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Updated: Jul 4, 2023

What happens if you let a bunch of

aeronautical engineers create a car?

It happened in Sweden after the end of World War 2

From aircraft to car production

SAAB stands for Svenska Aeroplan AktieBolaget, and the story as a car manufacturer started immediately after the end of the war. There was no longer the same need for combat aircraft, so it was natural to start by producing cars, which you knew would have a large market.

SAAB was an aircraft factory and had no experience in pressing steel bodies. On the other hand, they knew something about aerodynamics. The first hand-built prototype was already ready in 1946 (SAAB 92001, also called UR-SAAB).

Even though there was limited space, they chose to start car manufacturing in Trollhättan. So SAAB cars were produced side by side with aircraft, which many SAAB owners were a little proud of.

In December 1949, the first cars with the iconic SAAB emblem rolled out to dealers in Sweden, the model was called the SAAB 92. 25 pre-series cars were manufactured in 1949.

Everything was done manually with few aids, so only 1250 cars were made in 1950. In the following years, an annual production of a modest 2000 cars was reached (VW's production in 2-3 days).

All the first SAAB cars were designed by Sixten Sason, who was one of the best-known Swedish industrial designers of the time. Before the time with SAAB, he had a number of design tasks behind him at Husqvarna, several motorcycle models of that brand bore the unique design characteristics from his hand. He also designed the Electrolux Z 70 vacuum cleaner and the first version of the Hasselblad camera.

Sixten designed the SAAB 92, 93, 95, 96 and 99 models, and the SAAB Sonett sports car before his untimely death aged just 55.

Innovative and different

The first SAAB was a ridiculous, small, short and wide car with a drop-shaped self-supporting body. Propulsion was in the form of a small compact water-cooled 2-cylinder 2-stroke engine of 764 CC. Completely in aluminium. As something special, the engine was turned transversely in the engine compartment. The 2-cylinder engine was a faithful copy of the DKW car engine. It was a really healthy and strong little engine, which was built together with the gearbox without the need for intermediate wheels, since everything in this engine/gearbox/transmission unit rotated the same way. The gearshift was located on the steering column, and it was possible to engage freewheel, so that the engine was disengaged from the gear drive when you let off the gas.

The small engine suited the Swedish people's car quite well. For many years, SAAB people were keen advocates of the 2-stroke engine, and this type of engine was not uncommon in small cars at the time either.

With low weight and few moving parts, it was compact, light and simple to manufacture and service.

All in all, the 92 model was not all that different from other cars from that time. Front-wheel drive, for example, was a rarity. In reality, it was far ahead of its time in terms of aerodynamics and driving dynamics. With just over 20 hp and 3 gears, it was by its very nature no rocket. Although the two-stroke engine gained a little more power over time, that was about it. The last versions of the 2-cylinder engine had 28 hp.

From the very beginning, the SAAB people thought unconventionally and differently. The small car was full of fine and different solutions such as fully independent front suspension combined with an equally unique and compact rear axle construction. The rear suspension consisted of a U-shaped steel structure with pre-aligned control arms and centrally located rubber suspension. Great care was taken to ensure that the driving dynamics and safety were in order, and they were.

The car's drop-shaped body and partially covered wheels gave unprecedentedly low air resistance. In fact, time was taken to test the car's shape in a wind tunnel as part of the final design, and the entire bodywork was designed to be torsionally stable and safe. Despite the modest engine output, a SAAB 92 had a top speed of a decent 110 km/h.

Better with time

The new little SAAB was much more than just a sad little post-war car model. The aerodynamic shape and flat bottom, with good ground clearance combined with the front-wheel drive and a generally robust and well-thought-out construction was quite unique for its time, quite well done by such a small and not least new car factory. But you had the advantage of starting with blank sheets and people with risk capital.

But despite all the obvious advantages, it all went very slowly, because there was no sales organization. Funnily enough, Denmark was the biggest export market for the first few years. But the SAAB people maybe paid a little too much attention to what people wanted. All the first SAAB cars were, for example, painted in the same green color as their aircraft (with the exception of a few individual copies). The car was extremely spartan, it didn't even have something as basic as a boot lid. Not an actual heater either. Almost all early SAAB cars were sold in Scandinavia. That is why a SAAB 92 is a rare car.

The first update of the model came in 1952 and included a trunk lid, so that access to the trunk was not only via the rear seat, the model with a lid was given the model designation 92B. The tailgate model still had the same engine, but with a few more hp in the engine

92 becomes 93

In 1955, the model got a major upgrade and became the SAAB 93. It got a 3-cylinder engine and 33 hp, but still 2-stroke and still with 3 gears as standard. The engine now lay lengthwise in the engine compartment, still with the DKW engine concept as a model.

