Another Well Built Swede: Saab 99
In the early 1960s, Saab was selling little two-stroke powered machines that made funny ring-a-ding-ding sounds on over-rev, and blew clouds of mosquito-choking blue smoke out the tailpipe. Even though the 93 and 96 models had a fervent following, Saab saw the writing on the wall, and knew that two-stroke engines could not provide the performance, economy, and environmental friendliness required in the near future.
Saab engineers, huddled around the drawing board in Trollhattan, Sweden, were plotting to produce a larger, more family-oriented car, with a four-stroke engine. Actually, as early as the mid-1950s, chief of Saab design, Sexton Sason, had sketched revolutionary concepts for such a car - far advanced for the time - with wrap-around windshield, concave rear window, and crisp styling cues that would become popular decades later. These ground strokes had been laid for Bjorn Envall, Saab's future Chief of Design, who was heavily involved with honing and eventually overseeing the new car's appearance.
Working under the project name Gudmund - so-called because the official go-ahead from Saab management was given on April 2, 1964, Gudmund Day in Sweden - Saab engineers sought out assistance from Ricardo and Company, a premier English-based design firm, when it came time to develop the new engine. Ricardo had in fact been approached in 1962 with the idea of developing a replacement for the two-stroke engine, but that project never got off the drawing board.
The new engine was proposed to be a four-cylinder of 1.5-liter capacity. As it turned out, the Triumph division of British Leyland was undertaking the development of an engine with similar specification. Talks between Triumph and Saab began, and while not quite as quick as a cheery toast and firm handshake, Saab soon found itself partnering with Triumph in the new engine's development by 1965. The engine would be manufactured by Triumph, in England, with development units delivered to Saab for testing purposes.
A few peculiar design points, aimed at satisfying Triumph, had to be agreed upon, particularly the 45-degree slant of the engine block from vertical. Triumph intended for this engine to provide the basis for a trusty four-cylinder - for its standard sedans and TR series of sports cars - as well as a base for the Stag V8 engine, which would share many components with the four-cylinder thanks to its 90-degree V-angle.
Several prototype engines were delivered to Saab, and after a bit of fancy torch work were shoe-horned into widened Saab 96 sedans for testing. These mules, affectionately named Toads, provided Saab engineers with their first taste of the new power plant as well as development time on the new car's suspension. Each Toad was widened a full 20cm (nearly 8 inches) but looked standard enough for them to be tested on public roads. As many as six Toads were produced, four of which saw active road duty to the bewilderment of motorists.
The bulk of engine and chassis development behind them, Saab introduced the new car - dubbed model 99 - to the public on November 22, 1967, in Stockholm, Sweden. Full production did not begin until the fall of 1968, with Saab using the prior year as an opportunity to test the new car in real-world situations, with real-world drivers. Saab loaned roughly a hundred 99s to private motorists in Sweden, with the requirement that they keep an extensive log book and be willing to offer the car back to the factory for occasional check-ups.
When the 99 did become available for public consumption, buyers were treated to an entirely new Saab, one that looked and drove like no other Saab before it. Major design points included the 1.7 liter 4-cylinder overhead cam engine, sitting atop a 4-speed transmission. The car was of course front wheel drive - just like every Saab produced since 1950 - and featured a wide-track double A-arm front suspension with rigid rear axle, four-wheel disc brakes, a robust unitary chassis, and that ever-distinctive shape that had the added benefit of a low coefficient of drag.
The 99 slowly evolved from year to year, and remained in production for 16 years. Known to continually tinker with its cars, Saab made improvements to the 99 in every department, including advancements in safety, reliability, economy, and performance. And it was the performance improvements that spurred the factory rally team to finally take hold of the new platform for top line world rallying. The 99 was a proven race winner in America too, claiming several SCCA Showroom Stock championships in the late 1970s.
Through the Years
From its introduction, the 99 was offered only in 2-door body styles, with the 1,709cc carbureted engine providing 80 horsepower. Performance was not noted as being brisk, with 60mph arriving in just under 15 seconds, and a top speed nudging 100mph. Handling is safe - dulled by the skinny tires - and the four-wheel disc brakes provide excellent stopping power, especially for a car from this period.
On the outside, small chrome bumpers adorn both ends, each with two small vertical chrome overriders with rubber inlays. Outside rear view mirrors are small and chrome, while the front-end features four round headlights, with the turn signal lights mounted on the front valance panel just above the bumper. Wheels are pressed steel, with small round holes for cooling, and feature chrome center caps.
Inside, the dashboard features three round instruments: speedometer in the center, combination gauge to the right, and large clock on the left. Seats, doors, and carpet are colored black, lending a dull tone to the interior.
For 1970, Saab brought about a host of improvements and options, including an available 1,854cc engine, that could be had with fuel injection on 99E models. The extra grunt provided by the larger injected motor brought some life to the 2,400-pound car, decreasing acceleration times to 60mph by two full seconds. An available automatic transmission was another first for Saab, as was the new 4-door body style. There was little inside or outside to distinguish the new features, however.
