“The new Saab 99 tested. Is it more than the anti-Volvo”?
Marking the Saab 99’s 50th anniversary, we revisit this transcript where the legendary motoring writer Archie Vicar samples what is now viewed as one of the top-ten great Saabs. First published Nov 7, 2014.
From “Mass Motorist” Dec. 1968. Photos by Douglas Land-Windermere. Owing to the poor quality of the original images, stock photography has been used.
When people think of Sweden and Swedish cars, they often think of Volvo who make sturdy machines capable of withstanding the horrors of the Scandinavian climate. But it’s worth remembering that Sweden has a second car maker, Saab, who also make fighter jets. Like our friends at Bristol, Saab use the experience they have gained in aerospace to inform the design of their cars.
This rare combination of aerospace expertise and the tradition of Swedish quality means that Saab is in the very fortunate position of having some great strengths to play to when fighting in the export market. It also means their cars are expensive and strange. In these increasingly competitive times, such advantages are of no small significance.
“…mundane world of Austins…”
It was thus with a sizeable sense of anticipation that we packed our suitcases and travelled north to Sweden to examine the new 99, which for this journalist is a far call from the mundane world of Austins, Hillmans, Triumphs and Wolseleys that constitutes our routine work. Most of the drivers of such cars don’t even know that Sweden makes cars, much less know that of the two makers, one is an exciting, lively and original firm and the other is Volvo.
“….exciting but rust prone…”
I always say that a good motor car is the product of the conditions from which it has risen. Italian cars are designed for fiery people who live in a dry climate so their cars are exciting but rust-prone. German cars are designed for a serious but romantic people meaning they drive machines that balance practicality with humorous over-engineering. The Irish like to drink and sing songs so they don’t make cars at all. The same goes for the Welsh. For the life of me I can’t determine how the awful weather and dreary mode of life of the Swedes can give rise to such a thing as a Saab. But then again, the Swedes aren’t noted warriors so why do they make a warplane? I shall ask an academic about this one day
The 99 was first shown in 1967 but it is only now in September we have had a chance to find out how startling the car is. First, the bodywork. The little 99 has been given a striking and wholly rational appearance. It gives the flavour of an aeroplane on four wheels. For anyone used to the upright shapes from Morris, Humber and even MG, this will be a refreshing alternative.
The windscreen is wrapped around, reminiscent of that other aerodynamic but annoying car, the Citroen DS. Sitting in the 99 one feels very much as if the view out is unimpeded and this car surely presages better and better forward visibility if other manufacturers take note, as they surely will. The lines of the car are neat and there is little exterior decoration. The bodywork shows some subtlety of sculpting that the men at Volvo could only dream of.
A nicely shaped clam-shell bonnet opens forward and serves to avoid creating the kinds of rust traps which bedevil the cars from other makers (especially Vauxhall who seem to specialise in this area). A jaunty little vent adorns the otherwise spare flanks of the car, sitting just under the rear pillar. It looks like an aerodynamic car and indeed it is, according to scientific measurements of this by the company itself.
“…chances of injury…”
Inside the car, nothing has been left to convention other than the roundness of the steering wheel. The ignition key is located between the front seats so as to reduce the chances of injury. A small light illuminates the ignition itself, which is a remarkable idea. The seats are of a quite novel design (they recline and have extra height to allow the driver to rest his head) and the ventilation system is cunningly conceived and very effective. It is also quite simple.
Again, it brings to mind the kind of cleverness deployed at Citroen but built to a standard unimaginable in Neuilly. A spacious rear seat, trimmed in hard-wearing material, leaves space for three. The luggage compartment was commodious and we were able to force Land-Windermere inside to prove the point. None of his photos came out as it was too dark.
Under the bonnet we find Saab has swapped their lawn-mower two-stroke for an in-line four banger on the classic Otto cycle. The four strokes refer to intake, compression, combustion (power), and exhaust strokes that usually occur during two crankshaft rotations per working cycle. It appears to be essentially half a V8. This is mated to a four-speed gearbox. [See page 14-19 on the details of MG’s new gear teeth profiles – Ed.]
Since Saab is the opposite of Volvo, the power goes to the front wheels. This otherwise regrettable arrangement suits the snowy conditions that prevail in Sweden. When it is not snowy, the Swedes are, of course, not driving but writhing together in various states of undress in the few brief moments that constitute their short summer. The car runs on a 12 volt system. A diagonal split braking system (with disc brakes) is another sign of Saab’s innovative approach to safety. The fuel tank holds a reasonable 10 gallons or so, enough for a touring range of about 300 miles.
To drive, the Saab is a light and adaptable machine. At speed, the steering lightens somewhat and it yields much information to the driver. Being so aerodynamic and so light, the car makes good use of the engine’s modest horsepower. The Saab 99 shows tremendous potential for development and is very different in flavour to offerings from Lancia, Alfa and Citroen, those other cars for men with exotic tastes.
The general engineering set-up of disc brakes and front-wheel drive in a monococque chassis has been honed to good effect. The empty roads around Trollhattan afford numerous opportunities to assess the modest understeer, excellent grip and high level of comfort afforded by the 99. It should be noted that it took a fair amount of provocation to unbalance the car meaning that the performance can be enjoyed up to speeds well above the norm prevalent in England.
That the 99 is comfortable, well-made, satisfying to drive and well-equipped ought to mean that other makers should pay careful attention. Triumph of Coventry and Alfa Romeo of Milan also offer small and rapid saloons. I would contend here that Saab has the advantage of them, and should Saab choose to fit an even more powerful motor, the 99 could be a class leader in a short space of time. This is a car that could upset the applecart in a most profound way.
Deliveries to the United Kingdom begin next year. Rubberised floor-mats will be available in 1972.
To read more of Archie Vicar’s renowned period car reviews, click here