The model continued to have the pointed rear from the 92s, but now with a boot lid and a slightly larger rear window. Changes were that everything in front of the doors which was new, gave a much nicer and more modern front without bars in the windscreen. It became a somewhat more harmonious design thanks to increased track width. The undercarriage was also changed from wheel suspension with torsion springs to more common wishbones and coil springs. The car also got a real defroster system with an internal heater.

This version appeared over time in several versions, first as 93A which had front-facing so-called self-supporting doors, and model F which had real front-hinged doors. Some sportier GT editions

The beginning of a new era for SAAB with the model 96

In 1960 came model 95 and 96. Model 95 was a station wagon version. And the Model 96 was again a significant upgrade of the original car, easily recognizable by the large rear window. From the front, the short muzzle from the 93 model was retained. Especially from the doors and the rear, the new model had changed. The car became wider at the back, which benefited the back seat and luggage compartment. The first SAAB 95 even had an extra seat in the back, so the car could rightly be described as a 5-seater. The seat in the back faced backwards and many children had to suffer the agony of motion sickness in that seat.

The model was equipped from the start with the same engine 93 of 841 CCM, now with 38 hp. The Model 96 was continuously improved throughout its life, drive shafts, cooling and heating systems were improved. The same applied to brakes, which already became two-circuit brakes in 1964. As early as 1962, seat belts were added as standard. These improvements were necessary, because speed-loving people took advantage of the car's driving characteristics somewhat more than originally intended. The engine power was modest, even though in 1965 it reached 40 hp and in 1966 a whopping 42 hp thanks to 3 carburettors, the engine power was nothing to brag about. All 42 hp versions had 4-speed gearbox and pressure lubrication (Lubrimat) as standard. However, not everyone dared to bet on that system, and many chose to continue mixing a little oil in the petrol just to be safe.

The 4th gear was a significant advance and with the same engine power it gave 5 km/h more on top and slightly improved fuel economy.

The Model 96 came in a number of versions including various sporty versions. All the sporty versions were made in very small series. The idea was that they should go rallying, and almost all of them did, which is why they are extremely rare today. The 96 model had 3 gears and drum brakes as standard until 1965, before that only the sporty models had disc brakes in the front and 4-speed gearbox. All SAAB sports had 3 carburettors to feed the 3 intake cylinders. In fact, gas consumption was a major problem with the 2-stroke engine. If you gave it a little gas, the little engine used petrol like a big American V8. A tuned SAAB 2-stroke typically ran 3-5 km/l. Even with the standard engine, it was severely underpowered. 10 km/l was the maximum that could be achieved with normal mixed driving and light accelerator pedal.

The 96 model kept its short round nose until 1965, when both the 95 and 96 models got the long nose. The extended engine compartment of the 96 model was the preparation for a larger engine and better cooling, as the radiator now finally ended up sitting at the very front of the car's engine compartment.


The 96 model was in production for 20 years and received a large number of improvements along the way. In the first years of the 96 model, SAAB stuck to the now hopelessly outdated 2-stroke engine. This engine was developed to the last detail, despite 850 cubic meters, 3 carburettors, pressurized lubrication system and 4-speed gearbox, which was now considerably below today's standard.

The biggest advance in the entire life of the 96 model was when SAAB finally fitted a 4-stroke engine, even a nice V4 engine made by Ford. But it wasn't until 1967 that the 4-stroke engine became standard. It wasn't a moment too soon, and from then on nobody wanted to own a SAAB with a 2-stroke engine anymore. Even fine early short-nosed specimens were chopped up prematurely. Unfortunately, a 96 with a short nose could not easily be converted to a 4-stroke engine, there was no room in the engine compartment, but many early long-nosed 96 models were converted to a 4-stroke engine. It is even claimed that SAAB itself rebuilt approx. 100 cars. In order not to stop sales, SAAB was very careful about revealing its plans, and test drives with the new engine were obscured and kept secret as much as possible. It was at the last minute, and in all haste a "real" engine came in the SAAB 96.

Although the 96 model was continuously updated, the model was always built on the original SAAB platform with the flat bottom and the drop-shaped body. The 96 model was in production right up until 1980, the last years were assembled in Finland. In total, no less than 730,000 of the classic little SAAB were made over a period of 30 years. The last years with the 99 model as the big brother in the model range.

