The motoring landscape became a little more conformist in 2012 when Saab declared bankruptcy. The demise of the Swedish firm closed the door on a proud history of individual design, innovation and independent thinking. Nothing else quite looked like a Saab and a background in aircraft manufacturing ensured their principles of engineering quality, build quality and aerodynamics were the foundation stones of their motor division. It should therefore come as no surprise that motorsport was in Saab’s blood from the very start.
The first Saab 92 was sold in 1949 and there was an immediate interest from the motorsport community. Powered by a transverse water-cooled two-cylinder two-stroke engine of 764cc, a mere 25bhp was available but a low drag coefficient of 0.30 helped it to a top speed of 105km/h. Although the early cars lacked power, they were sturdy and nimble with an ability to find traction on the typically slippery Nordic roads. Building on early modest success, the works rally team were given the means to be more competitive in 1956 with the introduction of the Saab 93. Now with a longitudinally placed three-cylinder 748cc two-stroke, 33bhp was on tap. That was just enough to make a difference and with some additional rally tweaks a maiden win was secured at the Wiesbaden rally, followed by successful placings on the Tulip and Midnight Sun. Erik Carlsson had been with the team since 1952 and his talent came to the fore with the more powerful cars, tuning delivering 60bhp by the end of the decade. However, the nature of the power delivery mandated foot to the boards at all times and the peaky Saabs required the development and widespread adoption of Scandinavian driving techniques. With little low down torque, left foot braking was essential to keep it on the boil. Nevertheless, the team achieved wins on many of the toughest events of the late 1950s, Carlsson sharing the honours with Carl-Magnus Skogh.
In 1960 the Saab 93 morphed into the visually similar Saab 96. The new car immediately made an impact on the rally stages with victories on the 1960, 1961 and 1962 RAC Rallies and wins on the 1962 and 1963 Monte Carlo. Carlsson even managed 4th overall on the 1961 Monte driving the estate variant, named the 95, an experiment to optimise class handicap by entering one of the team’s service barges. Pat Moss brought her proven skills from taming the fearsome Austin-Healey 3000 and took 3rd at the Acropolis and 4th on the Liège-Sofia-Liège and RAC Rally in the Saab 96 Sport. There is no doubt that the two-stroke 96 was punching well above its weight but talent and bravery could only go so far and by the mid-60s it was apparent that more power was the only solution to keep the car competitive. At a best case the cars were only producing 80bhp and the competition was rapidly exceeding this. Saab were keen to offer their customers a more refined and powerful variant of the 96 and did a deal with Ford to buy their 1498cc V4 Taunus engine; great news for the rally team.
The 96 is so synonymous with the V4 it’s interesting to note it was only one of several engines considered. Apparently a broad range of powerplants were scoped and tested, including the well regarded Volvo B18, Lancia V4, engines from General Motors and Volkswagen, the Triumph 1300 and even the Coventry Climax based motor from the Hillman Imp. The Lancia option aside, the car’s character could have been every different from the final production solution. Would you have wanted an 875cc Hillman powered Saab? The project was conducted in secret by a small core team and the Ford engine proved the be literally the best fit. Tuned down to 62bhp to meet Swedish emissions regulations (yes, even way back then), the new engine offered a similar output in base form as was being achieved by the old works rally cars in full competition specification. Saab’s forest racers were about to go a whole lot faster.
The underlying chassis on the 96 was already well proven. Front suspension consisted of double wishbones and coil springs, while the rear used a coil sprung trailing axle. Telescopic dampers were fitted all round which gave the car an inherent ability to soak up the bumps and absorb heavy landings. With disc brakes and a four speed gearbox, the car was ready for more power and the initial 1498cc application made an immediate difference. Simo Lampinen won the RAC in 1968 but the old car got a further boost in 1971 when homologation permitted 1815cc engines based on the 1698cc showroom model. Equipped with twin Weber 45 carburettors 145bhp was achieved, and development of a crossover manifold named the “moosehorn” boosted output to over 160bhp. These developments set the foundations for experiments with fuel injection and further horsepower, the cars remaining competitive all the way into 1976 when Per Eklund took victory on the Swedish Rally with Stig Blomqvist securing second place. For a car launched 16 years previously, that was astonishing, even more so when you consider the works team had debuted its replacement a full two years earlier; the 2 litre Saab 99. The heavier 99 would only start to make an impact with the advent of the 220bhp 16v EMS, but it was never as balanced or as successful as the 96.
With such a rich rallying pedigree, a Saab 96 is a great choice for the historic rally driver, whether budding or expert. Good spares back up and a wide range of homologated options mean the car can be built to various specifications, and its sturdy construction makes it suitable for long distance events as well as the more usual sprint events. We’ve found such a car for sale with a private vendor in Glasgow, and its our Prime Find this week.
The vendor advises this 1967 car was originally prepared to works specification in the 1990s in order to compete in the MSA British Historic Rally Championship, thereafter being entered on the Monte Historique. It’s always reassuring when a car has competed in high profile events as it gives an element of confidence that it was at least prepared properly in the first place and that everything at that time would have correct for the regulations. Of course, regulations and eligibility can change over time so it’s important for any prospective vendor to do their research and make sure it will be suitable for whatever intentions they may have. The vendor details the modifications as including an 1800cc longstroke engine with an oil cooler and uprated oil pump, producing 150bhp. There is a motorsport paddle clutch, lightened flywheel, and a stainless steel rally exhaust. The Bilstein progressive suspension is set up for the forest and the gearbox is equipped with an all-important limited slip differential. There are twin fuel tanks and twin facet fuel pumps. The bodywork features a lightened bonnet, doors, bumpers and boot lid. A spares package is available by negotiation.
The car comes with an FIA passport and MSA passport, but does need new seats and extinguishers to pass scrutineering as they have gone out of date. A photograph of the underside shows the expected signs of use but the floors look generally tidy and straight. If the two-post lift in the picture was available when inspecting that would be a boon, and far more civilised that rolling around on the floor. Rally cars live a hard life and careful inspection is essential but this appears to be an honest car, priced reasonably at £14,995. It’s important to remember that the cost of building one from scratch would likely be far in excess of this. We’ve borrowed some photographs from the vendor’s advert and wish them well with the sale. If you’ve been inspired to emulate Carlsson, Lampinen or Blomqvist, this could be a good place to start. With winter approaching, the time could be just right to buy a rally prepared Saab!
With our Saturday instalment of Prime Find of the Week, we’re offering our services to the classic car community, by passing on our favourite classic car for sale from the week that passed. This top-tip might help a first-time-buyer to own his first classic, or it could even be the perfect motivation for a multiple-classic-car-owner to expand his garage with something different. We’ll let us inspire by anything from a cheap project to a stunning concours exotic, and hope that you will do the same.
Just remember – Any Classic is Better than No Classic! We obviously invite our readers to help prospective buyers with your views and maybe even experiences of any given model we feature. Further to that, if you stumble across a classic which you feel we ought to feature as Prime Find of the Week, then please send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org