Saab takes off.
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.
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 Trollhattan 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.
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). 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.
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.
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 Trollhattan, 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?
 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.
 A four-speed gearbox was optional on the 96 model until 1966 when it became standard.
 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.
 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.
Rolf Mellde’s task to find a new powerplant for the 96 model will be told in the next part.