Project Rally Saab 99 | Magazine Series Part 1: Starting Work on Our Swanky Swede

Update by Per Schroeder to the Saab 99 project car
Aug 12, 2020

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

When we start contemplating a new project car, we have to consider its intended purpose in life. A project has to make sense from both a monetary and philosophical standpoint. For example, the latest M3 isn’t really appropriate for a budget build, and we’re not going to rallycross a Lotus 7. 

The time had come to get back into stage rally competition, so we started doing some thinking. Our starting point for our last rally car was today’s gold standard, the Subaru Impreza. It was strong, easy to repair, and supported by a huge aftermarket.

But somehow, we found all of those perks kind of boring. The project was too easy. 

This time we decided to build something a bit more funky—more vintage, too. A historic class Saab 99 seemed like the perfect mix of the fun, the wacky and the inexpensive. Back in the day, this was the chassis of choice for many grassroots rally efforts.

Hunting an Oddball

The joy in searching for a Saab 99 is that there are very few left in the United States, making it a real challenge to find one. That is especially true here in our Florida home base. 

Since they were viewed as a basic commuter car by most drivers, countless 99s were run into the ground, rusted, crushed and wrecked as the years passed. Even the slightly collectible 99 Turbo was often relegated to the scrap heaps as the more modern 900 Turbo replaced it. 

To top it off, Saab didn’t sell that many cars in the southern portions of the U.S. The Swedish-built Saabs are great in the snow, but they established a reputation for overheating if they were not serviced properly. That doesn’t make them particularly useful in Florida. 

We searched high and low on a variety of Web sites for our dream car, as there were many different variations built during the model run. The Saab 99 was imported to the States from 1969 to 1980 and came in four different body shapes: two- and four-door sedans as well as three- and five-door hatchbacks. 

There were also three different engines used during the model run. The first years relied upon 1.7- and 1.85-liter Triumph-built engines, while the Saab-built 2.0-liter, B-series engine was released as an option for 1972 and became standard-issue on all cars in 1975. 

Adding to this confusion were the different intake setups. Early engines drank through a carburetor, while later ones featured one of two different fuel injection systems: Bosch D-Jet on pre-1975 cars and Bosch CIS on all later ones. Of course, there were also automatic transmission equipped cars that would be of no use to us. 

We researched the different variations and talked with experts such as stage rallyist Luke Sorensen. Luke suggested that we go with a 1975 or later car, as that would get us the simple and robust Bosch CIS fuel injection, the 2.0-liter engine and a beefed-up suspension that would allow for upgrades from the later (and improved) Saab 900. A two-door sedan with a manual transmission made the most sense, and we added the stipulation that it be painted in a nifty ’70s funktastic earth tone. The hunt was on. 

Early in 2006, we lost an eBay auction for a Chamotte Brown (think terra cotta) 1979 Saab 99 GL by $23. We bid $800 and went out of town as the auction came to a close. The hammer came down at $823. 

After that, we had very little luck finding another earth tone Saab for months. We were kicking ourselves on missing that one. We investigated a rumor that a friend’s stepdad had a Sunset Orange car in storage, but that one didn’t pan out, either. We pondered taking home a Sepia Brown car we found, but it also wasn’t the right one. Yes it was free, but the car had sat dormant for decades.

Ironically, we wound up right back where we’d started this quest with an e-mail from Luke Sorensen. He had an Antelope Brown 1977 Saab 99 at his Pennsylvania farmhouse that at one time was going to serve as a replacement shell for his rally car. (As far as the color, picture pumpkin pie that’s been processed by a baby and you’ll get the idea.)

The price was $1400 for a running, driving car. Even though there was some minor rust around the wheel wells, the car appeared to be solid and complete. Luke sweetened the deal with a set of original Saab rally springs, a pair of Bilstein front shocks and a spare—and rare—replacement windshield. Deal. 

