By on January 16, 2010

the last 99 memorialized

Want confirmation of the stereotype about eccentric drivers of old Saabs? Check this out: almost a thousand cars in the can, and not a single Saab 99 anywhere to be found. I’ve spotted half a dozen 96/95s, and there’s scads of 900s, but for some reason, even in this Saabaholic town, there’s just not a single 99 on the streets anywhere. The 99 is quite historical too, being only one of two unique cars that Saab ever developed from the ground up on their own in sixty years. That fact alone probably helps explain why Saab couldn’t survive on its own. More of that later. I was walking in one of the more obscure dead-end streets, when I came to a very artsy house with a cobbled up sailing ship in the front yard. I walked down the side alley to get a look into the overgrown back yard with lots of free-form structures when I spotted it: a green 99 that looked like it was half-way into the cellar.

one saab owner's imaginarium

The owner appeared, and welcomed me into his overgrown backyard imaginarium. The Saab was nestled under a second-floor trampoline, where its been since 1998 or something like that. That 99 has special meaning to him: he lived in it for several years in the mid eighties in order to save up the money to buy this house. But he stopped driving years ago and now rides a bicycle and an electric-powered tricycle. And this is not just any 99, but the very early version with the Triumph-sourced engine.

the last '69 99?

I’m not exactly up to speed on what makes all 99s such rare birds, but its easy to assume that the engines in the early versions were suffering from those Triumph origins. There was no way Saab was up to developing a new engine for the 99 from scratch. The two stroke for the 92/93 was cribbed from DKW, and the V4 in the 96 was bought from Ford. Triumph was developing a new engine family that would be built both as a V8 (for the Triumph Stag) as well as a slant four for the Triumph Dolomite.  Saab bit, but the English engine soon left a bitter aftertaste. Within a couple of years, Saab redesigned the engine thoroughly into the “B” engine, although still using the same bore centers and bearings. That was later developed into the H Series engine in 1981, and was used to the very end of 9-5 production in 2009. Quite an unusual bit of continuity for what turned out to be a short-lived engine for Triumph.

There are plenty of unique features on this Triumph engine and the later B Series, such a the water pump housing cast into the engine block and driven from a jack-shaft. And these early 99s still used the freewheeling transmission from the 96. The owner of this one said his was still running when he drove it to its presumed final resting place in the back yard.

distinctive early 99 face

The 99 was a bold and innovative design when it arrived in 1968, with its unique wrap-around windshield and all. And in 1971 the remarkably room Combi-Coupe hatchback appeared, one of the first of its kind on a larger car. Of course the 99 we all tend to remember is the Turbo, which burst into our dull seventies’ life like a bolt of thunder from Thor himself. But before Saab went the turbocharging route, it had experimented with a high performance variant via a different route, having built forty-eight V8 99s using the Stag engine. Good call, Saab.

patina plus

I’m still determined to find a 99 Turbo, because of the incredible story it (and my brief experience in one) has to tell. In the meantime, enjoy this one individual’s unusual shrine to the 99. If ever the stereotype of Saabs appealing to eccentrics (back in the day) ever fit, this is truly it. And please remember to be respectful with your comments; he’s now a TTAC reader, having joined the club of auto-eccentrics.

And just to make the trip to one of Eugene’s more colorful houses complete, here’s the front yard:

let's sail away in our imaginations

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37 Comments on “Curbside Classic: Rare 1969 Saab 99 Discovered In Stereotype-Affirming Eccentric Setting...”

  • avatar

    Thats a cool little car! I bet thats the only one like it in town, so its unique to boot.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Actually, his ‘eccentricies’ make me proud as a fellow Saab owner.  Way to go.

  • avatar

    One of only two developed by SAAB itself?   Besides the 99, I count the 92/93/95/96 (counting that as a single model) and the Sonett (97).  Or was one of those not developed by SAAB?

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      I mean a completely new platform. Saab only ever developed two: the 92/93/95/96 and Sonnet which shared one platform;  and the 99/900, which shared the other.
      Edit: Let me amend that somewhat; you may be right in calling the Sonnett/97 a different “platform/car”; it did have a unique chassis structure. But it shared many of the 93/96 components, and was built around them. It was not a completely separate unique car, in that it owed so much to the 93/96. And it was a very simple car (relatively speaking) compared to developing a completely new car like the 99.

