‘Power to the People’ was a rallying cry used by many activists around the world, demanding power for people to change their lives and control their own destiny. It was left to a small car company like Saab to take this slogan to heart and literally give people the power to control their own destiny, at least on the highway, with the Saab 99 Turbo. The 99 was a trusty family sedan with Saab’s preeminent safety engineering, but the addition of a turbocharger in 1978 transformed this “Clark Kent” of an automobile into a Swedish Superman.
Saab 99 Turbo origins
The model 99 Saab, introduced in 1968 as a bigger, more family-friendly companion for the venerable Saab 96, was initially available in either two-door or four-door models and later as a three-door Combi Coupe or hatchback. Power was supplied by a two-liter, four-cylinder engine starting in 1974; Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection was added a year later, upping the output to 116 horsepower. Weighing in at about 2,600 pounds, Saab 99 performance wasn’t bad for the times, but it didn’t separate the 99 from its competition, either. Sales of the 99 peaked in 1976, but declined by over 12,000 units in 1977. Clearly, the 99 needed a boost.
Someone at Saab must have associated the term “boost” with turbocharging and voilà, the concept of the Saab 99 Turbo was born. Saab’s Scania division had many years of experience turbocharging diesel truck engines, which gave the Saab car engineers a leg up on the road to increasing the 99’s performance. Turbocharging proved to be a more efficient way to add power to the 99 than increasing the size of the engine. In the seventies, the BMW 2002 Turbo and Porsche 930 Turbo had forged the way for turbocharging production cars, but these were aimed at maximizing performance with turbochargers that boosted the power at high rpms. Judging by the quirky features offered by Saab over the years, Saab engineers weren’t afraid to think outside the box – and the 99 Turbo was no exception.
Mid-range power for everyone
The markets for the BMW 2002 Turbo and the Porsche 930 Turbo were limited to those who not only had the wherewithal to afford them, but who also possessed the talent to safely drive them at high speeds where their turbos were the most effective. This was not the market that Saab was looking for – Saab engineers wanted a mid-range boost for horsepower and torque to help Saab owners at normal driving speeds under everyday driving conditions. They used a small turbo from Garrett AiResearch that spooled up quickly when the accelerator was pressed to improve low rpm power. Saab’s turbo engine produced 23% more horsepower and an astonishing 45% more torque than their normally aspirated two-liter engine.
For about 80% of normal driving, the 99’s turbo was inactive. The turbo was calibrated to begin boosting the intake air pressure at an engine speed between 1500 and 2000 rpm, with the maximum pressure at 3,000 rpm and the maximum torque at 3,500 rpm, giving the driver a big increase in mid-range power. Did it work? UK’s Motor magazine, after testing the Saab 99 Turbo said, “Between 40 and 100 mph, the Saab accelerates faster than just about any four-seater saloon in the world. And that means overtaking and cross-country ability of the sort hitherto the preserve of expensive exotica.” The Saab 99 Turbo gave real power to ordinary drivers – the automotive equivalent of “Power to the people.”
Saab 99 Turbo Power and Performance
The Saab 99 Turbo was powered by a two-liter, single overhead cam, inline, four-cylinder engine with a cast iron block and an alloy, eight-valve head, that produced 145 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 174 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm. Fuel was supplied by a Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection system and the pressurized air came from a single, small Garrett turbo. The turbo engine was essentially the same as the normally-aspirated Saab 99 engine, except for a reduced compression ratio of 7.5:1, a new camshaft, and an oil cooler to keep everything moving smoothly with the higher engine temperatures of the turbo. Saab took no chances with the turbo engine causing reliability problems. One hundred turbo prototypes were tested for a total of 2.9 million miles before it was given the green light for production.
The chassis of the Turbo had the same 97.5 inch wheelbase as the non-turbo, but had larger 11 inch power assisted disc brakes in the front and 10.6 inch discs at the rear. The four-speed manual transmission was beefed up to withstand the additional torque of the turbocharged engine. The Combi-coupe Turbo had a 0 to 60 time of 8.9 seconds, a top speed of about 120 mph and could cover the quarter-mile in about 17.5 seconds with a terminal velocity of 81.9 mph. Not record-shattering numbers to be sure, but ultimate high speed was not what the Saab Turbo was about – it was about smooth, useable power. Motor magazine loved it, saying, “The smoothness, the effortlessness, the relative quiet with which acceleration is achieved is a modern day wonder for mass production motor cars.”
Turbo Saab gathers accolades
By any measure, the Saab 99 Turbo was a success. Over 10,000 were sold in the 1978 model year, with 4,233 coming to the United States. Production also included 600 two-door sedans with the turbo engine made by Saab-Valmet in Finland to homologate the sedan for rally competition. The homologation returned a big dividend when a Saab Turbo piloted by Stig Blomqvist and Bjorn Cederberg finished second in the 1979 International Swedish Rally. The 99 Turbo was a one-year wonder and was replaced for 1979 by the new Saab 900 Turbo. Saab’s turbo program was so successful that by 2011, almost the entire Saab lineup would have a turbo.
The motoring press was among the 99 Turbo’s biggest fans. Hemmings called it “The world’s first successful turbocharged production car” and said that it “Changed the [motoring] landscape overnight.” Britain’s Autocar said, “Occasionally a car comes along which shocks [our] seen-it-all, driven-them-all staff – such a car is Saab’s Turbo.” In December of 2008, Popular Mechanics ranked the 99 Turbo second on its list of the Top 10 Turbocharged Cars of All Time, right behind the number one Porsche 930 Turbo. Now that seems to be some pretty fast company for a Saab to keep, but we should expect nothing less from a Swedish Superman
Swedecar – http://www.swedecar.com/saab_history.htm
Popular Mechanics – http://www.popularmechanics.com/cars/a3786/4296068/
Saab 99 Turbo – http://saab99turbo.com/index.php
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saab_99