design, robustness and progressive evolution.
Engines became larger, until the 99 sat happily in the crucial 2-litre prestige class. Body choice expanded first to a four-door, then three- and five-door hatchbacks.
A sporting EMS variant joined the range. And then came the Turbo, an upmarket slingshot, often sexily black-painted, signalling a definitive break from the rin-tin-tin two-strokes with which Saab made its name.
It was in 1964 that management gave the green light to development of a new, bigger Saab.
This followed the arrival the previous year of a batch of 20 test engines from British consultancy Ricardo.
Meanwhile, independent designer Sixten Sason had come up with a radical study for Saab called the ‘Canard’ – because of its duck-like looks. This would form the basis of the 99’s distinctive lines.
As for the mechanicals, these were an evolution of existing Saab front-wheel-drive practice.
The 96’s coil-and-wishbone front was retained, with the coil springs set above the upper wishbones and linked as before to rack-and-pinion steering.
At the rear a dead axle continued, but straight rather than U-shaped. Location of the coil-sprung beam was by a four-link system, bolstered by a Panhard rod.
Braking was by discs all round, with dual circuits and a servo, and with separate drums for the notably efficient handbrake, which operated on the front wheels.
Just as the styling moved on, so did the powerplant. Saab had heard that Triumph was working on a similar slant-four – and a sister V8 – so it was agreed instead to collaborate on a shared unit.
Ricardo’s drawings and prototypes were passed to Triumph; manufacture of a revised design would be by the Coventry firm, which ultimately used the engine in the Dolomite and TR7, while Saab was to take on the testing programme.
The result, after the Swedes had discarded the idea of a 1500cc unit, was a 1709cc alloy-head crossflow, with a chain-driven single camshaft.
Designed to be installed at a 45º angle, and to be narrow enough to form half of Triumph’s V8, it had one row of head studs at an angle, along with the valves, resulting in wedge-shaped combustion chambers.
Mounted longitudinally, with the timing chain to the back, the engine was mated to a gearbox and final drive positioned underneath. This unusual but compact arrangement allowed easy clutch servicing and a limited front overhang.
The gearbox, incidentally, was also of Triumph origin, being a Swedish-built uprating of the unit used in the 1300 saloon.
Announced in November ’67, the 99 didn’t go on sale until autumn ’68, after 50 pre-production cars had been put in the hands of Saab personnel and members of the public for extended ‘real world’ testing.
It was October 1969 before it became available in the UK. With an 1854cc option from autumn 1970, standardised for ’72, Saab specialist Andy Boorman’s 1969 ‘1709’ – a one-family-owned eBay find – is thus a rarity: only one other British survivor is known.
The chrome details, low-key badging and stainless-steel bumpers give the 99 in its original form a delicacy lacking in later models.
The looks are mildly eccentric – with the sweeping panoramic ’screen, concave rear window and odd juxtaposition of a straight waistline and curved door-top – but the Saab’s rugged safety-cage body is aerodynamically correct, boasting a Cd of 0.37: Citroën DS territory.
A smooth underside, helped by an undertray to protect the sump, undoubtedly helps.
Another original touch is how the doors extend down to the floor, with no outer sills, eliminating a potential rust-trap.
Inside, there’s a black-painted metal dashboard with a grained plastic instrument panel and three white-on-black dials. With the lower part sloping away and no parcel shelf, it’s individualistic without being quirky.
Just don’t look for the ignition key: on the 99, Saab pioneered its placement on the transmission tunnel – apparently because too many people were being injured in accidents by keys jutting out of the steering column.
What is more immediately apparent is the superb visibility through that rather Mini-like bay of the windscreen, the comfortable driving position afforded by the height-adjustable seats, and the surprising amount of room in the back.
Under way, you’re struck by the Saab’s excellent refinement. The engine is subdued and there is an exceptional lack of wind noise, leaving tyre roar as the dominant sound.
There is little crispness to the performance – this is a 2330lb car disposing of a mere 87bhp – but the 99 maintains a happy 70mph with no sense of struggle, albeit feeling slightly undergeared. The smooth clutch is pleasantly weighted, the gearbox notchy but adequately precise.
You also have the option, specific to the 1709cc 99, of engaging a traditional Saab freewheel, via a lever on the tunnel. This allows clutchless changes, but drive takes up slightly abruptly. With practice you can smooth out the changes, but the freewheel-disengaged mode is more pleasant.
