Saab story: The five quirky cars that make us miss Saab
Engineering prowess wasn’t enough to save the company from the great junkyard in the sky, but it sure left a great legacy
If Saab was born from jets, then someone injected rally car DNA into the womb. The company began racing when it was just a couple of weeks old, and it remained involved in various types of motorsports for several decades.
The lessons learned from racing had a tremendous influence on Saab cars, especially during the brand’s glory days. The company’s designs were distinctive, advanced and sometimes plain offbeat, though always in ways that would make engineers nod in agreement. And still, engineering prowess wasn’t enough to save the company from the great junkyard in the sky.
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There are no two ways around it: Saab is dead, and it’s not coming back. Even if the brand’s carcass manages to incubate a new series-produced model, the pioneering spirit that once defined it is long gone. Besides, the former parent company National Electric Vehicles Sweden (NEVS) – which bought the rights to Saab on this day in 2012 – lost those rights two years later, and truck manufacturer Scania hasn’t allowed it to use the Griffin logo.
We’re not here to tell you a sob story. Instead, here’s a look at five of the most emblematic cars to wear the Saab name.
The Saab 92 at the Saab Museum in Trollhättan, Sweden
Interior of the Saab 92
Quietly introduced in 1949, the 92 was the very first car ever produced by Saab. From the get-go, it was clear the brand was going in an unconventional direction. The 92’s tapered silhouette was inspired by an airplane wing, so it looked like no other vehicle on the planet. It was front-engined and front-wheel drive, a novel concept in an era when virtually every small car was rear-engined or rear-wheel drive, or both.
The wind-cheating silhouette wasn’t just for show. The 92 needed to have a low drag coefficient because it settled for a two-stroke, 764cc two-cylinder engine that churned out just 25 horsepower. That’s not much, but a nearly stock 92 took first place in the 1950 edition of the Rikspokalen, one of the toughest rallies in Europe at the time.
The Saab 96 at the Saab museum in Trollhättan, Sweden
A Saab 96 in rally form at the Saab museum in Trollhättan, Sweden
Interior of the Saab 96
The 96 wore the final evolution of the wing-like silhouette ushered in by the 92. It’s also remembered as one of the most successful Saab rally cars of all time.
Two-stroke engines were on their way out when the 96 made its debut in 1960. Early examples used a two-stroke, three-cylinder engine borrowed from the 93, but a group of renegade engineers managed to convince executives to switch to a more modern four-stroke V4 purchased from Ford. Winter-friendly front-wheel drive was the only configuration offered.
Swedish pilot Erik Carlsson drove a 96 to victory during the 1962 Monte Carlo Rally, beating more powerful cars built by the likes of Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. He earned Saab a sizable dose of respect in racing circles when he secured a second victory the following year.
In hindsight, the switch to V4 engines prolonged the 96’s life. The last example was built on January 11, 1980, marking the end of an illustrious, 20-year-long production run.
The Saab 99 Turbo at the Saab museum in Trollhättan, Sweden
A Saab 99 Turbo in rally guise at the Saab Museum in Trollhättan, Sweden
Interior of the Saab 99 Turbo
The Saab 99 wasn’t the first production car fitted with a turbocharger; that honour arguably goes to the Chevrolet Corvair Monza. But, the 99 undeniably helped bring forced induction to the masses.
The 99 was a revolution for Saab. Once again, the company had penned a car that looked like nothing else on the road. It was markedly more modern than its predecessor, but it lacked pizzazz to be considered a true driver’s car. That changed in 1977 when engineers bolted a turbo to the 99’s 2.0-litre, creating a world-class hot hatch that was ahead of its time. It gave anyone who ever called Swedish cars boring a 145-horsepower kick in the groin.
A heavily-modified, 240-horsepower 99 Turbo made racing history when it won the Swedish Rally in 1979. It became the first turbocharged car to take first place in a rally. Saab campaigned the 99 Turbo in international rally events until it left the sport in 1980 for financial reasons. It’s too bad; imagine what Saab’s entry into the Group B class would have looked like.