Happy 50th birthday to the Saab 99
The 99 didn’t start out with a turbo, but it launched the turbo revolution

50 years ago this month the Saab 99 made its inaugural debut at the Teknorama auto show in Sweden, ushering in a new era for an automaker that, until that point in time, was best known for its droplet-shaped cars, two-stroke power and aviation parentage. The 99 changed all that over time, if not overnight, and eventually pioneered the use of turbocharging in production cars.

At its debut, the wedge-shaped 99 was powered by a 1.7-liter OHC four-cylinder shared with Britain’s Triumph, but it was the handling, versatility and design that that got the new model noticed right away. The fact that the car was front-wheel drive permitted Saab to mount the engine “backwards,” with the clutch ahead of the engine itself. Penned by Swedish industrial design legend Sixten Sason, the 99 offered a spacious interior and a “wraparound” windshield, which was quite unusual for the time and remained a trademark Saab feature. The 1.7-liter engine didn’t stay in the 99 long, as the company quickly moved up to 1.85- and 2.0-liter engines early on in the model’s production cycle, making a lot of small tweaks to just about everything along the way.

Did we mention turbocharging? In 1978 the 99 Turbo debuted after a pilot series of turbocharged versions were “beta-tested” around the world the previous year. Coupled with the 2.0-liter engine, the turbo whooshed out an impressive 143 hp, boasting a top speed of 124 mph and transforming the 99 from a nice-handling-but-not-too-fast car into nothing short of a hot hatch. The 99 effectively ushered in a whole era of turbocharging and made its successor, the 900 Turbo, a legend at home and overseas. It still seems a little unusual that such a significant breakthrough came toward the end of the 99’s production life, rather than at the beginning.

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