Turbocharging Pioneers: Saab 99 Turbo

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The turbocharged car that wasn't really exotic. The 99 Turbo would usher in turbocharging for the masses.

Saab was always a company which liked to take risks, and that shall go down as one of the all-time great understatements in CarBuzz history. The Swedish automaker used to produce some unusual cars with truly weird and confusing features, but all this risk-taking would pay off big in 1978 with the introduction of the 99 Turbo. This was a car which brought turbocharging back to the mainstream, and it did so by being a genuinely spectacular car.

The 99 model had been around since 1968 and was originally conceived as a bigger model to bring the brand away from the small models which had dominated the lineup up until this point and more into the mainstream. It was successful in doing this, although the 86 horsepower produced by the 1.75-liter engine wasn't exactly awe-inspiring. This was increased to 1.8 liters and then 2.0 liters later, but none of these were really performance engines. There was an idea for a time to produce a version using the V8 engine out of the Triumph Stag, and four prototypes were actually built. But this idea was eventually abandoned in favor of a turbocharged model.

The 99 Turbo used a Garrett T3 turbocharger with the idea not of cranking out big horsepower numbers at high revs after a long lag, but rather of producing a lot of torque across a wide band. Thus, the 1978 99 Turbo made 135 hp to the naturally-aspirated model's 115 hp. That's not a very dramatic gain, but the 173lb-ft of torque which the turbo engine produced really was a pretty big difference, and the car now pulled strong even at lower engine speeds. 0-62mph could be accomplished in 8.9 seconds. That's a number which was impressive for pure sports cars in 1978, but for a regular car which was built with safety as a top priority, it was groundbreaking.

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The whole 99 model lineup would last only until 1980 in the US, and only until 1984 in all other markets. Just 10,607 turbo models were built, about half the number of 930 units built by Porsche. But the 99 Turbo is still quite important for a few very important reasons. The first is that it gave rise to the 900 model, which was based on the 99 but which would be far more successful and carry mainstream turbocharging even further. But probably the most important thing which the 99 Turbo did was to prove that turbocharging didn't have to be something exotic found only in money-is-no-object Porsche models.

The 99 Turbo was relatively cheap, turbocharged and an absolute blast to drive. It wasn't easy in those days to build a car like the 99 Turbo. It's rare that you see something on the cutting edge of technology which is also both fun to drive and affordable. It takes smarts to build a car like that, and this lead to an interesting phenomenon. Following the introduction of the 99 Turbo, Saab had a customer base which had the highest level of education on average of any automotive brand in the world. They had become the intellectual's brand of cars, and that is a very unusual thing indeed.

This would continue until Saab shut its doors last year, but could potentially be revived if ever the brand manages to be revived. The word "turbo" would also suddenly rise to prominence following the introduction of the 99 Turbo. It would be difficult to say that the 99 alone was responsible for this, but by the Eighties, the word was being used as a synonym for "fast" with some regularity. It would then, even more confusingly, come to mean virtually anything good, or upgraded in some way from the standard product. Anyone who has bought Gillette Mach 3 Turbo razors knows this phenomenon still exists, but it didn't used to until after the debut of the 99 Turbo.

Many Saab aficionados consider this to be the absolute pinnacle of the company, the only time when Saab was so clearly well ahead of the curve. It's a shame that a company which had been capable of such a massive accomplishment would have fallen so far. For all its weirdness, Saab's cars really did have a certain charm to them, although this would go into a bit of a decline toward the end. It's that weird kind of charm which brands like Citroen used to also be known for, but which has all but disappeared in more recent years. Let's hope the brand can be reborn with a healthy dose of Spyker lunacy.

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