SAAB and motorsport

Some of the first SAABs were used for rallying. Rolf Mellde was part of the construction team together with Gunnar Ljungström. Rolf was responsible for the engine and transmission in the first SAAB models. As SAAB did not have a test track at its disposal, it was in the rally that the product had to show its worth. It was quite bravely done.

But in many ways natural, because Rolf was also a motorsport enthusiast and believed that motorsport was the right place to test the product and at the same time a good advertisement for the new Swedish car. Chassis numbers 7 and 8 became rally cars with Rolf himself behind the wheel in one and Greta Molander in the other.

Greta Molander took part in the prestigious Monte Carlo Rally in 1950 and did well. Rolf won several races in early SAAB cars. The small car's qualities were thus proven with fine results and even class wins in international races. But that was only the beginning.

The 93 and 96 models came to meet great fame in motorsport, especially in rally the small Swedish car could compete with much larger cars. Many Scandinavian rally icons from that time had their breakthrough in the SAAB 93 and 96. It was in Scandinavia that they learned how to make a front-wheel drive car run really fast on the rally track. On ice, snow and other loose surfaces, the little SAAB was superior to most cars. Perhaps partly thanks to the uncompromising driving style of the Scandinavian rally drivers. A style which broadly consisted of keeping the accelerator down all the time and controlling the car with the steering wheel and brakes. The model with a 2-stroke engine was eventually nicknamed the "jungle drum", because the sound from the small hard-tuned 2-stroke engine could resemble the sound of a drum, especially when the tough rally drivers rarely let off the accelerator. A 2-stroke SAAB could be heard from a long distance when it was on was on the way in the rally sport with the accelerator at full throttle all the time. Many of the fastest Scandinavian rally drivers drove SAAB, the most famous is probably Erik Carlsson, who remained loyal to the brand throughout his career, but there were many more such as Per Eklund and Stig Blomqvist. All this is a story in itself, to which I will return.

SAAB chose to let motorsport be a significant part of the marketing, and it was a good idea. ERIK CARLSON who remained loyal to SAAB won so many races in SAAB cars that they chose to hire him as an ambassador for the brand, which he was until his death in 2015. Carlsson drove the little car to the limit and sometimes a little over and thereby earned the nickname 'Carlsson on the roof'. In fact, Carlsson and SAAB managed to win the prestigious Monte Carlo rally 2 times, and still hold the honor of being the manufacturer that has won this rally with the smallest engine. SAAB's most used engine in motorsport was the standard 841 CC and had a Solex carburettor for each cylinder, which gave 52 hp. In tuned Group 2 form, the engine could be tuned to produce between 70 and 80 hp. Carlsson also won the RAC rally 3 times in 1960, 61 and 62.

Carlson participated in many international rally races in the small SAAB. Just to mention some examples from 1964, he was second in the East African Safari Rally, after winning the San Remo Rally. He also finished second in the prestigious Liège-Sofia-Liège Rally. Examples of races where a small car with an 850 CCM engine really shouldn't be able to assert itself.

SAAB 96 won races everywhere. In Finland, it was especially Simo Lampinen, who was synonymous with SAAB and became Finnish rally champion in 1963 and 1964. Here in Denmark, it was more track sports that were popular, and many will still remember Keld Hansen's SAAB 96. It was from 1964 and won many races. Keld was a SAAB dealer in Birkerød and had good connections at SAAB in Sweden, and his car was the fastest SAAB 2-stroke in Denmark at the time with a whopping 84 hp. It is worth noting that a new SAAB Sport cost DKK 32,000 here in Denmark in 1964. As far as is known, only 2 SAAB Sports came to Denmark that year. One is still found here in West Jutland and is still owned by the same family. Keld's SAAB 96 Sport has also survived. All SAAB GT and Sport are extremely rare and preservation-worthy cars of great automotive historical value.

My experiences with SAAB

The family's first SAAB

In 1965, my older brother bought a 3-year-old SAAB 96 from the SAAB dealer Anker Lauritzen in Give. It was dove blue and had driven approx. 50,000 km. It was one of the 3-cylinder models with a 3-speed gearbox. I remember that my parents' 1956 Opel Rekord Cabriolet was included in that trade. It was a big event with a "new" car in the family, and I was there to pick it up. I remember it felt like an eternity to sit and wait for all the paperwork to be filled out and for the conversation with all the politeness back and forth across the desk to finally be over. The salesman spoke with great conviction about all the excellences of the SAAB. Back then, you took better time for this sort of thing. I remember it was a Friday and that it was light when we arrived, and dark when the key could finally be put in the ignition and the trip from Give to Grindsted could begin.

