The original brand may be gone, but I’ll always admire its innovative approach. By Jay Leno
Somewhere over in Sweden there’s a Dumpster full of Saab letterheads, employee ID badges and day planners. There are guys going through what once were Saab’s offices, hanging auction tags on the furniture, computers, printers and water coolers.
Saab went bankrupt in December 2011; in June, a company called National Electric Vehicle Sweden AN (NEVS) announced it would buy the marque, reportedly to make electric vehicles bearing the venerable name. NEVS is owned 51/49 by Chinese and Japanese interests, respectively, and China is the initial target market for the next generation of Saabs. But the Saab I knew and loved is gone, and I miss it.
When I was a kid, Saabs were unique. I first rode in one while I was in high school. A friend’s mother had an old model with a two-stroke engine and a differential incorporating a freewheel hub system like the one on a 10-speed bicycle. It didn’t go fast, but when my friend’s mom took her foot off the accelerator pedal, there was no compression braking. The car just kept rolling along. I was fascinated.
Saabs were front-drivers when every American car had rear drive. Their two-stroke, three-cylinder engines sounded like popcorn machines – pppoppoppaaawwwp – while other cars were muffled into silence. The first Saab car, the 1950 model 92, was built around an aerodynamically slick unibody. It rode on an all-independent torsion bar suspension and used something called rack-and-pinion steering. It was impossible to over-rev a Saab’s engine because it ran out of power before the redline. So you just threw your boot at the accelerator pedal and shifted up until there was evidence of forward momentum. All that unconventional engineering led to good fuel economy: Saabs got better than 9,5 litres/100 km.
In the ’50s and ’60s, owning a Saab meant more than having an odd car in your garage; it was a lifestyle choice. With that two-stroke engine, you had to premix your petrol and oil. So you trudged to the filling station with two 20-litre cans, filled them up most of the way with petrol, and then topped them off with oil at a 50:1 ratio. After a shaking to mix them up – and remember, petrol weighs roughly a kilogram per litre – you could fill the Saab’s fuel tank. But there was never any oil sump to drain and virtually no other routine engine maintenance. Under the bonnet a clamp held an extra litre of premix oil.
On cold mornings, if you wanted to warm up a Saab’s engine more quickly, you pulled a chain dangling from the dashboard to lower a “shade” that blocked airfl ow to the radiator. Naturally, the cabin heater was phenomenal.
My Saab is a 1958 model 93B. It doesn’t have the key on the floor like later Saabs, but this was the first year for the one-piece front windscreen, and the doors are hinged at the back, suicide style. With a 750 cm3 engine making about 25 kW, it’s not fast. But you can go 120 km/h down the road with four people in it. It has cruise control too; just put your foot to the floor and keep it there.
To me, however, my Saab’s most fascinating detail is the water pump that’s located on the back end of the generator. The Swedes could made it work, but imagine if a British car company had tried this. At best it would have functioned correctly; at worst it would have electrocuted anyone who touched it.
Beyond their engineering idiosyncrasies, though, Saabs were effective. The company was building rigid, lightweight and aerodynamic cars when other manufacturers ignored these considerations in their engineering. A Saab didn’t look or drive like anything else on the road, and it attracted buyers to match.
It seemed for a while that every time a professor at a university in New England was awarded tenure, he or she got a Saab to go along with it. Intellectuals, eccentrics and other free-minded, countercultural types seemed to adopt Saabs almost instinctively. The author Kurt Vonnegut even owned a Saab dealership – Saab Cape Cod – in the late ’50s.
When Saab switched to Ford-sourced four-stroke V4 engines in 1967, the brand lost some of its charm for me. Of course, Saab did some innovative things after that. The 1978 Saab 99 Turbo ushered in a new era of efficiency, and the later 900 Turbo was sophisticated. Then GM bought Saab, intending to turn it into a BMW competitor. Suddenly there were Saabs that were Subarus with new badges or Chevy TrailBlazers with their ignition key on the floor. Without quirkiness, Saab became just another car.