Words: Stuart Fowle | Pics: General Motors
Man, today sucks. Not like, today today, but 2009 today. There's no brand new product (save that new lifted 9-3 SportCombi, the 9-3X) to get excited about until the 9-5 finally surfaces and we don't even honestly know whether Saabs will still be on sale in the States come New Year's 2010. We've decided to stop thinking about all that, distracting ourselves by looking back — care of GM's Heritage Collection — at the better times. The turning points and icons. The silly ideas and the great ones. Street and race. All the good stuff. There's been so much of the good stuff, in fact, that we're going to bring you the Heritage Collection run-down in two parts. Below are the early years, before the introduction of the thoroughly modern 99. Enjoy.
1952 Saab 92
This Saab is so old (Audience: How old is it?). Alright, there isn't actually a punchline to this joke, but this green 92 is old enough to precede the brand's arrival in the U.S. by four years, Saab having set up shop here in 1956. Because of this timeline, Saab's Heritage staff refers to this car as the "arch father" of the Michigan-based collection.
The 92 is, of course, the car that inspired and validated the recent "Born from Jets" campaign. It was designed after World War II as an "aircraft without wings," by 16 Saab aircraft engineers that were so new to cars, it's rumored that only two among them even had driver's licenses. Unlike today's premium Saabs, the 92 was a low-cost bit of practicality designed to survive harsh Scandinavian roads. This attitude shows through with the Heritage Collection car, it's small wheel and tire package, minimalist design, and incredibly simple cloth interior all looking like a Swedish interpretation of Germany's VW Beetle.
The 92's underlying structure is also Beetle-simple, only turned backwards. A unibody, front-wheel drive layout allows for a surprising amount of interior space and a flat floor, and was more ideal than a rear-drive setup for snowy climates. Not that one could get to carried away on slippery roads with a 92 — its two-cylinder, two-stroke engine produced only 25 horsepower and was shifted through a column-mounted three-speed manual transmission.
1956 Saab Sonett "Super Sport"
With the Swedish masses mobilized thanks to the 92, the airplane boys turned in a decidedly more sexy direction with the fiberglass-over-riveted-aluminum Sonett roadster, named not for those things Shakespeare wrote, but instead for the Swedish translation of "So Neat." Neat it is, and rare as well — six "Super Sport" cars were built in total for a stillborn racing series and all still exist today. This example — you may have seen it at the 2006 New York Auto Show — was owned by a Swedish distributor named Philipsson until the firm's collection was liquidated in the 1980s. At that point, it was acquired by Saab USA and has been preserved since.
It may have been for the best that the racing series didn't come to fruition. The Sonett employed a 58 horsepower 750cc two-stroke borrowed from the 93 model, and that isn't exactly the stuff of racing championships. And don't let the sporty layout fool you; the Sonett may be a mid-engine speedster, but he transmission sits in front of the engine and drives the front wheels, not the rears. To accommodate this arrangement, the engine rotates in the opposite direction of production Saabs of the same era. Isn't it nice to know Saab was a bit quirky right from the beginning?
A second car, painted white, lives at the factory museum in Trollhattan. In 1989, rally legend Erik Carlsson made everyone inside the company nervous by piloting that car in the 1989 Mille Miglia.
1960 Saab 93F GT 750
Of the really early Saabs in the U.S. Heritage Collection, the 93F GT 750 may be the most significant to the American market. It debuted here, at the New York Automobile Show in 1958, and of the 605 examples sold through three model years, 546 were imported to the States.
That's not to say the 93 GT was only significant here. Around the world, it represented a shift for Saab brand to the premium market where it now lives. Chrome trim and wheel caps, along with adjustable front seats and premium surfaces inside the cabin were a few of the luxurious touches of the new Gran Turismo model, while rally-inspired details were included as well. These included the car's three-spoke wood steering wheel, extra headlights, and a "Halda Speed Pilot" dash-mounted display on the passenger, er, navigator's side. The 1960 "F" model shown here is part of the final series of that model year and is recognizable by its front-hinged doors.
An early example of rally-inspired street cars like today's Subaru WRX, the 93 GT used 45-horspower two-stroke engine (12 more hp than stock!) with twin carburetors. The three-cylinder could be tweaked further with a special factory tuning kit. Tuning kits in 1960? Yes, Saab was very ahead of its time.
1960 Saab 96 RAC Rally Car
Alongside the rally-inspired 93F, Saab's most recognizable competition car also lives in the Sterling Heights collection. The 1960 96 rally car piloted by Erik Carlsson drove to victory early in its career at the 1960 Royal Automobile Club Rally in Great Britain. It used Saab's familiar three-cylinder, front-drive layout and beat the fierce competition with the aid of lightness and traction in poor conditions. This car, the winner of that first RAC race, was restored here in the U.S. in the early nineties and was driven 30,000 miles before Saab USA took ownership. The company sees it as a real treat to have this car as part of the collection.
The rust-colored red 96, of course, went on to bigger triumphs including Monte Carlo rally wins in 1962 and 1963. Those later wins inspired a "Monte Carlo" sport model of the 96 that was sold from 1965-1968. Of all the competition cars, this one still on display in Michigan may be the cleanest and most accurate survivor in the world.
1966 Saab Quantum IV
Of the five Quantum models engineered by IBM computer genius Walter Kern, the first is obviously the most thrown-together while the fifth is arguable the sexiest. The fourth, however, a one-seat, Indy Car-inspired racer, is the coolest. Saab USA is thrilled to have this example in the collection.
The first two-seat Quantum was presented to Saab in 1962, but poor build quality prevented Trollhattan from taking it on as a production model. That's not totally surprising; Kern built computers, not cars, you know. That didn't stop the man, as he evolved his idea and boosted horsepower figures for Quantums II and III. Car V returned to this layout, with Quantum IV being the odd car out.
Instead of a two-seat sports car, Quantum IV was designed as an open-wheel kit car using some suspension components and a tri-carb, 70-horsepower three-cylinder from the production 96. It used a four-speed manual and was one of very few Saab-badged vehicles with drive wheels at the rear. It never really caught on with SCCA racers, but it's certainly cool from a modern standpoint. This was the Noble or Ariel Atom of 1966, and it was powered by Saab.
1967 Saab Sonett II Two-Stroke
The Saab Sonett II, despite its basic design and odd looks, is not a kit car. However, there had to be some obvious influence from Walter Kern to inspire Saab to take another crack at the sports car market. The Sonett II, like its predecessor, used a fiberglass body (this time over a steel box frame) for lightness. Its front end was one flip-forward piece allowing easy access to the mechanicals beneath, while the streamlined rear hatch had an odd flip-down access door. Inside, a roll bar was fully integrated right from the factory.
Like Kern's Quantum cars, the Sonett II used the Monte Carlo 96's two-stroke with three carbs and could run to 60 mph in 12.5 seconds. Yes, hang on to those hats. Just 258 such cars were sold, mostly in the U.S. where small British sports cars were popular competitors. A more successful version with a bulged hood housing a Ford V-4 four-stroke engine came in 1968 and 1868 examples were sold over three years.
Not many Sonetts have survived the test of time, but this lovely silver example has lived in protective custody at Saab USA's Heritage Collection for some time. It was restored by the Saab Club of New England and features an attractive black interior with an elegant wood dash.