In 1978, Saab introduces a model that causes a lot of noise: the Saab 99 Turbo. A seemingly brave hatchback that makes BMWs, Alfa Romeos and Porsches surprised and envious, at that time. On YouTube you can find a great video that demonstrates the power of the four-cylinder turbo engine of the Saab 99. The promo video is discussed by BBC presenter Raymond Baxter.
We meet the former jet fighter pilot and rally driver on an airstrip in the Swedish town of Mantorp, about halfway between Gothenburg and Stockholm. There, a black 99 Turbo is ready to compete against eight (semi) competitors of all kinds: a Porsche 924, Lancia Beta, Alfa Romeo Alfetta GT, Audi 100 5E, Mercedes 280, BMW 528, Volvo 264 and Dodge Monaco.
None other than rally heroes Stig Blomqvist and Per Eklund have been hired to squeeze the most out of all test cars, with – you don’t expect it at the start – the Swedish entry emerging as the big winner. hile this video test and comparison is not without flaws, the message of the promotional video is clear: the Saab 99 Turbo can not only compete with the established order in terms of speed and handling characteristics, it even manages to outdo them.
It is of course not the Saabs to boast that with the 99 Turbo you put renowned sports cars “in the pocket”, so the extra pulling power that the turbocharger adds to the four-cylinder is mainly sold as “safe“; after all, you need less time to overtake another car. The fact that the engine is more economical and (therefore) less polluting than a comparable six-cylinder is also nice in the brochure. But such arguments naturally go in one direction in the minds of petrolheads. They see a civilian car with the performance of a sports car, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And indeed, many love it.
And secretly, Saab is quite proud of its modestly dressed powerhouse, as evidenced by the phrase we encounter in an English brochure: “The Saab Turbo has robbed sports car drivers of their exclusive right to fast cars with turbocharged engines“. “Turbo” was the new magic word.
Need for Speed
A turbocharged petrol engine is not new in 1978. As early as 1962, General Motors provided the 3.5-liter V8 of the Oldsmobile Jetfire and the related Chevrolet Corvair Monza with a turbo. Because the reliability leaves a lot to be desired, these models are short-lived. A decade later, BMW and Porsche are reviving the concept with the BMW 2002 Turbo (1973) and Porsche 911 Turbo (1975).
In those years, engineer Per Gillbrand commutes about 1,300 kilometers to the north between Trollhättan, where the Saab factory is located, and the Scania factories in Södertälje, near Stockholm. The truck manufacturer has been part of the Saab-Scania AB family since 1969 and when developing the turbo engine, Gillbrand, also known as Mr. Turbo, grateful use of their knowledge of turbo technology. Incidentally, developing a turbo engine stems from necessity; the small Saab lacks the financial means to develop a stronger, completely new (six-cylinder) engine itself.
After 1.5 million test kilometers in a wide variety of conditions and a six-month field trial by 100 ‘ordinary’ drivers in Sweden, Germany, Finland, Switzerland and the USA, the Saab 99 Turbo is ready for presentation to the general public in September 1977. Visitors to the Frankfurt trade fair will marvel at the specifications of the 99, even more so in the form of the three-door Combi Coupé. A power of 145 hp, which is almost a quarter more than the turbo-free version of the two-liter delivers. And that torque: 235 newton meters, almost half more!
All thanks to Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection and a Garrett AiResearch T3 compressor (the first turbo for a non-sports car application ) that whistles its tune from around 1,500 rpm. The paddle wheel can rotate 144,000 rpm, the maximum turbo pressure is 0.8 bar (the rally version drove double). A striking feature is the wastegate, a bypass valve that removes excess exhaust gas pressure and thus prevents combustion temperatures from rising too high. The compressor is clearly visible under the bonnet, otherwise the “Turbo” inscription in the signature font on the intake tube indicates that this is not a standard two-liter block.
With a very high price for a car of that time, the Turbo was the most expensive Saab 99; the 99 L of 100 hp was almost a third lower in 1978. In the US, where 40 percent of the Turbos went, they know how to characterize the car: “At a price of $ 9,998 the 99 Turbo is not cheap – but it is faster than anything that is cheaper and cheaper than anything that is faster!“