Saab 99 owners had several powertrain options in 1971, being able to choose from the two different-sized engines - in either carbureted or fuel-injected form - as well as manual or automatic transmissions. Outside, new cooling vents in the front valance panel located just below the grille fed more air to the radiator. Outside rearview mirrors were also changed slightly, while an entirely new dashboard treatment offered more complete instrumentation and better ergonomics.
For 1972, Saab dropped the 1.7L engine entirely, leaving only the carbureted or fuel-injected 1.85L engine. Much larger impact-absorbing bumpers were introduced, which feature plastic blocks that absorb energy and return to their normal shape during impacts of 5mph or less. These bumpers are covered with a thick black-plastic face, with a thin stainless band for decoration. New front turn signals were larger and mounted higher up, and extend around the corner of the car into the front fender. Inside, an electrically heated driver's seat became available.
During the summer of 1972 Saab introduced the 99 EMS, which stands for Electronic Manual Special. The EMS was Saab's first attempt at a sporty 99, and was offered only in the 2-door body style with manual transmission. A larger 1,985cc engine was developed and built in Sweden for the EMS, and shared little with previous Triumph-built engines. This new engine brought on increased levels of power that dramatically improve on-road performance. In fact, a Car and Driver road test produced acceleration runs to 60mph in just over nine seconds. Special aluminum wheels, wider tires, black grille, and metallic paint distinguish the EMS on the outside, while a leather-covered steering wheel and addition of a tachometer spice things up inside.
Two different models were available for U.S. markets in 1973, with the EMS positioned at the top, and the standard car taking on the 99L designation. Both 1.85L and 2.0L engines were available in the L, with fuel-injected cars getting an Le badge. A new grille - still incorporating four round headlights - features a blacked-out appearance, except for a single horizontal chrome bar. New steel wheels were introduced, with slots replacing the round holes for cooling.
1974 saw the 99 grow a couple inches longer, thanks to lengthened bumper supports. New changes inside saw improved seats with integrated headrests, and EMS models getting special coverings with leather trim. The EMS also sports molded door and side panels, and a new steering wheel. Perhaps the biggest news was the introduction of a third body style, in the from of the 3-door Wagonback. This trademark Saab design incorporates a huge back hatch that is capable of swallowing 6-foot long items with back seats folded flat.
1975 brought about the across-the-board adoption of the fuel-injected 2.0L engine for the U.S. market. A host of durability improvements were introduced, including a new braking system (with larger servo assist and handbrake mechanism) as well as beefier transmission internals and driveshafts. 1975 also marked the year the 99 became the only Saab available in the U.S. market, as importation of the V4-powered cars ceased.
1976 was a year for several introductions, not least of which was the fact that Saab had begun rallying the 99 in international events. Bigger yet, was the introduction of the 99 Turbo model in the summer. It wouldn't see full production for another couple years, but by introducing it, Saab could conduct an exhaustive testing and research program without fear of having their secret exposed.
Production 99s received wider 5-inch wheels as standard, new rear axle mounting linkage, and a beefed-up clutch mechanism. A new up-level GLE model was introduced in the 4-door body style, and features power steering, automatic transmission, a fancier interior, and aluminum wheels. Another new body style came on board, with the intro of the 5-door, offered only in the new GL trim level. The sporty EMS was upgraded with gas-filled shocks, firmer springs, and a quicker-ratio manual steering rack.
1977 proved to be an exciting year for Saab, as the new 99 Turbo was beginning to generate quite a buzz around the world. A total of 100 Turbos were produced in the 3-door body style, and underwent significant test and development work, often at the hands of American road test magazines. Road & Track magazine conducted a long-term test of the turbo that again whet the appetites of the buying public. Production 99s gained new, larger front turn signals, new rear light clusters, and new black plastic outside rear-view mirrors.
By 1978, Saab was beginning production of the new 900 model, and still developing the 99 Turbo for full production. Just over 1,000 Turbos were produced, with final specifications including new 5.5 inch wide INCA wheels wrapped with wider Pirelli P6 tires, front air dam, and rear spoiler. Not much effort was placed on the 99 range, with only minor changes made to the interior, such as GLE receiving an optional sunroof, and EMS receiving the Turbo's sporty steering wheel.
Offered side-by-side with the new 900 model, the 99 was being phased out of the U.S. market by 1979. Available models and body styles were reduced, although the 99 Turbo was just beginning to show its muscles, with sales totaling just under 10,000 cars.
The foundation for Saab's efforts in the 1970s, the model 99 was phased out of the U.S. market by late 1980, with only left-over 1979 models - rebadged Gli - offered for sale. Production did continue through the mid 1980s, primarily for Scandinavian markets. The end of the 99 era also brought about the end of factory racing for Saab. No longer capable of competing against larger corporation's budgets, such as Ford, Fiat, and Audi, Saab closed its competition department in 1981.