Road Trippin’

We set a date with Luke and loaded up our Nissan Pathfinder, hooked up our Trailer World aluminum trailer, grabbed the dogs and pointed the rig north. We arrived in Pennsylvania just as the sun was setting, so we got a brief look at the car before darkness fell.

The e-mailed pictures didn’t hide that much, and Luke showed us the areas that needed attention. The rust and a small oil leak didn’t faze us. 

A dead battery, funny idle and sluggish running made loading the car a bit of a challenge, but we made it. Unperturbed, we got the car running well enough to chug it onto the trailer for the ride home. 

Running Ugly

Once back in our shop, we gave the car a bath, vacuumed out the interior and sized up the job in front of us. Before going too far with the rust work, however, we wanted to deal with the mechanical issues. 

We like to get any new-to-us car running properly before we start the major work, so we cataloged our car’s condition. Yes, we eventually needed to patch and repair the rusty sections, but in the meantime, some work in a few key areas could turn the car into a driver. We can stand having an ugly car and we can handle a nonrunner, but we like to avoid parking a car in our driveway that has both problems. 

After the battery was tested and fully charged, the rough idle was tracked to a loose hose on the intake manifold. The idle air valve’s molded rubber hose was reattached and secured with a hose clamp. 

This solved some of our idle problem, but the car was still very sluggish. We wiggled, prodded and twisted just about everything we could under the hood until we got to the distributor. The distributor was completely loose and as a result, the timing was, in the language of our friends from New England, wicked retarded. It was a quick fix.

With a peppy engine under the control of our right foot, we set out on our first test drive with the Saab. As we returned from our short drive around the block, we noticed that the clutch was starting to slip. A peek underneath the car revealed the trouble, as oil was drooling from the clutch housing that’s located at the front of the engine. It looked like the rear main seal was spilling copious amounts of oil, and our clutch had been contaminated with the dino-juice. 

Thankfully, changing a clutch in a Saab 99 or 900 is quite simple as the engine’s output shaft points toward the front of the car and the transmission is situated under the engine. That means that the clutch is located at the front of the car and can be changed without removing either the engine or the transmission. 

To do the job, all you need is a tool that keeps the pressure plate’s tabs depressed while you’re unbolting it from the flywheel. We ordered the tool from a seller on eBay and also sourced a Centerforce Dual Friction clutch kit. We chose the $450 Centerforce clutch because it has a higher torque capability and improved heat resistance, two strengths we’ll need when slogging through mud and sand on stage. 

After we unbolted the hood and set it aside, we pulled out the grille, radiator and fan from the front of the car to make space for the removal of the clutch cover. With the clutch pedal depressed (a friend or a large brick can help with this step), we placed the special clutch tool in the fingers of the pressure plate to hold the clutch in the disengaged position. With the clutch immobilized, we then removed the slave cylinder and the input shaft from the transmission. 

At this point, the pressure plate could be unbolted from the flywheel and the whole assembly could be removed with the disc. Before putting everything back together, we replaced that fouled seal.

As we were getting ready to reinstall the radiator, we realized that it was original and pretty well silted up. We set it aside and started calling some places to see about getting it flushed out. While one shop had us on hold, we found that we could get a new radiator shipped to our door for just $65 via eBay. We thanked the man on the phone, hung up and ordered the eBay unit immediately. 

When it arrived, we finished off the job with Prestone’s Low Tox propylene glycol-based coolant and a container of Red Line Oil’s WaterWetter to give our cooling system an added boost. The clutch and cooling jobs completed, the car was driven to the tag office to get legal. 

As we drove the car back and forth to work the following week, we started noticing some intermittent stumbles and an idle that would occasionally hang up at about 1500 rpm. The throttle assembly was fine and some investigation determined that the distributor’s advance weights were sticking. 

We pulled the distributor out of the block and disassembled it, relubed the advance weights, and took a hard look at it. The well-chewed points were certainly adding to our rough-running problem. PerTronix makes a Hall-effect ignition system that can be retrofitted into a points-style distributor. PerTronix doesn’t have a listing for the 1975-on Saab 99, but their part No. 1843 works just fine. You can find it online for about $80. We also replaced our original Bosch coil with PerTronix’s Flame-Thrower, which gives a little hotter spark and costs just $30.

