Words: Stuart Fowle | Pics: George Achorn
If the 99 itself, with its four-stroke engine and aerodynamic shape, established Saab as a thoroughly modern car manufacturer, 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 early Saabs to motorsports fame, but to the common public Saabs were just perceived as awkward little novelties. The 99 Turbo was also — forgive the blatant pun — the original TurboNine.
In a 1977 road test of the Turbo in Car and Driver, 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."
The 99 aficionados among you will know that of the 4233 99 Turbos sold in the U.S. before the 900 Turbo was introduced the following year, 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 forty 99 Turbos.
Paul Rossi was the original driver for this unusual subject, "Test Car 934" as it was known. Records show that Rossi 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 rare 99 and brought it to his restoration shop where it was reassembled and brought back 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 pristinely original with a slight patina, such as the wear on the sport leather steering wheel, which keeps this historical car in that sweet spot between museum piece and driver.
Climbing into #934, we're immediately greeted by that 'old Euro car smell' — the distinct odor of '70s-era plastic, vinyl and carpet. The scent really takes us back to another time. So do the funky, period-typical trimmings, such as the wedge-shaped inner door pulls and the hookless seat belts that must be laid and locked into snapping jaws. Having just read Bedard's C/D review, it's easy to see how journalists of the time could appreciate the clean, no bullshit design of this car, both inside and out. As visitors thirty years from the future, we wish that the cabins of some modern cars took the same less-is-more approach as the 99 Turbo.
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 the more obvious approach and the result was engine behavior that was a bit more of a wild ride, a crescendo of power that peaked right before the engine was ready to blow.
The 99 Turbo instead 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. Taking this approach, the 99 Turbo was tuned not for peak power, but for more low-end torque and characteristics more in line with what customers of the day expected from naturally aspirated engines. Power peaks relatively early in the 99 Turbo then falls off near redline. This made the 99 Turbo a better driving car 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) better than the normal four-cylinder 99.
Despite all this, driving the 99 Turbo is not the lag-free experience that description might imply. Keep in mind that only in the past few years have some manufacturers come close to reaching the dream world of imperceptible turbochargers. Of this we are soon reminded. 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 her with a slight stab of the throttle. There's just a hint of smoke and then she's purring like a cougar. In a couple minutes she's warmed up, and we mash the rightmost pedal of the 99 Turbo test car. Boost builds steadily, but serious acceleration doesn't really happen until around 3500 rpm. Going into second and eventually third, the shifter is surprisingly direct and somewhat crisp given its age. The transmission’s four gears are well matched to the engine's characteristics. The Turbo's gearing was in fact stretched a bit from the standard car's in an effort to maintain boost in acceleration. Each time the throttle snaps shut for a shift, the turbocharger loses its steamy head of exhaust gas. 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 the 1978 world of motoring. At the time, vehicles offering practicality, safety, comfort, economy and performance all in one package were especially rare. Until the Turbo came along the 99 had most, but not all, of those qualities. 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 years later they're still doing it, though a notchback turbo is no longer the rarity it once was.