All the Specs
As with all 99 engines, the original Triumph design - built entirely in England - features a cast-iron block slanted at 45 degrees toward the passenger side. Offered in two sizes, 1,709cc and 1,854cc, both engines came equipped with either a single Stromberg carburetor or an early example of Bosch electronic fuel injection. Power is rated at 80hp and 88hp for carbureted engines, and 95hp and 105hp for the injected motors.
The forged-steel crankshaft is supported by five 54mm main bearings, and feature well-weighted counterweights for smooth operation. Forged H-shaped connecting rods are mated to light-alloy pistons measuring 83.5mm in diameter for the 1.7L engine, or 87mm in diameter for the 1.85L engine. Compression ratio is set at 9.0:1 for both engines, and each piston holds two compression rings, and one oil control ring.
The cylinder head is manufactured of light-alloy aluminum, and has proven to be quite problematic, as it was bolted to the block with angled head-bolts that did not provide equal clamping forces on the head gaskets. As the engine ages, these angled head bolts also prove troublesome when the cylinder head needs to be removed.
A chain-driven camshaft is bolted directly to the cylinder head with five cam bearings, and features a mild 12/52/52/12 valve timing on 1.7L engines, and 16/56/56/16 valve timing on 1.85L engines, both suited to producing mid-range power. Combustion chambers are D-shaped, with a center-mounted single spark plug. Both intake and exhaust ports are square shaped, and feature a cross-flow design, with inlet on the driver side and exhaust on the passenger side.
Both engines feature eight valves, with inlet valves measuring 36.6mm across the head, and exhaust valves measuring 32.5mm across the head. Solid lifters are a feature of all 99 engines, and use small 15.5mm diameter shims for setting valve adjustment.
On the intake side, a Stromberg 175 Constant Depression carburetor was used on standard cars. Measuring 1.75 inches in diameter, these carburetors operate similar to the SU brand, and prove difficult for most owners to keep in tune. An early example of Bosch's electronic fuel injection was first offered in the 99E model. The intake manifold uses long curved-runners aimed at providing good low and mid-range power. A 50mm throttle body is used, with a cold start injector, providing better start-up in cool temperatures.
Regardless of fuel delivery type, a cast iron exhaust manifold with a short 4-into-2 design is used, with two 1.5-inch diameter exhaust tubes merging into a single 1.5-inch diameter pipe running the length of the car. Two small-diameter mufflers were used to keep noise levels down, and mounted to the car with peculiar round-rubber exhaust hangers.
Although the original Triumph engine continued to be pressed into service until 1975, Saab was looking at the opportunity to take over production of the engine in 1972, as Triumph was starting V8 production, and was running out of space. Saab had learned many lessons with the original engine, and was eager to incorporate these changes into a revised design. The most immediate improvement was a new block, allowing for greater cylinder-bore spacing and capable of supporting a full 1,985cc capacity.
Dubbed the "B" engine, the new block was still cast-iron and resembled the old engine from the outside, except for the valve cover. Inside, however, Saab enlarged the main bearings to a massive 58mm, while beefing up the main caps suitably. This new engine was designed to be a workhorse, capable of seeing both extended miles and increased power levels.
Beefed up connecting rods feature larger 56mm big ends that connect to newly designed pistons measuring 90mm in diameter. About the only thing the new Saab engine shared with the original design was the 78mm stroke. Compression was initially set at 8.7:1, but was lowered to 8.0:1 for U.S. markets.
The cylinder head underwent a major redesign, coming out resembling a proper cross-flow head, with straight head bolts evenly spaced to provide equal clamping force on the head gasket. A cast aluminum cradle supports the camshaft, which features a more aggressive 26/70/70/26 valve timing up to 1975, and a softer 10/54/46/18 valve timing from 1975 and on.
Valve head diameters were enlarged to 42mm for inlet valves, and 35.5mm for exhaust valves. Although the tappets changed slightly, the same size adjustment shims were retained. On the inlet side, a revised Stromberg 175 carb was fitted up until 1974, giving 95hp. Cars equipped with electronic fuel injection saw power levels rise to 110hp.
By 1975, Saab had switched to Bosch's newly developed Continuous Injection system. CI for short, this new system gave up separate pressure and temperature sensors in favor of a single air flow sensor. This sensor is comprised of an air flow sensor plate, that when moved, mechanically operates the fuel distributor, which controls the amount of fuel supplied depending on the engine speed and load. This new system gives a slight increase in power (now up to 115hp) as well as improvements in general engine smoothness and responsiveness.
Just about the time Saab had fully implemented the new "B" engine throughout the range in 1975, along came the engineers from Sweden with a new toy they called the turbo. Having vast experience turbocharging larger truck engines, thanks to its truck-building Scania division, Saab engineers began tinkering with turbo "B" engines as early as 1974.
Though based directly off the standard "B" engine, Saab engineers beefed up several key internal components in order to cope with the extra power. The stock crank was stout enough, but new pistons manufactured by Mahle were fitted, providing a lower 7.2:1 compression ratio. A milder camshaft with 12/40/62/2 valve timing was specified to work with the torquey nature of the turbo engine.
