Nordstjärna (Part Two)

Saab takes off.

(c) saabworld

In the years immediately following the cessation of global hostilities, the pace of technological change accelerated massively. However, this rapid forward motion was particularly obvious in the aviation sector, especially following the advent of the gas turbine jet engine.

For Sweden, peacetime did not entail a loss of vigilance – far from it, with the threat now stemming from a resurgent Soviet Union, seeking to impose its influence far and wide. Deterrents would mostly be of the diplomatic variety, but a big stick was also considered worthwhile, hence the development of a suitable military aviation platform in the striking form of the supersonic Saab 35 Draken fighter jet, which made its maiden flight in 1955.[1]

1960 Saab 96 and Saab 35 Draken Jet Fighter. Image: mediastorehouse

Devolved from the aircraft side of the business, Saab AB had been making the same basic car design since 1949 in the form of the 92/ 93 model. This compact, lightweight and nimble family saloon had evolved from fairly prosaic beginnings into a popular and capable model, both domestically and in export markets. However, the growing visual contrast with its aerospace cousins was becoming ever-more striking.

Nevertheless on the carmaking side, careful, incremental progress were watchwords. Keen to increase annual production beyond 50,000 cars, the Trollhättan factory was expanded in 1959, with a new paint plant and enlarged production facilities. February 1960 saw the introduction of the latest iteration in Saab’s roadgoing evolution, the 93C, or as it was to be marketed, the 96.

The 96 was not completely new – the front end being largely carried over from its immediate predecessor, but virtually everything aft of the B-pillar was extensively redesigned to incorporate a 117% larger rear screen, a wider backseat (some 25 centimetres), a more commodious luggage compartment, a new fuel tank and larger tail-lights. Power came from a 841cc version of Saab’s existing two-stroke three-cylinder engine and a three-speed manual gearbox.[2]

1960 also saw Saab take control of their own distribution and sales, resulting in a near-doubling of the carmaker’s Swedish market penetration over the following year, aided not only by the revised 96, but also the 95 Estate, which had been introduced the year before, but only really started coming on stream in 1960.

It was at this point that Saab’s motorsport career began to really gain momentum. Having come close to winning the World Rally Championship in 1959, Saab’s Erik Carlsson became the world’s Number One driver, winning his third British RAC Rally running in 1962 and victories in both 1962 and 1963 Monte Carlo Rallies.

As the victor of the UK event, Saab was invited to take part in the 1962 African Safari Rally where Carlsson’s name entered legend. During a stage, the bearlike Swede’s 96 became mired in a mud pool. Inga problem, he and his co-driver simply rolled the car onto its roof and carried on. Recounting the story later, journalists covering the stage cast doubt upon his story, so he demonstrated it again, the rugged little Saab taking it all in its stride.

Not to be outdone, the rival Ford team attempted to do likewise – the result – one decidedly secondhand Cortina. Henceforth, Carlsson became known as på taket (on the roof in Swedish).[3] Of the four Saabs that entered this gruelling event, all finished, with Pat Moss taking second and Carlsson a rotund sixth. In 1965 Pat, now Moss-Carlsson came third in the Monte Carlo, winning the Coupe des Dames.[4]

Introduced for the 1965 model year, the 96 received a major and quite literal facelift. While the rear end had undergone some fairly major surgery for 1960, it was now the turn of the nose. Such were the alterations that management considered a name change, but elected to retain the existing nomenclature.

Changes were extensive. From the A-pillars forward, all panelwork was changed. With increased under bonnet space required, the nose was slightly longer ahead of the front wheels to accommodate amongst other things, a completely new cooling system. Most obvious was a new full-width grille which incorporated the headlamps, now sited at each extremity.

Other technical changes included a hydraulically controlled clutch, a revised ventilation system, suspended pedals and new outer drive joints. Engine output was raised to 40 bhp for the standard model, and 55 bhp for the triple carburettor Sport version. This latter model would be renamed Monte Carlo for 1966 in honour of Erik Carlsson’s outright win there.

