COAL: Living My Sideways Fantasies With A 1968 Saab 96

Competing with the Saab 96 on Michigan’s frozen lakes.


I found this car via Bring a Trailer, back when the majority of the content of that site was still Craigslist and eBay finds. I was actually at a work training class, scrolling through my RSS feed during one of the breaks, when I saw the post on Bring a Trailer, and clicked through to find out that the Craigslist ad was local to me. I immediately called the number on the ad and made arrangements to go take a look at the car that evening after work.

I first laid eyes on the car in the rapidly vanishing light after sunset. Painted a shade of slate grey, sitting atop tall but narrow black steelies, a big honkin’ pair of fog lights perched atop the front bumper, and a red winged Pegasus on each front fender, I immediately imagined myself drifting sideways on a dirt rallycross stage in the car with tall numbers on the doors. The car was mostly solid, with no holes in the floor and minor crustiness around the edges, and a working V4 motor and freewheeling 4-speed column shifted manual transmission. I paid cash and brought the car home that very night.

Driving the Saab

With the addition of the Saab, my daily driver Focus ST was permanently booted from the garage. In the garage, I had the Saab, my ’09 Mazda Miata, my ’88 Mazda RX-7, and my ’66 Ford Mustang.

The night I brought the Saab home, it kicked the Focus ST out of the garage for good, joining the Miata, the RX-7, and the Mustang in sheltered comfort.


The Saab was such a different car from all the other cars in the fleet. I was absolutely floored that the Saab and the Mustang existed in the same time period; that such different cars could exist together on the roads is very much a foreign concept to someone who has grown up in an age where nearly all cars are engineered to be as alike as possible in the name of mass market acceptance.

There was as much space in the front seats of the Saab as there were in the Mustang. You sat bolt upright in the Saab, with tons of room for your legs on the completely flat floor. There was no center console or transmission tunnel. The column mounted 4-speed shifter was easy to get used to, and I thoroughly enjoyed rowing gears through it, something that was absolutely necessary to keep up with modern day traffic, as the V4 didn’t produce much grunt unless it was wrung out.

The Saab’s tiny V4 motor.


My car also had the freewheeling transmission, a holdover from when Saabs were powered by the 3-cylinder two strokes and the freewheeling was necessary to keep the motor lubricated when the car was rolling off throttle. A nice benefit of the freewheeling transmission was that you didn’t necessarily have to rev match for downshifts; you could simply take your foot off the gas, wait for the engine to spin down, change gear without the clutch, and then add throttle in your new gear, and the engine spun back up with a vaaa-ruuUUMP!

Lots of space in the cabin for the front passengers. Note the completely flat floor!


Just driving the car around town was fun because the shifting was a pure joy. Super weird, but super fun.

It worked really well as a regular car, too. You could fit people in the back seat way more comfortably than you could in the Mustang. And the trunk was huge. The car is a packaging miracle. I can see how a car like this could appeal to people back in the day. I’d choose this over a Falcon or a Beetle any day of the week for regular car duties.

Look at all that space in the trunk! And you could even fold down the rear seats if you needed more length!


But I didn’t buy the car for regular car duties (though I did plenty of grocery and dining runs in the car too). I had bigger ambitions with the car.

Sideways on ice

I wanted to live my Erik Carlsson “On the Roof” fantasies, but minus the “rolling my car over” part. I had known about the car’s legendary exploits at the hands of one of rally’s greatest drivers, and was inspired to slap my magnetic numbers on the doors and go do some motorsports with the car.

As we were entering winter, what better motorsport to take the Saab to than the ice runs?


Alas, I didn’t get to run as many times on the lakes as I had hoped. I ran the car once with the Saginaw Valley Region at one of their events, some video of which I have here.

Inspired at how well the car did on all-season tires, I went to the effort of putting snow tires on the car before the next ice runs event on the other side of the state. I was going to have a blast with these tires, I thought to myself.

Getting a tow back home when the engine started knocking halfway to a Furrin’ Group ice runs event.


Unfortunately, the little engine started knocking halfway across the state. I removed my magnetic numbers from the doors and called roadside assistance to bring the car home. The tow truck operator, surprised to see a vintage car out on the road in the dead of winter, asked me what I had been doing. I replied that I was merely going to a car club meet — technically true! — and left out the “I was going racing” bit.

Despite the car’s winter escapades being cut short, I’m glad I had a chance to experience driving the car around in the cold and snow. Whereas the Mustang took a lot of coaxing to start in the cold, the Saab never failed to start on the first crank. The heater in the car was also really good, more than enough to keep me warm on long winter highway jaunts, or when I was waiting in grid for another run on the lake.

And damn, that car was really good on loose surfaces. Going from rallycrossing a Focus ST to doing ice runs in the Saab took almost no adjustment at all. And it wasn’t until years later, when I would try driving the ’66 Mustang on ice (with real snow tires and it still sucked!) did I realize how good the little FWD Saab was compared to its contemporaries.

Selling the car

I owned the Saab for just six months, from the fall of 2014 to the spring of 2015. At the time, I was getting deeper and deeper into National autocross competition with the Miata, and I wasn’t sure when I’d be able to carve out time to make the Saab roadworthy again.

I put the car up for sale, polling my friends on Facebook first to see if anyone I knew wanted the car.

The Saab goes to its new owner, Paul.


Appropriately, Paul, a fellow autocrosser and friend hailing from Ohio, was interested. Paul himself had a F Modified autocross car, essentially a two stroke “sound of a million buzzing bees” little formula car, and it totally made sense that he’d have a buzzy little Saab to go with his buzzy little race car. We struck up a deal, and he and his wife grabbed a U-Haul trailer and picked up the car.

Goodbye, little Saab!


In the time since, Paul has sold the F Mod car and stopped autocrossing Nationally. But the little Saab is still in his possession, waiting for its engine rebuild. I hope that the engine gets rebuilt sooner rather than later so the car can enjoy the wonders of the open road again, but I understand that sometimes life has other plans.

Of all the cars I have owned, my ownership of the Saab was one of the shortest yet one of the most impactful. I usually don’t miss the cars that I pass on to new owners, as by the time I’m ready to sell a car, I’ve done pretty much everything I’ve wanted to do with it. But my time with the Saab was cut short, and I feel like I still have unfinished business.

Maybe someday I’ll have another one.