The turbo itself was a Garrett-AiResearch T3, which features an integral wastegate, something that had not been tried before on automotive turbo applications. An engine oil cooler was used to keep oil temperatures down. Maximum boost was set at 7.1psi for North American engines, giving a healthy increase in horsepower to 135. More important than the boost in horsepower as far as Saab was concerned, was the substantial 160 lb/ft of torque coming on at 3,500rpm. Saab engineers weren't looking to achieve high horsepower figures or giant amounts of top-end turbo rush, but instead focused on providing locomotive style mid-range pulling power.
The "B" engines continued with minimal changes through the life of the 99, including some duty in the first two years of the 900 series. A re-design occurred in 1981, and the engine was commonly referred to as the "H" engine from that time forward.
A unique feature of the 99 powertrain, is the fact that the transmission is placed underneath the engine, with the clutch mounted at the front, and differential mounted at the rear. Conventional wisdom would have the engine placed well ahead of the front wheels, with a transmission bolted at the back, but one could only imagine the side-effects such a front-heavy layout would have on the weight distribution and overall feel and balance of the car.
Unlike the Mini or Lamborghini Miura - which both featured their transmissions placed under the engine, sharing the same oil supply - the 99's transmission and engine had their own unique oil supplies. This eliminated the problem of one unit receiving contamination from the other unit, in case a failure occurred.
Manual transmission-equipped cars have four forward gears, all with single-cone synchromesh. Drive is taken off the front of the engine through a hydraulically operated Borg and Beck 203mm diameter clutch. Drive is transferred through a set of primary gears to the pinion shaft, which houses the gear clusters. Early 1.7L-equipped cars feature a freewheel mechanism, a carry over from the two-stroke days.
In 1974 Saab beefed up the transmission's internals to better cope with the expected increase in power from the larger engines. Gear ratios are generally taller, as was the final drive ratio, lengthened from 4.22:1 to 3.9:1. However, the primary gear's ratio was shortened from 0.95:1 to 1:1, so performance was not diminished.
Saab brought along another heftier transmission to handle the extra power of the 99 Turbo, replacing the gear-driven primary drive with a double-row chain drive. Gear ratios were juggled yet again, with a taller primary ratio of 1.03:1, effectively raising overall gearing by 10 percent. The unit was stronger and quieter in operation, and soon found a home in all 99 models by 1978.
A peculiarity of 99 transmissions is the reverse gear lock-out mechanism that required the driver to select reverse gear before turning off the car. This system was tied in with the center console-mounted ignition switch - a Saab trademark - a feature that provided added theft deterrence, since the car could not be taken out of reverse gear without the key. This system also eliminated the need for Saab to fit a lockable steering column.
In 1971 Saab offered its first automatic transmission-equipped car, in the form of the 99E. Saab used an altered Borg-Warner Type 35 transmission unit, which features three forward gears. Slight changes to the final drive and stall speed of the torque converter - to suit the larger 2.0 liter engine - were made through the years, but the basic unit remained the same. Automatic transmissions never saw duty in the 99 Turbo.
Regardless of the transmission type, Saab always saw fit to install extremely robust driveshafts, which feature needle-bearing-equipped inner universal joints, and constant-velocity style outer universal joints. Variations in the bearing design of these joints changed slightly through the years, becoming more robust with the introduction of the revised transmission and larger engine. Saab had been producing front-wheel drive cars since 1950, so they knew a thing or two about producing strong driveshafts that were capable of handling the power output and severe duty planned for the 99.
Underneath every 99 lies an independent front suspension, using pressed steel lower and upper A-arms. Lower A-arms incorporate a solidly mounted lower spring perch up to 1974, and a pivoting lower spring perch from 1975 on, designed to eliminate any binding of the coil spring during compression. Both A-arms are mounted with large cast-aluminum brackets with rubber bushings. Thin shims are used for adjusting alignment, including camber and caster.
Coil springs feature a linear spring rate - stiffened up through the years to handle the extra weight - and ground end-coils with thin rubber mounting-pads to reduce vibration and noise. Telescopic shock absorbers feature eyelet style upper and lower mounts, with two piece rubber bushings. Gas-filled shocks became a standard item in 1975.
A manual rack-and-pinion steering system was standard, with optional power-assist offered in 1975 on automatic transmission-equipped cars. Both systems feature a collapsible column that underwent a minor redesign in 1975. The overall steering gear ratio was slowed through the years, to make it easier to handle the heavier cars in city traffic, although the sporty EMS model retained its quicker 3.4:1 rack.
A rigid axle is used in the back, and is located with upper and lower longitudinal links. Lower links are manufactured out of pressed steel and mount to the car ahead of the axle, incorporating a lower spring perch and mount for the shock absorber. Upper rod-shaped links mount behind the axle, with a transverse-mounted panhard bar used to locate the axle side-to-side. There are no provisions for adjusting alignment in the back.
