By on March 17, 2009

It’s hard to look at this old Saab and not get choked up. And it’s not just because this once proud and spunky company is on the ropes. Old Saabs just have a way of stirring my emotions. This is going to be a Saab story.

The first time I encountered a Saab in Austria fifty years ago, I literally choked as an accelerating Swedish tourist engulfed me in a cloud of acrid blue exhaust from his two-stroke 93. But I was seduced (forever) by the purity of line on that svelte fastback as it gradually disappeared in its smoke screen.

Erik Carlsson’s ballsy victories in his red 96 over the big guys at Monte Carlo left me in awe. And the gutsy way a bunch of underemployed aeronautical engineers came up with the original 92 is inspirational. The vivid memories of time spent in my good friend’s identical 96 are sweet. But the “For Sale” sign on this one just makes me sad. Who could break up with a car like this? Waves of regret engulf me as I remember all the cars I sold and wish I hadn’t.

Enough emoting. Saab’s initial adoption of the two stroke engine was highly pragmatic: the tiny engine fit perfectly in front of the transaxle and its lightness engendered good handling. But original it wasn’t; the engine, drive train and the whole layout of the 92 was heavily cribbed from DKW, the mother of all zweitakter.

Two strokes engines may have been fairly common in Europe at the time, but they reeked of eccentricity stateside. Yet there were several 93s and 96s whose comings and goings I followed with interest after we moved to Iowa City in 1960. It was a university town, and Saab’s reputation as a college professor’s car was already well burnished. Curious, how did the same crowd that adopted these smoky cars as a badge of auto-intellectual superiority later become early Prius adopters? Atonement for prior sins?

In 1967, nascent environmental awareness (and the EPA) forced Saab to finally abandon the stinky two-stroke. Finding a suitable four-stroke to fit in the six-pack sized space where the little popcorn-popper had long resided was no small challenge. As luck would have it, Ford in Germany had an ultra-compact 60 degree V4; a Cologne V6 minus two cylinders. Forty years after this Saab’s V4 first coughed to life, Mustang and Explorer Cologne V6s are still rolling off that same transfer line. Think Ford has amortized this design by now?

Whereas a 60 degree V6 has a fairly high degree of harmonic and firing balance, cutting off two cylinders makes a V4 sound and feel exactly like . . . a V6 with two dead cylinders. A rougher and less even-firing engine would be hard to invent. Ironic too, considering how exceptionally smooth the little two-stroke had been. There was a good reason DKW and Auto-Union used the 3=6 slogan for their 3 cylinder two-strokes: they had the same number of power impulses and the smooth running characteristics of an inline six.

Nevertheless, the lumpy V4 was a good fit in the 96. And, unlike the two-stroke, it had a lusty torque curve, good mileage, a clean exhaust, and kept the Saab eccentricity quotient intact. Now I’ve always thought that the NSU or Mazda rotary would have been the perfect successor. It would have been a glove fit, and a rotary’s smooth running and off-throttle popping sounds almost like a two-stroke. There’s got to be one out there somewhere.

As Saab slides into its final coma, it’s both sad and amusing to hear of the heroic calls for its resuscitation (I’ve kept the emotions at bay long enough). Saab was a tiny European car maker, which along with so many others of its size, was long overdue to slip into the annals of history. Saab only created two unique platforms in its entire sixty year history: the 92 (93 & 96), and its replacement, the 99 (900) of 1969. It never once designed an original engine. And everything since the 900 was begged or borrowed: platforms from Fiat (9000), Lancia (600), and GM. Forget “Born from Jets”; try “Born from obsolete GM platforms.”

GM’s purchase of Saab was phenomenally stupid. There was nothing to suggest that they could bring lasting health and success to this then already moribund and broke marque. History has been harsh to smaller premium brands and the “rescue” of such (NSU by VW and Rover by BMW) were abject failures. Lancia is on perpetual life support by mother Fiat. But GM’s hubris was limitless, and there’s a sucker born every minute. Speaking of which, can I interest you in a well-used, slightly rusty 1968 Saab 96? It’s only $850, and I’m sure it’s got lots of life in it yet. Unlike its maker.

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40 Comments on “Curbside Classics: 1968 Saab 96...”

  • avatar
    bill h.

    Ah well, at least Erik Carlsson is still around, just celebrated his 80th birthday. And he’s still a Saab employee.

