Curbside Classic: 1967 Saab 96 – The Last Two-Stroke

I don’t see classic Saabs too often, sadly. In fact, this might be the first non-V4 96 I’ve studied up close in over a decade. I wasn’t even sure if it was a two-stroker or not as I photographed it. But any Saab 96 in this country is a rare sight and finding one without the (frankly ugly) plastic-rimmed squared eyes of the late ‘70s models I recall from childhood made this an exceptional occasion. Would it be topped off by being a blue-smoke special?

Subsequent sleuthing informed me that there are no real differences between 96s of this period that have the Ford engine or those that stuck with the Saab triple, save for the lack of “V4” emblems on the latter. There are no “V4” emblems on this one, and given that distinctive shade of blue was only introduced in Saab’s range for MY 1967, the identification of the model and year were pretty clear-cut. Hot dog! An elusive transitional model. Time for a deep historical dive.

The year 1967 was an important one for Saab, as that marked their Big Switch to Four-Strokes. But it was a somewhat gradual one: for a couple of years, clients in most markets could still order the old 850cc 3-cyl. two-stroker. In the US, Saab even offered a special 795cc triple for 1968, so that it could limbo under the new emissions regulations.

Despite their inherent positives (simplicity, higher efficiency and output, lower production and maintenance costs), petrol-oil two-stroke engines are now a rather niche concept, chiefly due to their. Snowmobiles, lawn mowers, drones and some two-wheelers still use them, but they have long disappeared from automobiles.

How long? Well, that all depends where you were on the planet, but in what was then called the “West,” assuming neutral Sweden could be said to be a part of it, the two-strokers died out with the 1967 Saabs (full range above). Or so I thought when I initially wrote this.

There are a number of immediate caveats to be added to this claim, though. One is that two-stroke engines were still in widespread use in many countries and regions. East Germany’s Trabant and Wartburg (bottom right) were two shining examples – and they continued to function with this technology pretty much right until the Berlin Wall came down. Poland’s Syrena 105 (top left), on the other hand, only made it to 1983. Similarly, there were plenty of microcars puttering about with motorcycle-derived two-strokes in Europe (for example, at top right, this French-built Willam, sporting an Italian 125cc Lambretta engine) and across the world, though these were two-seaters at most. In japan though, the kei car regulations ensured that two-stroke engines were kept in mass production until the late ‘70s; the last two-stroke kei was the 550cc Suzuki Jimny SJ30 (bottom left, 1981-87).

The undisputed European champions of the two-stroke car were the Germans. Lloyd and a number of bubble cars, such as Messerschmitt or Fuldamobil, adopted these engines, but they were all dwarfed by the king of the two-stroke known as DKW. That carmaker started a small revolution with their two-stroke front-drive F1 (top left) back in 1931, that fathered a huge family of models  both as DKW/Auto-Union in the West and as IFA (top right) and Trabant in the East. Still, even DKW had to switch to four-strokes eventually, getting Mercedes-Benz to design the engine for their F102 (bottom left) to turn into the Audi F103 in 1966, though the Brazilian branch (bottom right) did carry on with their two-stroke productions until 1967, and Argentinian assemblies continued through to early 1969.

But of course, I wrote all that and forgot about Glas. That was the last two-stroke car made in Western Europe: BMW, who bought Glas in 1966, kept the Goggomobil T300 / T400 and TS Coupé going until June 1969. So by a whisker, the bubbly Goggo gets the honour of being the last Western European two-stroke car. But that takes nothing away from the Saab 96, and we’ll get back to the subject at hand presently.

Compared to Goggomobils or Trabants, DKWs were pretty high-end cars – as were Saabs.  Saab was a highly unconventional company, and their wares reflected who they were. They famously started out in the aircraft business, moving on to cars so as to keep their production facilities busy. That was not unique in itself (see BMW, Salmson or Bristol), but the car they ended up designing sure was. The Saab 92 (1949-57), with its transverse two-stroke 764cc twin driving the front wheels, had a distinct DKW flavour to it. But the rest of the car, from the suspension to the body and styling, were all quite unique.

In 1955, Saab launched the 93, which was a slightly modernized 92 with a new 748cc 3-cyl. – again a two-stroke not too dissimilar to the set-up that DKW and IFA used at the time. Whereas the 92 was only sold in its home market, the 93 and its wagon variant the 95, was the first Saab to conquer the world. And the world was slowly but solidly conquered, two strokes at a time.

The 93 gave way to the 96 in 1960, featuring a 841cc triple initially producing 38hp (up to 46hp by 1966), though the Sport / Monte-Carlo model had a triple-carb version of this engine giving out 52hp – an impressive amount of power for that displacement in the early ‘60s. Only Panhard were in that ball park in those days, though their twin was a four-stroker.

Actually, the similarity between the Panhards of that era, especially the chubby Dyna Z / PL17 (1954-65), and the Saab 96 is pretty striking. Both cars were designed to be genuinely aerodynamic and shared many features: FWD, 850cc engine producing about 50hp, 4-speed on the column, high degree of finish and, consequently, a rather high purchase price.

Another parallel between the two marques was that, by the early ‘60s, both the Panhard flat-twin and the Saab two-stroke triple, brilliant though they were, were clearly over the hill. But whereas Panhard basically snookered themselves into Citroën’s smothering embrace, starving the company’s car branch of all investment, Saab had a Quandt-like angel investor figure who could be persuaded to find a replacement engine.

Those all-powerful money men were the Wallenbergs, father and son – they were contacted by Saab engineers and overrode the veto that Saab CEO Tryggve Holm had imposed on four-stroke engines, leading to Holm’s departure in 1967. That same year, after many candidates were tried, Saab ended up selecting the 1.5 litre 65hp Ford V4 used In the FWD Taunus for their 96, 95 and 97 (Sonett II) models.

Saabs of any sort are pretty rare in Japan, though I’ve caught the odd 900 Turbo. Two-stroke Saabs were apparently imported here in minute quantities, back in the ‘60s. Our feature car is a RHD model, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a Japanese-spec one. The steering wheel placement is not indicative of much for imports here (LHD is usually seen as much more appealing, to show off the car’s foreign and unusual status), so that’s not a very compelling reason.

What is much more telling is the speedo, which is in mph and has kph equivalents painted over in what appears to be Tippex (a.k.a. whiteout, if you’re in the US). That should make it either a UK or Australian-spec car. And speaking of the steering wheel, that one is from a Monte-Carlo model, but the rest of the car is in base trim.

Not so base that it lacks refinement, though. Particular care seems to have been taken as to ventilation, with that edgy C-pillar vent. The aircraft influence is strong in this one.

The V4 gave the Saab 95/96 a new lease of life, prolonging the car’s production all the way to 1980. In parallel, the all-new Saab 99, using a Triumph engine, made its debut in 1967 and enabled Saab to remain independent for many years, escaping the fate that befell Panhard and DKW – against all odds.

And odd though they were, Saabs garnered a fanatic following throughout the world thanks to their quality and quirkiness, plus a soupçon of sporting cred and a hefty dollop of individuality. A potent combination, even with a quart of oil mixed in.


Related posts:


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

Vintage R&T Road Test:1967 Saab 96 V-4 – More Power, More Fun, More Money, by PN

COAL: 1966 SAAB 96 – AM MISHPOCHAH CHAI, by DavidJoseph1

COAL: Living My Sideways Fantasies With A 1968 Saab 96, by JohnLi

Cohort Pic(k) of the Day: 1968 Saab 96 V4 – Harlequin Edition, by PN