Nordstjärna (Part Four)

Allting var sak har sin tid

Image: favcars

The year of 1967 would be an auspicious one for for the Trollhättan-based carmaker. The start of the year witnessed the maiden flight of the aircraft division’s advanced new Viggen jet fighter aircraft,[1] while that Autumn, the first completely new Saab motor car since the marque’s inception would make its press debut. The 99 model (and its derivatives) would go on to become the defining Saab motor car, but meanwhile, now with an up-to-date four stroke engine, the 96 settled into ripe middle age.

Despite the fact that the 96 bodyshell was approaching its third decade in production, it remained not only a strong seller (especially domestically), but ripe for further improvement, the most obvious being the 1967 enlargement of both front and rear screens on saloon models. This change would mark the last significant sheet metal change to the 96 bodyshell.

From now on, it would be primarily cosmetic and specification changes; the big news for 1969 was another revision to the frontal styling. This consisted of a redesigned grille, and rectangular headlights. Technically, power assisted brakes were now standard, the steering ratio quickened, a cross-flow radiator with expansion tank improved the cooling system, while inside, front-seat head restraints were standardised.

New decade, new dash. For 1970, the entire instrument panel was redesigned. Anti-glare instruments, new controls, improved fresh air ventilation, trim enhancements and in the home market, rear shoulder belts were standardised. Another practical feature was a fold-down rear seat-back, which retracted, offered an unrestricted 1.5 m load platform.

Saab hadn’t neglected its motorsport activities either and here the 96 remained its primary contender. With Erik Carlsson now on PR duties, Stig Blomqvist became team leader; the Örebro native, who would become World Rally Champion with Audi in 1984, joined Saab’s works team in 1970, winning the Bergslags Rally, the Swedish KAK Rally, and the Finnish Winter Rally in a 96 during the 1971 season.

The 96 continued its winning ways in 1974 taking first and second in the Finnish Arctic Rally and the following year, first, second and third. Saab also scored a second placing at the 1974 RAC Rally in Britain. Stig Blomqvist won the Bergslags Rally again; the first event in the 1975 European championship, Saab taking the two top places in the Finnish Snow Rally.[2]

Meanwhile, away from the special stages, further running changes would take place throughout the early 1970s, headlamp wipers (mandated in Sweden) becoming standard in 1971, a heated driver’s seat the following year and in 1974, the grille was changed to a matt black plastic affair. Following their fitment to the larger 99 model, the 95/ 96 models received large (and ungainly) impact absorbing bumpers in 1975.

Image: saabworld

Around 1974, Saab engineers and designers under Björn Envall, examining ways of prolonging the 96’s appeal in the market, developed a hybrid; insofar as it combined fastback and estate styling, in a similar manner to that of the 99 Combi-Coupé which had been introduced in 1975. Some accounts suggest it was to be a more upmarket model to sit between the 96 and 99, others that it was to replace the 95 estate, while a further rationale envisaged it as being a proposal to replace both saloon and estate bodies.

There was some logic in this, given that hatchbacks were becoming increasingly popular and the Combi Coupé body style could have covered both bases. Several prototypes of what was dubbed X14 or Saab 98 were built, and while it was briefly considered for production, it was abandoned in 1976[3], probably for cost/ business case reasons as much as anything else.[4]

Saab 98 concept. (c) saabplanet

In 1977 a twin choke Solex carburettor saw the power output of the V4 engine rise to 68 bhp. A year later, the 96 saloon received enlarged tail lamps and a small boot spoiler, while the 95 Estate model was phased out entirely, with 110,527 of the 95 model built in total. That year, Saab also introduced the 900 series, the car that would not only move the marque even further upmarket, but would come to represent its very essence.

Meanwhile, the 96 was becoming something of a sideline for its maker, production having already been transferred entirely to the Valmet facility in Uusikaupunki, Finland; Nordic markets being the primary customer base for the car by the latter portion of the 1970s. By now, the 96 was fading, receiving one final set of cosmetic alterations in 1979 – consisting of black framed side windows, a black adhesive stripe beneath the side mouldings and a black section between the tail lights. In January 1980, time ran out and with its demise, the last direct link to Saab’s entry into carmaking.