Compact coil springs are used in the rear that allow a low rear floor height, and again feature a linear spring rate with ground end-coils and rubber isolating mount-pad. Telescopic shocks use a small diameter shaft on both ends that mount through round rubber bushings.
Four-wheel disc brakes are a feature of every 99, and incorporate a unique cross-diagonal circuitry that connects the left front corner with the right rear, and right front corner with left rear, aimed at keeping the car braking in a straight line if one circuit should fail. Another unique feature was the handbrake mechanism that operated on the front wheels - as opposed to the rear wheels - eliminating the opportunity for handbrake turns when traveling in a forward direction. It is said that this feature brought about the idea of left-foot braking among several top-name Scandinavian rally drivers.
Cars up to 1974 have brakes manufactured by ATE, and feature single piston calipers squeezing solid 269.5mm diameter rotors, measuring 10.5mm thick at all four corners. A single stage ATE power booster measures 6 inches for the early cars, and 7 inches for 1971 to 1974 cars. The handbrake mechanism operates on small auxiliary drum brakes located inside the front hubs, a system pulled from early Porsche 911s.
A change to Girling brand brake components took place in 1975. Single piston calipers remained at all four corners, however front brake rotors are up-sized to 280mm in diameter and 12.7mm in thickness. A much larger 9-inch power booster is also fitted, and the handbrake mechanism is designed to operate directly on the front calipers.
99s were originally outfitted with pressed steel wheels, measuring 15 inches in diameter and 4.5 inches wide wrapped with skinny 155SR-15 tires. The sporty EMS model brought along wider 5-inch wheels with a unique soccer-ball pattern, as well as wider 165SR-15 tires for better grip. From 1975 on, base models received 5-inch wide steel wheels with the larger 165SR-15 tires. It wasn't until the introduction of the 99 Turbo in late 1977 with its unique INCA wheels - styled to resemble a turbo impeller spinning - that wider 175/70-15 tires were fitted.
Hot Rodding the 99
Luckily for Saab 99 owners, they have a ready supply of performance parts available at their nearest wrecking yard, or from specialty yards that focus on Saab. Many of the stock components fit to the Saab 900 models - sold from 1979 to 1993 - can be bolted on the earlier 99 model, depending on the year. Upgrades to certain 900 suspension, brake, and engine components can provide cost-effective performance upgrades for the 99.
Beginning with the basics, wider wheels and tires can help transform a 99, which was developed back when skinny wheels and tires were standard rolling stock. Wheels from 1987 and earlier 900s - that feature a 2.812-inch center bore - are a direct bolt-on to a 99. These include the 5.5-inch and 6.0-inch wide aluminum wheels as found on 8V and 16V Turbo 900s, as well as several accessory wheels offered from Saab. The original 99 Inca, Super Inca design, and SPG wheels are most popular, as well as the Shelby wheel and Saab's own Ronal Sport wheels - both of which mimic the classic Minilite style.
Popular tire sizes for 99s with wider wheels include 185/65-15, 195/60-15, and 205/50-15, the latter giving shorter gearing and quicker acceleration. These sizes are available in just about any category of tire - from high-performance to rugged mud/snow tires - so it's easy to find just the right combination.
Several companies offer replacement shock absorbers for the original 99 units, though they are becoming difficult to find. Koni offers the most popular choice for a street oriented set-up, with Bilstein proving popular among the rally group. The British-based SPAX company offers a shock with 28-way adjustability, proving a good set-up for the part-time racer. All 99 shocks use rubber eyelet bushings on both ends for mounting, so an upgrade to polyurethane bushings can help tighten things up.
Aftermarket springs are available from companies like MSS and Jamex, and come in various spring rates allowing for different ride heights. A good alternative to aftermarket springs can be found by perusing a factory Saab 900 service manual, which identifies the wire diameter and spring length for factory 900 coil springs. Late model 900 Turbo and SPG springs provide a good compromise between ride height, stiffness, and ride quality, and can be installed on post 1974 model 99s without modification.
Saab 99s did not come with anti-roll bars, either front or rear, so manufacturers like Addco and MSS offer aftermarket bars to fit the original 99 suspension members. These bars measure 1-inch diameter in front, and 3/4-inch diameter in the rear, which goes a long way toward reducing body roll. Both sets of bars use polyurethane mount bushings for added stiffness.
Regardless of the shocks, springs, or bars, a proper alignment can go a long way toward increasing the fun factor in a 99. Saab provides for almost infinite front camber adjustability with the use of thin shims on the upper A-arm mounting brackets. Front toe can be changed to suit the driver, with a bit of toe-out increasing overall grip, and toe-in providing crisper turn-in and steering response. A good baseline setting for a performance 99 would be 1-degree negative front camber, and 1/16-inch front toe-in. If adjustable shocks are used, stiffening the rear compression setting can help dial out some of the understeer inherent with the nose-heavy 99 platform.
A popular swap among the 99 crowd is to upgrade to a 900 rear axle, which features different shock mounting points, as well as mounting points for rear anti-roll bars. This allows the use of 900 rear shocks - which can be easier to find - as well as stock or aftermarket anti-roll bars offered for the more popular 900 model.
