Where Saab began.
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.
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.
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.
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.