Curbside Classic: 1968 SAAB 96 – Healing The Emotions, If Not The Company

[this oldie goes back a few years, when Saab's seemingly endless series of crises first started]

It’s hard to look at this old Saab and not get choked up. And it’s not just because this once proud and spunky company is on the ropes. Old Saabs just have a way of stirring the emotions. This is obviously going to be a Saab story.

The first time I encountered a Saab in Austria fifty years ago, I literally choked as an accelerating Swedish tourist engulfed me in a cloud of acrid blue exhaust from his two-stroke 93. But I was seduced (forever) by the purity of line on that svelte fastback as it gradually disappeared in its smoke screen.

The gutsy way a bunch of underemployed aeronautical engineers came up with the original 92 is truly inspirational, even if they were heavily inspired by DKW in what was beneath that slippery skin.

Erik Carlsson’s ballsy victories in his red 96 over the big guys at Monte Carlo left me in awe.

And the vivid memories of time spent in my good friend’s identical 96 are sweet. But the “For Sale” sign on this one just makes me sad. Who could break up with a car like this? Waves of regret engulf me as I remember all the cars I sold and wish I hadn’t.

Enough emoting. Saab’s initial adoption of the two stroke engine was highly pragmatic: the tiny engine fit perfectly in front of the transaxle and its lightness engendered good handling. But original it wasn’t; the engine, drive train and the whole layout of the 92 was heavily cribbed from DKW, the mother of all zweitakter.

Two strokes engines may have been fairly common in Europe at the time, but they reeked of eccentricity stateside. Yet there were several 93s and 96s whose comings and goings I followed with interest after we moved to Iowa City in 1960. It was a university town, and Saab’s reputation as a college professor’s car was already well burnished. Curious, how did the same crowd that adopted these smoky cars as a badge of auto-intellectual superiority later become early Prius adopters? Atonement for prior sins?

In 1967, nascent environmental awareness (and the EPA) forced Saab to finally abandon the stinky two-stroke. Finding a suitable four-stroke to fit in the six-pack sized space where the little popcorn-popper had long resided was no small challenge. As luck would have it, Ford in Germany had an ultra-compact 60 degree V4; a Cologne V6 minus two cylinders. Forty years after this Saab’s V4 first coughed to life, Mustang and Explorer Cologne V6 were still rolling off that same transfer line. Ford certainly amortized this design well.

Whereas a 60 degree V6 has a fairly high degree of harmonic and firing balance, cutting off two cylinders makes a V4 sound and feel exactly like . . . a V6 with two dead cylinders. A rougher and less even-firing engine would be hard to invent. Ironic too, considering how exceptionally smooth the little two-stroke had been. There was a good reason DKW and Auto-Union used the 3=6 slogan for their 3 cylinder two-strokes: they had the same number of power impulses and the smooth running characteristics of an inline six.

Nevertheless, the lumpy V4 was a good fit in the 96. And, unlike the two-stroke, it had a lusty torque curve, good mileage, a clean exhaust, and kept the Saab eccentricity quotient intact. Now I’ve always thought that the NSU or Mazda rotary would have been the perfect successor. It would have been a glove fit, and a rotary’s smooth running and off-throttle popping sounds almost like a two-stroke. I know there’s some out there somewhere.

As Saab slides into its final coma (or next incarnation), it’s both sad and amusing to hear of the heroic efforts of its resuscitation. Saab was a tiny European car maker, which along with so many others of its size, was long overdue to slip into the annals of history. Saab only created two unique platforms in its entire sixty year history: the 92/93/96, and its replacement, the 99 (900) of 1969. It never once designed a truly original engine. And everything since the 900 was begged, borrowed or shared: platforms from Fiat (9000), Lancia (600), and GM. Forget “Born from Jets”; try “Born from obsolete GM platforms.”

GM’s purchase of Saab was phenomenally stupid. There was nothing to suggest that they could bring lasting health and success to this then already moribund and broke marque. History has been harsh to smaller premium brands and the “rescue” of such (NSU by VW, Rover by BMW, etc.) were abject failures. Lancia is on perpetual life support by mother Fiat. But GM’s hubris was limitless, and there’s a sucker born every minute. Speaking of which, can I interest you in a well-used, slightly rusty 1968 Saab 96? It’s only $850, and I’m sure it’s got lots of life in it yet, especially with its proximity to the Healing Rooms of Eugene. Maybe they should bring the whole company for a session. They have an opening; my Saab emotions are healed.