Another direct 900-to-99 swap that provides several benefits, is the use of front hubs off the 1988 and later 900. The hub center bore is slightly larger - 2.563 inches in diameter - therefore wheels from the 1988 and later cars can be used. By then, Saab was fitting either 15x6-inch wheels or 16x6.5-inch wheels on their cars, allowing for wider tires. Aftermarket wheels are also more prevalent for the later hubs, with everyone from BBS to Ronal offering several models in 15 and 16-inch diameters, with widths up to 7.5-inches.
Saab saw fit to include four-wheel disc brakes on every 99 that provide strong, sure stopping power. Cars equipped with Girling brakes - 1974 and on - can use a more performance-oriented brake pad, such as the Axxis/PBR Metal Master, that provides a good compromise for street and track use. Steel braided brake lines are also available that provide much needed improvement over old, swollen hard rubber lines, and often times cost less than factory lines.
The biggest improvements to a 99's braking capabilities can be found when the later 900 hubs are swapped. These hubs bring along larger diameter vented brake rotors and more powerful calipers. Since the original 99 brakes incorporated a parking brake activating the front wheels, rear brakes from the later model 900 must also be swapped, which feature a rear mounted parking brake. This is a popular upgrade among the rally crowd.
Under the hood of a 99, there are several tricks that can liven up a stock 99's performance, though most of the aftermarket items are offered primarily for the two-liter B engine. Early carbureted cars can benefit from revised jetting, and a high-flow air filter element. Likewise for the CIS fuel-injected cars, which pick up some scoot from a freer flowing air filter. The stock fuel injection system does not provide much adjustment for fuel delivery, but Saab did fit a cold start injector - often referred to as the fifth injector - that can be wired to run under full throttle conditions. This modification - together with a rising rate fuel pressure regulator - is especially useful on 99 Turbos, which can always benefit from added fuel under heavy loads and high rpm operation.
The ultimate naturally aspirated modification is to swap the stock fuel injection system for sidedraft carburetors. MSS makes a manifold for fitting either twin 40 or 45 DCOE sidedraft Webers, that really open up the air flow and increases power. Quite a bit of fabrication is needed to connect air filters, throttle cables and other associated hardware, but the results are well worth the work.
Fortunately, the two-liter engine features large valves and ports, so not much attention needs to be paid to the cylinder head for a fast street or mild race engine. Valves can be lightened up for higher revving engines, and a double valve springs should be fit when a hot camshaft gets used. MSS offers a performance camshaft - its "fast road" cam - that features a more aggressive grind, but requires the use of thicker valve adjusting shims.
Inside the engine, big beefy components like the crank, rods, and flywheel can be lightened, and benefit from a good balancing. With this kind of engine work - including cam and stiffer valve springs - a 99 engine can be wound to 8,000rpm, dramatically improving top-end performance without losing that valuable mid-range torque the 99 is known for.
The original cast-iron exhaust manifold offers good flow for a stock unit, however headers can let the engine breath freer, especially cars with more advanced engine work. MSS supplies headers for the 99 that feature a standard 4-2-1 design. When tied with a performance exhaust - typically 2-inch diameter pipe is recommended for street engines - a header can pick up roughly ten horsepower, and provide a noticeable improvement in mid-range passing power.
The 99 turbo can also benefit from decreased exhaust back-pressure, starting with a larger diameter down-pipe and high-flow catalytic converter. Since the turbo unit itself muffles roughly 80 percent of exhaust noise, a cat-back system for the 99 Turbo need only incorporate one high-flow muffler, without fear of it being too obtrusive. Most gains from such a system can be felt between 3,000 and 5,000 rpm, right in the meat of the 99 Turbo's power range.
When on the boost, the 99 Turbo charges ahead with a maximum of 7.1 pounds of pressure, controlled by a mechanical wastegate. A conventional wound coil-spring is used to control the boost level inside the wastegate, and this spring can be shimmed or replaced with a stiffer unit to increase peak boost levels. Careful attention should be paid when running higher levels of boost, as detonation - a common problem with hot rodded turbo cars - and added heat can lead to all sorts of nasty problems, such as increased operating temperatures or even piston failure. Premium grade gasoline should always be used on a hot rod Saab turbo engine, for maximum performance and durability.
Well beyond the scope of a typical bolt-on, there are several 99s across the country that feature later model 16V 900 Turbo engine transplants. Starting with 160hp, a 16V Turbo engine can quickly see 200hp with slight modifications to the APC (Automatic Performance Control) system that regulates boost, and increased airflow in and out of the engine. Such a setup produces a 99 capable of running with the big boys, including seeing off all of Saab's current line of high performance hot rods, such as the 9-3 Viggen and 9-5 Aero.
