Former Saab USA Employee Tom Letourneau Shares With Saab History His Restored & Modified 1979 Saab 99

Posted on 06. May, 2009 by in 2000-2009, 99, Orange, Connecticut

Photo Credits: Tom Letourneau

Tom Letourneau of Providence, Rhode Island, a former Saab-Scania of America employee worked for almost a decade as a district parts sales manager in Orange, Connecticut from 1980 to 1989, has kindly provided Saab History a nice account of his restored & heavily modified 1979 Saab 99 GL 2-door.

This Saab 99, had a color coordinated european air flow kit installed, then it was converted to a Saab 900S Twin Cam 16-Valve engine and 5-speed transmission in the mid nineties!

A sincere thank you to Tom Letourneau, your enthusiasm is evident and your kindness in providing this material is much appreciated.

Here is a writeup in the Providence Journal thanks again to Tom.

CUMBERLAND Tom Letourneau’s 1979 Saab 99 hardly looks its age.

In addition to its modest size and modernist design, the car is armed with a Euro AirFlow Kit that, with its lower body panels, front scoop and spoilers plus Shelby American Mag Wheels, gives it an updated tuner look.

But the AirFlow package dates back nearly 30 years when Letourneau, who worked for Saab at the time, said he and others convinced the company to import a show car.

However, Saab decided not to import the package and Letourneau acquired the car after it had done its turn as a demonstration and executive model.

Letourneau then took it a step further — after his son had blown out the engine — by installing a 16-valve twin-cam engine with a five-speed transmission that he picked up from a Saab dealer in Maine.

“George Siegmund of South County Motors helped me fabricate it,” he said in an interview at his house. “It’s the only one like it in the country.”

The Saab 99, introduced in 1969, marked a turning point for a company that had been founded in 1944 as an offshoot of Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget (SAAB), or Swedish Airplane Co.

The first Saabs were remarkably aerodynamic, not surprising given the company’s origins as a military jet comp- any. But while the cars per- formed well on the rally circuits, their two-stroke engines limited their accept- ance in the United States.

The Saab 99 was revolutionary in its styling and was the first car to commercially develop turbocharging as a means of getting more performance out of a small engine.

Following three years in the Air Force in the early 1960s, Letourneau worked at various jobs in the auto industry, including a number of years with Porsche, eight years with ADP selling auto dealership computer systems, and nearly a decade as a district parts sales manager with Saab Scania of America Inc. from 1980 to 1989.

General Motors acquired half of Saab in 1990 and moved its North American headquarters to Atlanta from Orange, N.J., before acquiring the entire company in 2000 and moving its headquarters to Detroit.

Letourneau said he thought it was a mistake for a high volume manufacturer like GM to acquire a high-end niche brand. Certainly, the acquisition was not a success — Saab has made a profit only one year since 1990 — it lost $340 million last year — and recently filed for bankruptcy protection in Sweden.

Indeed, the future of the carmaker is up in the air as GM has put the company up for sale and the Swedish government has said it is not prepared to take it over.

Letourneau said it was always a bad fit. “There was no recognition or support,” he said of GM’s ownership.

Recalling his old boss Bob Sinclair who not only grew Saab’s sales but used to ask, “Are we having fun yet?,” Letourneau said GM took that spirit away.

“Working for Saab was the best part of my life,” he said. “That’s why I can’t get rid of [my Saab]. It’s part of my life. It’s going to the grave with me.”

After repainting the car and installing the new engine, Letourneau has used it extensively for one of his favorite sports, rally driving. Indeed, the passenger side of the dashboard has an extended board with such rallying essentials as a calculator, a scroll for step-by-step instructions and a stopwatch.

“They are time-speed-distance rallies,” he said, explaining that the object is to drive from one stage to another at just under the speed limit, and then enjoy a meal or tour at the end with fellow rally drivers.

It’s just one of his hobbies, because Letourneau, a tall man with a Santa Claus beard and grin, is an inveterate collector. Sharing the garage with his Saab is a green-and-cream 1961 Jaguar Mk9 sedan (“I always wanted one”) and a yellow 1988 Alfa Romeo Spider with an extended roll bar and Italian red, white and green striping that Letourneau races on hill climbs and autocross events.

There are also a number of large model airplanes, including a one-fifth scale PT19 early WWII trainer, which he flies. An ash and mahogany canoe hangs from the ceiling and in one corner is an Indian-made replica military-style Royal Enfield motorcycle, while in the other corner is a massive 1997 Honda Valkerie motorcycle.

“It’s the best touring bike,” said LeTourneau, 66, who is married with three children and four grandchildren.

Letourneau’s collecting fervor extends to his office with a collection of first edition Classic Comics, HO trains with New England railroad company colors and signage, including a number of diesel engines with the rust and brown coloring and logos of the Providence & Worcester line.

Also NHL paraphernalia — he buys shirts worn by well-known stars, gets them signed and auctions them to raise money for such charities as Hasbro Children’s Hospital. “It’s a way to raise more money than I can afford,” he said, noting that while he had paid $250 for the shirt, it sold at auction for $800.

Sitting on a table in the middle of the room sits the large fuselage of a one-third scale model WWI Sopwith Pup biplane, with its six-horsepower gas engine sitting beside it.

He said a friend had started it 26 years ago and assembled the fuselage and wings but it had then sat in his basement for 24 years. Noting the engine alone had cost $1,000, he said emphatically, “This will not crash!”

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