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For a car manufacturer which produced cars for all of 63 years between 1949 and 2012, SAAB have a fairly limited number of models in their historical line-up. Most of them however managed to stand out from the crowd and several were even quite inspirational. But which was their best?

At this point, I gather that only a few diehard fans would put the 99 at the top of that list. Which is a shame really, as it was an entirely good car.

And I deliberately use the word “good” rather than elaborate hyperbole such as fabulous, beautiful, ingenious or similar. Because that, the 99 was not. I recall a period road test in a Danish car magazine (I think it was in “Bilen & Båden” which simply translates into “Car & Boat”) where they concluded that the SAAB 99 didn’t manage to set a new standard in a single discipline, but that its strength instead was that it also wasn’t bad at a single thing.

The earliest incarnations with the narrow chrome bumpers were certainly the prettiest.

Such an approach could have all too easily ended up with an entirely mediocre car (which it would have no doubt happened if it had been a Japanese saloon from the same era), but instead the SAAB 99 did in fact end up being a really good car. A car greater than the sum of its parts. Even a car without any shortcomings!

The interior of the early cars was simple and unadorned, but also cosy and pleasant.

As most of you will have no doubt caught onto by now, I’m out of a Volvo family. The SAABs weren’t approved of in my childhood household. And from that perspective, I will argue that I in period found a very obvious shortcoming with the SAAB 99: it’s hardly a handsome or elegant design. And yes, I do realise that being a boy sat in the rear seat of a Volvo 240 while coming up with such an accusation, it would be fairly easy to claim that was throwing some mighty big stones while sat in my glass house. But that’s not how I saw the world back then. And of course there was one other shortcoming: the 99 is front wheel drive. Back in the good old days, Volvo families believed in being pushed rather than pulled. But of course, out in the real world that’s more a question of religion – rather than right or wrong. And arguably, SAAB where eventually proven right as even conservative Volvo eventually gave in to front wheel drive.

Later the 99 got huge plastic bumpers, a large rear hatch for the CombiCoupé, and the world’s most comfortable car seats.

But getting back to the SAAB 99 being a good car, I actually read on the Danish Wikipedia site the following words:

“SAAB 99 was the company’s best model for 10 years”

The wording is quite peculiar and so is especially the chosen timeframe. The 99 remained in production from 1968 to 1984 – all of 16 years. Well, depending on your point of view, 19 years if you include the three following years where the SAAB 90 was produced – essentially the front half of a 99 grafted together with the rear half of a 2-door 900. But regardless, whoever wrote those words clearly decided to subtract a few years where the 99 was no longer deemed their best model.

Some will no doubt argue that the Turbo was the most important 99 – both for SAAB and not least for introducing turbo technology to the masses.

If you think about it, I suppose it makes sense, because the newer, better and bigger 900 model was of course introduced in 1978. Aha! It then remained in production until 1998 – all of 20 years. But it too can’t have been the best for all of those years, as the 9000 model was introduced in 1984 – and it was actually really good! In my opinion, at its introduction it also had the honour of being the first truly good looking SAAB built since the 93 which ceased production 24 years earlier.

But the fundamental argument for the 99 is of course that the 900 model was hugely based on the 99’s concept, mechanical components and its very evolution from early quirky 2-door saloon to practical 5-door family saloon. The 900 owns its very life to the 99. For that reason, and not least for the entirely good (there’s that word again) experience I had owning a SAAB 90 as a daily youngtimer some years back, I feel it’s time raise a glass for the SAAB 99. It too deserves its moment in the spotlight and I shall be the one to place it firmly on a pedestal:

“The SAAB 99 was the best car SAAB ever produced.”

I firmly believe history (largely) proves this to be true. What do our ViaRETRO readers believe?


4 Responses

  1. Tony Wawryk

    Another word to describe the 99 would be “competent”, which it was. I liked it at the time and like it now, though I prefer the 93 and 96. I’m less fond of subsequent SAAB’s – they just look too, well, bulky, for me, whereas the 99 is crisp and restrained. I would, however, take any SAAB over any Volvo (except the P1800) – sorry, Claus!
    Back in my BL days we used to have sessions where we would drive competitor cars and I got to drive a 99 Turbo – yes there was turbo lag, but once the turbo kicked in…

  2. Anders Bilidt

    Claus, I get where you’re coming from with your argument. One could say that every SAAB 900 which was built up until 1998 owed a lot to the 99 which was launched all of 30 years prior.

    Even so, I personally wouldn’t go as far as calling the 99 SAAB’s best. The 92 and the 93 were leagues ahead when it came to innovation. And the 900-series was just such an excellent car. I love both the Sonett II and Sonett III dearly. So charming that they would always be my forst choice of SAAB, but granted, you probably can’t get away with calling them SAAB’s best. But I would also choose a 2-stroke 96 Bullnose before any 99. Come to think of it, I would even have an early flatnose 900 Turbo before a 99. But that said, an entirely stock 2-door 99 Turbo does most certainly appeal and in some funky 70’s colour it would still always be more than welcome in my garage… ;-)

  3. yrhmblhst

    Being a bit of a SAAB SNAAB myself, I would say ‘no’ – but its a good un. And, if you [rightly ] accept it as the basis for later models, hence them being ‘continuations’ , then it comes closer. But, quite unconventionally for me, I personally like the later cars better.
    One thing tho ; if God had meant us to have front wheel drive, He would never have given us the Ring and Pinion. The ONLY exceptions to this rule are Minis and SAABs. FWD has been foisted upon us solely for convenience of packaging and assembly by the factory, not out of being better. And, like religion, it IS a matter of right and wrong; spinning the front tyres is wrong. Any readers who were confused can now rest assured of the correct answer. Youre welcome…

  4. Anders Bilidt

    @yrhmblhst, largely agree with everything you just say there, however I feel there’s one more exception to the FWD rule besides the original Mini and all SAABs, and that’s (obviously) Lancia. Despite being a RWD-guy through and through, I would be proud to have a Fulvia or similar in my garage…


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