North Star

Where Saab began.

(c) saabworld

Among the many reasons why a car company might come into being, matters of geography are not always the primary rationale. However in this particular instance, both they, and geopolitics played a highly significant role. During the 1930s, German territorial aggression became an existential threat to Sweden’s long-treasured neutrality, prompting the government to develop an independent air defence force, not so much to repel possible invaders it seems, but to make any such invasion more difficult and expensive to implement.

The development of a home-developed aircraft therefore came about from the unsuitability of bought-in hardware, and as hostilities became inevitable, the inability to sustain suitable defensive aircraft and technical support from the United States. Svenska Aeroplan AB (SAAB) came into being in 1937, initially producing craft not dissimilar to those of the American collaborators they had been working with. However, by the close of hostilities, Saab’s original thinkers had devised their own solutions, including a novel twin-boom fighter plane featuring a single rear-mounted pusher-propeller.

With hostilities at an end, the threat to Sweden, from Germany at least, eased and like most other nations, its aviation industry was threatened with disbandment. In order to keep Saab’s engineering corps together, management decided to funnel their talents into the production of a compact, efficient and technically advanced motor car, specifically designed for local conditions. And with only Volvo building cars for the Swedish domestic market, not to mention the likelihood of obtaining new imports looking highly problematic in the post-war car-boom, market conditions were ripe.

Ur-Saab. (c) NMJ

Leading light behind the Saab motor car programme was Gunnar Ljungstrom, who enlisted illustrator, artist (and vacuum cleaner designer, allegedly), Sixten Sason to provide conceptual drawings for Saab’s nascent car. Ljungstrom set Sason strict guidelines on dimensions and interior space, but also stipulated that its design should reflect Saab’s aviation background. Obviously, Ljungstrom’s brief was a concise one, because Sason’s very first proposal was unanimously approved.

This was the fabled Ur-Saab, a remarkable teardrop-shaped prototype which achieved an astounding 0.32 drag coefficient in the wind tunnel, partly thanks to its smooth underside, although this figure would rise to 0.35 once the car was (significantly) modified for production. However, the creative basis for Project 92 had been laid. Changes to the design for the production 92 were considerable, even if the basic silhouette was retained; the production car being taller, narrower and more conventional in detail, especially at the nose, lacking the Ur-Saab’s low-mounted raked headlamps and sleeker looking bonnet line. The semi-enclosed wheels were also deleted.

Unusual solutions would become Saab’s stock in trade, but initially, engineers were at something of a loss as to best practice and are believed to have scavenged scrap yards for inspiration and technical know-how, finally settling on a 764cc two-cylinder water-cooled two-stroke engine, (aping DKW practice) developing 25hp, transversely mounted ahead of the front axle line, driving the front wheels through a three-speed gearbox, which was fitted with a freewheel device. Suspension was independent all-round.

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Production began in December of 1949, but few were built until the following year; significant pent-up demand for new cars and healthy pre-orders helping Saab get the 92 into production, but only 1200 cars were delivered during 1950. Keen to keep production costs down, Saab imported as few bought-in components as possible, keeping local content high and for several years the 92 was only available in a single colour – green, alleged to have been the result of there being a surplus left over from wartime aircraft production.

Demand far outstripped supply, Saab encountering enormous difficulty in ramping up production owing to a lack of tooling and the money to buy in the necessary equipment. It was therefore a case of improvisation on Trollhätten’s part. With only slightly over 5000 92s built, a revised 92B was introduced in 1952, but more significant changes to address handling issues arising from the independent rear suspension and narrow rear track would have to wait until 1955 with the advent of the facelifted 93 model.

This greatly refined model was visually recognised by its vertical grille and more integrated headlamp treatment, but more significantly, a beam axle replaced the earlier car’s torsion bars and a stronger version of Saab’s two-stroke (now a triple) was mounted longitudinally. To compliment the additional engine cylinder, an additional ratio was also added to the gearbox. The 92 would be built alongside for another year – with over 20,000 being built in total between 1949 and 1956.

(c) saabsunited

Almost as soon as the car entered production, its virtues brought it to the attention of the motorsport contingent, becoming a highly successful rally campaigner – a discipline for which it was eminently suitable and one which would later propel both the model line and carmaker into the international limelight, most notably through the lurid and daring exploits of a certain Mr. Erik Carlsson.

By 1958, with the supply problems having been surmounted, production settled down to around 14,000 cars per annum. Saab were now exporting to other European markets and tentatively at least, to the United States, where the car was well received, even if its two-stroke power unit would soon become viewed as something of an impediment.

Meanwhile, 1959 saw the introduction of the more versatile 95 estate model, while 1960 marked the final year of 93 production with over 50,000 built in total. That same year, the revised 96 model was introduced, whose story will be covered in a separate article.

Compact, yet spacious, and certainly by the advent of the 93 model, possessed of a fine chassis and excellent dynamics, the little Saab made a lot of friends both at home and further afield. Couple this to a high standard of engineering, robust build and an infectious sense of joie de vivre, these early Saabs did much to cement Trollhätten’s carmaking reputation. Because if ever there was a case to be made for geography as a key informant to car design, it was here. Because what worked for Swedish conditions worked just as well everywhere else.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

16 thoughts on “North Star”

  1. The main image shows the delightful use of colour and monochrome: the car is renderered in colour and the background left as simple, abstract line work. I could imagine how this style emerged: an artist drew the object in the foreground and sketched out a background with the intention of colour all of it.
    He or she then discovered that by only rendering the main object, it looked pleasing and just left it. Fitz and Van sometimes used this approach and I think their “partial” or more sketchy images are the most effective. Drawings are often much better than the real thing (consider Egon Schiele´s nudes as compared to a photo of the same subjects in the same poses).