    • 0 avatar

      Fair enough, I agree with that.  Maybe two and a half could be arguable!
      And, Paul, much kudos for the series.  It’s the most enjoyable read on TTAC!

  • avatar

    Where’d you find that car, Paul? Calcutta??!! I hope you’re up to date on your tetanus shots before and de-louse yourself after venturing into these places.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Seriously, I’m quite willing to venture into eccentric places like this. Too much of this country is looking like it all came from the same cookie cutter. And some folks just never stop living out their childhood imaginations: didn’t you ever want a pirate ship on your front yard and a trampoline off your bedroom?
      I admit this place is in need of some pruning and a bit of tidying up. There’s a happy medium.
      It’s ok if it’s not your thing, but please keep your comments respectful nevertheless. Thanks.

  • avatar

    A second story trampoline and a carport!  Why didn’t I think of that?

  • avatar

    I owned a very similar 1970 Saab 99, in the mid 1980’s while I was a grad student (and then went on to own 4 more Saabs later, in the 1990’s). Talk about character and personality, the 99 sets the standard!

    Those original 99’s had all the original ‘quirky’ features that Saabs became famous for, though most of them were there for a reason. The oft-mentioned ignition key on the floor I believe was both a ‘safety innovation’ compared to the key sticking out of the dash on other cars of that era (you wouldn’t impale yourself on it in an accident) as well as a convenience feature. Think about the first few moves your right hand makes when starting a car: turn it on with the ignition key, release the parking brake, and then put it in gear. With the key on the floor, all of those would occur close to each other and you wouldn’t have to move your right hand very far in performing all three operations. Early ergonomics in action!

    I distinctly remember the seat belts, which were a shoulder and lap belt combination. In 1970, few cars had shoulder belts, and the ones that did, had a cumbersome shoulder belt that was completely separate from the lap belt, had no retractor mechanism, was awkwardly stored in clips on the headliner above the windows, and attached to a separate latch from the lap belt. Most people back then never troubled to take the shoulder belt down from its clips on the headliner. The Saab on the other hand had a system that combined the lap and shoulder belt in one. It was one continuous belt without a latch, on a retractor wheel on the doro jamb (standard now, but not back then). The fabric of the belt itself was held in place by a scissors type of catch on the floor, where the conventional attachment point is. A metal scissors clasp literally pinched the belt in place. It seemed like the metal scissors would wear away at the belt, but the 15 year old one in my car still looked as good as new. It also allowed for some stretch in event of an accident, absorbing some of the impact – more early safety and ergonomic innovation.

    The rear storage also set the standard for practicality. I guess in Sweden (as in most of Europe, especially back then), people had a single car, so, it had to serve all purposes. With the back seat folded down, you could literally carry furniture in back, which I often did. The car easily swallowed all of my worldly possessions at the time. But, unlike a truck, the Saab could carry furniture and still provide a comfortable, fun ride.
    Like other cars of the era, it wasn’t the fastest thing on wheels compared to todays cars, but it excuded character and personality, which made it fun, and simply satisfying, to drive. The seats seemed like form-fitting Recaros compared to the bench slabs and “buckets” that American cars had in 1970. I remember the first time I sat in it, it felt like there wasn’t any pressure on any part of my body, it just somehow magically supported me without pushing against anything, and were supremely comfortable for multi-hour drives (and they were cloth, which were cool in the summer and warm in the winter, compared to the plastic in most other cars). The upright seating position and near vertical windshield gave fantastic visibility. The disc brakes gave great stopping power compared to the drums in most American cars at the time, and the front-wheel drive was perfect for upstate New York winters.

    Most of all, driving it had that elusive feeling of being special. It felt sure-footed, competent, handled well in rain and snow, got good gas mileage, and was practical. The interior and control layout was unique, and it was very different in many ways from American (and Japanese) cars of the time, but in very logical and satisfying ways. Mine was a beautiful shade of Prussian blue, which I haven’t seen on any other car since. I loved driving it, and its one of the cars I sorely miss (yes, I’m a Saabophile).

