Most Brits had only seen pictures of Saab cars (if they were even aware the Scandinavian marque existed) until the unique 96 burst onto the scene in 1960, becoming the first Saab officially exported from Sweden to the United Kingdom. In truth, it did not look very different from its predecessor, the Saab 93, but this distinctive coupe was still a novelty in Britain. By the time the 96 was canned 20 years later, nearly 550,000 would have been built.
Considering the apparently puny three-cylinder two-stroke engine, the Saab 96 performed brilliantly on the rally circuit in the early 1960s, winning the RAC Rally three years running (1960-1962) and the prestigious Monte Carlo Rally twice in succession (1962 and 1963), driven by Erik Carlsson. Of course the Saab Sport was modified, but racing success put the 96 on the map and established a reputation for robust reliability.
The original two-stroke engine displaced a mere 750 ccs, but lest this was considered parsimonious Saab soon cranked it up to 841 ccs, though it would later drop back to 819 ccs to dodge tough US emission regulations. It was the largest of the three that was used in Sport and Monte Carlo models, with oil injection and triple carbs. The two-stroke was available until 1968, lingering on for just one year after the 96 was treated to a 1.5 litre Ford Taurus V4 engine.
The intended replacement for the 96 – the Saab 99 – hit the road in 1969. But the old faithful outlived its successor, continuing in production until 1980 by which time the 99 was well and truly kaput. The 96 was accompanied all the way by its estate-car twin, the Saab 95, and both were valued then as now for their distinctly quirky character, the old-fashioned column change and Saab’s unique freewheeling device.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
1960 (until 1980)
750 cc, 841 cc or 819 cc Straight Three; 1,498 cc V4
With 0.8 litre engine — top speed of 79 mph (127 km/h); 0-50 mph (80 km/h) in 14.7 secs
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
Don’t assume that cherished Saab 96 was actually built in Sweden — a large number (including the last ones made) were fabricated by the state-owned Valmet Oy in Uusikaupunki in Western Finland.