Project Rally Saab 99 | Magazine Series Part 2: Improving the Look of Our Saab

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the December 2007 issue of Grassroots Motorsports; for more updates, visit here.]

Cars, like everything else in nature, conform to the second law of thermodynamics, which essentially states that disorder—entropy—always increases in a closed system. When you create a closed system by letting a car sit and allowing time and nature to take their course, the once complicated machine will slowly dissolve before your eyes. Paint that used to be shiny will dull and fade, rust will bloom, and steel will dissolve under the onslaught. Parts will wear out and original equipment will be removed and discarded as the car ages. Disorder arises from order.

Our job as car enthusiasts is to jump into that closed system, stop the progress of entropy and reverse the aging process. We need to bring that project back to life and even make it more beautiful while we’re at it. 

Of course, when you start a project, you often have to increase the disorder before you can reverse it. Bolts and parts tend to end up strewn around the garage before the car can become whole again. Rust spots no bigger than a quarter can require that an entire fender be removed, rebuilt and replaced. In short, things have to get a lot worse before they get better. 

Our Saab has followed this process. When it came into our lives, it looked pretty decent with just a little bit of rust around the edges. Making those repairs, however, made the car temporarily look downright scary—acres of bare sheet metal had to be molded into what could be called real bodywork.

Smoothing Out the Rough Edges

During a month of nights and weekends, we slowly brought our Saab’s appearance back. We contoured the fender lips, doors and quarter panels to the original, if a bit ungainly, Saab shape. 

Once a solid base of patches had been welded in place, we used polyester fillers to get the car back to its correct contours. The process was painstakingly slow, and no matter how convinced we were that a section was smooth, we found ourselves going back over it with more filler and high-build primer time after time. 

Painting, GRM Style

After a certain point we simply said, “Enough,” and decided that the car was sufficiently straight and smooth for its final layer of paint. After all, the plan for this car was to spend a lot of time on gravel roads, not the show field. With that in mind, we used rattle cans in our garage to return our car to its original color, Antelope Brown—Saab paint code YR06.

Yes, we spray-bombed it. 

And it looks good. 

Without being too much of a tease, we'll just say that you’re going to have to wait until the next project update for details on that step of the exterior rejuvenation process. We’ll show you how to do a low-buck paint job that still looks good.

Once the paint was on and wet sanded, we then spent quite a bit of time reapplying the trim, bumpers and lights. Now that the paint looked pretty spiffy, we really didn’t want to bolt on crappy stuff, so we polished, painted and cleaned everything before reinstalling it. 

While we could have spent lots and lots of money finding NOS lenses and seals, we decided that the polishing and cleaning route made more sense for this project. No one is going to notice a hairline crack in a turn signal lens as we whiz by at 60 mph on a dark, muddy road.

Photography Credit: Scott R. Lear

Rolling Stock

Our Saab came with 10 of the EMS and GLE “soccer ball” style 15x5-inch alloy wheels. These wheels are strong, reasonably light and well-suited to rally use. Of course, the 10 we had were also pretty beaten up and would require countless hours to restore them back to their original shine. As we mentioned in the first installment of this project, we are also hunting down the optional Carroll Shelby wheels offered during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Through several Internet and eBay deals we tracked down 11 of these Minilite-style wheels, and they were now taking up space in our garage. With the rest of the car sitting pretty, we divvied up five of the alloys for street use and set aside six for future rally duty. 

All 11 wheels were bead blasted and painted silver with Dupli-Color’s High-Performance Wheel Coating, a spray paint that is both strong and chip-resistant when applied to a clean but rough finish. 

These days, our Saab 99 is racking up some street miles as we get it ready for rally action, and while purebred gravel rally tires certainly look the part, they aren’t that good on the dry asphalt of our Florida roads. We went with something a little tamer for street duties, ordering a set of BFGoodrich Traction T/A all-season tires in a 185/65R15 size. That’s the original size for the 99 Turbo and a good upgrade from the 165R15 that originally came on our naturally aspirated car. We’ve put some miles on the BFGs, and while they aren’t the raciest offering out there, they are quiet and comfortable, making our 30-year-old Saab feel a generation younger.

Light Up My Life

Rally events can and often do extend well into the night, and weak factory lamps are a huge impediment to quick stage times. We needed something a little better than stock.

We first replaced our original sealed beam headlights with a pair of H4 low beams matched with H1 high beams. The job was a simple bolt-in that provided a huge upgrade. Figure about $50 per lamp. To keep these lights from getting cracked by flying gravel, we stuck on some Lamin-x protective film. 

While we were surfing on a MINI-related Web site, we found an ad for four used Hella 500 auxiliary lights—two fogs and two driving beams. The lamps came with clear stone shields, the original white covers and a relay harness. The total bill for everything was $80. That’s about half of their original retail cost, so we quickly PayPal’ed our money. 

To mount the lights, we made a pair of brackets out of 3/16-inch thick steel strapping. These two straps wrap around the front bumper and attach to the factory bumper mounts, while a piece of 1-inch angle iron bolts them to the top of the bumper and creates a strong and stable mounting point for our four lights. The bar is also removable so that we can just install it for night stages. 

The brackets that we made for our light bar also extend downward about one inch. These will be the attachment points for the soon-to-be-fabricated skid plate that will protect our Saab’s fragile and vulnerable transmission.

Strapped On

While we were bolting on the Saab’s energy-absorbing bumpers, we mounted a pair of Safe-Quip tow straps. These bright-orange straps provide a quick and easy point for attaching recovery straps and pulling the car from a ditch in the event of an off. And unlike traditional tow hooks, they’re made out of nylon webbing, so they won’t bash up our shins when we’re working on the car. They retail for $20 apiece. 

To the Future

We’re going to use a local TSD gravel rally as a shakedown for the Saab, and that means we still have some equipment to install, like a rally computer to replace our failed stock odometer. We’re also figuring out our timeframe for dismantling the car’s interior, removing the glass, and taking the car to Kirk Racing Products for an extensive roll cage. 

The goal for our project is to hit the stage with the 2008 running of the Sandblast Rally in South Carolina. We’ve got a lot of work to do before that February event. 

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