Curbside Classic: 1970 Saab 95 – Saab Shows Ford How To Make The Shortest Three-Row Wagon

(first posted 7/24/2012)    The full-size three-row station wagon was the stereotypical American family hauler until the rise of the minivan. Just yesterday we wallowed in the luxurious personal automotive space a family with more than 2.3 kids was afforded in 1967, even if the third seat faced rearwards. So today’s task is to compare it to a comparable European vehicle. The list is very short indeed, especially when it comes to rear-facing third seat station wagons. I’m undoubtedly missing someone out there, and you’ll undoubtedly clue me in, but tonight, here’s all I can come up with: the Saab 95. I guess having ridden in one has something to do with that, and surprisingly, it wasn’t as cramped as one might expect. Maybe not cramped enough.

The Saab 95 technically appeared in 1959, but production really didn’t get underway until 1960. Of course, it was based on the classic popcorn-popper two-stroke Saab 93/96 (CC here).

Now the one I rode in looks like this one; no, no; I mean piloted by this one, this very fetching Swedish brunette. She reminds me way too much of the mom who drove us to orchestra practice occasionally, when my regular ride didn’t materialize.

They were grad students, and lived in one of the numerous and vast quonset hut ghettos that the U of Iowa threw together to house the thousands of post-war married students. You wouldn’t believe how cramped and primitive they were, especially by the mid sixties; they were each divided into two units. Insulation? They made the Saab wagon seem downright commodious and comfortable.

Anyway, I had more than a bit of a crush on this mom, even if they weren’t actually Swedish.  Piling in their faded green Saab wagon the first was a surprise even for me at that age. Memories of clown-car antics in my god-father’s Lloyd came to mind.

But lo! The second row wasn’t as bad as one might expect, thanks to the then almost-unheard (in America) advantages of front-wheel drive.

And in the way back was a legitimate third seat, with a deep footwell. Not bad, for a car about the size of a VW Beetle. No wonder fwd was seen as such a big deal. As a packaging freak, I always did wonder where the spare in the Saab 95 went; there was just no obvious place.  But look up one picture, and there it is, under the second row seat. Those clever Swedes. The Saab’s dropped solid rear axle helped make it possible. Now where was the gas tank?

But my favorite seat in that 95 was the front passenger one, not just for the obvious reasons. It gave me chance to sit quite close to Gordon’s youthful and athletic mom, and watch her in action as she worked the column-mounted fours-speed stick through the gears, while the little  “Shrike” 841 cc triple spluttered on each upshift. But that was only part of the attraction, as the thigh on her left leg flexed and relaxed each time her foot worked the clutch. “You’re such a good clutcher, Mrs. Stevensen! I’m learning so much from watching you so closely”

And then there was her smell…combined with the ever-present tinge of oil made a ride in the Saab 95 the equivalent of an  aromatherapy session while holding an adult magazine in your hand: eroticaromatherapy.

Like the the 96, the 95 was also treated to the stubby little Ford V4 starting in 1967, and within a year, the Shrike shrieked for the last time. US-bound 95s and 96s got a low-compression emission-compliant 1700 cc version, while the Europeans did with a sportier 1500 cc job.

Saab tested a number of engines in a hush-hush project to find a four-stroke alternative, but they must have counted their lucky starts when the ultra-short Ford Cologne V4 appeared. If it looks a bit like a half of a Ford Windsor V8, it’s because it was originally designed in the US, for the ill-fated Cardinal fwd compact, at about the same time. The V4 and related Cologne V6 were 60° units, which made a balance shaft a necessity for the V4 to try to tame its intrinsically unruly ways.

Ironically, the Saab 95 was configured very much like the Ford Cardinal would have been, had Ford chosen to build it instead of sending it to Germany.

But the Ford 12M was even roomier. It made quite a sensation in Europe, given just how spacious it was for its class; it made the VW Beetle feel like a torture chamber, and even put the Opel Kadett A to shame. I’m quite certain a third seat was not available; it would have been embarrassing to the much larger Falcon to have a smaller wagon with a third seat, eh? But if the Saab 95 made it work, I’m sure Ford could have too. Just needs a bit of wood planking.

If the Saab 95’s sales are anything to go by, maybe Ford did the right thing: Americans were not interested in space-efficiency, especially when they were still living in fairly small houses with plenty of kids. But the Saab 95 showed what was possible. And enjoyable, under the right circumstances.