Image: barnfinds

1966 saw Saab post a major landmark, with 300,000 cars produced at Trollhattan since their post-war inception. But while sales had been on an upward trajectory until 1965 (48,517), the following year saw the first fall, partly owing to sales stalling in the home market, but also due to a fall in demand from overseas. The reason was becoming obvious.

By now, Saab was one of the few Western European carmakers producing two-stroke engines, and while technical advances introduced from 1966 saw the ratio of oil to petrol reduced in half, the drawbacks of this layout; inconvenience, emissions but especially high fuel consumption were becoming a serious impediment to Saab’s expansion plans.

In the US, the 96 could have been well placed to take a decent chunk of sales from the likes of Volkswagen’s Beetle. The Saab was in many respects a superior design, but a lack of sales and service distribution, coupled with the drawbacks of the two-stroke unit, meant that the 96 became primarily an enthusiast’s car, with volumes to match.

All of which led to a good deal of hand-wringing at Trollhättan, but it quickly became apparent to technical director, Rolf Mellde that the two-stroke which had served Saab so well had run its course and that only a modern four-stroke engine would reverse this downward trajectory.

With neither time nor resource to develop an in-house unit, the only solution open to him was to establish an existing unit from a rival carmaker which could be repurposed for use in the 96’s engine bay. This left him with a number of quandaries. From where would he locate a suitable engine, could he obtain sufficient numbers, and most importantly, could he convince senior management of his plan?

[1] The delta winged Saab 35 Draken fighter was the first fully supersonic jet fighter of its kind to deploy in Europe, entering service with the Swedish Air Force in March 1960. The last Draken was retired from the Austrian Air Force in 2005.

[2] A four-speed gearbox was optional on the 96 model until 1966 when it became standard.

[3] There was allegedly a popular Swedish children’s story called Karlsson på taket whose central character lives on the roof of an apartment building. For the remainder of his long career as a competitive racing driver and subsequently as Head of PR for Saab, Carlsson was known by this sobriquet. He passed away in 2015.

[4] Pat Moss, sister of Stirling Moss was a renowned rally ace in her own right, and a fierce rival to the likes of Carlsson on the world rally circuit at the time. In 1963 she married Carlsson, joining the Saab rally team shortly after. They remained together until her death in 2008.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

43 thoughts on “Nordstjärna (Part Two)”

  1. This brings back some memories. My dad and his friend went to Sweden on a business trip by plane (probably not a Saab). The friend had bought a Saab 96 in Sweden and the plan was to drive it back to the Netherlands.

    It all went well until the ferry from Helsingborg and Helsingør rammed into the ferry terminal in Helsingør at a speed of eight knots. The ferry was named “Tycho Brahe” after the famous astronemer and nicknamed “Psycho Brahe” after the incident. 55 people were hospitalized. my dad was one of them, but he was released soon after the accident. He was interviewed by a newspaper and I believe also Danish television. On the car deck cars bumped into each other. Lots of damage there, but the Saab only had some minor dents. They managed to complete the trip back to the Netherlands without further problems.

    The Saab was sold a couple of years later, much to the relief of the friend’s wife, who wasn’t happy about the two stroke exhaust gases.

  2. If I remember correctly the 93’s engines were designed (by Hans Müller) and manufactured by Heinkel.
    But where did the 96’s come from?

    1. Dave, to answer your question would spoil the plot – all will doubtless be revealed in part 3. But since they were no longer around, it certainly wasn’t Jowett…..!

      The ‘ring-ding-ding’ of a two-stroke was more often heard in the UK in period coming from a DKW rather than a Saab – an evocative sound sadly missed, reminding me of an era when cars were identifiable by their individual mechanical sounds, rather than merely the roar of their tyres.

    2. I meant the two strokes of early 96/95s. Did they also come from Heinkel or did Saab make their own?
      I might be wrong but as far as I know Saab only started making their own engines with the 99 because the items supplied by Triumph did not meet their quality criteria.

    3. As far as I know Saab looked very closely to the DKW three cylinder two stroke engine. Both DKW and Saab mounted the radiotor behind the engine. The easiest way to distinguish between the two is that the fan shaft is separate on the Saab and part of the engine block with the DKW.

