Letter from Europe

[By means of which the Continental Correspondent, while he is motoring abroad, keeps in touch with the Editor.]

Dear W. B.,

I thought my European travels were over by November, but suddenly it all happened at once. You remember how we struggled to open the bonnet on a Saab at the Earls Court Show and when we succeeded were disappointed not to find the new o.h.c. engine underneath? Well, had we known our Saab’s properly we would not have wasted our time, for the o.h.c.-engined car is new from front to back and bears no resemblance to the previous run of Saab cars. I can say this now for I have just completed a run of 1,600 miles in a new Saab 99 powered by the long-awaited o.h.c. engine. As the Saab 99 is not being introduced into Great Britain for another 12 months the firm felt that some of us might like to try one in Europe so some cars were made available in Amsterdam, having been brought down from the Swedish factory by boat direct to the Dutch city. It is just four years since the Saab directors decided on a new car to supersede its two-stroke cars, and a design study was begun, and it is now in full-scale production. Most of the problems were sorted out by last Spring and a pre-production series of some 800 cars were built, of which 50 were given to members of the Swedish public with instructions to report to their local agent every 14 days. By the end of October all the plans for full-scale production were completed and as I set off from Amsterdam in one of the pre-production cars, the assembly lines in Sweden were in full swing, with a projected output of 50,000 cars a year.

The Saab engineers started thinking in terms of a 4-cylinder o.h.c. engine in 1964 and got Ricardo Research to do some initial investigation for them, meanwhile shopping around Europe to find an engine building firm capable of the required output and with suitable development facilities. They did this because their own plant is not big enough for engine work, even though their engineering empire ranges from jet planes to computers. They planned to have the gearbox and front-wheel-drive train in unit with the engine and while looking for manufacturing facilities they found that Standard-Triumph were thinking along similar lines, so an accord was struck and engineers from both firms worked on the engine unit, coming up with a single o.h.c. 4-cylinder unit, canted over at an angle, with a chain-driven camshaft. This unit is now manufactured by Standard-Triumph and sent to Sweden where the Saab-built gearbox and final-drive unit, in an aluminium casting, is bolted to the flat underside of the engine, the engine and gearbox using separate oiling systems. It is interesting that this project was started in 1964 because Saab considered the 3-cylinder two-stroke engine was finished, and before embarking on the o.h.c. unit they investigated the Wankel engine, and are still following its development very closely. Knowing the new car was going to take four years to get into full production they contracted to use the V4 Ford Taunus unit as a stop-gap, but this has proved so successful that it is continuing in production alongside the new 99 model.

Fog is by no means restricted to England, and it was very gloomy when I left Amsterdam, heading for the Autobahn into Germany, as intended to use the car to visit the Turin motor show. The confidence of the Saab people was very impressive for they gave me a car with a bare 1,000 miles on the odometer and said: “Go anywhere you like, and return it to Amsterdam when you’ve had enough.” I planned a Sunday-to-Sunday trip and purred away, not really conscious that I was in a front-wheel-drive car. I had been told rather pointedly that this was a 1.7-litre family saloon and as the o.h.c. engine was at the beginning of its design life it was not super-tuned, rather the reverse, so there was no great surprise at finding no noticeable performance, by my standards. Apart from a whirring noise from the Firestone Sport 200 Radial tyres, the car ran quiet enough and rode very well so that it was not tiring to sit in, and the hours and kilometres ticked by. The seats really were fully adjustable, a lot of thought having gone into their design, so that the base can be raised or lowered at the front and at the back independently, whilst the squab could be wound to any desired angle, with infinite adjustment and no infuriating notches. The man at A.C. Cars who thought adjustable backs were difficult to design should have a look at the Saab seat, it is one of the best. Apart from pretty negligible performance the only complaint I found in 1,600 miles was the heavy steering, not noticeable in short runs, but after 10 hours at the wheel without stopping I was conscious that the backs of my hands were aching, whereas I frequently do 10 or 12 hours on the trot in the E-type and feel nothing. Analysing this I discovered that the Saab 99 has to be unconsciously steered all the time so that your hands and arms are never completely relaxed. By the end of the run the engine was much more free and the car wound up to 155 k.p.h. (96 m.p.h.), at which it was indicating 165 k.p.h. on its speedo-meter. It is nicely high-geared and felt quite happy flat-out for long periods, with no feeling of over-revving—in fact, rather the opposite. Throughout the trip, which included over 1,000 miles of Autobahn, mountain roads, and winding cross-country roads it was made to go just as fast as possible and never missed a beat, using 1 litre of oil and a depressing amount of petrol. Accurate checks were not possible but it was certainly doing less than 25 m.p.g. at a cruising speed of around 80 m.p.h. Up to about 70 m.p.h. it was fairly lively, but after that every mile-per-hour seemed a struggle and it took far too long to reach maximum speed, while there was never anything in reserve when overtaking.

