Nordstjärna (Part Three)

Desperate times. Desperate measures. 

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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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.

[1] The Hillman engine in question is believed to have been an alloy Imp unit.

[2] 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.

[3] The unused two-stroke engines were redeployed for spares.


Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

27 thoughts on “Nordstjärna (Part Three)”

    1. I’m interested too. I bet cost came into it somewhere (Returning the cement to get their money back is very telling!), it would presumably have also counted against the Hillman’s Coventry Climax unit too.

    2. The Lancia V4 is a very tall engine, taller than the ultra compact Ford V4. It certainly was more expensive, more difficult to service by mechanics used to two strokes and more fragile.

    3. Richard: The cement bags being returned could be read in one of two ways. Firstly as you outline above, or secondly, as a metaphorical message of rejection to Snr. Carlo Presenti. No grazie.

  1. Good morning Eóin. What a great story of subterfuge! I wonder why there was such an obsession with secrecy? It wasn’t as though any competitor could have used the information to their advantage. Perhaps it was the fear that sales of the two-stroke 96 would have collapsed if people knew a new engine was coming?

  2. Good morning Eóin. What a fascinating read. I had no idea they were so keen to keep this a secret.

  3. This is DTW at its best – as a one-time serial Saab owner (but 99/900 only) I knew nothing of this detail about the progression from 2 to 4 stroke. Thank you Eóin.

  4. Wowsers. Apparently some serious spy-skills were required to develop a new Saab variant in those days; fascinating story.

  5. What a fantastic read. It could be set to suitably mysterious and clandestine music. And the looks of incredulity from all involved; my favourite characters being the Italian landlord and builders – I’m sure quite a few Birra Moretti’s were quaffed discussing what on earth was going on with this “mad Swede,” the funny looking (and sounding) car and the cement. Wonderful

  6. A very interesting read Eóin, many thanks indeed. Having owned a 1971 96 v4 for about ten years, i can share that this unit does not particularly stand out in terms of either performance, mileage or reliability, however it is very’musical’, with all sorts of resonances at various speeds. You could literally tell the speed by listening to that.
    All in all a thoroughly enjoyable car that is missed to this very day, even though we replaced with another nice set of wheels…

  7. Know the Taunus V4 served as an at best adequate stop-gap for Saab to replace the old two-stroke engines, however as with the similarly V4 powered Matra M350 both cars were equipped with inferior engines whose origins came from a discarded project (e.g. Cardinal) by Ford US that was pushed upon to Ford Germany at the expense of their own domestically developed Kadett-sized NPX-C5 project with Glas-like OHC engines (with Ford US even attempting to foist the Cardinal onto Ford UK who simply ignored them and developed the Cortina).

    Both NPX-C5 and the Cortina could have played a more organic role in integrating Ford UK and Ford Germany to become Ford Europe, kind of like what the Viva HA / Kadett A did with Vauxhall and Opel without the diktat from Ford HQ requiring both to develop the Taunus and Essex V4 engines.

    The Cardinal project itself was not inherently a bad idea, after all a 20-degree V4 was even looked at one point during its development before opting for a rough and unreliable 60-degree V4. It is just something that was more suitable for the other side of the Atlantic notwithstanding its FWD layout.

    Some thoughts on the four-stroke engine options Saab looked at for the Saab 96 before choosing the Ford Taunus V4:

    897cc Lloyd / Borgward Arabella Flat-Four – The company going bust likely did not help its cause.

    848cc BMC A-Series – This option brings to mind Wartburg’s investigations into the 998-1275cc A-Series being a possible option for the 353/Knight, which was apparently close to being approved before British Leyland’s bankruptcy (Cars of the Eastern Bloc by Andy Thompson).

    Volvo B18 – If the presumably large and heavy Volvo unit came closest to meeting Saab’s specifications (more so then the Ford Taunus V4), what exactly made it a better alternative to a Lancia Fulvia V4 apart from being made locally (albeit by rivals Volvo) and both cheaper and easier to supply compared to the Lancia V4?

    1089cc Lancia Appia V4 / maybe Lancia Fulvia V4 – Surprised if Saab did not look at the new Fulvia V4 given it replaced the Appia V4 during that time period, would have also thought it was likely dismissed based on cost and supply grounds rather than based on size (which remain unconvinced as being the reason it was dismissed) on the basis the large Volvo B18 came closest to meeting Saab’s requirements.

    1296cc Standard-Triumph SC – This option reminds me of the A-Series proposal. Despite the possible challenges of fitting it into the Saab 96 compared to the Ford Taunus V4 and Volvo B18, would it have sufficed in 1296-1493cc guise in place of the Ford Taunus V4 given both Saab and Triumph would soon collaborate on the Slant-Four / V8 engine project?

    875cc Rootes Hillman Imp – Presumably dismissed based on cost, initial reliability issues and limited size (short of Rootes somehow being in a position to develop the tall-block Imp engines).

    Volkswagen air-cooled Flat-Four – Guessing either in Type 1 or “Pancake” Type 3 form.

    Opel OHV – Assuming it is referring to the Kadett OHV, displacement amongst other factors likely counted against it.

    Based on the engine options considered for the two-stroke Wartburg 353/Knight and the Ford Taunus V4’s use as a replacement engine in the Rotary powered NSU Ro80. Perhaps other suitable left-field four-stroke engine alternatives for the Saab 96 could have been the Renault Cleon-Fonte / C-Type as investigated many times by Wartburg (who sourced them from Dacia) as well as IIRC possibly the Mercedes-Benz M118 / Volkswagen EA831* that was said to have been a lesser known engine conversion for the NSU Ro80 (for those who loathed the rough V4 option).

    *- That tidbit was from Ro 80 Club International where they said Audi inline-4 engines were also installed into the Ro80 when querying about more conventional alternatives to the Rotary engine in the Ro80.

  8. Ah, the industrial holiday! That month of the year when the entirety of Sweden closed shops and went on a collective summer vacation. It was such a given there was no need for anybody to be open because everybody else was on vacation as well. And a perfect time for manager to switch production lines between different models. So, Model Year XX was usually presented late July/early August with production of the new MY beginning immediately after the industrial holiday in July. Thus the MY 1967 Saab was presented in early August 1966.

    1. Sounds just like France, with the mass exodus.

      The revised, ‘long-nose’ styling was introduced before the new engine. I wonder if anyone put 2 and 2 together.

    2. Hi Ingvar, would you say that things have changed in recent years? When I worked for Ericsson in Dublin in the noughties, it seemed to me that few decisions got taken in Kista in July. It felt like everyone had gone on holidays…

    3. “The revised, ‘long-nose’ styling was introduced before the new engine. I wonder if anyone put 2 and 2 together.”

      To make V4?

  9. The whole V4 venture is a splendid tale – it goes against any notion of Swedish business being open and democratic. Could the secrecy be down to so much of the neutral nation’s manufacturing industry being firmly rooted in armaments and war materiel?

    There are at least two things which astonish – the management’s fanatical devotion to two-stroke engines, and the possibility of using the Volvo B18 in the 96.

    Borgward had ditched two-strokes by 1957, DKW took until 1965. Even Wartburg, in an almost closed market, were developing four stroke engines from the late ’50s’ starting with a convincing Goliath-like water cooled flat-four, then various OHC in-line triples and fours. The game was up for two-strokes in cars long before Saab first spoke to Ford.

    As for the Volvo B18, that’s a big old heavy oversquare all-iron lump. Not at all the sort of thing to be easily accommodated in the space occupied by a 70mm bore triple, even with a 157mm nose stretch mainly used to to move the radiator in front of the engine, rather than behind it atop the final drive in the best DKW/Steyr/Jowett/Wartburg manner.

    Could Saab have envisaged a 99-like driveline, with the engine atop the final drive and gearbox to fit the Volvo B18 into the 96?

    The V4 looks like an expedient choice, as it could fit the existing gearbox and did not require sheet metal alterations; the only game in town, but not necessarily the best.

