It is now many years since we visited the Saab factory at Linköping, in Sweden, to see how these rugged two-stroke, front-drive cars were made. At the time the Saab was at the ascendancy of its fame in rallies, led by the remarkable Erik Carlsson, who was to marry Pat Moss and with whom we took a memorable ride in the forests. We returned home convinced of the durability and integrity of the “Scandinavian DKW” and a succession of these were bought for Company use. In those days the brakes needed something of a prod, the high scuttle line reduced forward vision and until a modification was made there was the chore of mixing oil with the petrol.
For many years after this Saabs somehow escaped Motor Sport’s road-testing itinerary. American ideas about pollution by exhaust gas killed Saab’s triple-cylinder two-cycle engine but into basically the same car they installed the German Ford V4 engine. Recently we decided to see if the old Saab magic had evaporated for us. It hasn’t!
A smart red Saab 96 proved very reminiscent of the two-stroke Saabs with which we were once so well acquainted. The body is narrow, the scuttle still high, although this produces neither too-close proximity to the front-seat passenger, nor any real blanking of vision, except, maybe, in fog. The Saab lurches about somewhat on bad roads, leaping from humps on its coil-spring suspension, and its gear-change is controlled by a l.h. steering-column lever, reminders that the basic design has aged. The steering wheel is noticeably large, no doubt to help overcome the drag of front-wheel drive. Against this, at a time when most of the recent British family saloons look alike and styling tends to be boxy, like that of the Maxi, it is refreshing to find the Saab 96 long and lean. When we were walking through Jaguar’s Service Depot at Coventry recently, although the low, squat lines of the XJ6s were regarded as strikingly handsome, someone remarked on the pleasingly lean look of a lone Mk. 2 white Police Jaguar which was in for attention. The Saab 96 retains this lean, narrow shape and its makers claim for it the very creditable air-resistance co-efficient of 0.37.
Thus not only has the Saab never changed its body shape up to the 96, but it provides the now-becoming-fashionable estate-car folding back seat, even if loading has to be done via the boot-lid and not through a lift-up back window.
After a few miles hemmed in by home-going M4 congestion we began to feel thoroughly at home in this Saab. It had a free-wheel, which the instruction book said should be used as much as possible, so not only were clutchless gear-changes possible but fuel economy was enhanced. It is nice to have this now-rare component, once found in Rovers—presumably the disc/drum brakes are fully able to cope although this may be why they often emitted a loud squeal. Good things seldom last, alas, and the latest Saab 99, with its o.h.c. Triumph engine upped to 93 b.h.p., does not have the free-wheel, as it is considered too snatchy and liable to over-stress the transmission.
The 96 snatched a bit in this department, but this was a small penalty to pay for maximum use of today’s costly fuel—the freewheel can be locked if desired, anyway. When we tried the then-new Ford Taunus V4 in Germany it did not impress us greatly, mainly because this engine was then in a strongly understeering car with an unpleasant gear-change. But this 90 x 58.9 mm. (1498 c.c.) 65 (DIN) b.h.p. power unit with separate balance shaft suits the Saab 96 very well and enables it to be referred to simply as a Saab V4. Perhaps on account of the free-wheel it gives something of the same feel as the old two-strokes which should please Saab enthusiasts of long standing.
It also takes the little car along very well, while fuel consumption of 4-star averaged an economical 31.5 m.p.g. (and nearly 35 m.p.g. under easier conditions), and the Saab reputation of seldom needing oil was upheld—virtually none in 700 miles. Wherever the oversteering tail of a Saab goes, the front clings on with extreme tenacity (the test car was on British-made 155 x 15 Pirelli radials) and it was not an isolated case to look in the mirror after a sharp corner and see a driver of a less stable car who had been trying to keep up, perhaps in order to read the lettering on the Saab’s back mud-flaps, mildly understeering off course. At the opposite extreme, rough country lanes hold no ground-clearance terrors for the Saab. A satisfying car to drive!
Other Saab attributes include good Hella rectangular headlamps, prompt if not instantaneous cold starting from the automatic choke of the FoMoCo carburetter, although this gives a very fast idle until the engine warms up, a commendable heater, vented body, excellent reversing lamps, a big excellently-located central hand-brake, and that ingenious slide-forward, front-hinged bonnet that gives excellent engine accessibility. Another Saab individuality is complex lamps’ switch-gear, the ignition key also turning off the lamps.
One can hardly not like a car of which its makers admit that “In comparison to what the giants in the business have produced—and can produce in just a year—the Saab totals may not be much to brag about”. Nevertheless, Saab production increased from 1,246 units in 1950 to 17,836 units by 1969 and the 250,000th car left the factory in January, 1965. Saab have come a long way since they built 20,128 92s, of which 14,800 were B-types, and 53,000 Saab 93s. Incidentally, when the Saab two-stroke engine was phased out in 1968 some 320,000 had been produced.
We do not propose to say much more about the Saab 96 now because we hope soon to report on the latest 99. But there is much to recommend these highly individualistic little cars built by the manufacturers of some of the World’s finest and fastest fighter aircraft. The interior trim is of very high quality, the paint finish, in the opinion of the Consumers’ Association, is better even than that of a Volkswagen, and with electro-dip rustproofing of the body, by phosphating and then galvanic bathing at 1,500 amps and 200 volts, and the reputed high durability of the o.h.c. Triumph engine, the Saab 99 should be a long-life car. For those who do not want to pay £1,420, however, the Saab 96 with the well-tried German Ford engine seems excellent value at £1,020.
The Swedish-written Saab catalogue pleases us by referring to the value of good reviews in the motor journals and to the car’s reputation as a tough and reliable rally car—which reminds us that Saab are winning rallies again.
Those who like something well proved and slightly unusual will find the enthusiastic and obliging Saab Concessionaires at Wellcroft Road, Slough, Bucks.—W. B.