    4. Hello Dave, I thought that Heinkel were involved in setting up Svenska Aero AB (manufacturing planes outside of Germany got around restrictions imposed after WW1), but that the car engines were DKW-like, made by SAAB themselves.

    5. The Saab two stroke engine was designed by Hans Müller, DKW’s former test department manager who was also responsible for the legendary ‘Müller-Andernach’ V6 two stroke. Müller worked freelance (with close associations to Heinkel) first, later as a Heinkel employee and he designed the Saab 92 and 93 engines, hence the similarity to the DKW power unit.
      Heinkel made engines for several German car manufacturers like Tempo or Maico and Swedish Saab.
      Whether Heinkel helped Saab set up their aircraft business I do not know but they definitely designed and made the two stroke engine, at least for the 93.

  3. Good morning Eóin. I’ve always thought that the style of the 93 and 96 must have been significantly influenced by the wider group’s aircraft expertise, although I have no idea how aerodynamic it actually was. The 95 estate, however, always looked to me as though it had been knocked together in a garden shed:

    Everything aft of the B-pillar (and above the wheel arch) seems to have been designed with scant regard for the styling of the saloon. The pressed ribbing on the B and C-pillars and the chrome-edged fins with their incongruous twin circular tail lights looked like a throwback to an earlier era. The later 95, with its narrower rear window, looked even odder.

    Of course, it may have been highly aerodynamic, but I wonder why it was so dissonant looking?

    1. The years are the 50s and presumably even the people who designed had a lot fewer influences than would exist even ten years later. Quite possibly the designer didn´t have an automotive design qualification and also there were few people around to modify the plans, to make them more consensus-based. You can find oddities like this all around Europe in the 1950s, at Citroen, in the UK and in Italy. Italy less so, though.

    2. Sixten Sason was an independent industrial designer and he worked for Saab as their goto design consultant, as Saab didn’t have an in house design department until the late 60’s. I don’t know how much work he did for them, if it was all of it or just most of it. Among his other work is the famous Hasselblad camera and several appliances for Husqvarna like waffle makers, vacuum cleaners, and the like. He had a style of his own, often with anthropomorphic features, the “faces” of the earlier Saabs is definitely his trademark style.

      I don’t know if the 95 station wagon is his work, but I would guess it was. And I would say he was inspired of the ’55 Chevrolet Nomad, some years after the fact.

    3. Sason is credited for the 92, 93, 95, 96, and the 99. As well as for the 1955 Saab Sonett and the Catherina prototype. After his death in 1967, Saab hired his apprentice Björn Envall, that had worked as Sasons assistant since 1960 to head Saabs internal design department, so the Season heritage is strong within Saab.

    4. Daniel, I suspect the 95 on the right (the red car) is a prototype. I think all production 95s had the window treatment you see on the later car – which is a very late model – possibly the last one built maybe?

  4. In the early Sixties I’ve been to Denmark a couple of times and always was fascinated by the large number of those Saabs on Danish roads, particularly in estate form (and with fish shaped additional side indicator lamps).
    Premier Ijs, rød pølse and Saab 95 became a kind of Danish trinity in my memory.

    1. The Saab 96 was assembled in Glostrup, not sure if the 95 was as well. But it sounds almost like it was, judging by your memories.

      Other locations where the 96 was assembled are Rotterdam (Netherlands) in the Chrysler International factory (Saab had a deal with Chrysler at the time), Uusikaupunki (Finland), Brussels (Belgium), Mechelen (again Belgium) and Montevideo (Uruguay).

    2. Thanks for this info which is new to me. I didn’t know Saab had that many ‘foreign’ assembly sites for what presumably were CKD cars.
      But it fits in my picture of 1965 Danish roads.

  5. Lovely article. I have fond memories of the 96 – my parents had one each, at one time.

    Here’s a film about SAAB, made in the early 60’s, from the Swedish Film Archive. I think it’s on YouTube, too.

