Saab 96

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Saab 96

1960 - 1980
2 Stroke 3 cyl / V4
841/1698 cc
38-65 bhp
3/4 spd. man
Top Speed:
127-152 km/h
Number Built:
3 star
Saab 96
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 3


Project 93C, as it was known within Saab, culminated in the announcement of the new Saab 96 at a Stockholm press conference on 17 February 1960. The Saab 96, featuring a new 841cc, 38hp three-cylinder two-stroke, was well received and proved popular. Capacity was increased to 50,000 units and the popular 96 opened up new markets for Saab.

The 96 was not completely new - the front was relatively unchanged from its predecessor, the 93, but the rear was extensively redesigned to incorporate a 117% larger rear screen, a wider backseat, larger baggage compartment, a new fuel tank and larger rear lights. A more detailed review of the Saab 96 is available at Unique Cars and Parts USA.

The Saab 96 In Motorsport

The Saab 96 was a bit of an unknown quantity when it landed in Australia. Few knew the name came from the initials of its Swedish manufacturer, the Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, and even fewer were aware that SAAB had been producing cars since 1949. The firm's business was, of course, primarily concerned with the building of aircraft and it was not surprising, therefore, that the body shape of the SAAB 96 was most efficient aero-dynamically. In Europe and America the SAAB had become prominent in competition, being placed as the car of the year for 1960 in a car rally survey.

During the 1960 Rally season SAAB scored four outright wins. Second was Mercedes-Benz, followed by Alfa Romeo Guilietta. At the "Little Le Mans" race for 1960 at Lime Rock, USA, SAAB finished second, third, fifth, sixth, eighth and twelfth - the winning car being a Studebaker Lark; over four times the capacity of the SAAB's! One SAAB owner who attended noted that SAAB owners outnumbered VW owners in the paddock area, a surprising thing considering the number of VW Beetles sold in the USA. The SAAB manufacturing concern had also provided for the competition-minded, for as well as the SAAB 96, a GT SAAB and a Modified GT SAAB were available, and for the Junior Formula Class a very neat front-engined, front-wheel-drive model was constructed.

The GT SAAB's were of 748 cc capacity, developing a maximum bhp of 50 and a top speed of approximately 88mph - and for the really keen enthusiast the Modified GT engine developed 57 bhp, will reached a maximum speed of 95mph and accelerated over the "standing quarter mile" in just 17.5 seconds - not bad for a 750 cc, 16-cwt saloon car! Gordon Bedson, a well-known South Australian racing identity and, incidentally, the man responsible for the Frisky cars in England, imported the SAAB 96 Saloon, along with a SAAB 96 engine and suspension parts, with the idea of building a SAAB-based sports car and arranging for a firm or company to produce them in small quantities. We do not have the performance figures for that car, but even with the standard-tuned engine it lapped the Port Wakefield circuit in 1 min 14 sec.

Three-Cylinder Two-Stroke Simplicity

Two-stroke, water-cooled cars have always been very rare in Australia and, for this reason, the SAAB 96 Saloon proved to be most interesting. A three-cylinder, two-stroke engine was mounted forward of the driven front wheels and coupled to a three-speed gearbox and differential unit. The crankshaft of the engine was a fine piece of engineering, worthy of mention. There were four, single-row ball-bearing main bearings with double rows of roller bearings at each con rod. It was not forged or cast as were most shafts, but was made up of flanges interconnected by press-fitted pins which served as rod and main bearing inner races. Rods were installed as the crankshaft was pieced together, working from one end to the other. Balls were selectively fitted for each rod and its respective crankpin. With only seven basic moving parts - three pistons, three con rods and a crankshaft - the three-cylinder, two-stroke was simplicity itself - no pushrods, camshafts, valves, spring, timing gears, chains or oil pump.

