by J Kraus
For those unfamiliar with the above image, it is from a decal that was affixed to the windows of Saabs in the late 1960’s. When a Saab was a Saab.
Cut loose from GM, Saab now faces an uncertain future. It is dismaying to see the possibility of a classic brand being subjected to euthanasia. Unfortunately, Saab has been undergoing a slow death for quite some time. While under GM’s stewardship, we were forced to endue such automotive Frankensteins as the “Saablazer” (the Chevrolet Trail Blazer rebadged as the Saab 9-7X) and the “Saabaru” (the Subaru that masqueraded as the Saab 9-2X).
Most enthusiasts today are too young to remember real Saabs. The most genuine Saabs are the 92, 93 and early 96 models of 1950-1968. These Saabs had three distinguishing characteristics, what corporate marketing denizens might call brand differentiators: aerodynamic body design, front-wheel drive, and a light and efficient two-stroke powerplant. These virtues helped propel Saab to numerous victories in most of the major rallies of the period, piloted by the great Erik Carlsson.
Front wheel drive was still quite rare in the years after WWII and was utilized by only a few practitioners: Saab, Citroën, DKW/Audi and Panhard, joined later by BMC, Lancia, Renault and Autobianchi. Rarer still was the two-stroke engine, being used only by Saab and DKW. Genuinely aerodynamic sedan bodywork was available only from Saab and Citroën.
The original Saab 92 was reputed to have a 0.30 coefficient of drag, very good for a sedan, even today. Unfortunately, Saab began backing away from the aerodynamic theme in 1969 with the introduction of the 99 (which would morph into the 900). Much was learned about aerodynamics in the 1960’s, including the importance of a high rear-end profile and kamm-effect tail. Citroën made good use of both in their GS, brought to market just one year after the 99.
Though noisy, two-stoke engines were lightweight, extremely efficient, and mechanically simple. The classic Saab three-cylinder motor basically had just seven major moving parts, the crankshaft, three pistons and three connecting rods. Unfortunately, emission control legislation put a stop to the use of two-stroke engines to power automobiles.
The final pillar of Saab distinction, front wheel drive, became more and more popular in the 1960’s. BMC followed up their Mini with the 1100 and 1800, Lancia added the Fulvia, Peugeot introduced the 204. Simca debuted the 1100. NSU developed the Ro80 and K70. When Fiat (in 1969) and Volkswagen (in 1973) began converting over, front wheel drive became all but ubiquitous in the small and medium class market.
At this point, Saab became a “car that has an ignition switch on the floor” (this was introduced with the 99 in 1969) company. For a while they were a “car that offers a turbo” company. The brand was further diluted when Saab arranged to share development and sale of a larger vehicle (the 9000) with the Fiat Group. The result was sold as the Saab 9000, Fiat Chroma, Lancia Thema, and Alfa 164. Only the Alfa had unique body panels, the rest all shared the same centre section.
If Saab is to ultimately survive, it will need to define a new niche in a very competitive market and design and focus its future products accordingly. It cannot be based on engine efficiency or aerodynamics because everyone is moving in that direction. I am afraid front wheel drive will not be going anywhere either. They are going to have to start from scratch. I wish them well.