  • avatar

    As my 77 Saab 99 GL was the worst car I ever owned and possibly the worst car ever built, I take glee in Saabs problems. If there is a God, I hope Saab ends up like the final scene in Carrie with the house sinking into the ground.

    Yes, I hold a grudge.

  • avatar

    GM got Saab on the cheap. I think they paid somewhere near 150 million dollars in todays money.

    When I was brought up in Sweden in the late 70’s, there was small Saabs in abundance, in every streetcorner. Perhaps as ubiquitous as the Volkswagen was elsewhere around the world. It just had such a distinctive sound, puttering around…

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Ingvar: $725 million in total. $600 million for the first 50%; then $125 million for the second 50%. Saab was in such worse shape by then, that’s all they could get. Quite a strategy: buy one half, run it further into the ground, then buy the second half for peanuts. Not that it mattered anyway.

  • avatar
    Mr. Soul

    “In 1967, nascent environmental awareness (and the EPA) forced Saab to finally abandon the stinky two-stroke.”

    This is incorrect. The EPA was created in late 1970.

  • avatar
    Stein X Leikanger

    Now where will I go for my fix of extravagant torque steer? Sheeesh!

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Mr. Soul: quite right. But federal engine smog controls took effect for the 1968 model year. Another agency, I presume.

  • avatar
    Justin Berkowitz

    Somewhere on Route 79, between Whitney Point, NY and Ithaca, NY, resides “the Saab man.” There must be a dozen rusty, dirty, salty, two stroke classics parked in 360 degrees around Saab man’s house. In seven years of driving past, I never had the courage (or defensive shotgun) to stop and say hello, but it always brought a smile to my face.

  • avatar

    Paul, great to read your ramblings again – keep them coming. I cross my fingers that you are up and running with a series again. I still chuckle when I think of how you learned to do clutchless shifting on an unsynchronized tractor-transmission (just like I did myself). That sure is going an extra mile compared to dropping the gear selector into D!

  • avatar

    @Paul: Perhaps I got the numbers wrong? As I recall it, the figure “1 billion” was mentioned in the headlines a lot at the time. And in Swedish crowns, that’s roughly 150 million dollars today. But perhaps it was 1 billion dollars? That would be some 600 millions and change, today. Either way, it was awfully cheap. Considering what Ford payed for Jaguar and Volvo.

    On the other hand, I never understood why BMW kept Mini, but sold Land Rover to Ford for peanuts. Had Land Rover been such a money loser for BMW if they had kept it, that it was worth the loss to get rid of it? I can understand if they were sick and tired of Rover. But Land Rover?

  • avatar

    You should be able to support your habit by getting any fwd japmobile from the pre-power steering era. Norway has no shortage on old Mazda 626s or 323.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    tsofting: Thanks. Well, in just three neighborhood walks and one bike ride, I’ve shot some forty interesting old cars. So I’ve got plenty of fodder.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Ingvar; one of the big reasons BMW dumped Landy was because they had just committed themselves to their own range of SUVs, starting with the X5. And I don’t think they liked what they saw in terms of their factories, etc.

  • avatar

    Wasn’t the current Range Rover based off the first gen X5? stretched and widened? Had BMW developed their own range of SUV:s if they had kept Land Rover? The reason they bought it in the first place was that they didn’t have the engineering expertise to make their own cars…

    Sorry for the off-topic… :)

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    No; the X5 and X3 are adaptations of BMW’s car platforms. Current Range Rover had nothing to with the BMW X5; it was in development by Rover before the BMW purchase; BMW sold them engines and other parts. BMW bought Landy because it came as part of the Rover package.

  • avatar
    Johnny Canada

    Only 18k miles on the clock. Real pictures on TTAC. Nice.

  • avatar

    Health, Education & Welfare, believe it or not, regulated what little auto emission regulations there were in ’68, ’69 & ’70. EPA took over in ’71. In California, CARB handled the task, over and above HEW, from about ’65 or so until ’70.

