Saab 99 1978 ems
Owner Review

1978 Saab 99 EMS review

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This is the second car I have owned and it is a very significant one in my motoring history, as it started a 30+ year unbroken journey for me of owning my twin brother Alfred’s cars.

A 1978 Saab EMS 2-door coupe, FWD, 4-speed manual. It had a 2.0-litre 8-valve 4-cylinder indirect fuel injection, naturally aspirated engine producing a competitive 87kW at 5500rpm and 167Nm at 3700rpm. This all redlines at 6200rpm, and is combined with a 1150kg curb weight. Saab claimed that 0-100kph happened in 11.6 seconds, with a 0-400m done in 17.4 seconds and had a top speed of 176km/h.

To understand my car, you need to know and understand what I bought and inherited. Alfred loved the car and it was the time in 1986 when he started his climb up the corporate HR ladder and was starting to access company cars, which resulted eventually in having owned about 45 cars. The Saab 900 Aero Turbo was a car all Saab enthusiasts lusted over. The signature triangular mags were something desirable. So, during Alfred's ownership he replaced the standard 175/70/R15 5-inch rim with a unique triangular themed high polished alloy with a 205/60/15 with a 6-inch rim. He added spotlights, upgraded the stereo and put on a wide opening black canvas manual sunroof. With two long doors, the windows down and the big roof open, it was as close to a convertible feel you could get. Finally, after the car was broken into through the roof and the interior slashed, the insurance company completely reupholstered the interior and installed a new sunroof and headlining. The car was reborn.

What was so special about owning a Saab 99 EMS?

It was made in Sweden. EMS stood for Electronic (fuel injection) Manual Sports, and it was a quirky and unique car, both in features and in styling. Saab was originally an aircraft and jet manufacturer. The way they thought about and approached building and engineering their car reflected this aeronautical philosophy. It translated into advanced thinking about safety and comfort for the driver, similar to pilots on long-haul flights.

It was a very cool car to own. It was different to anything else on the road. As a lover of tennis and having played the sport all my life, Bjorn Borg was my hero and he was the Saab Ambassador who drove the Saab 99 Turbo in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. On top of that, Saab had a World Rally reputation with the famous Swedish Rally driver, Stig Blomqvist winning the International Swedish Rally in 1977 with a Saab 99 EMS. That was all the credibility I needed to feel I was driving something special, even if others didn’t realise it.

The seats were extremely comfortable and supportive for long distance driving. The Saab philosophy was that a warm and comfortable driver was a safe driver. The seats were designed by Recaro, so the seats were adjustable in the conventional way but could be raised or lowered at either end of the cushion. It still had the famous ‘seat warmers” which came in whenever the temperature dropped below 14 degrees Celsius. The main doors had reinforced cross beams for side impact, which was something ahead of its time. It was even renown for its floor-located ignition switch rather than something on the steering wheel. This was safety driven to avoid the ignition barrel impacting the driver in case of a serious accident. It further required you to select reverse gear before the ignition key could be removed.

There was the quirky rounded windscreen and washers and wipers for the headlights. The door floor sills cut into the chassis allowing the door to open without any wet snow or mud being able fall on to your clothing as you opened the door. All lateral problem-solving design. Even the window demisting system was designed for a cold climate, with all the windows (even the side ones)being demisted by ducting air on the glass in the same way as most windscreens and not by conventional electrically heated wire. The rear seats squab-folded down to double the already large boot so you could even fit a bike. This was an uncommon feature for a sedan and was well-advanced thinking for its time, especially regarding structural integrity.

What was it like to drive?

This was a driver’s car, and you had to extract the best of the engine for it to reward. With the maximum power band coming in between 3700-5500rpm, you could redline it to 6200rpm in every gear and it would sit beautifully at 4000rpm in the next gear and continue to accelerate relentlessly. The engine was extremely smooth and ran out effortlessly to the redline. This car would cruise happily at 145km/h. The 4-speed gearbox had a short and accurate shift. The chassis was solid and European in feel with a non-assisted direct steering and a smaller sports leather steering wheel in your hands. It felt accurate with plenty of feedback. The steering felt heavy at parking speeds but as soon as you picked up some momentum it felt perfect when combined with the chassis. The faster you went the better it felt, carving up the corners on the hills, feeling like you were on rails as you spun through the gears.

What was its obvious competition at the time?

The Alfa Alfetta, another European driver’s car with a bit more performance. In comparison the Saab may have lacked the upper reach of the Alfa’s handling prowess but the Saab rewarded with a little more finesse and feeling of engineering integrity. They were fundamentally different, as the Alfa probably had more character and was considered a genuine driver’s car but the Saab had the practicality, capable of fitting five adults, and had the ruggedness that seemed historically missing in the Alfa. In fact, the worse the conditions the better the Saab would become.

Was it reliable?

I had the Saab 99 EMS for 11 years, longer than any car I have ever owned and it was in the family for a total of 15 years. I took care of my cars and have always had a preventive mentality to my servicing. The Saab never broke down on me. Normal wear and tear meant that over the period of ownership I reconditioned the gearbox, steering and replaced one engine mount.

What is its legacy?

The Saab taught me really how to drive; to truly understand the way you can feel the various elements of a car, the steering, chassis and engine coming together and to be able to extract the best out of the car. How to squeeze every kilowatt of power available and truly get involved in the driving experience like only a manual can do.

The day I sold this Saab to a young guy was a sad day. It was in mint condition for its age. I remember how impressed and enthusiastic he was in buying it. It was important to me that the next owner appreciated it. He looked me straight in my eyes and promised me he would take care of it.

Sadly, about two years later I spoke to my old mechanic who had serviced the Saab for me for those 15 years. He told me the guy had come in to service it, and it had been neglected and he hadn't paid the bill. He held the car over until he finally paid it a couple months later. He never saw the guy or the Saab again.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever see it again on the road. I occasionally have looked up the VicRoads site and checked for the rego, but I don’t have the VIN any more. No trace. Maybe it's sitting in someone's old shed or maybe it is in some wrecker’s yard.

Thanks for the memories!

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