    I loved it so much that years later, after getting real jobs and being able to afford new cars, my wife and I ended up buying 4 Saabs through the 1990’s. Unfortunately, all of them came after GM bought Saab, and the progressive loss of Saab-ness, and cancerous creep of GM-ness, was disappointingly apparent as time went on. The last one I had was a 1999 Viggen, which, while still special, didn’t have the same soul as the 1970 99. I still troll e-bay and craigslist looking for another one.

    It’s interesting to compare the original 99, which defined Saab, with what GM was selling at the end – which were essentially Chevy Malibus with the ignition key on the floor. People bought Saabs for a reason. They bought them because they were different, they liked the unique features which were distinct from other cars. GM took a successful small brand and made it into a failed bigger one. They took away the reasons people bought Saabs in the first place, and as a result, they no longer did. It’s a shame, because I don’t think there truly is anything sold today (at least in the U.S.) which captures what Saab had – who else sells a sporty 2-door hatchback with excellent handling, good power, good economy, near-luxury, unique (and to my eyes attractive) styling, and practicality with the ability to literally carry furniture? Some say that Subaru has taken its place, but only by default, since nothing else comes close. I miss the 99, and I’ll miss (the orignal) Saab.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Thanks for adding the vital meat to my 99 skeleton.

    • 0 avatar

      I bought a used Saab that was close to this model year. The dealer had it at the back of the lot because it wouldn’t start. It was neglected. I got it cheap, replaced a fuse, and it started. Mine wasn’t a hatchback. A ball joint broke turning out of a grocery store parking lot, and the front suspension collapsed to the ground. I stood on the curb and watched cars slide up to it with their braked locked till the wrecker got there. No insurance. The collapse was at a good time; the previous night I had driven it home on the interstate from the nightclub in a Grand Rapids, an hour away (not exactly with the best reflexes, being that late). In the weeks prior to this, I had detected something odd with the steering, and had a local Saab expert/fan check it. For all his reputed skill, he didn’t have the sense of feel to detect it while driving, like I did.  Another adventure was took a rich girl to the Holland beach in it; her parents nervously suggested we use the membership to their health club pool instead. I recall they had a check for something on their dining table for $750,000.  I really liked Saab, this Saab, the Saab idea, but I sold it because I wasn’t going to be held hostage to the expensive Saab Parts Mafia, which the car needed on a regular basis. To this day, I will not buy a car that has a monopoly on parts or limited service choices.

    • 0 avatar

      You’re right about the key in the floor being a safety and an ergonomic thing, but, early on, it played a more significant role. In the days before steering column locks and anti-theft devices, the key was placed on the floor in order to lock the transmission in reverse. The point? Why would anyone steal a car that’s locked in reverse?

    • 0 avatar

      I too had a Saab 99 that I bought in 1989, a 1976 EMS model in lime green with blue and yellow pinstripes and, I believe, an authentic factory wing.
      This was my first car and I cherished it – even though I drove the snot out of it and beat it like a rented mule. It took the worst kind of abuse and came back again and again.
      I loved the large hatch, the heated driver’s seat that still worked, the sport steering wheel, the factory tach, mechanical fuel injection, an easy to work on engine/transmission stacked on top of each other (I had mine out 3 times), factory alloys, headlight wipers and washers, the Bilstein shocks, the clamshell hood – things that made the car unique and different. I was that ‘Lime green Saab guy’ at high-school parties, and for years afterwards. It was completely and utterly unique.
      I rebuilt the engine in high school, and was confounded by a valve machining job that went awry the moment the car started. The valve seats that had been swaged in quickly un-swaged themselves, and being offered no recourse from the machine shop, I bought a donor car, stripped the head and got back on the road. Another engine rebuild was more performance oriented and probably added 20 or so hp to the original 120. Then a header and performance exhaust added a lot of noise, and an oil cooler for longevity, Goodyear GTA+4 tires in 15″, performance filter, some go-fast stickers…17 year old fantasy.
      I loved how the car would actually break its tail out  – chasing a friend home late one night, he in his 442, me in my old 99, lots of sliding and smoke, behaviour that makes me blanche these days. I remember marshalling one of the Rocky Mountain Rallies and driving the stages in a car that felt a roll-cage away from a legit rally car, making my friends seriously car-sick. Fun times with that old car.
      I eventually sold it to Saab salesman to pay for school, and because I had spent a huge amount of money on it, relative to my position in life. But every penny I spent was voluntary, except for one instance when a friend learning to drive a standard funky chickened so hard that he broke the front engine mount and ground the alternator into the firewall – that was not cheap. That car was utterly reliable, and when it wasn’t, like the occasional time when the starter solenoid overheated, you just banged on it.
      I’d love another one.

  • avatar

    Seriously, Paul, too much of the country is starting to look just like that, and not because people are getting in touch with their inner child.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      You have a point; I didn’t say I wanted to live like this, or to see too much of this. But there’s a bit of a difference between typical trailer/back woods trash places and this; there is a modicum of creative force at work here, even though its execution is quite flawed due to various factors. That’s not the case in a lot of places that you might be describing.
      Anyway; I realize I probably have a higher tolerance for freedom of expression than most folks. It’s just how I roll. It’s probably also why I can find some love for literally any car on the planet.

  • avatar

    Actually, the Sonett only sort-of has a unique structure. It is very much built on a cut-down shortend 96 platform. There is a big seam right across the floor of the car where they cut the 96 structure in half and took 12″ or so out. Lots of hand frabricating of the front and rear stucture, then a fiberglass body slapped on the top. I’m in the midst of restoring Sonett #1243, which is a very early 1969 Sonett V4. So I would agree with two unique platforms – 92,93,95,96,97, and 99,900. The 9000 was a joint venture with FIAT, and the NG900 and up are Opels underneath. The less said about the 9-2x and 9-7 the better.

    I suppose a case could be made that the Sonett I was a unique platform, but they only made 7, and I don’t believe any were actually sold to customers. I don’t think they share anything but mechanicals with the 92-93.

    As to why so few 99’s, well, that is easy. The early ones with the Triumph motors stopped running. Later ones were mostly built in Belgium from substandard steel and rusted to oblivion in short order, even in dry climates! Plus lots of them killed by that long-lived Saab problem of relatively weak transmissions. They are more complicated cars than 96s, so tended to not get fixed when they went wrong in general. Saab’s lost generation.

  • avatar

    My first car was a 96, and later fell in love with the 99.  Finally bought a used EMS  model and never regretted  it.  It handled like a tall, slightly tippy sports sedan with great steering feel. It was a bear to parallel park tho, with that fat little wheel and no power assist!
    Some of these cars were built in belgium, apparently with substandard steel, and the floors  rusted out prematurely; however, was a car one became emotionally attached to, and I miss it much.

  • avatar

    I’m afraid my only experience with Saab’s was a 2007 9-5 hire car whilst my main car was being repaired after being rear ended. I can kind of understand the key on the floor thing, but when your bunch of keys falls into the place where the handbrake handle sits when it is in the down position is just silly. The rest of my Saab experience was being frustrated by traction control which forced me to be sensible every time I threw the car into a corner – and it wouldn’t let me turn it off.
    It’s really sad what’s happened to Saab, an independent car company with a history of innovation and new ideas – but I guess that’s what happens when you get swallowed up by the amorphous blob that is GM. The corporate penny pinchers get involved, they don’t allow innovation because it ‘doesn’t sell’, they force drive trains, interiors and other materials from all the other GM products upon the Saab brand, diluting its appeal. Finally the cars that emerge from this unholy partnership are 90% GM blandness with a 10% Saab coating of bodyparts and quirkiness which already existed in previous models.

  • avatar

    Wow Paul. This looked like a risky assignment.   Screen door opens, banging against the house. “HEY! ARE YOU A FED? GET OUT!” Ka-Blam! Pfft, pfft, pfft, go the shotgun pellets. Dogs in neighborhood bark. Etc.

  • avatar

    Love the pirate ship.    Can we get some detail shots – I’d like to build one in my back yard.   (No, not being sarcastic)

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      If you look closely, you can see it started out as a real sailboat, and it’s still sitting on its trailer. The owner bought a fiberglass racing boat, and it turned out to be too demanding to actually sail it, so he just built an upper hull out of cedar. He’s never taken it out on the water like this; looks a bit top heavy.  Details?: Sorry; use your imagination; he did.

  • avatar

    Did nobody realize that this car has been repainted with a brush?  My guess is this happened after the driver’s side front corner hit something and was bumped out and filled in with Bondo…  Paul, can you confirm? BTW, just wondering, is there no building code enforcement in Eugine? I see things there that would draw interest from an official in many cities (and I don’t mean the artistically creative features.)

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      We sure do have codes. Enforcement is done in response to complaints (or of course during building inspections where a permit is involved). This guy has had a number of complaints, and is on familiar terms with the building dept., but has manged to weather them (somehow).

  • avatar

    Just a little fun from my own mental imaginarium. No harm intended.

  • avatar

    Those pictures actually brought some tears to my eyes.  The Saab lying there in that back garden after a long life seemed very poignant

  • avatar

    Mr. Niedermeyer,
    Thanks for yet another wonderful CC.
    I see this saab everyday parked somewhere on the street outside my office:

    I never saw the owner but it moves around so it’s in a drivable state.
    It says “99L” on the right side and is probably much younger then the one under the trampoline. Do you know any facts about this particular model?

  • avatar

    That’s a later 99. The heavy bumpers appeared in ’74, so ’74 – ’78.

  • avatar

    I can imagine waking up so excited for the day that I just have to get out a few rounds on the ol’ second story trampoline, we used to powerbounce each other much higher than that netting lol

  • avatar

    Hi,  I bought this car for $300 in 1986 to live in. At first I couldn’t get it to start but it was parked in a good spot. When I quit driving it no junkyard would take it (rebuilt engine and all) and most didn’t have any parts for it. Now it’s completely absurd but a relic. It still runs, though the brakes are pretty frozen. I had to recover those cloth seats. They’re great but they don’t last. New parts were too expensive, so I cobbled a mechanical clutch, electric fuel pump, a wire to lift the driver window and a push button start switch. The key switch on the floor only worked for clean people. The seats that bend all the way back made it easy to sleep in and the fold down rear seat was great for keeping the camping gear in the trunk out of sight. The paint is a brush job, well worth the nine dollars at the time, for being able to pass in an upper class area of a city park. It’s sturdy beyond belief. I built a wooden roof rack that I frequently loaded with insane quantity of material, sometimes as big as the car. All of the outbuildings arrived that way. It pulls the 30 foot ship easily. 300 phone books was realistic. The front seat pops completely out for loading concrete chunks into the center of the car. And it’s totally stable and quiet at 90 mph, and seems unaffected by snow and ice. The door locks even stick out where a lighter can warm them when they freeze. If I ever get a wish to be a motorist again this would be the car I’d want, so here it sits.

  • avatar

    Special treatment has also made me a master of code enforcement. Nothing in these pictures is in violation. Take a good look, it’s not like you’d think. Nearly every house in my neighborhood has violations that I know about that don’t get busted, and I’m the only one, I’ve ever heard of, doing a remodel with a permit, deliberately inviting those people every five months to check out what looks like the cave house in the Narnia movie.

  • avatar

    I live near what can best be described as aholy grail of SAAB cars. A trip is in order to photo the dozens of SAAB cars on the property. If Paul wants the shots contact me through the email address registered on the site.

  • avatar

    Well, I am honored to report I have a 1970 99e and all is well. I live in Big Lake, Alaska and the car was owned by a Professor at UAF which maybe kept the miles down and they don’t use salt on the roads there. Mine is solid with no rust and engine purrs. Usual problems of electrical identified early and beefed up, aftermarket radiator, block heater, battery warmer and battery tickler are also add-ons. The thing is, they handle on ice roads better than any cars I’ve ever tried. They also have the crash cage should you find yourself rolling down a ravine. Handling on ice and roll cage are my two sale points. Was not awre the engine was or is a problem. Mine does not burn oil or do anything but growl on down the highway. I did have it all checked out for leaks and did add an aftermarket muffler. Tires are tough to find but I found some all-season radials from the Smart car work fine. My heated seats work ! We have a fine Saab mechanic in the Matanuska Valley, Orrin in the Butte. I was told when I purchased my Saab that the transmission was rebuilt but seems to shift just fine. Anyway, anybody having any advice on what to anticipate and keep this rare classic on the road add a comment. There is a Youtube vid of the car called my 99e by the kid who sold it to me (UAF student). I’ve added the new muffler and tuned it since then. Cheers.

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