  • avatar

    My dad was a SAAB guy in the early 60’s. We owned a series of four of them – including a pair of ‘his n’ hers’ matched white 2-stroke 96’s. In snow-country Pennsylvania where we lived, they were great little cars. Not much (at all) in the way of acceleration, but great once you got them wound up. My dad, an engineer, was fond of saying that “the redline was the same as the destruction point of the materials”. Meaning you could wind the piss out of them, but it was wise to have a spare block around in case the mixture got a little lean. With FWD, and studded snow tires (road legal in those days) you could go anywhere no matter how bad the weather.

    I NEVER understood what GM was thinking when they bought SAAB. I honestly think it was a knee-jerk ‘keeping up with the Fords’ move in reaction to their Volvo purchase. From the day I read about the deal, I knew that SAAB was a dead brand (not) selling.

    The two companies were fundamentally opposite in their world views. SAAB were a niche market marque who sold elegant unusual designs.

    GM is (were) a mass marketer who grabbed parts out of bins pic n’ mix fashion to build cars.

    My worst fear for SAAB was realized with the SAAB 9-7 SUV. GM Management – have you no shame? At long last, sirs, have you no shame?

    Given its sorry current state, I’m sort of glad SAAB is dying.

  • avatar

    The EPA may have been created in 1970, but automobile emission requirements DID start for the United States in 1963 (PCV valves only), in 1968 for the exhaust emissions, and in California for exhaust emissions in 1965 or so.

    Sealed-beam headlamps were required from 1940 in the US (through the 1980’s I think)

    Starting in 1965, seat belts were required in cars sold in the United States, by Fed. law, the California Highway Patrol started getting cranky about glass covered sealed beam headlamps (Avanti, Imperial, VW, Jaguar XKE), and the DoT started demanding “standardized” automatic transmission quadrants for any cars eligible for US Government fleet purchases (“reverse gear must be next to neutral” thus P-N-D-L-R was phased out, & push-button automatics were phased out)

    Starting in 1967, several safety requirements came into play before a car could be sold in the United States:

    Dual circuit hydraulic brakes
    Padded instrument panel
    Driver’s side rearview mirror
    I think back-up lights, too

    Starting in 1968, a more safety requirements also came into play;

    side marker lights
    shoulder belts in front (outside seating positions only)(they were “un-connectible” and most stayed on the hangers above the window/door openings)
    head restraints on front seats (outside seating positions only)

    As mentioned, this was the “big” year for US emission controls and virtually ALL two-stroke automobiles were therefore banned from being sold new in the United States. It also was instrumental in cleaning out the final small car importing companies, which culled a lot of unusual foreign car choices from the US, like Austin-Healey’s 3000, Skoda, DAF, Alvis, Bond, Bellel (Isuzu), Goggomobil, Panhard, Moskvich, and Wartburg.

    Generally speaking, 1968 cars had very crude emission devices which reduced only unburned hydrocarbons (HC) and carbon monoxide (CO); these were engine timing and carburetor alterations (Chrysler), or AIR (“air injection reactor”) pumps
    which pumped extra air into the exhaust manifold.

    Interestingly, the largest reduction in pollutants came in 1963 when PCV (positive crankcase ventilation) valves came into play; this reduced air pollutants from cars fully 50%, and cost only pennies.

    Older cars with road draft tubes let a lot of unburned gasoline blow-by and oil mist into the air from engines.

  • avatar

    US $800 for the heap in the photos? Wow.

    I mean, wow.

  • avatar

    …and the first new car I ever picked out was a Saab 95 station wagon (the wagon version with the 2-stroke). My father said to me (’bout ’64), “Son, it’s time for a new car, Why don’t you go out and find something interesting?” What a father, to give THAT opportunity to a 16 year old son.
    Loved that car. My big brother (driving) and I were coming back from winter vacation from KY to NY over secondary roads….we topped a hill in WV and saw a 1/4 mile of iced straight 20 degree grade highway. My brother put it into a nice safe snow-filled ditch….and then yanked it out and went across the road to the other ditch which had fence posts. C’est finie.
    Would that it was still made…tons of space.

  • avatar

    I love the style of old Saabs (pre-GM, even the latest 9-3 hatches) and they bring about feelings of nostalgia. The problem with Saabs old and new is that they’re garbage. Working on a Saab service drive was enough to cure me from ever wanting to buy one. I do kind of like Paul’s idea of dropping a Wankel into one, though. Maybe a Sonnett II with a need for some resto would mate well with an early ’80s RX-7 powertrain? Maybe then a Saab would make sense.