The Saab corners securely, aided by steering that is informative, well-weighted and not unduly low-geared.
The ride is similarly on the money, controlled and taut without being overfirm, and with just enough roll to let you know you’re pushing it.
The short-travel, effective brakes round out a picture of a car that is refined, competent, in no way sporting, but eminently drivable and surprisingly modern.
After the introduction of the 1854cc engine, in January 1972 came a fully revised 1985cc unit, built by Saab and premiered, in injected 120bhp form, in the EMS.
Gone were the sundry weaknesses of the Triumph original and its sloppy assembly tolerances, the engine featuring separate water jacketing for each cylinder, larger mains and big-ends, plus upright valves in constant-depth combustion chambers.
This was an engine strong enough to handle substantial power increases, and formed the basis of Saab four-cylinder units for years to come.
The way was now opening to push the 99 further upmarket, a process given extra impetus by the arrival of the three-door Combi Coupé in 1973, followed by a five-door in early 1976.
Having sensibly discarded the idea of a 99 with the Stag V8 engine, Saab took the genuinely innovatory move of adding an exhaust-driven turbocharger, refining the installation with a wastegate – a boost-control valve diverting excess exhaust gases past the turbine.
The 99 Turbo was announced in late 1976 and went into production for the 1978 model year, with three-door Combi Coupé bodywork and just a single colour, black, for the UK market.
Some five-doors were made, and just 600 two-doors made it to the UK – 200 in black, 400 in red.
IT manager Wayne Stallwood’s car is one of perhaps 10 black survivors, out of fewer than 30 Turbos left on British roads; overall production was 10,607 cars, the last being made in 1982.
Equipped with US-spec round headlamps and the bold ‘Aztec’ alloys, Stallwood’s Turbo is visually a different beast from the original 99.
Not least, it has the clever cellular-construction impact bumpers introduced for 1972, alas hiding the unusual undercut of the front panel.
Details such as larger light units, a plastic numberplate insert and black side-grille surrounds may modernise the car, but they also appear clumsy and graceless.
There’s a slightly low-rent cabin, too, in contrast to the quiet simplicity of the ’69 car. Dummy wood, fragile-seeming air grilles, exposed screwheads on brutalist door trims – it’s easy to feel disappointed.
Such concerns are peripheral. The Turbo is nothing like an early 99, but it is also mightily seductive, transformed by its power unit.
The engine feels bigger than its two litres, and has a backing accompaniment of the turbo whistling gently.
The compressor comes in below 2000rpm and imposes itself progressively, the boost becoming stronger as speed rises.
The Saab will rapidly spool up to 80mph – a linear, muscular delivery, but one dependent on you keeping the revs up and the turbo turning.
Put another way, this can be a dual-mode car: you can roll along with the turbo just idling, or drop into third on the notchy four-speed gearbox, play the hooligan, and in comes the boost.
Drive aggressively and the payoff will inevitably be a healthy dose of torque-steer, but it’s more rewarding to work with the power delivery than against it.
You soon discover that there’s a sound chassis beneath, starting with the informative non-assisted steering, which has agreeable weighting, directness and a pleasant, well-oiled feel.
Pushed into corners the Turbo rolls moderately; the ride is generally comfortable, although it can become a little unsettled on undulating roads.
The brakes feel softer and more servoed than on the ‘1709’ but are admirably effective.
In essence, the Turbo comes across as a more intelligent approach to creating a high-speed saloon.
At its launch, Saab claimed that on an average journey the turbocharger would only operate 15% of the time – but that, when it did, the performance was equal to that of a normally aspirated 3-litre car. Isn’t that a sensible way to have your cake and eat it?
That modest 1.7-litre ancestor was an equally intelligent way of doing a medium-sized family car.
Bluntly, it makes BL’s bigger front-drivers, the Maxi and 1800, seem half-baked – and that’s before one addresses the quality and reliability issues that so affected the British cars.
But most impressive is how the original 99 could seamlessly transmute into the Turbo, without getting out of its depth.
Can you imagine the Austin Maxi having evolved over nine years into a sporting, prestige BMW-eater?
Saab’s engineers might have had relatively limited resources, but they used them well, establishing with the 99 a gene pool from which they drew imaginatively for 40-odd years.
Images: Tony Baker
Thanks to Stuart Payne and Chris Foxley of the Saab Owners’ Club (GB)
This was originally in our November 2012 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication