Desperate times. Desperate measures.
The early 1960s had been good years at Trollhättan. Saab sales had risen exponentially, the export performance of the 96 showed considerable promise, and its rally exploits further bolstered its appeal. But it was clear that to consolidate upon this success, a more modern, more adaptable Saab motorcar was required. In April 1964 management initiated Project Gudmund which would culminate in the 99 model, unveiled to the press in November 1967.
But meanwhile sales of the two-stroke 96 were stalling, and technical chief, Rolf Mellde recognised the need to act. Not that his engineers had exactly been warming their hands in the interim. Between 1960 and 1964, a number of four-stroke engines were evaluated in Saab bodyshells. Initially three powertrains were selected, a longitudinal 897 cc four cylinder Lloyd Arabella unit, a transversely mounted 848 cc BMC A-Series (à la Mini) and a 1089 cc V4 Lancia Appia unit.
Despite this however, Saab CEO, Tryggve Holm remained implacably wedded to the two-stroke concept, vetoing any move by Mellde to supersede it. But with the carmaker facing crisis, Mellde risked his job, surreptitiously making contact with Marc Wallenberg, son of Saab AB’s controlling shareholder, and asked him to intercede on his behalf. Convinced by Mellde’s arguments, Wallenberg junior convinced his father who pressured Holm to change direction. Mellde duly received authorisation to proceed, but with one caveat. Holm insisted that the two-stroke remain available alongside for at least a five year period.
As work began establishing the most suitable powertrain, engineers with four-stroke experience were recruited from Volvo to bolster the team. A further set of potential power units were selected and bench tested; engines which included the Volvo B18 unit, the Ford Taunus V4, the Triumph 1300 unit, and the Lancia V4. Also tried were engines from Opel, VW and Rootes-Hillman.
The Volvo unit it seems came closest to meeting Saab’s specifications, but the Ford unit came a close second, being fitted in prototype 96s for further evaluation. Along with conforming to Saab’s stipulations for fuel and oil consumption, engine wear and strength, the V4 was compact and relatively lightweight; more importantly still, it slotted easily into the 96’s engine compartment with minimal changes.
The 1,498cc V4 engine was derived from the Cardinal programme which had originally been initiated in Dearborn for a stillborn compact saloon car. Upon cancellation, the programme was transposed to Ford’s Cologne subsidiary and introduced in 1962 as the FWD Taunus 12M model. Following 18 months of intense deliberations, Mellde made his choice. The Ford V4 it was to be.
With secrecy utmost, Mellde, on the pretext of attending an SAE conference in Detroit, met with senior Dearborn management to secure the use of the V4 engine. The trip successful, detail negotiations were thus transferred to Ford’s European satellite in Germany. With the engine supply secured, proving could take place in earnest. At this point only a handful of Saab personnel knew what was going on, which was exactly how Mellde intended to keep it.
February 1966, and engineer, Per Gillbrand’s colleagues were stunned when he announced that he was taking a protracted session of absence to manage his father’s paint business in Tidaholm. What possible interest could an engine specialist have in paint, they wondered? In fact, Gillbrand and his family hightailed it to Desenzano, on the Southern shores of Italy’s Lake Garda with a prototype V4 engined Saab for a three-month proving session.
Gillbrand’s Italian landlord, had a few things to ponder as well, not least the manner of this curious Saab car which required a meticulous service and inspection every day without fail. Having purchased several bags of cement to simulate different payloads, Gillbrand raised further eyebrows shortly before his departure by returning them unused to the builder’s merchant. Having put over 3000 largely trouble-free miles on the odometer, on both mountain roads and autostrade, both he (and family) returned to Trollhättan. But with the car’s debut now scheduled for August, time was of the essence.
April 1966, engineer, Ole Grandlund was summoned by Mellde, instructed to take leave of absence, and immediately travel to Cologne to pick up a consignment of five V4 engines. However, Mellde made it plain that on no account was he to inform his line manager why this time-off was required upon such short notice. Grandlund, discomforted by this cloak and dagger approach expressed his misgivings – “that’s your problem“, Mellde starkly informed him.
Several days later, Grandlund was back in Kristinehamn, the works Dodge van brim-full of Cologne’s finest. The engines fitted and tested, then back to Köln-Merkenich for another batch. Elaborate measures were taken to store prototypes away from prying eyes; a separate shell company being set up to deal with purchasing of components specific to the v4 programme, ensuring that nothing could be traced back to Trollhättan.
This caused a number of potential embarrassments, such as when the order for wiring harnesses appropriate to the two-stroke engine was cancelled, only for the purchasing department being notified by security that the regular delivery hadn’t arrived. A heated telephone conversation ensued with the supplier, almost blowing Mellde’s cover. Frantic background work continued which included rewriting all relevant documentation, including workshop manuals, service schedules, owner’s manual and spares catalogues.
June 1966, and just prior to the summer shutdown, Mellde broke the embargo to senior production managers, who despite being impressed with the prototype car, expressed grave doubts as to the schedule. However, all understood what was at stake and quickly a conversion line was initiated where a completed two stroke would go in one end and emerge at the other as a V4 – the plan being to convert about 200 completed two-stroke 96s, sufficient to cover the immediate post-launch period.
July 1966 and with the Storängsbotten plant in Stockholm shut for the holidays, a team of 40 experienced line workers were brought back under the pretext of carrying out essential brake rectifications. Work progressed quickly and by the end of the holiday period, over 600 cars had been converted. Throughout this time, secrecy was maintained, the press only getting wind of the new model mere days before its official debut.
August 2, 1966, saw press and dealer representatives converge at Trollhätten for the official introduction, all parties surprised and impressed with the new model. External changes to the car were minimal, (apart from badging), but technically, in addition to the V4 engine, which developed 65 bhp at 4700 rpm and 85 lb/ft torque at 2500 rpm, an alternator, a stronger starter motor, and battery were fitted, as were front disc brakes. Inside, cloth covered the seats and three-point seat belts were standard.
Having stared failure in the face, the combination of Mellde’s fierce drive, rapid thinking and the (reluctant) support of senior management saw sales jump by around 20% in the immediate wake of its introduction. The V4 engine not only saved the model, but probably saved the car business as well.
Meanwhile, Tryggve Holm’s nostalgic attachment to the two-stroke engine was not shared by the wider market. Sales of that model immediately plummeted and within two years, production was phased out entirely – Holm’s five-year stipulation quietly forgotten. Saab had belatedly entered the modern age.
 The Hillman engine in question is believed to have been an alloy Imp unit.
 Ironically, it would later become known that while the Cardinal programme was still ongoing in the US, Ford had installed the experimental V4 engine into a Saab body entirely independently for their own evaluation purposes.
 The unused two-stroke engines were redeployed for spares.