The total production for the 96 model came to 547,221 cars, with 1965 being its best-ever year in sales terms with over 40,000 units sold. By contrast, only 967 were registered in Sweden in 1980, whereas in Finland, the 96’s demise was more keenly felt – Saab sales dropping by nearly half. Nevertheless, the total produced from 1949’s 92 model through to the very last 96 in 1980, was 740,826.

Image: design-is-fine

Aware that a compact model would be required to replace the 96, Saab had entered an agreement with Lancia, initially selling the Autobianchi A112 in Sweden, sales of which began in 1976, but also to offer a Scandified version of Lancia’s 1979 Delta model, which was introduced in the Spring of 1980. Marketed as the Saab 600, it would prove a shortlived offering, even if the Italo-Scandinavian accord which brought it into being would prove more fruitful later.

Sweden’s Volkswagen? Perhaps so, although it could be argued with equal fervour that Volvo’s PV444 did the job better. Indeed, one could also suggest that the 96 took over from the Volvo once the Gothenburg carmaker pushed further upmarket with the 122 series in the late 1950s.

Yet there are similarities between Saab and Beetle, not simply in appearance, or the duration of their lifespan (which was somewhat parallel, in European terms at least), nor even in the manner in which both cars entered the psychology and iconography of their time, but also in the enthusiastic and highly durable following both enjoyed, both in life and thereafter.

Flawed though it was in many respects, the Saab not only epitomised its times, it perfectly reflected both them and the requirements of its homeland. For three decades, Sweden’s automotive North Star – not only was it not replaced, it simply couldn’t be.

[1] Having made its maiden test flight in February 1967, the Viggen entered service with the Swedish Air Force in 1971. It is the only aircraft acknowledged to have got a radar lock on the Mach 3 capable US Air Force Lockheed SR-71 (Blackbird) spy plane.
[2] 1975 would mark the swansong of the 96’s works rally career, the 99 model making its international rally debut in 1976.
[3] In January 1976, the millionth Saab car was built.
[4] A single 98 prototype still exists at Saab’s Trollhättan museum.

Sources: Griffin Models/ Saab Planet/ The Saab Museum.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

31 thoughts on “Nordstjärna (Part Four)”

  1. Many thanks for this installment of the North Star sequel, Eóin!
    While the little Saab 96 could be compared with VW Beetle, we could also draw parallels with La Déesse. In terms of its uncompromised teardrop shape at least, which is fully aimed at an optimal airflow.
    In terms of packaging perhaps the Beetle is a fair comparison, as in today’s compact car terms, the actual living room is rather small compared to overall length of the care, while the narrow hull made for a snug shoulder-to-shoulder experience. Nonetheless i was able to shoehorn a double bass into a 96v4 on a regular basis, grace to its folding backseat. Entry of the bass through the passenger door, since the boot opening was too small for the musical doghouse: an estate 95 (or the 98 version if it would have come to fruition) would have been a more rational choice indeed, but the saloon 96 won my preference due to design consistency reasons. Again a parallel with La Déesse, where the estate version is equally impressive (if not iconic), however soutions out of practical considerations seem to have led to visually compromised solutions upon close examination.
    Many thanks for this series, Eóin, a very nice and complete retrospective of an utterly charming yet sturdy motor car: you’ve reactivated a lot of sweet memories.

    1. Funny but I was thinking “Deesse” when I saw that last shot of the yellow run-out car. From “C” pillar back, it is almost fastback but slightly notchback, with rear wing (mudguard) looking like it easily detaches – as it does on the Citroen.

  2. Thanks for the article Eóin. I’ve never owned a 96, or any Saab come to that, but I’ve driven a few back in my auto electrician days. I’m a sucker for a column change. Back in the 70’s, they were different and apart from the Beetle, almost unique in shape. Did go and look at one once but sadly it was very rusty and too far gone for me.