    1. If you pop over to you can see that Wartburgs command quite big prices making them more desirable to the market than my dream Trevi. That result surprised me: how does 16,000 euros for a Wartburg 300-series? I prefer the 60s rounded cars to the 70s square one but either way they are oddly appealing. It´s the ride quality mostly. The cars are very softly sprung, like 2CVs it would seem, making them ideal for really bad roads.

    2. My understanding is that the Volvo unit met Mellde’s criteria in that it laid down a marker for what was required in terms of reliability, sturdiness, consumption and fitness for local conditions. To the best of knowledge, it was never installed in a Saab motor car, merely bench tested. Indeed, the only engines that were recorded as being tried in situ, were the Lloyd, BMC and Lancia units (initially), and then once the programme was greenlit, the Ford and Triumph engines.

      The major issue as I understand it was time; Mellde seemingly taking the (entirely correct) view that change was urgent, and cost – bearing in mind that Saab was developing the 99 at the same time. The Ford unit fitted easily, it was durable (if unrefined) and could be federalised without too much trouble. (The US market still being a major focus at Trollhattan.) I cannot envisage the Lancia unit faring very well in the Land of the Midnight Sun, to say nothing of the Land of the Free. Too complex, for what was a fairly down to earth car. It’s a pity the V4 was such an unrefined thing, but it was the right solution for a difficult moment, and it has to be acknowledged, served the car well.

    3. Had DKW not been so intransigent and wedded to the two-stroke, they could have easily made the switch to four-stroke a few years earlier with the F102. -

      Fwiw Matra’s Philippe Guédon also mentions that during the development of the V4 Matra M530, the Lancia Fulvia V4 was in consideration before being rejected due to cost (as was probably the case during the four-stroke Saab 96 project) against the chosen Ford Taunus V4 with Ford’s wider presence around the world also being a factor. –

      The Triumph engine could have arguably also worked for the Saab 96 on the basis it also complied with US emission laws, put out similar amounts of power and remained in production for about the same time as the Saab 96 V4.

    4. The Ford V4 certainly wasn’t the smoothest engine on Earth (its German nick name was ‘Rumpelstilzchen’) but it was compact, reasonably powerful, easy to service and relatively cheap.

      What’s astonishing is that a company like Ford was willing to deal with small manufacturers like Saab and even Morgan to the extend that they produced special versions for those customers that certainly didn’t do much good for their balance sheet. Saab got V4s with non-siamesed exhaust ports and special engine cover-cum-inlet plumbing cast in aluminium to allow the use of twin choke carburettors

      These cars still used the two stroke’s gearbox including freewheeling mechanism.

  10. The suspension’s not as clever as the 2CV[1], but all-independent – by the grace of DKW – from the start. Long travel too. A separate chassis will help with NVH elimination.

    The 353 is an under-rated piece of industrial design – timeless and influential. These prices suggest it’s finding its place at last.

    [1] The Barkas B1000 LCV’s chassis is much more like the 2CV’s with leading arms at the front, mirrored as trailing arms at the rear. IFA stopped short of mechanical interconnection, and the Barkas uses torsion bars rather than coil springs, diagonally mounted to give a semi-leading / semi trailing arrangement.

  11. Good morning Eóin

    Reading your lines, I repeatedly found myself thinking what a great loss the demise of the Saab brand is for the automotive world. In my eyes, the fate of this brand leaves a gap that has never been adequately filled.

    Just last week I had a visit from a good friend, a successful architect, who now has around 360,000 km on the speedometer of her Saab 900. By her reckoning, there is currently no automotive offer that could even begin to persuade her to consider a change of automobile. Instead, she is now relying entirely on the craftsmanship of a small, Saab-specialised workshop on picturesque Lake Lucerne, with whose help she is now making a run for the 400,000-kilometre mark.

  12. There’s a Jowett connection to the 96 V4, insofar as Roy C Lunn, Gerald Palmer’s successor from 1949 to 1953, worked on the Cardinal project and then as product planner on the 1962 mid-engined Mustang 1 concept which used the 1.5 litre Cardinal V4 and transaxle.

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