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Why turbocharger fans owe Saab a thank-you

We are gathered here today to pay our respects to Saab.

The deceased Swedish automaker’s lasting legacy is not the unconventional place it put the ignition switch. It isn’t the blackout feature that allowed the driver to turn off all the instrument lights except the speedometer, nor is it the clamshell hood or any other quirky Saab feature.

Saab’s contribution to automotive history is the hottest component today: the turbocharger.

Every automaker downsizing an engine and installing a turbocharger owes a debt of gratitude to Saab for leading the way.

This will give you a good idea how important the turbocharger has become: Two weeks ago Jaguar Land Rover opened a plant in England that will build gasoline and diesel engines in many variants, as many as 500,000 engines per year when it reaches full production. Every one of those engines will have at least one turbocharger bolted to it.

Honeywell International, one of the largest suppliers of turbochargers, estimated last month that the adoption of turbochargers on light vehicles will grow at an annual rate of 14 percent in the U.S. and account for 38 percent of the U.S. market by 2019. That includes gasoline and diesel engines.

For the 2015 model year, nearly 95 percent of Ford’s models will be available with a turbocharged engine.

Yes, General Motors was first in the early ’60s to offer turbos on regular production cars, such as the 1962 Corvair and the 1962-63 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire. But those were short-lived science experiments.

Ford, Chrysler and several import brands dabbled in turbos in the ’70s and early ’80s, but abandoned them, mostly because of heat-related reliability problems. And then, as warranty costs rose, the fascination died.

Except at Saab.

Saab had at least one turbocharged engine in its lineup from 1978 until late 2010, when the company skidded into bankruptcy. Saab engineers saw early on the turbo’s potential to offer drivers greater performance, by making the engine smaller and more powerful, the opposite of the traditional approach of just installing a bigger engine.

Saab pioneered many of the technologies turbochargers use today, such as the wastegate, which manages the turbo’s pressure. Saab engineers also developed a method to prevent ignition knock by automatically lowering the boost while the engine is under load, and Saab paired the turbocharger with electronic fuel injection before nearly all other nonluxury brands.

Steve Rossi, an engineer by training who was Saab’s director of public relations in the 1980s and early ’90s, is not surprised turbochargers have finally become mainstream.

“If you had to describe what Saab did, it was to pioneer the commercialization of turbocharging,” Rossi said from his office in Dallas. He now works in communications for Honeywell.

“Saab was able to do that because they were a niche player and they could charge a premium for it. But Saab was driven by a lot of social conscience from the Swedish culture and society. Gasoline was already inordinately expensive in relative terms back in the day in Sweden, so they were dealing with that.

“And Saab had a strong ethic for safety and performance, so the car needed to be nimble and fun to drive, which is why a four-cylinder turbo instead of a big engine made a lot of sense,” Rossi recalled.

Although the final chapter of the Saab story has not yet been written -- the company is once again battling to raise cash under new owners, and faces other legal hurdles in Sweden -- it is highly unlikely that the brand will ever return to volume production.

Asked to put Saab’s contribution to the auto industry in perspective, Rossi said when the histories of the industry are written a century from now, this is what will be said about Saab:

“Saab will be recognized as an innovator and turbocharging will be a part of that. I see turbocharging as one example of Saab’s forward thinking.”

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