Allting var sak har sin tid
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, 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.
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.
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, probably for cost/ business case reasons as much as anything else.
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.
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.
 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.
 1975 would mark the swansong of the 96’s works rally career, the 99 model making its international rally debut in 1976.
 In January 1976, the millionth Saab car was built.
 A single 98 prototype still exists at Saab’s Trollhättan museum.
Sources: Griffin Models/ Saab Planet/ The Saab Museum.