    Re the 95, I think the designer thought ‘50s American station wagons were cool, and decided to use that sort of styling. I believe this generation of SAABs were fairly aerodynamic – the earlier 92 appears to have had a drag coefficient of 0.30, which is astonishing. I found looking at this table of drag coefficients in Wikipedia quite mesmerising.

    1. Delightful film. My Swedish is non-existent but one can easily get the gist. How exciting that time must’ve been; making cars AND jet planes. I love how the music of these period pieces all sound similar, British even. This could be a film from Austin or Triumph but with less humans smoking tobacco. In fact the only smoking was done by the car. This along with brave or foolhardy cameramen; stand there whilst we make these cars leap over a wooden ramp!

    2. Hello Andrew, BMC liked that music, and it features in ‘Making The Most Of It’, a promotional film for the Austin A35 from 1956, among others.

  6. Before Saab abandoned the two-stroke engine, was it similarly capable of being stretched beyond 841cc to approximately the same 993-1175cc displacement range as the Wartburg 353 and DKW F102 or have a few owners through their own initiative managed to tune the Saab two-stroke to reach similar heights as its two-stroke contemporaries?

    1. Saab produced a 55 hp version of the engine called Monte Carlo. It had three carbs and the usual carburettor freeze-up problems of high power two strokes. Rally cars had up tp 70 hp if Graham Robson’s book can be trusted. No versions larger than 841cc are known because instead of tinkering around with the smelly two stroke Saab chose a completely different engine with far bigger potential.

    2. And they shoved two, two-strokes under the bonnet of one car to create a rather unwieldy 1.5 litre rally car. The experiment wasn’t a success.

    3. As improbable as it sounds, here is the two-engined mutant:

      Not sure about the placement of those distributors though: is Saab emulating one of the 1959 Mini’ s design faults?

    4. Am aware of what Saab investigated with the two-stroke based Monster as well as the regular Saab two-stroke’s tuning potential and what they ultimately opted for to replace it, albeit in a clandestine manner in the latter case with the V4 initially.

      Suggesting the head of Saab at the time was either content sticking with the two-stroke without any further development or plan for as long as possible, or had something else in mind which forced Rolf Mellde to act the way he did.

      Just find it strange they did not increase the two-stroke engine’s capacity even further when the Saab 96 was launched before they switched over to the four-stroke engines, since 841cc to 1498cc is quite a big leap in displacement compared to a leap from say 993-1175cc to 1498cc (know Saab looked at a 55 hp 1.2 Slant-Four before Ricardo acted as matchmaker by putting Saab into contact with Triumph).

    5. In order to increase any engine’s capacity to whatever you want you first need an engine that can be enlarged. Saab didn’t have one.
      The later four stroke wasn’t that much more powerful than the Monte Carlo two strokes, so the jump isn’t that big.

    6. Find it difficult to believe Saab’s two-stroke lacked the same capability for enlargement as contemporary two-strokes during that period given the common origins/influences with DKW’s and Wartburg’s own engines.

    7. I would guess it was a money issue. If they’ve had the resources to expand on the engine they would’ve done that in one way or another. If they’d have the money for a new engine they would have developed one. As we will see they had neither and had to buy a suitable engine from another maker. Also, it was pretty much a given in the industry that two-strokes were a dead end at least from the late fifties. DKW presented it’s two-stroke F102 in 1963, and it was produced until 1966. But it was superceded almost immediately by the F103/Audi four cylinder update in 1965. Except for the East Germans I can’t think of any other two-stroke engines being made after that. I would guess Saab decided not to develop the engine any further because they didn’t want to sink any resources in to a technology that would’ve been obsolete in a couple if years anyway.

    8. Why should they invest in an engine nobody wanted to buy anymore? The days of the two stroke were over once and for all therefore Saab needed another one about as urgently as a hole in the head. They simply did the sensible thing and sourcdd a four stroke.

    9. I think they had their eye on the US market and anti-smog regulations started to come in, in the mid-sixties, so continuing with a two-stroke wasn’t possible.

