Sensible Road Cars as Only Swedish Aircraft Engineers Could Make Them

Photograph courtesy Saab

Times of upheaval and need tend to inspire surges of technological and design improvements. During the major world wars, great minds worked overtime to make leaps in medicine, engineering and science. The world’s armed forces soaked up these advancements at first, but in the relatively calm periods after wartime, the population as a whole began to taste the benefits. 

Case in point, technological advances allowed the automobile to permeate the postwar landscape. The demand was there, too: Expanding cities created a new type of habitat, one that made cars a necessary and intrinsic part of society. 

Designing and manufacturing cars for the rich and elite was simple enough—just throw money and resources at the problem until you’ve produced a fancy new car. That wasn’t an option when the masses needed cars, not just the minority.

The trick was to make a truly great car that everyone could afford. It was a challenge that numerous companies undertook, and many became quite successful as a result. Germany’s Volkswagen was one such high point. So was the BMC Mini. People-movers like these brought Europe out of the shell-shocked 1940s and into the second half of the 20th century. 

Innovation and nontraditional designs were the key to getting the job done. Manufacturers tried air-cooling, two-stroke cycles and Wankel rotary engines, as well as smaller unibody chassis structures and unique powertrain packaging. In the end, some great ideas and companies were born out of the ashes of postwar Europe. 

Born of Bombers

When World War II was looming on the horizon, countries around the globe started mobilizing troops and materials for the coming hostilities. Scandinavian firms AB Svenska Järnvägsverkstädernas Aeroplanavdelning (Swedish Railroad Workshops’ Air Plane Department) and Svenska Aeroplan AB (Swedish Aeroplane Limited) merged in 1939 and soon released the Saab 17, a single-engine airframe that could be configured as a light bomber, dive bomber or reconnaissance plane.

As WWII drew to a close, the corporation developed plans to switch production to automobiles. Once tasked with mobilizing troops, Saab now set about getting its general population rolling into the postwar era. 

The first Saab automotive prototypes were built in the late 1940s, with the first test run of 20 cars completed in the summer of 1949. Thanks to the aircraft-oriented engineers, the Saab 92’s teardrop body was extremely aerodynamic and boasted low drag numbers. By December of that year, the tooling was finalized and the first Saab 92 production cars were rolling off the line. 

The Saab 92 was a front-engine, front-wheel-drive car powered by a water-cooled, two-cylinder, two-stroke engine displacing just 764cc. The 25-horsepower, transverse-mounted engine propelled the little pod-shaped car to 60 mph. A strong unibody construction and supple torsion bar suspension led to the car’s first competition successes—rally events on slippery mountain roads where handling was paramount over outright top speed. 

By the time the last Saab 92 rolled off the assembly line in 1956, more than 20,000 examples had been built. The 93 came next and featured a new coil spring suspension, a stronger 33-horsepower, three-cylinder engine and a redesigned front end. The new engine was longitudinally mounted and also featured a new and improved transmission. 

These changes made the car much more palatable for the export markets, including the United States. Saab’s formal introduction to the U.S. occurred in 1956 with the formation of Saab Motors Inc. in New York. 

The 93 continued in the 92’s footsteps with numerous rallying wins and continual subtle changes through its life span: A curved, one-piece windshield as well as seat belts accompanied the 93B for the 1958 model year; improved brakes were added the following year; and the rearward-opening “suicide” doors gave way to conventional ones for the 1959 93F. The 93F was actually an interim model as Saab was busy working on its next release, the 96. 

Along with the standard 93, Saab also offered the sporty Granturismo 750 model that featured an upgraded steering wheel and seats plus a tachometer, Halda Speedpilot rally odometer and sportier tires. Under the hood, a bump in compression boosted power by 12 horsepower over the standard two-stroke engine. Call it Sweden’s interpretation of the factory-built racer.

The 96 model trotted out in early 1960. Although it didn’t appear all that different from the earlier car, there was a major difference: A larger tail section featured a bigger rear window and wider back seat. The car had become less teardrop-shaped, yielding better visibility and passenger comfort. Up front, the bodywork was essentially unchanged, although the factory crammed in a larger, 841cc 38-horsepower engine. 

Saab continued with the high-performance models, releasing the Sport model for 1962. The Sport, called the Granturismo 850 in the U.S., boasted 57 horsepower from its 841cc engine thanks to triple carburetors. It also featured a premixing system so drivers no longer had to manually add oil to the gas tank. Additionally, disc brakes were fitted to the front wheels. 

These performance models were rechristened with the Monte Carlo 850 badge in 1965 to honor the car’s success at this famous rally. Erik Carlsson, one of Saab’s most notable drivers, won the Monte Carlo rally in both 1962 and 1963. The standard 96 also got a little more attention this year, receiving longer fenders and a new grille design that incorporated an improved cooling system. 