This new Saab is an interesting car, having lots of good “garage points” such as the fold-away rear seat to make an estate car, a first-class dipping lever, super lights, a free-wheel, the ignition switch on the floor between the seats, along with the gear-lever and handbrake, room for three on the rear seat and it has been well thought out an engineered. As it is an entirely new design and not a development of the Saab 95 and 96 it has a long development life ahead of it and clearly the basic car will be well capable of accepting a lot of engine development. The only time the f.w.d. made itself felt was when accelerating round mountain hairpins, and the general handling was vice-free and pleasant, presenting no problems even when hurled into corners in an unruly fashion. It certainly lived up to the Saab engineers’ faith in it.

While in Turin I was swept up in the truly memorable hospitality of Fiat, which is such that after a time you begin to spell Italy, F-I-A-T. I wonder if we shall ever reach the stage where we spell Great Britain B-R-I-T-I-S-H L-E-Y-L-A-N-D! Part of this hospitality was the opportunity to try the latest versions of the Fiat 124 and 125 saloon, both now in Special versions. The 124 has had its push-rod engine developed considerably and it has a new rear suspension, the live axle no longer relying on a torque-tube for its main location. The twin-cam 125 Special is essentially a luxury saloon and now has a very good five-speed gearbox, in which fifth gear is very high. In their usual way Fiat laid on some electric timing over a standing-start 400 metres and a kilometre and also over a flying kilometre, all this on a Autostrada in amongst the normal traffic, with police assistance. Imagine British Leyland doing this on the M4 during Earls Court Show time. The 125 Special did a timed 105.6 m.p.h. for the flying kilometre, holding 6,500 r.p.m. in fourth gear all the way; it would have been no faster in fifth, but would have held lower r.p.m., which is the right way of having a five-speed gearbox to my mind. The 124 Special had a maximum of 97 m.p.h., but in both cases the joy of the cars was the way they zoomed up to their maximum, accelerating all the way, and the twin-cam saloon could be buzzed up to 6,500 or 7,000 r.p.m. in the gears, which made overtaking a simple matter.

After the speed-testing we set out on a 35-kilometre mountain route, beautifully signposted by Fiat, to finish up at the impressive castle of the Trossi family, where we were entertained to lunch. I did this run in a 125 Special, but fog and rain rather restricted the enjoyment. After lunch a works driver drove me back to Turin in a very efficient and fast manner, that was a real joy. This was in a 124 Special and he held it absolutely flat-out on the autostrada and on other roads used peak revs in all the gears, which made me fully appreciative of the excellence of Fiat engines. However, they still have a lot to learn about springing and ride, for it still had that choppiness that has been a characteristic of Fiat saloons for too long now. The good ride of the Saab 99 rather brought this home to me.

We may complain about winter road conditions in England, but I reckon they are far worse in Europe, and European travel goes on for much longer distances. I still prefer to motor in Europe in the summer and in England in the winter —Yours, D. S. J.