    10. Even in Europe the two stroke was as dead as can be. DKW found out at their cost with the F102 which sold just about 50,000 in over three years to stubborn two stroke fanatics. That must have been the whole market for two strokes.

    11. From the story of the 96 V4, they only adopted a four-stroke after much reluctance on the part of Saab’s CEO at the time who appeared to have virtually no plan in place to switch over to a four-stroke for the 96.

      DKW decided (unwisely in retrospect) to stick with two-strokes for the F102 (including the two-stroke V6) from 1963-1966 instead of embracing Mercedes-Benz’s M118 engine (with Suzuki similarly developing a stillborn 1100 version of the late 1965 Suzuki Fronte 800), yet that was 3 years after the launch of the Saab 96 which still did manage to get around US emissions regulations from 1968 with a reduced 795cc version due to exemptions given for engines under 50 cu in (819 cc).

    12. There was no such thing as an official DKW V6 prototype.
      The V6 was developed by Hans Müller on freelance terms and produced by Heinkel as an intended retrofit tunung option for the F102 with no involvememt whatsoever from DKW. About 100 such engines were made. Why on earth should DKW have considered an engine designed by an outsider and produced by Heinkel for one of their cars?

    13. It may not have been official yet the V6 exists, was tested and considered as an option (even if retrofit aftermarket one) for the F102 and Munga as well as conceived by an outsider who nonetheless had ties to DKW.

      DKW had their reasons to not officially approve the project, yet that was only because more English language information is now available recently to clear up any misunderstandings on the matter that previously suggested otherwise. Point is official status aside, it is still a part of DKW history.

  7. I must say that I’m looking forward to part 2 – there’s clearly a lot to discover.

  8. Crikey! They didn’t get much power out of the two-strokes back then did they?

    Anyway, these days 500cc ought to produce 200bhp if done right, 180bhp if the tuning is a little more conservative while 100bhp continuous is readily achievable. A happy medium would be around 150bhp.

    Around these parts there are a few who put Mercury and Evinrude two-strokes into sprint cars and midgets. Those got banned in the end, which is a shame really as they were quick. Some people even put them in street cars. Those one were the later Mercury and Yamaha V-6 units. A good potential for transplant would have to be the V-8 by Evinrude engine that used to be seen on the water a lot. They have disappeared of late. Some guys in Europe are said to have one in a Volvo drag car.

  9. One of my friends told me a while ago that Kurt Vonnegut (writer of Slaughterhouse 5), a fact I didn’t know and probably some of us here won’t either, so I’d thought I share it here.

    Apparently he was more successful at writing than selling cars. He claimed drivers couldn’t deal with putting a pint of oil into each tank full of petrol. See the article at:

    Click to access MSADA-AUGUST-Vonnegut-single-pages.pdf

  10. I’ve had seven SAABs, three with the two-stroke engine. From my point of view, the major reason for owning a car with such powerless qualities was the absence of synthetic oils in four-stroke engines and the cold winters that made a well used Volvo, Opel or Ford impossible to start at minus 25 °C. The SAAB engine started always instantly with low load on the battery. But the acceleration 0-100 was 28 seconds; it was a problem then and would be impossible today.

    I was once driving my parents-in-law’s “new front” 1965 on a vacation trip loaded with four humans and tents on the roof and when we hit the ill-famous long uppward hill in Edsleskog, a had to gear down to second. I heard a strange sound and a new Ford Mustang passed us uphill with smoking rear tyres. This is no doubt the most humilating moment in my motoring life.

  11. Saabs were a good seller in New England USA in the late 1950s. A trip our family made by ferry and road to Ithaca New York from Nova Scotia in October 1960 revealed as many putting around as threshing VW Beetles. Saabs weren’t sold in Nova Scotia because free-wheeling was illegal under our Highways Act, where it was called “coasting out of gear”.

