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Remembering “Mr. Turbo”: Per Gillbrand, 1934-2016

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Per Gillbrand at the Swedish Radio concert hall Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, November 2014; photo courtesy of Claes Johansson, Klassiker magazine

We learned this week of the November 30 death of automotive engineer Per Gillbrand, who was 82.

Gillbrand may not be a household name, but to automotive enthusiasts, his achievements are world-famous. Have you driven a modern vehicle with a turbocharged engine? Chances are that engine used technologies perfected by this brilliant Swede.


From a young age, Gillbrand showed mechanical aptitude, and at 14, actually built his own racing hydroplane. He studied at a technical college, and went to work for Volvo Penta in 1955. Volvo soon tapped him to help develop what would become the famously durable B18 four-cylinder engine that went on to power the influential P1800, PV544 and 122 Amazon.

In 1964, Saab recruited Gillbrand, seeking his expertise in four-stroke engine technology. He would work to mate the Ford V-4 engine with the 95 and 96, and within a few years, the Sonett V-4. The Trollhättan-based automaker also had Gillbrand working with the British engineers behind the “slant-four” engine that would come to power both the Triumph TR7 and Saab 99. Saab continued to develop this engine, increasing displacement and redesigning it for greater reliability, but it was a quest for more power that brought this engineer his greatest fame.

He’s famously quoted as saying, “All engines have an oil pump, a fuel pump and a water pump. So why not an air pump, which is all a turbo really is? I think it’s odd that all engines don’t have one.”

Gillbrand and his team figured out how to make a turbocharger — formerly used primarily to increase top-end power — work at everyday speeds, by controlling boost pressure and making the turbo responsive much lower in the RPM range, to aid in passing maneuvers. This technology reached the market in the 1977-78 99 Turbo, and would be further refined in the 1979-1994 900 Turbo, where APC electronic boost control influenced the industry in the decade when automakers went turbo-mad. Saab’s innovative Direct Ignition coil-over-spark plug cassette was integrated with APC in 1990 for precise control of ignition and turbo boost.

One of the last major projects he took on before Gillbrand retired from Saab was the wild SVC, or Saab Variable Compression concept engine. Revealed in 2000, this five-cylinder, 1.6-liter unit featured Saab’s advanced Trionics engine management, a supercharger and a pivoting “monohead” that allowed compression ratio to change from 8:1 to 14:1, depending on load. This small-displacement engine made 225 hp and 224-lbs.ft. of torque and was about 30-percent more efficient than a conventional, larger displacement engine of the same output.

Alas, Saab’s parent company, GM, didn’t pursue this, and it’s just now that such technology is coming to the market.

In his retirement, Gillbrand continued to tinker, and he hosted popular lectures where he demonstrated fully functional scale engine models that he’d constructed; his last such show was in 2014.

It’s quite a legacy that “Mr. Turbo” has left, and his powerful concepts have brought smiles to the faces of millions of auto enthusiasts. To that, we say, Tack så mycket!