The Saab from Sweden

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A Two-Stroke Front-Wheel-Drive Small Car Possessing Considerable Individuality and Excellent Roadholding and Cornering Qualities

EARLIER this year, MOTOR SPORT reported on a visit to the Saab factories in Sweden and gave some impressions of driving the various Saab models in that country. Naturally. we awaited with interest the arrival of the Saab in England and have since been able to carry out a long-distance road test of the Saab 96 under conditions prevailing here. The car submitted for test was one of the first right-hand-drive models to be imported and the production models will differ in detail.

Those who crave individuality in their motor cars will appreciate the Saab, inasmuch as it has front-wheel drive, a three-cylinder aluminium head two-stroke engine, a freewheel in the transmission and a number of individualistic items of control layout and internal arrangements.

The controls are in fact sensibly laid out. In front of the driver is the control cluster, consisting of a Vdo horizontal ribbon-type speedometer reading up to 90 m.p.h. in stages of 10 m.p.h. The figures are unnecessarily large, while those of the odometer, although it has no decimal reading, are extremely clear. Below this hooded strip speedometer are four small matching dials, consisting from left to right of a water thermometer, a fuel contents gauge, an ammeter, and a notably accurate eight day clock. Apart from being extremely pessimistic, the fuel gauge also incorporates a warning light when the tank level becomes unduly low, and on the panel is the dynamo charge warning light and the main beams headlamp indicator, the latter rather bright. The lamps switch and, below it, the rheostat control of facia lighting are well placed for easy operation by the driver’s right hand, which makes for easy headlamp flashing at night, at the possible expense of rapid wear on the switch. The engine is started by turning the detachable ignition key, and the only other knobs on the facia panel are those controlling the windscreen wipers and washers operated by one knob, a smaller knob controlling the two-speed, somewhat noisy, heater fan and the choke control knob, which is sensibly spring-loaded so that it cannot remain in the choked position. Three vertical quadrant controls in the centre of the facia look after the very effective heating system, and on the left of the facia is a rather shallow but wide-lidded cubby-hole opened by pressing a button adjacent to it, this button also incorporating a lock. The bonnet of the Saab, which hinges forward to reveal the unusual power unit, is released by moving over a large lever under the facia. On the floor is a rather inaccessible control for the free-wheel which, however, will not be put to much use by the enthusiast, while at the extreme right under the facia is a hanging chain which varies the setting of the radiator blind. Both wide doors in the Saab contain an elastic-top pocket, and there is a wide parcels shelf behind the rear seat. A particularly good aspect of the car is that this is a true front-drive vehicle inasmuch as it has a flat floor unobstructed by any tunnel or transmission hump.

The front seats of the Saab are separate, their squabs hingeing forward so as to give access to the wide rear seat, the latter having recessed armrests at each side. These driving seats are well shaped both as to cushion and squab, and although the cloth covering holds one rather securely, this is a decided advantage at the speeds at which the Saab can be cornered. In addition to this the squabs have settings varied by moving levers at the side of the seat, and the rake of the back seat can also be adjusted. Incidentally, the squab of the rear seat can be removed so that long objects can be carried partly in the boot and partly in the rear compartment, while an extra offered by the makers is a bed conversion. The test car was fitted with a very effective Motorola radio placed immediately under the facia before the driver.

Continuing with the description of the Saab’s amenities and control arrangements, the gear-lever extends to the left of the steering column on the right-hand-drive model and is heavily spring-loaded towards the upper-gear positions, this being a safeguard for inadvertently engaging reverse which on this three-speed gate is, as usual, unguarded. Above the gear-lever is a shorter stalk which operates nicely to control the self-cancelling direction flashers. A button in the centre of the two-spoke steering wheel sounds a penetrating horn and carries the Saab motif. There are unusual covered ash-trays on each front door and a smaller ash-tray on the off side of the rear compartment. A man-sized hand-brake lies horizontally between the two front seats. Other items of equipment include safety-type sun vizors and a rear-view mirror which is wide but rather shallow in the visibility afforded. An interior light is fitted on the near-side door pillar, and this has courtesy action with the near-side door open but not with the driver’s door open; this is a disadvantage under certain circumstances but does discourage the sort of driver who might open his door when parked on a road merely to get a light to read the map, or otherwise to see something within the car. The doors have powerful “keeps,” and a particularly acceptable feature of this little car is the fact that the windows dispense with quarter-lights and instead wind down in a fan-like manner to provide draught-free ventilation even when they are very fully open. Their handles require 4 turns to wind them fully down from the closed position, and unfortunately these handles are set so close to the armrests on the doors that a Saab driver can often be recognised by a barked knuckle on his right band where this has made contact with the arm-rest while winding down the driver’s window. A roll of sticking plaster should be provided in every Saab toolkit! The interior door handles lift up to open the doors, which is a safety factor. The doors are naturally of trailing type, and the window-winding handles aforesaid have rotatable finger grips. There is crash padding along the full length of the facia sill. On the test car sill internal door locks were fitted, but by using both these it was possible to lock oneself out of the car. On the production version these will be properly applied in conjunction with an external door lock on the correct side of the car.

