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A Coworker Let Me Drive His Old Saab

A few of you may have read once that I am a bit of a Saab guy. I’ve owned ten of them and I’ve driven hundreds more. However, regrettably, all of those cars were made on or after 1983. I’ve never known the pleasure of driving a truly classic Saab — until now.

The opportunity came when I inquired about driving the car of a coworker, who recently became the second owner of an all original 1979 Saab 99 GL that he serviced for the original owner over the years. Being the great person he is, his response was: “When and where?!” See the used Saab models for sale near you

This car is powered by a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine that was, once upon a time, rated for a whole 119 horsepower. Its 0-to-60 time of 11.6 seconds feels quite slow on the road, and its top speed depends greatly on how steep a hill you’re ascending or descending. It was purchased new for $7,403, and it had another $534 in accessories added. These included the finest in rustproofing scams, an AM/FM stereo, carpeted floor mats and some removable front head-rest pillows. In its 40-year existence, the car has averaged a whopping 1,600 miles per year, and the odometer currently reads 65,000 miles.

With all of that out of the way, let’s talk a little bit about this cars’ Quirks and Features™*.

We may as well start at the front of the car, which means we need to talk about the hood. Step 1, as usual, is to unlatch the hood. From there is where the fun begins, because for Step 2, the hood raises up a few inches and then slides forward. Step 3 is to go to the back of the hood, grab one of the sides and lift, raising the hood toward the front of the car.

Saab hood up

Once you’re past that, you’ll find that the engine is mounted longitudinally, like many Audi models. More interestingly though, you’ll find that the transmission is mounted underneath the engine instead of behind it — and in order to not make it too tall, the engine is also cantered. If you then dig deeper, you’ll also find that the clutch and bellhousing are at the front of the car, while all of the accessories are mounted at the firewall. The prevailing theory is that the engine is mounted front to back to give them enough room to provide a superior double-wishbone suspension, and it’s mounted backwards so that the bellhousing doesn’t intrude into the passenger cabin for more space.

under the hood of the saab 99

Let’s move onto the interior. For starters, you’ll find the ignition switch in the center console. I once heard a rumor that this was to make them harder to steal — since the ignition wiring was much less accessible than it would typically be when on the steering column. I might believe that if I hadn’t driven several classic 900s that, when the ignition would wear, could be started with the key, a screwdriver, kitchen utensil, or a nickel (yes, I did test that…).

I suspect that it’s more because Saab wanted the car to be in reverse whenever it was parked, and this was the most cost effective way of making that happen. (I’ve always heard it was so your knee didn’t hit the key in the steering column if you were ever in an accident! — Doug)

Now, what if you want to put on your seatbelt? Well, this is no ordinary seatbelt! There is no buckle like you’ve seen and used in every car or airplane since its invention. What’s mounted to the B-pillar is pretty normal, except that it’s just the belt, with no metal buckle. Thankfully, it doesn’t require a boy scout knot handbook or The Force to be held in place. What you have instead is this thing:

Saab 99 seatbelt

You would think then that is about it, right? Not quite. Here’s a great one: there’s a switch on the dash labelled “Extra.” Now, this is not like a new car where you get a blank spot where something you didn’t spring for would go. This is a fully functional switch, in the dash ready to go. It’s just not connected to anything. Apparently, your status could be directly attributed to the number of extra switches on your dashboard. It must’ve been a nightmare keeping track of which one did what.

Indeed, this is a quirky car — but what’s it like to drive? Well, the first thing you notice is that you can see out of it. The front, rear, and even side visibility — while maybe not slab-sided-Volvo-wagon good — is still pretty great, especially by modern standards. The next thing you notice is the lack of power steering. On the open road, this isn’t really an issue, as the tires are only slightly wider than the ones on your bicycle, and the car isn’t extremely heavy. However, in the parking lot, you start to miss the one finger ease of a modern car.

On flat roads and in town, the lack of grunt doesn’t really matter. However, when you start to climb a hill, it becomes apparent very quickly: Even at 55mph, every time we started to climb, I had to shift from fourth to third in order to maintain a reasonable speed. The suspension does its best to keep steering tight and responsive, but with 165 millimeter-wide tires, there’s only so much grip to work with — not that you’ll get going fast enough for it to be an issue.

saab 99 3/4

Speaking of driving, here’s another quirk: When you’re done, make sure to leave a little space in front of you. Occasionally, the gears inside the transmission will line up tooth-to-tooth. You’ll have to pull it forward a couple millimeters so they line up tooth to groove, and you can then put the car in reverse and turn it off. Find a used Saab for sale

More pictures here:

*Quirks and Features is a registered trademark of DeMuro Enterprises Inc., LLC, ABS, AWD, TPMS.

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  1. I had a 1975 99 LE back in 1989. It was the best car I ever had…until I filled the gas tank with the lowest grade gasoline in Mexico. The fuel pump went out. Then the car disappeared off the street. Gone. Sure miss it. Currently have a 2006 SAAB 9-3 Aero, which is more fun to drive, but just not the same as the old 99.

  2. While you are talking about the SAAB quirks, why not mention the front brake calipers? The handbrake goes to the front calipers, which have a sort of hinge on them to engage with a cable. Swedes found that this also worked as a sort of low-tech limited-slip, so if you wanted to minimize wheelspin on ice, you just pulled the handbrake a couple of notches.

    Oh, BTW, you can make the wipers sit on the opposite side by taking the cover off the wiper motor, rotating it 180°, and re-attaching it.

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