    1. Is this first time Egon Schiele has been referenced in a response to a post about the Saab? Richard, I salute you!

    2. It looks like the groundwork has been done in monochrome and the shading with an airbrush, and then the green overlay colour overlay has been done with transparent plastic, like an animation cell? It has that feeling of being b&w painting artificially coloured.

  2. Geo-political influences had a profound impact on the development of the car industry. The brands that survive today often do so because of government intervention at one point or another… an industrial nation’s pride and sense of self were often bound together with its automotive output.

    At the end, I suppose Sweden didn’t consider Saab to be intrinsic enough to national identity to be saved.

  3. A facinating piece of history previously unknown to me, thank you Eóin.

    Of all the manufacturers that have succumbed to the automotive version of Darwinism, Saab is perhaps the saddest and most keenly felt loss. The (pre-GM) cars were genuinely different: intelligent, engineering-led designs that stood apart from the mainstream. Even the 99 Turbo managed to stand slightly aloof and apart from the sometimes brash and vulgar “GTI” brigade with which it supposedly competed.

    That GM could take a company with such a strong image and reputation and kill it stone dead in little more than a decade is testament to the utter ineptness of its senior management. Their cynical attempt to foist their often inferior technology onto Saab was resisted at first: the Swedes meticulously re-engineering the Vectra to make the 1994 “New Generation” 900 more worthy of the name. GM accountants were, allegedly, furious at the extra costs incurred in this effort and reined the company in thereafter.

    There followed the indignity of the 9-2X “Saabaru” and all-American 9-7X, both reflecting extreme cynicism or, more likely, desperation on GM’s part. It’s ironic that Saab’s most accomplished design of the GM era, the 2010 second generation 9-5, arrived too late to save the company, GM finally appearing to understand what made a Saab special.

    The sale of Saab to Spyker in 2012 was, if not quite as cynical as Philip Green’s offloading of BHS onto Dominic Chappelle, an alleged conman and crook with no retail experience, was a desperate attempt to sell to someone, anyone who would take it off their hands. Spyker could never hope to succeed where GM failed, so Saab’s fate was sealed.

    1. You’re very harsh. Spyker had this winner on their hands:

      Rather more importantly, I’d be interested in learning more about the Wallenberg family’s role in Saab fortunes. Were they acting solely as investors, or playing a more hands-on role, à la Gianni Agnelli?

    2. It was certainly an interesting concept, Christopher, but was it anywhere viable mass production, without Spyker having to pay generous royalties GM for the legacy hardware, just as PSA are currently doing? (This explains the haste at which the former GME range is being phased out and renewed.) That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way: I’d love to know more about the details of the sale of Saab to Spyker. Now, there’s an idea for an in-depth DTW investigation!

      At least the latterly reviled “Phoenix Four” kept MG Rover limping along for five years, albeit with the help of a generous dowry from BTW! (My tongue is firmly in my cheek when making this comparison!)

  4. I second Christopher’s plea! I’d love to know more about the Wallenbergs and Saab, not least because I worked for Ericsson for over a decade, and because it’s hard (maybe I’m doing them an injustice) to imagine the Agnellis or the Porsches producing a scion like Raoul…

  5. Sixten Sason is a really under appreciated industrial designer with a lot of consumer goods under his hand. The Hasselblad camera, which there is an example left on the moon. Consumer goods, mostly for Electrolux during the fifties and sixties. Waffelmakers that looked like UFO:s, vacuum cleaners, and clothes ironers, all with face-like features. Put them all in a row, and you can clearly see they come from the same artistic mind. I’ve long wanted to see an article putting his output in perspective as an industrial designer not only designing cars.

  6. Funny there’s mention of a Scion…

    Trollhättan will live again but as Star Trekkin’ would say, Not as we know it.”

    According to AutoCropley today, the factory is soon to be resuscitated by Sono Motors who have crowdfunded over €50m to produce the Sion in Sweden with already over 20,000 orders. The Sion will be a Solar Electric Vehicle. Not exactly SAAB but at least it’s using a pre-set up factory area as opposed to tearing up acres of green belt.

    But the Wallenberg’s DO sound interesting. Happy to accept more info

    1. Sono motors have had financial difficulties and there are some doubts about their viability.

      On the other hand, if they do manage to design, engineer and produce a brand new EV for 50m Euros, not only will they get this factory working again, but I imagine they will have a lot of prospective clients queuing up to ask them how it is done!

  7. A rather charming, short film from SAAB from 1960. I notice that the music is also used in some BMC promotional films.

    1. Oooh, biltillverkning going on! The Swedes share the Germanic attachment to compoundwords. The car had for example a tvåtaktsmotor (and a trecylindrig one at that) rather than a plain old two stroke engine.

  8. Thank you Eoin, a nice introductory article to the origins of Saab. I didn’t know (alleged) ‘vaccum cleaner designer’ was such a shameful occupation.

  9. Saab 92 A from the newly started car manufacturer has no outer opening to the boot. It is said that chief engineer Gunnar Ljungström regarded the lack of luggage hatch as a protection against theft. The real reason was probably Ljungström’s prioritization of the body’s rigidity before usability for car owners.
    However, in December 1952 the new 92 B with luggage lid was introduced. The cars from Saab became a little less extraterrestrial.
    Source: “SAAB The era of Gunnar Ljungström A journey from 92 to 900” (2017), published by Saab Car Museum Support Organization & Gunnar Johansson.
    Speaking of the role of technicians: In a book about his professional life, a former Saab CEO complained about the influence of technicians during Saab’s early years. According to this CEO, the powerful technical team at Saab did not take into account what is possible to sell in the tough car market.

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