Great excitement to begin with

My older brother was immediately very enthusiastic about the car's features. The transition from the old rear-wheel drive Opel to the modern front-wheel drive SAAB must also have been very big. I remember the special sound of the engine with the uneven idle that turned into a perfectly smooth hum as soon as the clutch was released and the engine started to pull. I thought it sounded good.

It quickly became everyday with the SAAB, and my brother was happy with speed. Now that he had his own car, there was a lot of driving, and I often went on trips in that car. It was normal with the accelerator at the bottom and with good speed through corners. There weren't that many cars on the roads, and there was free speed in the 60s. So with the modest speed resources cars had at the time, bottom gas was often a necessity. I remember the SAAB had a top speed of 120 km/h. Funnily enough, it was about the same top speed as, for example, a VW Type 1, which was therefore a favorite victim, and when the SAAB otherwise went as it should, it could barely squeeze past the slow VWs that the roads were teeming with at the time. But it wasn't the top speed that excited my brother, on the contrary, it was its driving characteristics in corners and on ice, snow and dirt roads. To that extent, the parents' old Opel was a treacherous trickster on slippery roads. The SAAB was the diametrical opposite, and behind the wheel of it he began to explore the frontier of the car's capabilities more and more. In the winter of 1966, Kvie Sø froze over so that you could drive a car on the lake, - I remember being there and that it was quite an experience to circle around the lake in large soft skids. Over time, my brother became incredibly good at driving a front-wheel-drive car

Confessions of a SAAB owner

However, as my brother became more and more comfortable with the front-wheel drive, things went a little hard on the engine. The small engine was often pushed to its limits. My brother didn't like to drive with the freewheel on, so most of the time the engine went full throttle, both during acceleration and deceleration.

It was perhaps not so strange that the performance and consumption of the two-stroke engine gradually led to regular frustration. He was never fond of two-stroke engines, and he often expressed that it was a shame that the car did not have a "real" engine, as he put it. With his driving style, the consumption of oil-mixed petrol and spark plugs literally went up in blue smoke. I remember the sour smell from the SAAB's exhaust, which was part of the charm of owning a SAAB from that time. Over time, the drawbacks overshadowed the joys of the rest of the car. Although he listened to the advice of others who rode two-strokes, he never learned to live with the quirks of the two-stroke engine. A particular annoyance was the car's lack of reliability in wet weather. For some reason, the two-stroke engine in the SAAB was very troubled by moisture entering the ignition system. The power distributor sat quite exposed right into the speed wind in the small radiator grille. In fact, the problem was so great that the car could suddenly stall in certain weather conditions. It always happened in roughly the same way, first small delays which worsened, the car lost more and more speed and eventually came to a complete standstill.

Remember that a can of PRONTO moisture spray and a spark plug wrench were always in the trunk. But if you disregarded the engine, it was otherwise a good and solid construction, and its passability in ice and snow was convincing. I remember that the roof of the garage where the car was parked fell on top of the car one winter when heavy snow caused the roof to give way. The roof of the SAAB was pressed, but could be pressed back without further ado, and the SAAB, as the only car, could drive from the scene under its own power in the deep snow.

SAAB was popular in the circle of friends, and when comrades and friends got newer models with 4 gears and more hp, it became a little too much for the older brother, and he sold the car. My brother and his friends were now and then spectators at the Korskro track near Esbjerg, where at that time track races were run on gravel, and there he noticed another small front-wheel drive car, which was often in a wrestling match with the SAAB. It was the little Minis. He was particularly excited about the way Kristen Svoger from Randers drove the Mini. Since the Minis had a "real" engine, his next car was an Austin.

My experiences with SAAB

My own experiences behind the wheel of a SAAB are few and far between and only came many years later, in the form of the SAAB 99, 900, which in many ways were good cars. In their standard versions that I possibly could afford at the time, however, I found these cars a bit too safety-obsessed and bourgeois for my taste (read boring). When SAAB and Volvo went to war in the 70s over who could make the safest cars with the biggest and ugliest shock-absorbing bumpers, those car brands lost my interest a good number of years into the future.

However, that was thoroughly changed when I had the opportunity to try a SAAB 9.3 Viggen back in 1999. What an engine! With 230 hp and 350 NM, that car was something of a wolf in sheep's clothing. What made the most impression was the completely even power distribution, and that the front-wheel drive could handle the many forces without the steering wheel being ripped out of your hands during acceleration. SAAB had really tamed the turbo engine and front-wheel drive in a convincing way. And had SAAB continued to build cars, a SAAB Turbo would probably have ended up in my garage at some point.

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