    1. To my knowledge the 98 only had a one piece side window, and it do looks like something to do with the seatbelt mountings. The Volvo 145/245 had a similar steel reinforcement bar about halfway back the side window to share the horizontal forces both upwards and downwards into the bodyshell.

  3. Good morning Eóin. I echo Joost’s comments and have thoroughly enjoyed this informative series. The 96 was a highly competent car but always had, to my eyes at least, a charming slightly ‘home-made’ look to it, which actually added to its appeal.

    It was probably the right decision, but it’s a shame the 98 didn’t make production as it looks usefully roomier and more versatile than the saloon, without the utilitarian ‘tin shed’ look of the 95. Here’s a different prototype with a single-piece rear side window:

    1. Or are those internal seat-belt mounting posts rather than roof pillars in your 98 example?

  4. Speaking of seat belts, all Saabs from the 1970s had a unique design with no buckles to need to grapple for or untangle. I thought it was brilliant and one of the features that drew me to the brand. However by 1980, Saab abandoned their elegant, memorable, convenient and arguably superior design in favour of boring conventional buckles, and a bit of their USP became lost.

    1. Those buckle-less seat belts were available as aftermarket parts for fitting to any model in the 60s. Can’t remember the brand.

    2. Pardon my considerable ignorance but how would a buckleless seat belt work?

    3. Hello Andy, you pull out the webbing in the normal way, and then trap it under a bar which pushes down and clicks in to place.

      It looked cool, but I never thought that there was any real benefit, beyond the fact that there weren’t metal buckles flying around, which could damage trim, etc.

      I think they were made by Klippan.

      Mark 1 VW Sciroccos had this arrangement, too.

    4. At that time there were many different seat belt locks.
      You got the Klippan system shown here, some belts had the buckle on the belt in form of a hook that would click into a thick wire loop attached to the floor, you got pins on the belt and a funnel on the floor, early SMs had seat belt buckles like the ones used in aircraft with a double chevron logo on them. Some had the unlock button oin a lateral position, some had it on top, some had it on the belt and some on the buckle.
      That’s why there was an EU regulation standardising on the system we all know today. Type approval regulations for seat belts are more than two hundred pages…

  5. och den tiden var välsignad

    As are we for this delightful series, thank you Eóin

  6. I’d also like to add the peculiar demographic it has in its biggest market, Sweden, where it had a definite feminine appeal. It was the typical car for singie women, in most cases perhaps the first car they ever owned themselves. Later to become the perfect second car in the household. Sweden always had an affinity for fairly large cars, the Volvo being the best selling car by a far margin. During their best days in the sixties to eighties, Volvo had close to or more than half of the domestic market. The Volvo setting the standard for a “normal” size type of car, other cars in that segment were also successful sellers, like the Opel Rekord, Ford Taunus, Mercedes, and so on. While women tended towards smaller cars like the Volkswagen, the Renault 4, or the Saab 96. The Saab was the quintessential schoolteacher car, I remember going for excursions in kindergarten riding in the rearwards facing seats of my teachers Saab 95. My mothers first car in the fifties was a Saab 92, later going for the Renault 4. My stepmother had a bright yellow seventies Saab 96 when she met my father in the late seventies. But I’d bet women were the reason they were selling the 96 in any substantial numbers at all the last decade and a half.

  7. Thanks for the series, Eóin.

    I never saw a single picture of the Saab 600 to this day, nor I found a survivor for sale. Does anyone have a visual proof of its existence?

    1. They were only sold in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. In Sweden, it was sold through Saab dealers. A Swedish article from 2012 says 6419 cars total were sold in Sweden, with 159 cars existing, where of only 12 were registred in trafic. I’d say the numbers have gone down since.

      What surprised me was Saab actually had an input in the cars development, it wasn’t only a mere badge engineered car. The engineers in Trollhättan upgraded the heating system for Nordic use, also insisting on a lower hatch lip going down to the rear bumper. Without their input, the Delta would’ve had a completely different rear with a higher load lip a la Golf II and horisontal tail lamps instead of vertical.