Front suspension consisted of unequal length wishbones with coil springs mounted above the top wishbone to allow the drive-shafts to pass through to the constant velocity universal joints attached to the front wheels. Steering was by rack and pinion requiring only two and a quarter turns from lock-to-lock. An unusual arrangement, for the rear suspension consisted of a rigid, U-shaped axle, suspended in the centre by a rubber bush and located either side by short trailing arms. The suspension medium was again coil springs. Telescopic, hydraulic shock absorbers were used on all four wheels. Unitary-construction was used for the body and chassis, which was extremely robust and very well made.

Behind the Wheel

Being very safety-conscious the Swedish makers incorporated a "roll" bar in the roof of the body. This bar passed inside the windscreen pillars and across the top of the windscreen, protecting the occupants from being crushed in the event of a "roll over". Though some may have considered the body shape of the Saab 96 displeasing, they at least would have had to concede that it was functional, combining good accommodation with low drag. Simplicity and comfort gave the interior that "expensive" feel. The individual front seats could be adjusted fore-and-aft. A simple lever arrangement permitted the squab to be adjusted. Even the rear seat could be adjusted for height. Heating and demisting equipment were standard with the demisters operating on the side windows as well as the front windscreen, and a two-speed fan was also fitted to boost the air supply.

Instruments on the dash layout included an accurate strip-type speedometer, petrol gauge, clock, ammeter, water temperature gauge and a rev counter which was not a standard fitting, but specially made for the SAAB. Automatic windscreen washers were operated by using the same switch as the self-parking wipers. An unusual arrangement was used for raising and lowering the side windows. Instead of the conventional vertically sliding glass, the window pivoted from the front edge of the door and moved fanwise. With this arrangement the window could be left part-way down without the usual draught blowing in on the occupants. There were map pockets in the doors and a lockable glove box in the dash.

Other features were the absolutely flat floor and cross-over type safety belts. Boot space was generous. The spare wheel and set of tools were placed beneath a removable flat floor. The front section of the SAAB tilted forward to give ease of maintenance in the engine compartment. The manual instructed the owner to lubricate four points every 1000 miles, seven points every 2000 miles and four points every 8000 miles. There were no oil changes required, as this very necessary fluid was mixed with the petrol in the true two-stroke fashion, so a SAAB owner would have very little maintenance to contend with.

The driving position was comfortable, but you had to get used to the controls which were off-set slightly to the centre. But it took only a few minutes to overcome this small matter. An unusually high scuttle restricted forward vision, while the sloping rear body didn't help the driver to judge the extremities of the car when reversing. The engine started easily enough by means of a key starter and owners claimed the engine itself ran surprisingly smoothly for a two-stroke - although, if you listened carefully, a distinct "pop-bang" could be heard from the exhaust. A normal three-speed column gear shift "gate" was used. It was not possible to beat the synchromesh on gear changes. The column shift would respond excellently, being somewhat similar to that of the Fiat 1100 column gear shift. Because of the free wheel, clutch-less gear changes between second and third gear could be made with ease.

Do Not Exceed Half Throttle

Acceleration tests failed to reveal any slippage in the clutch, which worked very smoothly. The brakes responded at all times, stopping the car in a straight line without a trace of fade. This was expected with an effective lining area of 105 sq in and only 16 cwt of car. Wind noise was slight at the maximum speed of 75 mph recorded by road-testers in 1961. Engine noise, mingled with the indirect top-gear ratio, produced a slight "turbine-like" hum. Top-gear acceleration from 10 mph was smooth provided the instruction on the rev counter was heeded. A sector of the rev counter dial from 0-3000 rpm was marked "Do not exceed half throttle". When 3000 rpm was reached the throttle could be pushed wide open.

If the throttle was immediately opened wide at 10 mph the car would feel rough until the engine was turning over at 3000 rpm. So, with a little care, the SAAB was surprisingly flexible in top gear. Unlike some front-wheel-drive cars fromt the era the steering was both light and responsive at all speeds. Corners could be taken very fast on a set line without any anxiety on the part of the driver or passengers. There was a slight amount of over-steer at times, but to the average driver this would not have been noticeable.
Saab 96

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Also see:

Saab 96 Review (USA Edition)
The SAAB Story (USA Edition)
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