  • avatar

    To me it’s amazing that a company that produced such utter crap could still be around. This is why economic slowdowns (don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean depressions) are needed once in awhile. To weed out the crap.

  • avatar

    @Justin Berkowitz: I always like passing that house too – so much dorkiness (in an endearing way) in such a little space.

  • avatar

    @Paul N.

    Saab only created two unique platforms in its entire sixty year history: the 92 (93 & 96), and its replacement, the 99 (900) of 1969. It never once designed an original engine. And everything since the 900 was begged or borrowed: platforms from Fiat (9000), Lancia (600), and GM. Forget “Born from Jets”; try “Born from obsolete GM platforms.”

    Paul, great article and I am a certified Saabist having owned 5 of the damn things myself.

    I have to disagree with some of the posters here who are dismissive of Saab and welcome its demise. Saab certainly did produce some crap during its (mostly recent) history, but I think its easy to forget that, despite its puny size, Saab swung for the fences and hit a few homers along the way.

    Your comments that I highlighted above are certainly true, but do we forget how innovative Saab was? And I’m not talking about the freakin’ floor ignition switch, but how about active head restraints, heated seats, first company to offer seatbelts as standard, heads-up displays, crumple zones – the list goes on. In addition, although the company didn’t invent turbocharging, it certainly mainstreamed its application and made it reliable and viable.

    Maybe this is because I live in New England and Saabs have always been a common sight, but they are also very durable cars, particularly the 9000s and classic 900s. Not uncommon for those to run 300-400,000 miles before the tinworm takes over.

    I for one started mourning Saab’s descent into hell years ago, when they stopped developing the 9-5 and made the 9-3 a Cobalt in disguise.

    As it is currently constituted, Saab is toast. But if they can get a buyer who is willing to broom the current lineup, hire some zany Swedish aeronautical engineers to get the band back together…..

  • avatar

    Maybe this is because I live in New England and Saabs have always been a common sight, but they are also very durable cars, particularly the 9000s and classic 900s. Not uncommon for those to run 300-400,000 miles before the tinworm takes over.

    Now, to be true, they could make that kind of mileage only if you were willing to pay a lot of money in upkeep. They’re not Corollas (for both good and ill), which can go a half-million on basic maintenance. European cars take money.

    And yes, I owned a Saab. Durable does not equal reliable or cheap.

    I for one started mourning Saab’s descent into hell years ago, when they stopped developing the 9-5 and made the 9-3 a Cobalt in disguise.

    Technically, it’s a Vectra, which is Epsilon (the Cobalt is Delta). It’s also a very good Epsilon car, and one of the first. It’s sad that GM couldn’t have adapted the good parts of the 9-3 Epsilon implementation to the subsequent Malibu, G6 and Aura, but hey, that kind of thinking doesn’t come easy to GM.

  • avatar

    In my Lexington MA neighborhood in the ’60s, Louie Osborne, the physics professor and his family had the Saabs. He and his wife now drive Hondas.

  • avatar

    Paul Niedermeyer :
    Well, in just three neighborhood walks and one bike ride, I’ve shot some forty interesting old cars. So I’ve got plenty of fodder.

    That’s some neighborhood you have. Within maybe a 3/4 mile radius of my house, there is a ’56 DeSoto (that never moves), a Peugeot 504 (that never moves), a Citroen Deux Cheveaux and one of those tiny Fiats, both ambulatory (same house), and until several years ago there was a 1964 Chevelle (original owner).

    In the ’90s I lived in DC, right near Mt. Rainier, MD. That town had a classic in about every fifth house. One guy had five ’57 Chevies, including two identical red convertibles, across the street from him was someone with ~5 Peugeots, 403s and 404s, someone had a Volvo Amazon, someone else had a Rambler American… It was amazing.

  • avatar

    I think there is enough life in the maker of these cars.
    It’s just as it always is with nostalgy – it makes a fool out of everyone.
    Saab is no longer – and will never be – what it was in the Fourties, Fifties and Sixties.
    This whole world isn’t!
    That Saab’s fault?

    But one thing is for certain: Of quite a bunch of strange car producing companies, Saab is one out of a handful that are still producing cars.
    I’m convinced this story can and will go on, and there have been enough lows for a decade now.