Regardless of the state of tune, a driver of any 99 will soon realize that Saab engineers understood how to make a strong, capable car that inspires with a sure-footed feel not found on most modern day small hatches. This kind of confidence can lead to more enjoyable back-road fun, or even quicker lap times at the local autocross or rally special stage. "They don't build-em like they used to" rings true when it comes to the Saab 99.
It's an unfortunate thing really, but the 99 is often forgotten by Saab enthusiasts. True "vintage" Saabs, such as an old two-stroke or V4-powered machine have seen an increase in popularity, but these models - charming and unique in their own right - don't offer the day-to-day capabilities that an original or nicely restored 99 can. The 99s replacement, the 900, has always had a cult following, and therefore has been more accepted by enthusiasts. This has left the 99 somewhere in-between.
But for those select few enthusiasts looking for that perfect middle ground, the 99 has plenty to offer. Whether you're in an original 99E, a freshly restored EMS, or a high-boost Turbo, a 99 can deliver a sporty, robust feel that could only come from a Saab. A well-built Swede, indeed.
Sidebar: Saab's Factory Racing Efforts
Horsepower wars were beginning to change the face of international rallying by the mid-1970s. Gone were the days when smaller, lesser-powered machines could hold their own - except in cases of severe weather - like when Per Eklund was victorious in the 1976 Swedish Rally in his trusty V4 Saab 96 sedan. The biggest blow came in the form of the Lancia Stratos, introduced in 1973. Pummeling the competition with well over 250hp, the Ferrari-engined Stratos made manufacturers like Ford and Fiat (Lancia's new owner) push past the 200hp level with their own Escort RS and 131 Abarth models.
The Saab rally team had already approached the limits of the V4-powered machines, going so far as adapting fuel injection, but even that couldn't get them in ear shot of the competition. Having proven the 99 chassis the previous two years by running special EMS test models at selected events, Saab began focusing their efforts under the hood of the 99, with some rather outstanding results.
The 99 EMS rally car was launched in February 1976, complete with a 16-valve 2.0-liter engine developing 220hp. Saab's top rally ace, Stig Blomqvist, entered the Belgian Boucles de Spa Rally, and came home with an outright victory. The following year, Stig again was victorious, but this time in a fully-sanctioned FIA World Rally Championship event, the Swedish Rally.
Unfortunately, Saab would have to produce a minimum of 400 16-valve engines to continue to be eligible for FIA Group 4 rallying. Saab had neither the capacity nor funds for such an undertaking. That didn't stop them however from continuing to develop the 99. In fact, Saab had been developing a special rally machine, one that would meet FIA eligibility requirements: the 99 Turbo.
Perhaps the most powerful rally machine of the time, the 99 Turbo pumped out some 280hp. With this kind of power under foot, Stig managed to give Saab its tenth outright victory in the 1979 Swedish Rally. This was the first victory for a turbocharged car in a World Rally-sanctioned event, and showed the way for future rally car development.
Unfortunately, this was the last major win the Saab factory could celebrate, as it soon closed the doors of its competition department. With the introduction of the now-legendary Audi Quattro, it became apparent that four-wheel drive was going to be a necessity for winning rallies. In order to make it easier for other manufacturers to produce machines capable of winning rallies, the FIA lowered the homologation requirements - from 400 units to only 200 units - giving birth to the Group B days. Saab used rallying as a tool for developing new technologies that had direct application to production cars, so this new era of "supercars" did not appeal to Saab management.
Perhaps outside the official arena of factory racing efforts, Saab did support grassroots racing in America, focusing on the 99 in SCCA Showroom Stock racing in the late 1970s. The 99 EMS found a good home in SSB and was able to clinch two National Championships. The 99 Turbo might have towered over its competition in SSA - like the low-slung Porsche 924 and Datsun 280Z - but its powerful turbo engine gave it the legs required to win another National championship for Saab in 1979. Saab was also able to spotlight the 99 Turbo's reliability, by winning the much-heralded 24-hours of Nelson Ledges in 1980.
Now, Saab 99s prepped for competition are most commonly found at SCCA Club and ProRally events. The 99's robust platform provides a solid base for competitive Group 2 or Group 5 rally racers, such as Nate Tennis, who finished second in Group 2 at the Oregon Trail ProRally in 2001. The 99 has also proven a good platform for SCCA Solo II autocross competition. John Wurt, out of Idaho, has clinched several Snake River Region class victories with his D Street Prepared 99 Turbo, and is looking to be a stronger force at a national level.
Sidebar: RallyHo! Motorsports
You normally wouldn't associate Wide World of Sports with rally racing, but back in the late 1980s selected World Rally Championships events made it on ABC's premier sports program. As an impressionable teenager, Mike White's interest in the exciting world of rallying was sparked, as was his brothers, and together they purchased a used Saab 99 rally car.
The White brothers began autocrossing the 99 learning valuable lessons in car preparation and car control. Mike soon moved into a Saab 900 Turbo for autocross duty, and began participating in SCCA ProRally events - working stages - and providing much needed pit crew assistance to several teams.