    The Maine Turnpike was brand new in those days and had an 80 mph speed limit. We were in an Anglebox 105E loaded to the gills, and on the return trip put in 679 miles in a day from Ithaca NY to Bar Harbor, Maine, most of which wasn’t thruway but normal roads. Our trip to get there over a week before had been via New York City, which for an emigrant English family only a year before to Canada, was quite a rush. We got to see the UN building on a damp Sunday, just before Khruschev decided to beat the dais with his shoe later that week. The place was surrounded by NYC cops in anticipation of his visit, one of whom was very friendly and interested both in the car and where we were from. 9 am on a Sunday in Manhattan in those days was an empty place, in any case, and the cops were bored stiff, damp and cold.

    In any case, the ringy-ding-ding Saabs couldn’t keep up with the Anglia on the Maine Turnpike. And they looked antedeluvian to my just barely 13 year-old eyes. Judging by the determined efforts of Saabistas which Dad found quite amusing, we passed the lot in the hundred miles or so around Portland. Their drivers were probably used to defeating Beetles. The Anglebox only had an 80 mph speedo which, since we wanted to catch an overnight boat, was all I ever saw from my back seat perch for several hours. It took a while to come back off the peg on the hills, as well. Despite the 80 mph limit, most American cars were doing perhaps 70 to 75. I gained a lot of respect for that 105E engine, especially in later years when I drove myself and visited the USA and got more accustomed to the huge distances. Keeping up 5,000 rpm or more all day didn’t seem to bother that short stroke engine much.

    Since in 1960 both Evinrude and Johnson (Outboard Marine Corporation) had die-cast two-stroke all-aluminium 75 bhp V4 outboard motors, and Kiekhaufer Mercury Marine had a 6 cylinder (yes, a 6 in-line cylinder smoothie) 1200cc 80hp, the Saab and DKW engines seemed hopelessly out-of-date to me at the time. DKW had a silly advertisement for a Junior chasing a baseball player around the bases, for some unknown reason, that had zero sales effect. Then a few years later, Japanese motorcycle two-strokes happened, like the 25 hp Yamaha 250 Catalina, which had a separate oil tank and automatically dispensed oil as needed. Same with the Bridgestone 175 and its 18 hp engine, described as being made from old American beer cans by their happy owners, as a sort of reverse insult for the US occupation after WW2.

    A VW Beetle beat Moss and Carlson in that 1962 East Africa Safari rally, btw. Check out who won the 1965 Safari, a second-hand Volvo PV 544 with 40,000 miles on the clock. Now there was a really out-of-date shape, but my goodness they were sturdy and not a leaf spring in sight, coils all around. My dear old Mum, a bit of a press-on type herself, and whose Anglia it was that ran the Maine Turnpike in 1960 and who had replaced it for 10 months with a ’64 Anglia Super, ditched the latter and got her Canadian-made PV 544 in August 1965. It was a rocketship compared to the Anglias or my father’s Austin 1800, three seconds quicker in the standing start quarter mile and as quick as an MGB, while being about three times better made than all of them, to boot.

    Saab two-strokes I never did “get”, although with my weekly Motoring News from Blighty, I certainly read enough about Carlson and his antics, though was more impressed by stories of Pat Moss’ skill in a very snowy RAC rally to be frank. By all accounts, Carlson was a calm chap until behind the wheel of his Saabs, whereupon he drove them as if wielding the hammer of Thor. The subsequent vibratory fizzer of a German Ford V4 which was all that would fit the old Saab body in front-to-back dimensions wasn’t much to write home about, and then the howlingly amateurish style of the Sonnet came along to cement my disdain. No wonder someone spent time designing the 99 properly, the company’s fortunes were on the line, just as they were for VW’s days of bringing out ever more useless rear-engined air-cooled nonsense. I just read Autocar’s old test of the first 411, and they were not impressed by anything but the finish. The test of a Saab 95 from 11 july 1963 in Autocar reveals that a Beetle had the legs of it in actual fact, and the 95 was dismally slow, as in 0 to 60 took 44 secs. Plus it was riddled with faults and had a poor ride. No thanks.

  12. Actually, “Karlsson from the Roof” was one of my favourite kid’s books ever. It featured an obese and somewhat malicious little Karlsson, who flew about the city with help of a hat-mounted propeller : )

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