While we had the distributor out, we found some cracking and dry rot on the ignition wires. We replaced them with Magnecor’s KV85 competition set. These $100 wires aren’t inexpensive, but we’ve always been happy with their performance and longevity. 

Body Talk

Now that our Saab 99 was running great, we dove into the rust repair with what can only be described as reckless abandon. We found a lot more polyester filler and fiberglass than we (or Luke) were expecting, and wound up replacing much of the fender lip material on all four corners of the car. We also replaced a good bit of the trunk’s floor and inner fender sections in the rear. 

To see the process for repairing sheet metal, check out our “Basic Body Work” article following this one. This will give you a good idea of what’s involved with repairing rusty metal correctly. Don’t worry, it’s not that hard.

In our case, making repairs correctly is key—the intended purpose of this car is stage rally, and shoddy body work won’t last long under an onslaught of gravel. Of course, no matter what a car’s purpose, correctly performed repairs make for a more structurally sound, rigid and ultimately safer machine. But especially don’t skimp on a rally car. 

Packrats Unite

As the sheet metal work progressed, we started collecting parts. For example, we wanted to use the instrument cluster from a 99 EMS model since it came with a tachometer. This would be a direct swap. 

Next we looked for the Saab factory accessory wheels. The original Saab Sport & Rally catalogs were chock-full of neat parts like skid plates, dual Webers and rally-spec springs. Early on, there were real Minilite wheels available, but these were later replaced with even stronger versions made by Carroll Shelby. 

These tough eight-spoke wheels can withstand the rigors of rally without bending up like tacos. The trick is to find wheels that have the words “Carroll Shelby” cast between two of the spokes. If you find a set that has “Ronal” cast into the same area, keep looking as the Ronals are weak in comparison. We’ve collected 11 Shelby wheels so far and are honestly on the lookout for even more. 

What’s Next? 

Now that our car’s filler-to-steel ratio has been vastly improved, we’re going to make it pretty…well, as pretty as a poo-colored Saab 99 can be. It’s going to be a low-buck job, however, as we’re going to do the paint work in our suburban two-car garage using rattle cans. (Note that we didn’t say the car is going to look cheap.)

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View comments on the GRM forums
BoxheadTim (Forum Supporter)
BoxheadTim (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
8/12/20 10:51 a.m.

Ah, and here was me thinking you dragged another 99 home.

I think those articles were published in my "early career" as a GRM reader. Still a nice trip down memory lane.

MadScientistMatt PowerDork
8/13/20 9:01 a.m.

...and we’re not going to rallycross a Lotus 7. 

Remarkable how things have changed - after seeing what Exomotive and Paco Motorsports put together, now a rallycross Lotus 7 sounds like it could be a good idea.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
8/13/20 1:19 p.m.

In reply to BoxheadTim (Forum Supporter) :

Yep, look for a few more articles (and projects) from the archives. Figure it was good reading then and makes good reading now. 


759NRNG (Forum Partidario)
759NRNG (Forum Partidario) UltraDork
8/13/20 2:05 p.m.

Had a 1973 99 the best ever in NE Ohio during the winter....never ran snow tires. 


pilotbraden UltraDork
8/13/20 3:58 p.m.

What is Per up to these days? I always enjoyed reading his column  and articles. 

Pete Gossett (Forum Supporter)
Pete Gossett (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
8/13/20 7:39 p.m.

In reply to pilotbraden :

Triathalons & family it seems. 

Powar (Forum Supporter)
Powar (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
8/14/20 10:22 a.m.

Where'd this car end up? I got to sit in it and pretend to be a real driver in Per's driveway when I bought the orange 99 from him. This was an excellent set of articles and Per was an exceedingly nice dude to deal with.

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