Tired of watching from the sidelines, Mike formed RallyHo! Motorsports and soon found himself shuffling the wheel and stomping the pedals of a 1980 Saab 99. Mike chose a 1980 model as a base since the later cars make it easier to update to certain 900 components, such as the rear axle and rear shock absorbers. These kinds of updates and modifications, aimed at increasing performance and durability, are allowed under SCCA Group 2 regulations.
Group 2 is primarily a home for modified two-wheel-drive cars, with an adjusted engine displacement no greater than two liters. Newer cars like the VW Golf GTI, Dodge Neon, and Nissan Sentra SE-R have begun to dominate the class, but the 99 still provides a solid foundation with room to grow.
Mike first focused his attention on improving the suspension of his 99. The team beefed up the stock suspension members by welding support plates to the lower A-arms, as well as gusseting the stock upper and lower shock absorber mounting points. Custom-valved Bilstein shocks help to control Saab 900 turbo SPG springs.
Alignment is critical to a 99's performance, according to Mike, who feels that zero front toe works best, with 1 degree of negative camber up front, and 2.5 degrees positive caster for added stability. Rear alignment is left stock, as the solid rear axle does not permit alignment adjustments.
Underneath the 99, a 3/8-inch aluminum skidplate protects the transmission, and an aluminum shield keeps rocks off the front of the plastic fuel tank. Home made mud flaps are mounted behind each wheel, and are constructed of polyethylene sheet stock.
Inside the cockpit a six-point roll cage was welded in; and five-point harnesses are used to keep both driver and navigator held firmly to the Corbeau racing seats. A Saab Sport and Rally steering wheel is connected to a quick-ratio EMS steering rack, giving quicker response. The navigator is responsible for the Terratrip 2002 rally computer, mounted on the dash. Lightweight Lexan is used for the back window, and rear side windows, reducing weight, while the battery is relocated to the center of the rear cabin, helping to provide better weight distribution on the nose heavy 99.
Group 2 also allows quite a few engine modifications, and Mike's 99 was built with this in mind. He started by balancing the stock crankshaft, rods, pistons, and flywheel, which was also lightened. A Motor Sports Service (MSS) fast-road camshaft features a more aggressive grind - requiring the use of thicker valve adjusting shims - and when used with double-valve springs allows the robust 99 engine to rev higher for better top-end grunt.
MSS also supplied the headers, which feature 1.75-inch primary tubes feeding into a 2.5-inch collector. A custom built 2.5-inch exhaust is used, with a lightweight straight-flow muffler. This combination adds roughly 10 horsepower, and according to Mike, "probably wakes the car up the most."
Mike also recommends that before any performance upgrades are added, a good tune-up should always be performed, with special attention being paid to the spark plugs, plug wires, and ignition timing. Overcoming the temptation to yank the CIS fuel-injection system - in favor of dual sidedraft webers - is difficult, but Mike decided to keep the fuel system basically stock, with the removal of the O2 sensor loop, and addition of a high-flow washable air filter being the only exceptions. Mike estimates power to be in the 120-horsepower range, with a broad spread of mid-range pulling power.
Wheels and tires catch a lot of hell on rally cars, with all the rocks, ruts, and jumps, so it is important they be strong and readily available. Mike has found a good source of Shelby wheels - Minilite replicas originally manufactured in the mid 1980s - and wraps them with Michelin 14/62-15 rally tires. Hakka Q tires, size 185/65-15, are used on ice and snow covered stages.
Seeing the road ahead is a definite plus when you're headed down a narrow forest road at over 100mph, so Mike mounts upwards of six high-powered lights - in addition to the stock headlights - with a custom light bar mounted to the stock bumper. Two Hella 2000 rally lights are used, which feature a Euro beam pattern and 100 watt bulbs for fill-in. Two 100-watt Hella driving lights project a spot beam, while two Hella 1000 corning lights are used to illuminate the edges. A single Hella 550 lamp is used in back, as a high-powered reverse light.
All of these modifications add up to one thing, a quick, reliable, good-handling car that has proven itself on the rally scene. Mike has proven himself behind the wheel too, with several top finishes to his credit, including an against-all-odds third in class finish in the 2000 Maine Forest ProRally. A successful rally team relies on more than just a quick driver; however, that's where Rally Ho! Motorsports co-drivers Mark Goldfarb and Michael Ronan step in. Crew chief Brett Rudolph ensures that everything stays bolted together, with the help of David White, Mike's brother-in law. And, of course, everyone stays focused with the help of team manager Suzanne White.
RallyHo! Motorsports may be a friends-and-family operation, but that doesn't mean it won't be up there battling for class victories against highly rated teams, with newer machines. The 99 may not be the newest, hottest machine to have in the class, but one thing is for sure: No other machine has the proven track record of the mighty Swede.
VSAAB Mailing List (www.vsaab.com)
The Saab Network (www.saabnet.com)
Motor Sports Service (716-665-4200)
Goldwing Recycled Saab Parts (www.goldwingusedsaabparts.com)
RallyHo! Motorsports (www.rallyhomotorsports.com)