With tightening emissions regulations on the horizon, Saab started sourcing the German-built Ford Taunus V4 in 1967 for its 96. These four-stroke V4 engines were sold alongside the two-strokes, but sales of the latter tanked because the 65-horsepower gas engine offered better performance. Stroker sales suffered so much that 1967 models had to be retitled as 1968 models and sold until two-stroke 96s departed into the blue contrails of the vintage car past. 

Photography credit: Walter & Louiseann Pietrowicz

Test Drives

Saab was no stranger to motorsports competition back in the day, and that still holds true today. These Swedish machines might not outnumber Porsches or Corvettes at the typical vintage meet, but listen closely and you’ll usually find an example or two. Their distinctive corn-popper, two-stroke exhaust notes stand out in the drone of typical four-strokes. 

We recently brought three such examples together at Virginia International Raceway for a little compare-and-contrast session. These cars represent the marque well and have the charm it takes to attract cheering fans to the fence.

1960 Saab 93F

Owner: Tom Cox
Use: Vintage racing and hillclimbs

Photography credit: Walter & Louiseann Pietrowicz

Here’s a car with a real legacy: Tom Cox’s Saab has been a race car for more than 40 years. It started its motorsports career as a Pennsylvania hillclimb car and passed through several owners before being converted into a vintage race car in 1989.

The car competed in HSR and SVRA through the ’90s and scored an impressive 12th overall and second in class at the 1994 Sebring enduro. Among the driving team was reigning SCCA World Challenge champion and two-time Daytona winner Randy Pobst. Mike Woods and Bill Boge also participated in the win.

This Saab’s racing career was almost terminated when it rolled at Summit Point in 1999. Thankfully, the damage was mostly superficial and the car returned to the track in time for the 2001 VIR Gold Cup. 

Tom has owned the car off and on since 1999, often co-driving with Randall Cook. In addition to multiple Gold Cup appearances, the pair has also run the Saab at the Hershey Vintage Hillclimb.

The green 93 has been extensively lightened for racing, receiving polycarbonate windows and a bare-bones cockpit. A roll cage and other vintage-legal safety gear were installed along the way. On the performance side of things, a tuned expansion chamber exhaust offers minimal muffling but frees up some horsepower. Underneath, a set of wider 185/55R15 Toyo radials round out the minimal modifications to this truly vintage race car. 

The 93F is a bit finicky, stalling easily and fouling spark plugs. Once it gets rolling, its distinctive ring-ding-ding-ding blat from an open exhaust echoes around the track. Like a well-tuned motocross bike, the 93F really only starts moving quickly when the engine is “on the pipe” and the revs are high enough that the tuned expansion pipe’s harmonics help scavenge the spent exhaust gases out of the combustion chamber.

1971 Saab Sonett V4

Owner: Steve Church
Use: Vintage racing

Photography credit: Walter & Louiseann Pietrowicz

In vintage racing, sometimes the topnotch cars on the podium aren’t the usual suspects—and that’s what makes it fun to watch. At the 2007 VIR Gold Cup, we got to see a Volvo 1800S battle it out with Steve Church’s 1971 Saab Sonett for the win in Group B4. 

The Sonett was originally a fiberglass-bodied roadster based on the 93 model—only six were built before the plug was pulled in 1957. Saab made another attempt at building a two-place sports car a decade later, releasing the more mainstream Sonett II for 1967.

This one had a snarky little steel body reminiscent of a TVR, but mated with the mechanicals of a 96. Just a few hundred two-stroke models were made before the V4 became standard. Saab went back to a fiberglass body for the Sonett III, which was released in 1970 and ran through 1974.

Steve Church’s vintage racer is a 1971 model, although not much has remained stock. The original 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine has been bored out to 2.0 liters with the help of Motor Sport Services, a race shop that specializes in Saabs. The engine now breathes through a single Solex 40PII side-draft carburetor and an MSS header. The engine is reported to deliver 160 horsepower—the only downside is that it’s a bit hard to start thanks to its 13:1 compression ratio. 

Underneath, Koni shock absorbers reside on the front with Spax rears—both controlling MSS springs and anti-roll bars. Wilwood Dynalite brake calipers and Hawk brake pads clamp the front rotors. Steve has had good luck with Goodyear Blue Streak 5.5-15 G7 racing slicks. The results are impressive: Steve laps the full course at VIR in 2:25, good enough for a strong podium finish at the 2007 Gold Cup. 