From the driver’s seat visibility is not particularly good, a driver of average height only just about being able to see the offside wing and not being able to observe the near-side wing at all. However, thanks to accurate rack-and-pinion steering and the short bonnet it is possible to judge distances easily, and the writer found no difficulty in negotiating very narrow gaps in the Oxford Street rush-hour traffic immediately after having got into the Saab after driving a left-hand-drive Valiant of very much greater width and better visibility. The pedals are well placed but are biased to the left due to the intrusion of the off-side front wheel arch. The driving position is good and the quality of interior trim and finish praiseworthy.

The control arrangements, the comfort of the seating, and the eflieiency of the heating system, which incorporates a series of apertures along the bottom of the back window that communicate with extractor louvres on the rear quarters, so that a very efficient heating and demisting system is achieved (although this is not in the true sense of the word rear-window demisting), are outstanding features of the Saab. In addition to this, hot-air vents are provided on the extremities of the facia for demisting the side windows, although on the test car that on the off side had been disconnected when the radio was fitted. Another pleasing aspect of the Saab is that not only does the forward-hinged bonnet give extremely good accessibility to the three-cylinder two-stroke power unit, which has the radiator behind it, but the luggage boot, which is wooden floored, is of really generous dimensions for such a small car. The flat floor is continued through the boot, the spare wheel, jack and tool kit being located beneath this floor, and as the fuel tank is in the near-side rear wing, a very large unobstructed luggage space is available. The boot lid is released by turning its handle, which can be locked, and it stays up automatically, there being incorporated in the lid a neat handle with which to lift it initially.

On the road the Saab 96 lives up to the promise of those who have taken the trouble to examine it in the garage or showroom. As with all two-stroke engines the power is delivered with remarkable willingness and smoothness. The performance is such that one does not easily associate the engine with a capacity of under 850 c.c. The ribboned speedometer is actually marked with maxima of 18 m.p.h. for first gear and 44 m.p.h. for second gear, but these maxima need not necessarily be observed. In fact, the Saab will run up to 36 m.p.h. and 54 m.p.h. in the indirect speeds, although there is not much point in exceeding the indicated 44 m.p.h. in middle gear as acceleration tails away thereafter. Admittedly, this is a power unit which likes to be humoured by frequent gear-changing, inasmuch as if the speed is allowed to drop really low in top gear there is no means of picking it up again without changing down into second. On the other hand, the acceleration, particularly between speeds of the order 40 – 60 m.p.h., in top gear is extremely good, which makes passing crawling traffic a very easy process when at the wheel of a Saab 96. The speedometer can be made to indicate 80 m.p.h. as the car’s maximum speed, the genuine maximum being 74 1/2 m.p.h. This is not exactly G.T. performance but in the manner in which it corners and holds the road, and its vivid pick-up in top gear, the Saab is a particularly pleasant car to drive. Even when running at an indicated 80 m.p.h. the engine is outstandingly quiet, and the sensibly-sized tyres do not transmit road noises.

When we were in Sweden earlier this year we had convincing proof of the ability of the Saab’s suspension system to stand up to fast driving over the most impossible of road surfaces. This quality we were reminded of when driving the right-hand-drive Saab 96 in this country. The driven front wheels are suspended on coils and wishbones, and the rear axle is a rigid U-beam also carried on coilsprings, This suspension resulted in a good deal of up-and-down movement over the rougher road surfaces and on really bad going the driver and passenger must be prepared to be lifted from their seats if the accelerator is kept depressed while negotiating surfaces of this sort. On the other hand the Saab will go round corners without undue roll at astonishingly high speeds, particularly if the driver keeps the power on. Indeed, there are very few cars which can outcorner the Saab, the steering tendency of which is to understeer but not to an exaggerated degree, as it is only when cornering on a wavy surface which may set up this up-and-down motion that the driver is liable to feel that he is reaching the limit of the car’s very high cornering ability.

The steering is not only accurate but transmits kick-back only when the very worst gulleys or cross ridges are encountered, when both the suspension and steering are unable to damp the shock. In normal motoring, this is smooth, rather light steering, very accurate, and being geared as high as 2 1/4 turns from lock to lock, a delight to the enthusiast who knows how to use it on wet or greasy roads. There is, however, castor return action only initially from full lock. The Saab also gains one’s affection for cornering at incredible speeds without raising a protest front its Goodyear tyres. There is little if any indication that this is a front-drive car from the viewpoint of steering “feel” although if accelerated violently in bottom gear the gear-lever oscillates violently. Praise must be bestowed on the quality of the steering, which showed not a trace of free-play after a mileage exceeding 10,000.

