If you fancy running an idiosyncratic car that’s going to turn heads wherever it goes, then a two-stroke or even a V4 powered Saab 96 may fit the bill rather well. Iain Wakefield Senior Contributor. Facts and figures on the quirky but unburstable Swede, from the early two-stroke cars to the Ford V4-powered models.
Buyer’s Guide SAAB 96 All the info from two-stroke to V4
When it comes to home-brewed classics, we Brits claim the Moggie Minor as our very own national treasure, the Germans the rock-solid air-cooled Beetle and our French cousins the bonne vie 2CV, while the Swedes took on the world with the teardrop-shaped Saab 96. As well as the car’s unique styling, the rasping exhaust note of a two-stroke powered 96 certainly makes the car stand out from the crowd and when Saab took its odd-looking saloon rallying in the early ’60s a specially prepared 96 virtually wiped the floor with the opposition.
With a background firmly based in aircraft construction until the Swedish company started building cars in the late ’40s, the engineers at Saab understood how important aerodynamics were when it came to designing a car. The company’s first automobile, the front-wheel drive Saab 92, appeared on the scene in 1949 with an impressive for the time Cd factor of 0.32, a figure many modern manufacturers are happy to quote.
Power came from a 764cc transversely mounted, water-cooled, three-cylinder two-stroke engine and the 92 eventually gave way to the much improved 93 in 1956. Although the external styling of the new Saab appeared very similar to its predecessor, the engine layout had been revised to a north-south configuration. The heavily revised Saab 96 came on the scene in 1960 – the estate version introduced slightly earlier was referred to as the 95 – and the swept volume of the new Saab’s longitudinally mounted two-stroke motor was now increased to a more useful 843cc.
Power output from the 96’s larger three-pot, two-stroke engine had been raised to 34bhp – later increased to 42bhp – and to avoid oil starvation when the engine was under load during the overrun, the 96 retained the freewheel capability that had been an important feature incorporated into the 92 and 93’s drive train.
As a two-stroke engine receives its lubricating oil mixed with the fuel, the moving parts will be starved of oil when the driver lifts off the accelerator and the engine is still under load. To prevent this happening and destroying the engine, the Saab’s freewheel allowed the engine to idle on the overrun, but meant an absence of engine braking when the freewheel facility is utilised.
In 1962 Saab introduced the Sport version of the 96 to mark Erik Carlsson’s rallying successes. The Sport’s threethroat Solex carburettor and modified cylinder head provided a power hike to a very useful 57bhp, while front discs uprated the 96’s braking performance. Other upgrades for the Sport and the Monte Carlo introduced in 1965 included the addition of a four-speed gearbox and a pressurised engine lubrication system. This now meant that owners could forget about mixing oil with the fuel while filling up on the forecourt, as lubricating oil was now contained in a separate tank. Although the sports versions of the 96 had a top speed approaching 90mph, fuel consumption was a nightmare 22mpg.
Enter V4 power
One of the biggest changes Saab implemented to the 96 range came in 1966 when the noisy and smoky two-stroke units gave way to the 1498cc Ford Taunus V4 and a higher-ratio rear axle, the latter to help improve fuel consumption. This major engine upgrade had been extensively researched earlier under Saab’s project Operation Kajsa and power units that had been previously considered included the BMC B-Series, Lancia V4, Volvo B18 inline-four, Triumph 1300 and even a Hillman Imp engine.
Saab managed to keep production of the V4 powered 96 concealed from the press right up until the first transporter loaded with the upgraded cars left the company’s Trollhättan factory. To maintain secrecy, two-stroke components had been cancelled at the latest moment and bringing in workers to fit the first batch of new engines under the pretext of modifying disc brakes helped keep the new model under wraps.
Models fitted with the V4 engine now received the designation 96L and engine castings in early cars were stamped with ‘Ford Motor Company’. Power output for the V4-powered 96 was raised to 65bhp and average fuel consumption rocketed to a far more respectable 28/30mpg. This provided Monte Carlo/ Sport performance even on base models and by the start of the ’70s all 96s were equipped with a split circuit disc/ drum braking system and a four-speed gearbox, although the lever remained on the column throughout production.
Saab 96s produced between 1977 and 1979 were fitted with a dual stage Solex 32TDIT carburettor, an upgrade that increased power output to a more competitive 67bhp and the freewheel feature on the gearbox remained on V4 powered cars until Saab ceased 96 production in 1979.
Although the styling didn’t change massively, the detailing was noticeably different on later cars. This is a 1972 example with the plastic grille.
Two-stroke or V4?
Saab purists will obviously favour getting behind the wheel of a three-cylinder, two-stroke powered 96 – if only to enjoy the car’s rasping exhaust note, but spare parts for these engines can be hard to source. A V4- equipped 96 is a much easier car to live with and whichever engine sits under the bonnet, a Saab 96 can be a great car to drive.
The front-wheel drive 96’s coil sprung double wishbone front suspension combined with a rear trailing U-beam axle provides a high degree of positive handling when the car is pressed hard. Rack and pinion steering adds to the car’s unique driving experience and even though all 96s retained a column gearchange, being unable to select ratios quickly and smoothly should never be an issue. All the 96 were fitted with a freewheel facility and getting to grips with this unique feature only adds to the charm of owning and driving one of these unconventional-looking cars.