    Erik Carlsson turned 80 yesterday.
    Saab Automobiles will be 65 in just three years.
    Let’s see, who’ll be in for the party!

  • avatar
    Andy D

    The 96 had a free wheel of some sort. Pull a lever and no engine braking. You could back off the gas and the car would coast.
    In the 50s and 60s, the local SAAB dealer, Shaw SAAB, would have a ship unload SAABs right onto their dock on the Back River in the Hingham ship yard.

  • avatar

    Technically, it’s a Vectra, which is Epsilon (the Cobalt is Delta). It’s also a very good Epsilon car, and one of the first.

    Dude – look at the brain on you! I think my fact checker is on the fritz…

    Anyway, I agree that the current 9-3 is a good car – I’ve driven them a number of times as loaners! – but it’s not a Saab. That’s my basic point. I would love to see what a revitalized Saab, without the dark influence of GM, could do with a clean sheet of paper.

    Also – my local indie Saab mechanic currently maintains a bevy of customer cars – mostly 9000s and old 900s – with at least 200k on each, and two that top 300k. My 9000 is green at 115k. Not cheap, no. Reliable, mostly. Durable, without a doubt.

  • avatar

    @ Justin Berkowitz

    Wow! Memories… I went to school upstate just north of Albany and we used to compete against Cornell; every road trip took me right by that guys place!

    I have very fond memories driving my SPG past that very house and always hoping to catch a glimpse of the curator! Never had any luck…

  • avatar
    Oregon Sage


    I am surprised this beast hasn’t caught my attention on one of my frequent visits to the Cornucopia (across the street from the second shot).

    If I wrapped up my 1989 Volvo turbobrick project I could be persuaded to spring a few hundred to save a local classic SAAB. (Or maybe you would like to add it to your portfolio of Eugene automotive oddities) I had an early model 99 when I was a teenager in Bend, and I knew a guy who had used a lightweight 2 stroke SAAB engine to power his water skiing boat.

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That thing is sweet.

  • avatar

    In Wilmington Delaware there exists a repair shop with upwards of 40 SAABs on the lot. It’s an old car dealership and the glass house has a wide assortment of SAABs in the windows. A shrine of sorts.

    You used to see the 900, 900S, and 900 Turhos running around all the time. The newer models not so much.

    Like a patient on life support, sometimes it’s time to pull the plug. The world will go on without SAAB, just like it did without AMC, Studebaker, and all the other car brands they don’t make any more.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Oregon Sage, it’s long gone. I shot this quite a while ago. And, yes, it is sweet. Now if I could just find a nice Peugeot 404, I would be sorely tempted.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    I think Saab’s old business plan is significantly more viable than just about anything out there. It looks like nationalism will be one of the reasons auto companies don’t consolidate. Yet, auto companies (note .. I didn’t write “manufacturers”) will need to develop products at reduced costs.

    So if a company like Saab focuses on exterior styling and packaging, as in how the driver and passenger are packaged into the car, then they can let someone else sort out engine development and someone else sort out chassis development.

    And in turn, someone else can handle the assembly.

    Most customers aren’t going to care where it’s made, as long as it looks nice, drives nice and they’re comfortable.

    That sort of arrangement will drive us carguys nuts, but we’re micro-minority of car buyers anyway. So Saab could still survive this, but not as we know them.

  • avatar

    In the US at least, what made Saabs stand out from the 1960s to the mid 1980s has disappeared in the last 20 years. They were front wheel drive, sporty handling, had roomy storage space, were not common or even like other cars. The turbos had power like the best V8s at the time. I remember seeing Saab 99s and 900s everywhere growing up. (I live in a cold weather area.) Pretty soon as the 80s passed into the 90s and 00s, the same driveways filled with Subarus, Toyotas, Nissans, Hondas and SUVs (especially mid sizers)

  • avatar

    Saabs are nice-driving cars. You just have to be willing and reasonably able to fix the car yourself. Otherwise, not so much love….

  • avatar

    These Saabs were great, I always regretted not aqcuiring one. Hard to find a good one now. This one is kind of shabby looking: it doesn’t show off the beautifully unique design; its crying out for a makeover.

  • avatar

    I swear I think I saw this car last weekend, north of Chicago. I’m serious, I’d be happy to tell you all about the thrilling encounter, and I even took a photo. (Unless they all had green driver’s-side front fenders, that is.)

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