The Owner Of This 1970 SAAB 99 Says It All Started With A Pen
Photography by Máté Boér
The beige SAAB sparked my attention right away when I first saw it at a local Cars & Coffee meeting held in an open-air airplane museum—a location that couldn’t be more appropriate for an encounter with a classic SAAB.
The link between SAAB automobiles and aviation remained in the company’s products until the end, and though it faded a lot in the course of time to become little more than a marketing tagline, it was always clearly evident in cars of this vintage.
The peculiar automotive brand started its life in 1945 as a design project of SAAB AB, the Swedish airplane corporation. Sixten Sason, who penned the first generations of SAAB automobiles, was not only designing aircrafts for the brand during WWII, but briefly flew in the air force himself, and as such had sympathies on both sides of the equation—he could engineer the thing on paper, and then evaluate and tweak in the real world. It was mainly thanks to this connection that the cars that later rolled out of the Trollhättan factory earned such a dedicated fanbase. Many pilots and those who fancied themselves pilots were interested in having a SAAB in the garage, along with plenty of engineers impressed by SAAB’s novel designs.
But you probably knew all of that if you’re here reading an article about a 1970 SAAB 99 in the first place. The car in question belongs to Hélder Baptista, and his history with this SAAB is full of those humorous anecdotes and pitfalls and general memory-making that makes “old car” ownership so special.
I sat next to Hélder in his 99 and listened to him recount the past as we set off on an idyllic springtime drive. In the case of this purchase, decades passed between the first impulse and the completion of the sale, and it all began with a pen.
The pen in question was a SAAB-branded Parker ballpoint, which Hélder got from his father as a little kid. He recalled this memory with a huge smile and said that the moment he got this small gift was the first time he bumped into the Swedish brand. He started reading up on the company because of this pen, and subsequently became interested in their cars, which were not particularly popular in Portugal where he lived.
The pen stayed with him during high school and through most of his university years, before it was misplaced one day. But he didn’t forget the brand, because a SAAB dealership stood next to his university, which Hélder often passed by on the way to class.
Many years later, already working for years in Budapest by this point, Hélder realized that the time had come to look for a SAAB to buy rather than look at in a brochure. It wasn’t decided in advance if it would be a youngtimer or a true classic, and it took some time to narrow down the list of types and assess all the options. Hélder’s future car popped up on a Swedish classifieds website during one of these research sessions, and after a few emails with the very friendly seller, Hélder was aboard a flight to Malmö. Even though the little 99 had had eight previous owners by that point, it seemed to be quite well maintained, and it sufficiently convinced him to make the decisive phone call a few days later.
The SAAB 99, nicknamed “Gudmund” in-house because the project started on Gudmund’s Day, debuted in 1967, and the three-door model entered the market in 1968. Hélder’s example was first registered in Sweden on the 12th of March, 1970. The front-wheel drive car is powered by a 1.7L Triumph engine, which is fed by Zenith-Stromberg carburetors and delivers 80 horsepower.
The engine was bolted on top of the gearbox, and tilted 45° to one side in order to reduce the overall height of the package. If that’s not unusual enough, the whole power plant is installed backwards, because the English engineers tilted the block to the left to give space for the brake-servo and the steering shaft on their RHD cars—that’s why the Swede’s had to flip it around.
Torrential rain greeted the new owner behind the wheel of his new-to-him, old-to-the-world SAAB as they departed on a very long journey back to Budapest. The seller didn’t explain many things about the car to Hélder—his advice for the trip was to check the fuse box, if anything should go wrong. After a few miles on the road, the wipers and one of the front lights stopped working. Hélder recalled this as the moment of mild panic, as he had almost no practical knowledge about the car at this point. With fortune on his side though, he opened the fuse box, put his finger on the fuses and fiddled a bit, and voilá, everything worked again! Seems the seller had provided just enough of a tip.
In the first months of ownership, something was always going on with Hélder’s SAAB: an engine leaked, a burnt-out clutch, etc., so it was sent off to a marque specialist who partially restored the car to this honest condition that it presents in today, preserving its lovely patina.
This car is surprisingly easy to drive, the gearbox is more precise than you’d expect from a 50-year-old car, and using the famous SAAB freewheel made me smile in the way that only truly novel pieces of engineering can. The whole car reminded me on an old, studious gentleman who’d taken on a bit of whimsy in old age. The feeling you get in the driver seat is far from sporty, but the spacious and bright cabin is so comfortable and serene that you wouldn’t want to upset the peaceful atmosphere in here.
I loved the odd details that abound in this car, the seatbelt especially so. Indeed the 99 was very well-equipped compared to its rivals at the time and were quiet innovative, but somehow they’ve stayed under the radar today, and present an affordable entry point into classic car ownership.
Since the light restoration, this SAAB has brought Hélder on many road trips, and it eats miles with a voracious appetite. Last summer, he explored the wonderful roads of Slovenia in the 99, and his dream is to drive it back up to Sweden for a visit to the factory in Trollhätten.
You can follow their adventures on Hélder’s Instagram