After almost a week of covering American classics in Sweden, it’s about time to look at a Swedish classic in its home country. Here, from the (sadly) defunct Saab Automobile AB, is a Saab 96. Produced from 1960 to 1980, the 96 was Saab’s longest-lived design. It was a pivotal model for Saab, the car with which Saab made the transition from its two stroke-powered origins to more mainstream four-stroke engines to begin the international expansion that would fully blossom with the advanced 99 Turbo of 1978.
Saab was as upstart and radical in its home country as it was in the rest of the world. In a domestic automobile market dominated by Volvo’s square and conservative cars, Saab, with its aerodynamic and quirky designs, always trailed Volvo in sales numbers. Today, classic Saabs continue to be relatively rare compared with their Volvo competitors. Beautifully restored Volvo 122s are a common sight on the streets; contemporary Saabs, less so. This 96 is one of a handful of classic Saabs seen by the author during several months in Stockholm.
With the 96 and the related 95 station wagon (https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-european/curbside-classic-1973-saab-now-thats-a-real-saab/), Saab started with the basic design–front-wheel drive, unit body chassis and aerodynamic body–of the 92 and 93 of 1949-56 and 1955-60, respectively, and made incremental improvements. Saab proceeded to make many changes to the 96 over the course of 20 years, including dual circuit brakes in 1964, rectangular headlights and a new grille in 1969, and a new instrument panel in 1970. As the first Saab to be widely exported from Sweden, the 96 opened up new markets in which the all-new 99 would later make Saab a major player.
The engine badge on the trunk lid of this 96 announces the most significant change made to the model: two-stroke engines were abandoned in favor of four-stroke power, in this case the 1.5-liter Ford V4 originally introduced in the 1962 Ford Taunus. The choice of the V4 was due to Saab’s previous engineering eccentricity: The short engine block of its V4 configuration made it the best fit for the limited space previously occupied by the three-cylinder two- stroke. Along with the new-for-1967 engine came front disc brakes and three-point seat belts.
Saab eccentricity continued in the driver’s compartment. Although possessing a conventional dashboard-mounted ignition lock instead of the floor-mounted unit of later Saabs, the 96 had a feature seen in few other cars: a four-on- the-tree. (Note the shift quadrant diagram between the gauges.) Mostly, column-shifted four-speed manuals have seen duty in light trucks and Japanese-made taxis (a notable exception being the Citroen DS, with its hydraulically- actuated column shifter for its four-speed manual gearbox; the subsequent Saab 99 would move both the ignition lock and the shift lever to the floor). This interior shot shows the dashboard used from 1970 and after, with two large round dials housing the instruments.
Saab began development of its first completely new chassis since the 1965 Saab 93, and it debuted with the 99 in 1968, only one year after the introduction of the four stroke V4-powered 96. However, Saab continued to produce the 96 and 99 side-by-side for another twelve years. Further changes to the 96 included the 1972 addition of energy-absorbing rubber bumpers similar to those on the 99.
During the 96’s years as Saab’s premier model, there was a higher-performance Saab Sport version offered from 1962 -1965, which was succeeded by a Monte Carlo variant sold from 1966-1968. From 1962 to 1966, the high-performance Saabs used a more powerful version of the 850 cc two-stroke, three-cylinder with triple carburetors and an oil injection system that made 57 hp versus the standard engine’s 40 hp. The ’67-’68 Monte Carlo used the 65-hp Ford V4–not exactly big horsepower either way, but still a useful improvement.
The 96 built an impressive record in international competition, primarily in the hands of Erik Carlsson. His victories included first place finishes in the 1960, 1961 and 1962 RAC Rallies and also in the 1962 and 1963 Monte Carlo Rallies. This photo shows Carlsson, at the wheel of his 96, at the 1962 Monte Carlo Rally.
Back to the present: obviously, this particular 96 has seen better days. Its aerodynamic body shows collision damage at the left rear that dented the entire fender and took out one of the wheel covers–a pity, because aside from paint oxidation the rest of the car appears to be in fine condition with no apparent rust or other significant body damage. Perhaps this car–unlike the company that made it–can be restored to its former condition.
Long before an advertising agency decided to proclaim Saabs to be “born from jets,” Svenska Aeroplan AB (SAAB) diversified during the 1940s from the business of designing and producing propeller-driven fighter planes for the Swedish Air Force into making passenger automobiles. Saab reached its high-water mark during the 1970s and 1980’s with the 99 Turbo and the 900, but it was the 96 that established a beachhead for them. It deserves to be remembered as a key part of the success of an automaker that dared to be different–and, for a time, succeeded.