  8. Apparently the SAAB museum has one as part of their collection but it isn’t on permanent display.

  9. It is a shame circumstances did not unfold in such a way where Saab could collaborate with Triumph (sans BL) for a common longitudinal FWD successor to both the 96 and 1300/1500 in the C-Segment, instead of Saab being forced to sell the Autobianchi A112 and a rebadged Lancia Delta as a result of not having enough resources.

    1. Why should Saab have collaborated with Triumph when the engine they got from there was such crap they had to do a comprehensive redesign and against original plannings had to set up their own engine manufacturing because the quality of the supplied items was so bad? Whatever Saab might have thought initially the last thing they needed was a cooperation with the supplier of such an engine.

    2. Never said the idea was not without its potential flaws, the issues over Triumph’s Slant motor were more a result of unnecessary cost-cutting on their end. Otherwise envision the Saab C-Segment model – featuring a more K70/Tercel-like development of the Triumph’s longitudinal FWD layout with updated suspension, initially using the more durable US emissions compliant 1300/1500 engines (the same units once considered for the 96 during the four-stroke project) til they are superseded by lower displacement versions of the B motor.

      Also assume domestic rivals Volvo would have ideally preferred a more sophisticated solution than selling rebadged Renault-engined DAFs and a similarly crude Volvoized DAF prototype, yet even so they made do with what they had (ultimately with much success) in the absence of resources required to build something more along the lines of the earlier 1955 Volvo Wood Rocket proposal.

    3. The Saab does have a K70/Tercel arrangement, only with the flywheel facing forward to get the engine tilt in the desired direction.

    4. Had both Saab and Triumph pursued a common Escort-sized replacement for the 96 and Triumph 1300/1500, it is likely such a model would have largely carried over the bigger Saab 99’s longitudinal FWD layout on grounds of cost, especially considering the Saab 99’s gearbox was already a highly uprated version of the Triumph 1300’s.

  10. Hi everybody! We’re approaching the part of Saab history that I like the most, the 99, 900, and 9000 era.

    The Saab and Volvo museums were going to be the main destination for the Swedish part of my planned series of 2020 automotive-inspired European short visits, this would have been additionally my first time in Sweden. My idea was to fly straight to Gothenburg and after visiting the Volvo museum and the city and surroundings, take a train to Trollhättan and do the same there, but Covid happened… I did manage to go to Turin just days before the pandemic, for the marvellous Automotoretrò classic car festival at the old Lingotto Fiat factory-turned-expo-complex. Oh well, I keep planning anyway!

  11. I took the trouble to ask Mr Google about the Swedish title which didn’t sound quite right to me (speaking as I do about six words of the language!) and he tells me that it should really be “allting har sin tid” or “var sak har sin tid” but maybe not both.
    Anyways, thank you for the article about a car that I haven’t seen in several years (on which occasion I heard the cry of a two stroke approaching).

    1. I couldn’t resist posting this video by Jay Leno, where he shows us his 93 two-stroke.

      I think this may be my favourite car of all time. So much clever weirdness in one small package. A combined alternator and water pump, back-to-front radiator and wind-up clock, so you don’t run the battery down. Then there’s the noise; wonderful.

  12. Is Stig Blomqvist the original Stig? Anyway, many thanks to Eóin for the interesting series of articles about the wayward, but somehow charming cars from Trollhättan.

  13. My cousins had SAABs. A two stroke 96 and a V4 95. I loved them, especially since we had a child age custom of pushing cars around at family gatherings and the 96 was the easiest to push. Later I was on a drive with my mom’s cousin and we freewheeled for 7 miles in Southern Vermont. I would have loved to have seen something on the Sonnet, another delightful and idiosyncratic sports car. Not as delightful as the Djet, but a good deal more available. Thank you for the great article and website. I love the erudition of the commentators. I rarely have to look up almost all the discussed cars in an auto website. A couple of years ago I assisted a 96 V4 owner with pulling the engine and replacing the throwout bearing. I do wish that Ford had built a better engine, but it was easy enough to do with an 8 foot 2″x6″, a chain and two guys to lift out the engine.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Jiro. I’m very pleased you are enjoying the site and thanks for your recollections.

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