Apparently, Volvo weren’t the first to pitch a family estate car at international motorsport. Their fellow Swedes over in Trollhätten did so already in 1961 – and with good reason too!
I regularly have the privilege of commentating at various historic motorsport events in Denmark. In doing so, I come across some truly fabulous classic racers, but despite its relatively modest background, one of my favourites is always the small SAAB 93’s and 96’s. I just love their charismatic race-tuned 2-stroke engines with their rhythmic Bwaarp… bwaarp… bwaarp…, and it only gets better as the revs soar towards seemingly endless heights. They were – and still are – surprisingly accomplished race and rally cars too.
But the SAAB’s were of course primarily family road cars, and as such, building a race car out of them wasn’t entirely without compromise. Those little race-tuned 2-stroke engines thrived on revs. But then they lacked anything even resembling low-down torque. But the 93’s and first 96’s had to make due with a 3-speed transmission, which wasn’t ideal for those rev-hungry 2-stroke engines when met with an incline or for that matter just in motorsport in general. It was essential to always have the right gear in order to keep the revs high and the engine “on cam”. Still, the SAAB proved effective in rallying – especially in the hands of legendary Erik Carlsson – and SAAB simply put up with the 3-speed transmission, as they frankly didn’t have an alternative.
But with the new model year 1961, an alternative suddenly appeared. But only in the SAAB 95 – which was an estate. As a family estate car, the little 95 was nothing short of ingenious with a seating arrangement which could provide up to seven individual seats! But lugging all that weight was a heavy burden and more gears were required to do the job. Thereby, SAAB finally got their 4-speed transmission. The rally department and Erik Carlsson were ecstatic! Until they realised that the regular 96 was still limited to its old 3-speed. So, there was really only one viable solution: The SAAB 95 estate needed to go rallying and they duly entered it into the 1961 Rally Monte Carlo.
They didn’t win. But as we know, they returned the following years – albeit with the SAAB 96 – and took victory in both 1962 and 1963. With those victories, it’s of course the ’62 and ’63 rallies which went down in history, and the dark red SAAB 96’s in full rally trim became an icon in the world of SAAB’s and beyond. A small and quirky Swedish family saloon winning the world’s most famous rally not once – but twice!
But while the rally excursions of the SAAB 95 didn’t manage to make as big an impact on the history journals, I personally find the rally estate even more interesting than the later saloons. It wasn’t just a fancy marketing exercise either as with Volvo’s 850 estate. The SAAB 95 had the credentials to go racing. It seems a suitably quirky story to fit perfectly into the rest of SAAB’s illustrious history…