The weirdly shaped SAAB 96 seems mostly passed up by its contemporaries. Drivers like Erik Carlson and Stig Blomvquist may have driven these cars to multiple victories in the Monte Carlo, RAC, and Thousand Lakes rallies, but somehow - people today only remember the Minis, Porsche 911s, Lancias, and BMWs; Forgetting that the rather innovative, but primitive SAAB 96 posed a real challenge to these cars, and often triumphed over them. So why is the SAAB 96 seemingly overlooked by most - and should it be?
Appearances are everything - or just about - when it comes to vintage cars. And the look of the 96 probably explains a lot about its popularity or lack thereof with collectors and enthusiasts. While not exactly ugly, it doesn't posses the crisp, clean lines of a BMW neue klasse, nor the purposeful proportions of a Porsche. Nor does it possess the cuddly cuteness of the Mini. Unlike much of its contemporary competition, the 96 wasn't really intended for sport. It was supposed to be a sturdy, all-weather family car. As such it had to have a functional rear seat and a decent sized trunk. Its size and proportions gave priority to practical day-to-day functionality rather than sporting ability. Even so, the styling is unique and eye-catching, nothing else really looks like an old SAAB.
The secrets to its sporting success however lay not in its looks, but in its construction, which although rather simple, was also rather innovative for the day. The combination of double wishbone suspension, zero scrub radius steering geometry, rack and pinion steering, and a solid rear axle - produced a car that handled better than most anything else being made in 1960 when the 96 was introduced. Monocoque construction and front wheel drive completed the package. Most other cars in its class were still riding on cart springs and steering with a numb recirculating-ball system, it was easy for the 96 to best them on the track or in the mud or snow.
So what is driving this car like today? Not very impressive, by modern standards, however, very impressive by 1960's standards. Compared to most cars of the era, the 96 feels startlingly modern. Though the steering is savagely heavy at low speeds, it is also quick and precise in a way even most modern cars can't compare with (and few of its contemporaries come close). The road feel and feedback through the wheel are impressive, if not astonishing if you've only driven modern cars with numb power steering. The steering wheel itself is thin rimmed and large, although not giganto-huge like a BMW 2002's - just big enough to give you enough leverage when parking. The ride is a bit bouncy with one person in the car, but with a passenger it smooths out and is comfortable without being overly soft. The handling is surprisingly neutral for a front driver, progressing from light understeer at low speeds to light oversteer at high speeds. The car can be steered around corners with the throttle by somebody with a little experience. Handling verdict: dated, but entertaining, and has aged better than most.
And what about the power plant? Up until 1967 SAAB only used a three-cylinder 2-stroke unit. In 1967 they adopted a Ford Germany V-4, the 2-stroke unit remained an option through 1968. The V4 is not so sporty, producing a peak 65hp at 4700rpm and reaching red-line at about 5500rpm. But with 85 lb. ft of torque at a low 2500rpm, it is impressively flexible. The engine will willingly lug the car from 15mph in third gear up to 55mph. Unlike many other imports of the era, the SAAB doesn't require one to be constantly sticking gears around the box when in town. Get into 3rd and leave it there until you either have to stop or get on the highway. Don't let the pokey low-compression stock configuration fool you though. SAAB wouldn't have won all those rallies if the V4 wasn't eminently tunable. Factory built rally cars were putting out 120hp towards the end of the 96's rallying days - keeping the homely 96 competitive with cars like the Porsche 911 on the rally circuit.
The gearbox is worthy of a paragraph on its own. The first thing you'll notice (well, after the presence of a column shift lever), heading off in 1st gear - is that it is incredibly short legged by modern standards. With a final drive of 4.88:1, 1st gear in the SAAB is about the same as 1st in a contemporary Land Rover. You'll reach red line before the car is moving 20mph. Despite the pokey 65hp engine, the car will accelerate to 30mph about as fast as anything else from the era, making it a little less of a rolling road block in modern traffic than one might expect. The car is geared for smushing through mud and snow of course, which combined with front wheel drive, and generous ground clearance, it will do better than most cars. The second thing you'll notice, when lifting off the gas or shifting, is the the transmission freewheel. Supposing it hasn't been disabled. The freewheel is a large roller clutch inside the transmission, when you lift off the gas the rollers unlock and the car will coast while the engine can idle. This feature saved the 2-stroke mills from burning up and seizing on overrun, but remained in the 4-strokers. With a little practice the freewheel can be used for shifting without touching the clutch pedal, making traffic a little more fun.
Other things to keep in mind: SAAB was a small manufacturer. Despite the 96 being in production for about two decades, relatively few were made. And an even smaller number made it to the states. SAAB sold about ten to twelve thousand cars annually in the U.S. Even so, most parts are not too hard to find. There are a lot of survivors, and many parts can still be ordered from Europe. When inspecting a car for a prospective purchase pay attention to transmission noises, the gearboxes, especially the early smooth-cased ones were notoriously unreliable. An erratic speedometer indicates a loosening pinion nut - a simple fix, but it requires pulling the gearbox out. A whining third gear or final drive will require a rebuild. Also pay attention to any leaks around the windshield, which can lead to the front floor rusting out. Definitely get a look under the car before handing over any money.
So is the SAAB really a viable alternative to a BMW 2002, a Mini, or a Porsche 911? Honestly, if you have your heart set on any of those cars you probably wouldn't be happy with the SAAB 96. A stock 96 doesn't have the power of a 2002 or 911 (but then again neither does a Mini) but if you're looking for a classic with an extensive sporting history, you might want to consider the SAAB before looking at the more common and expensive options. It will be more practical, and so far as my experience shows, more reliable than those others. It will be more comfortable, and it will be safer (dual circuit brakes were standard since the model's inception, the handling is forgiving and precise, and the passenger compartment is reinforced and exceptionally strong, even by modern standards) It will turn as many heads and start many conversations, and in its own way is fun to drive and a competent handling car. And if you want to turn it into a rallying machine, you could do much worse while spending much more money. Don't mistake the 96 for a sports car, but don't dismiss it - SAAB didn't win all those rallies with a bad car.