1964 Saab Gran Turismo 850

Owner: Don Wollum
Use: Car shows, benefit drives

Photography credit: Walter & Louiseann Pietrowicz

Vintage Saab enthusiast Don Wollum and his stroker Saabs are often seen on the track during charity drives around VIR. This extremely rare Granturismo 850—there are suspected to be only 10 currently being driven in the United States—is a true survivor that is still used regularly.

Don, a Saab Master Technician from 1985 through 2004, received a call in 1993 about a two-owner Granturismo for sale in the Denver area. The car had been stored outside under a cottonwood tree since 1979. Don quickly got his hands on it, and he hasn’t been afraid to put it to work. When he moved to the East Coast, he drove the car to his new home.

The beauty of this car is its unrestored patina; it features most of its original paint and interior. Reflecting his Saab technician past, Don has updated the car to modern daily driving standards. He fitted a 55-amp alternator plus an electric water pump and cooling fan using later-model Saab parts. The result is an integrated original look—Saab would likely have made the same updates had this model survived into the 1970s. 

Driving a nearly original two-stroke Saab is unfamiliar and relaxing at the same time. The idiosyncrasies of the two-stroke and a column-mounted, four-speed shifter are balanced by a comfortable driving position, surprisingly light steering and a very familiar view through the windshield—Volkswagen Beetle drivers would be at home in a vintage Saab. Once your feet and hands are reprogrammed to make the most of the drivetrain’s strengths and weaknesses, driving becomes a pleasure.

1967 Saab 96

Owner: Don Wollum
Use: Car shows, Saab owners conventions

Photography credit: Walter & Louiseann Pietrowicz

This red 1967 Saab 96 initially caught Don Wollum’s attention when it came into his Boulder Valley, Colorado, dealership for service back in 1977. Don worked on the Saab during his tenure in the service department and eventually purchased the car in 1990.

Although the 96 was rust-free and ran well, it was in dire need of paint and cosmetic fixes thanks to the sun damage and sandblasted paint—two common maladies of cars that live in that state. Colorado’s DOT doesn’t salt its roads in the winter, but the gravel and sand used to aid traction can do a number on paint work. 

This one isn’t entirely stock, however, since it has been updated with the triple Solex carburetors and tuned exhaust system found on the Granturismo 850 models. Don has also added Sonett brake calipers and aluminum wheels. Like his other car, this stroker drove 1700 miles cross-country to its new home without missing a beat. 

The high-revving nature of the two-stroke and supple suspension make quick work of tight urban streets and rough dirt roads. We found ourselves trucking around corners faster than we expected, despite the copious amounts of body roll. The car’s lean didn’t really slow down our exit speeds—we just had to grasp the thin steering wheel and brace our left foot against the wheel well as we giggled around the curves. 

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wspohn Dork
9/15/20 12:36 p.m.

Same old Saab story?   devil

The Saab two stroke triples certainly had an unusual exhaust note. We had a guy that raced a 92 (oddly, he wasn't Swedish, he was Finnish) and his favourite venue was a local lake where they ice raced in winter.

I really like this one

bkwanab New Reader
2/5/21 8:28 p.m.

"Germany’s Volkswagen was one such high point. So was the BMC Mini. People-movers like these brought Europe out of the shell-shocked 1940s and into the second half of the 20th century".

Erm.  Not so fast.  The Morris Minor and the Austin A30/35 were contemporaries of the first Saabs and preceded the later Morris and Austin Minis that arrived around a decade later.  These were the cars that brought Britain into the second half of the 20th century.  The Mini brought us into the 'swinging 60s', Carnaby St., the Beatles, and all that.

Alec Issigoniss designed both the Morris Minor and a decade later the ground breaking Morris Mini Minor.  Morris Cars sold 1.6 million Morris minors while Herbert Austin sold around half a million A30/35s before the Morris Mini Minor and the Austin Mini Seven arrived on the scene.

Saab were a very creative company.  One advantage of their front engine FWD was the ease with which racers could put the powertrain into both single seat as well as two seat race cars such as the Quantum.  When they eventually went to an inline four, still with FWD, they purchased the English Triumph 1850 engine and installed in inline but backwards.  Saab intorduced the engine even before Triumph had the Dolomite sedan ready for production.  Couragous too eh?

Smitty54 New Reader
6/15/21 7:21 a.m.

A few mistakes in the article: The Sonett II, and Sonett II V4 were not steel bodied, but had a steel floor and rockers. They had not only a fiberglass body (supported by the factory roll bar), but a fiberglass flip up front end, fiberglass bucket seats and dash as well. The lineage section also shows Sonett IIIs (big bumper) from '73, '74 captioned as a '67. Still all in all an excellent article, and considering the amount of press these cars get, as an owner of 3 of these cars I thank you for publishing it.

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