The brakes needed heavy pressure on the pedal to secure adequate retardation and at the end of the test the pedal needed pumping to reduce its excessive travel. The brakes are, perhaps, the least attractive aspect of the car, although reasonable under ordinary usage.

The engine started exceedingly well at all times with an absolute minimum of choke and warmed quickly to its task. Moreover, one feels no compunction about driving hard from cold, because the oil is getting to the cylinder walls from the moment the engine turns. It idles almost inaudibly but vibrates the car.

The gear-lever, although of steering-column type, is one of the best of its kind and very rapid changes can be made with it. The clutch is in sympathy, being light and smooth to engage, and if the freewheel is used, clutchless gear-changes are possible. Not only is the Saab 96 a quiet car, the engine making very little more than the usual two-stroke hum and mild pinking when accelerating, but at high speeds the body is noticeably free from wind noise; it is also pleasantly free from rattles and squeaks and the doors shut without suggestting that they are made of tin. There is a certain amount of transmission whine but this appears to diminish as the car is run-in fully.

It is particularly easy to enter the Saab due to the wide doors and low unobstructed floor, and the back seat will accommodate three people comfortably.

The Saab delighted us on a long run up to Oulton Park and back, and it is capable of crossing England at an average speed of approximately 40 m.p.h., including traffic delays, detours through towns, stops to refuel and so forth. This is largely due to the accuracy of the steering and the aforementioned good road-holding and cornering qualities, and its top gear acceleration, coupled with the fact that the speedometer sits happily at 70 m.p.h. for mile after mile along straight or winding roads. Only the rather frisky action of the suspension over rough roads intrudes to tire the occupants, the rear springs being particularly supple, as it is possible to discover by lifting the car with the rear boot handle. On a fast run of this sort fuel consumption worked out at 32.8 m.p.g. with the free-wheel locked. Later we tried using the free-wheel, which improved the figure to 36.2 m.p.g., although the fact that we were using the car mainly in Kent, where narrow twisting roads make passing virtually impossible and where week-end drivers on the first evening of winter were proceeding mainly at a cautious 25 m.p.h., may have helped the Saab to achieve this figure. The petrol gauge needle is irritatingly indecisive at low petroil levels. 

To lubricate the two-stroke engine oil is mixed with the fuel, a pint of Castrol XXL being required per four gallons of petrol. However, as the engine runs with only slight pinking on mixture grade fuel this does not increase the running costs as much as might be expected and it does ensure that throughout its life the Saab will be returning an oil consumption equivalent to rather more than 1,000 m.p.g. The range on a tankful is only a few miles under 280, and the petrol filler in the near-side wing is via a simple unsecured bayonet-attached cap. The rather irritating fuel warning light comes on some 46 miles before the tank runs dry. There is a mixer incorporated in the filler so that pre-mixing of the petroil mixture is only necessary in very cold weather. Although no special tests were carried out, it would seem that the Iow-drag body of the Saab would result in good fuel economy when the car is used on our motorways or on the Autobahns and motor roads in Continental countries. Apart from the provision of a radiator blind which enables the driver to control water temperature, it is pleasant to find that under the bonnet is a pipe which, when unhitched front its moorings, enables a jacket on the exhaust pipe to be coupled directly to the carburetter air filter, thus obviating icing-up and other troubles under really low temperature conditions. 

The Hella headlamp, could be rather more powerful and the cut-off is very sharp. The foot dipper switch is set on the floor instead of on the toe-board, where it is apt to be operated inadvertently, especially if the driver presses his left foot on the floor when cornering fast. The screen-wipers are both efficient and quiet in action.

The performance of the Saab 96 may not be phenomenal, its acceleration being of the order of 0-50 m.p.h. in 16 1/2 sec., rather more than 23 1/2 sec. being required to cover a standing-start 1/4 mile. Its top speed is no more than that of other 850-c.c. small cars, although there is a feeling that the car isconsiderably under-geared in top and that a four-speed gearbox would enable a higher maximum speed to be achieved. What this interesting small car from Sweden does offer is an extreme degree of individuality, a feeling that it is virtually unbreakable both in the sense of its engine and its suspension arrangements, and road-holding and cornering qualities of a kind that make the Saab a factor very much to be reckoned with under stern rally conditions. Moreover, it feels like a generously-sized small car, not a miniature car, in spite of its modest 841-c.c. engine. Under the circumstances, it is a car which will be welcomed by enthusiasts when it makes its appearance at this year’s Earls Court Motor Show. It is not an expensive car, being priced at £624, which purchase tax duties into this country inflate to £885 2s 6d., Although it is not externally a handsome car, the Saab 96 is another individualistic machine the existence of which makes the world a more amusing place in which to dwell. We drove two Saabs over a distance of more than 1,500 miles in this country and the only trouble which developed was a split in the silencer, which was cured by welding. On hills the hand-brake proved useless but this was obviously merely a. matter of inefficient servicing, while the toe-board mat which lacked adhesion has been altered on later cars. W.B.