Many cars are lauded for being ahead of their time or underappreciated, but the Saab 96 is surely one of the finest, most advanced trend-setters to ever be overlooked.
Fully deserving of being considered alongside the Mini, Beetle and 2CV as inspirational cars of the people, the 96 enjoyed a 20-year production run and forged a reputation for durability and class-defining success both on the road and in competition.
Launched in 1960 as a two-stroke, three-cylinder family car, the original three-pot engine evolved through various states of tune and, for limited models, even came with triple-carburettors. You wonder how much fuel an 841cc engine really required. The early cars made an immediate statement by, in the eyes of the public, over-achieving on the rally stage. The slippery shape, robust engineering and fully independent suspension were as at home marauding through forests and gliding across the roughest rally terrains as they were delivering Average Joe to the office on a Monday morning. At the hands of Erik Carlsson, the 96 came first in the 1960, ’61 and ’62 RAC Rally and also took top place on the podium in the ’62 and ’63 Monte Carlo.
Saab decided it needed more poke and a more modern powerplant, and so in 1967 it unveiled the V4 with 1498cc of four-stroke power originally of Ford design. Its compact dimensions made it the perfect fit between the swooping flanks, which on early cars contributed to a lower coefficient of drag than a Jaguar E-Type.
All cars swapped cogs using a column shift gearchange, evolving through its lifespan from a non-synchromesh three-speed to an all-synchro four-. However, the gearbox provides the V4 with one of its most famous quirks. A freewheel-type clutch arrangement was utilised for the two-stroke cars for enhanced durability and was retained for the later V4. The design enables the clutch to spin at a higher speed than the crankshaft, a little like a detached flywheel, which has the effect of eradicating traditional engine braking. It can be an unnerving experience for the uninitiated.
Of course, the 96 wouldn’t be a Saab if it wasn’t safe and the car helped contribute to the manufacturer’s famous reputation. Seatbelts as early as ’62 and dual-circuit brakes from ’64 were joined by disc brakes in ’67 while most manufacturers, especially those of mass-produced family transport, were still reliant on drums.
The V4 carried on where its thee-cylinder sibling left off, by humbling the big names on rally stages. It was especially dominant on snowy home ground, with Stig Blomqvist winning the Swedish Rally as part of the World Rally Championship in both ’73 and ’76.
As pioneers of over-engineering go, we can’t think of many more fascinating examples than the Saab 96. Agree? We’d love to hear your memories and ownership stories in the comments below.