1978 Saab 99 Turbo: Old School Rally Rat

I once saw a rally-prepped Saab 99 in dark blue with yellow wheels, and ever since then I’ve had a fantasy of buying a 99 for myself and doing it up with a similar treatment. The problem is these days vintage Saab 99s generally fall into one of two categories: complete rotboxes not worth their weight in scrap value or collector-quality cars that you wouldn’t want to screw-up by doing dumb things like painting the wheels yellow. This car, which can be found on CraigsList in Green Bay, Wisconsin for $6,250 is much closer to the latter than the former, but is right at that point where a buyer could make the decision to rally it up or restore it to pristine. Given the demise of the brand, one could speculate whether nice Saabs will spike in value or whether they will flounder and eventually fade into obscurity.


Released in 1968, the Saab 99 marked a radical departure from the old 95s and 96s that had helped establish the brand. While they stuck with a front engine/front-wheel drive layout, the rest of the car was remarkably modern for its day, incorporating such features as a low drag coefficient (0.37!), safety cage, standard seat belts, energy-absorbing steering column and dash pad, and a novel deep windshield with upright A-pillars that provided a distinctly aircraft-like feel from the driver’s seat. Other features of note included a parking brake that engaged at the front wheels, a front-hinged clamshell-type hood, and a low and wide stance and track that substantially aided the car’s handling dynamics. It also had the quirky Saab trademark center floor-mounted ignition switch.

The cool alloy wheels on this car are very period-cool, but would not serve as well as a good old set of Minilites for painting yellow for our rally car. These wheels were special to the Turbo models, and despite their appearance were still relatively lightweight. My original concept for a 99 rally car started with a notchback as a base, but the 3-door “Combi” version may be even better suited to the task. It’s a classic look, but also tremendously practical providing a cavernous cargo area, especially with the rear seats folded. The Turbo’s ducktail rear spoiler is also a nice period Turbo-specific add-on. The seller indicates that this car has no rust, and was owned at some point by a NASA engineer. I bought a car from a rocket scientist once, and it can be a mixed bag. While they tend to appreciate the mechanics of a car (in that case a diesel Benz), they also tend to like to try out of the box engineering solutions to mechanical challenges (read: potential for wicked previous-owner disease).

The inside of this car is an oxblood color which very nicely complements the metallic grey finish. The front seats have sheepskin covers over them, however the seller makes no reference to the condition of the upholstery. A terrific feature on this car, which seems to be somewhat common to 99 turbos in general, is the sliding steel sunroof. I do like a sunroof. Visibility is very good from the driver’s perch, thanks again to the huge windshield and the tall greenhouse.

The 2.0 liter four-cylinder Saab “B” motor got a healthy boost from the addition of the Garrett AiResearch turbocharger. The resulting output was just short of 150hp, which was good to propel the 99 Turbo up to a sprightly 125mph. The 4-speed manual has some of the typical vagueness that plagued a number of FWD 1970s cars, but once mastered offers a positive feel and well-spaced ratios. Mechanical fuel injection enhanced the reliability of the motor, along with its fuel efficiency – although that will be the last thing on my mind as I power through a gravel-spattered S-curve. Come to think of it, I kinda like this car the way it looks. Maybe the thing to do is to buy this one and make it really nice, and find another slightly rattier one to paint blue with yellow alloys. Hmmm.. I’m starting to see how this hobby can be a downward spiral……

~Reed

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3 responses to “1978 Saab 99 Turbo: Old School Rally Rat

  • Tim T

    My first experience with a Saab was a clutch job on a 900 turbo. I bought it off a back row type lot for $100 tax and title. The I got it home and popped the hood. After about 10 minutes of reviewing what was there… It dawned on me. “The friggen engine is in backwards! The flywheel is in the front!! The clutch comes out the top!!”
    I was in shock. What the hell were they thinking??
    Epiphany time.. Who wants to lay on the snowy cold ground in -5 degrees to change a clutch. “Let’s stand up and do it”.
    2 door hatchback.. Loved it. Fold down the back seat and you had 6 ft length to sleep in.

  • J bird

    The “Thinking mans car” I don’t ever recall seeing a 99. (Before my time) Nice find! 150hp 4 banger was screaming for the time. I would restore it. Looks too nice for a rally project.

  • Lois Grace

    I had a Saab like this for 18 years…….mine was a ’78 99 GLE which was the top of the line model then. It was Hershey-chocolate brown with the oxblood interior, the only thing that put me off about it when we bought it. I thought brown/red interior was a strange combo! SO glad we overlooked that and bought it anyway. It was a non-turbo (the 78’s had known problems with turbos so I would avoid that) and a 5-door: 4 doors and that lovely big hatch in the back. That was a great car and served us well for 120,000 miles. Then, it became grouchy and required so much $$$ to fix that I decided to sell it and buy a VW GTi. I still mourn the loss of my beloved Saab…….if I ever find it again I will get it back, one way or another! Mine had the beautiful “soccer ball” wheels too and would have looked almost perfect with a new paint job…..ah such great memories!

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