Like all cars built in the ’60s and ’70s, rust will attack a Saab 96 in all the usual places. Although factory applied underbody treatment was far better than average for the time, the main place to check for corrosion is where the front bulkhead joins the floorpans. This can be a really difficult area to repair with the engine in place and poorly applied MoT style patches on the underbody can cover a serious amount of damage, especially around the suspension mountings. Another area where Saab 96s rust really badly is underneath the fuel tank and along the edges of the floor where they meet the inner sills. Although the wings on these cars bolt on, a decent wing may be hiding a multitude of sins.
An area that requires careful checking will be the flanges that sit underneath the bootlid where the rear wings are attached. The doors can rot out at the bottom and the inner rear wheelarches can suffer from severe corrosion. Replacement panels for these cars are scarce but a few selected Saab specialists are able to offer a decent range of repair panels.
The hunt for a replacement for the two-stroke eventually brought Saab to Ford Motor Company.
The Ford V4 engine boosted power to 65bhp and made a big difference to performance.
Two-stroke engine was a Saab oddity and persisted until 1966.
Grille badge reflected Saab’s aerospace heritage.
While inspecting a Saab 96’s bodywork, pay attention to the condition of the front valance, especially around the corners where the panel meets the front wings. One area that can rot away unnoticed is inside the air box on the front scuttle. The plenum chamber often rots out in the corners and any corrosion in this area will spread inside the engine bay and even end up underneath the windscreen rubber.
Rust can also get a hold around the rear window on the 96, especially at the base and severe corrosion found in this area will be very difficult to eradicate. The 96’s curvaceous bonnet also rusts along the rolled-over edges and probably one of the hardest places to repair a heavily corroded Saab 96 is where the engine undertray meets the front bulkhead near the base of the wheel arches. Severe corrosion in this area can be terminal. A Saab 96 fitted with square headlights will probably be a US import and some later cars will have a plastic grille instead of a heavyweight metal one. Saab’s aircraft heritage is reflected in the 96’s winged grille badge and this evocative logo is also repeated on the hubcaps. Some models may be fitted with headlight wipers/ washers, so check these operate while road testing the car.
Engine & transmission issues
As previously mentioned, quite a few of the parts required to overhaul a worn two-stroke engine are becoming hard to source. Saab specialists such as Huddersfield-based Malbrad (www.malbrad.co.uk) are able to supply parts for early 96s as well as the later V4-powered examples. Unlike earlier Saabs that relied on a thermo-syphon based cooling system, the radiator on the Saab 96 was positioned ahead of the engine and a belt-driven water pump forces the coolant around the motor.
|MODEL||1961 Saab 96||1966 Saab 96|
|ENGINE||841cc 3-cyl, two-stroke||1498cc 4-cyl|
|POWER||42bhp at 5000rpm||65bhp at 4600rpm|
|TORQUE||59lb.ft at 3000rpm||85lb.ft at 2500rpm|
|GEARBOX||Three speed plus freewheel||Three speed plus freewheel|
On all engines, pay particular attention to the condition of the cooling system and beware of any white mayonnaise-type gloop in the header tank that could indicate engine oil contaminating the coolant, as this could be a sign of a head gasket problem. Poor starting issues with two-stroke engines are legendary and the first thing to check if a 96’s three cylinder engine fails to fire up quickly is the ratio of lubricating oil to fuel.
Special two-stroke oil is required and adding too much to the fuel won’t improve lubrication. Doing this will only produce excessive clouds of annoying blue exhaust smoke as well as contaminating the spark plugs.
Later two-stroke powered 96s were fitted with a separate oil tank that mixed the correct amount of lubricant under pressure with the fuel before it entered the cylinders. Don’t be surprised if some enterprising owner has retrofitted this system to an earlier car.
Although the V4 engine in the post-1966 Saab 96 offers more power and improved fuel consumption, the unit can suffer from balance shaft and head gasket issues. A counter-rotating balance shaft helps smooth out engine vibrations but the bearings can wear.
Testing for play in the bottom pulley by pulling it by hand will reveal any play in the shaft but parts to repair a worn balance shaft are getting expensive and can be hard to find. Another problem is that these engines can overheat and this could result in a damaged or blown head gaskets.
Fitting a replacement water pump to the Ford V4 is a very time-consuming job, as the fixing bolts can be difficult to access. If you suspect the car could be subject to overheating, allow the engine to idle for a few minutes after a run and carefully check the condition of the radiator, paying particular attention to any tell-tale coolant stains at the base of the central core and around the header tank and hoses.
As the miles mount up the gearboxes on these cars, whether it’s a three or later four-speed box, can start to whine.
Excessive noise in a particular ratio or a tendency to jump out of gear on the overrun will indicate the gearbox is overdue an overhaul. If gears are difficult to engage, it could be down to a simple adjustment of the gear linkage connecting the lever to the gearbox. However, when set up correctly the 96’s column change is slick and positive but don’t worry too much about a juddering clutch when taking up the power unless it’s excessive.
The freewheel is a dog clutch arrangement and when disengaged allows the engine to idle on the overrun. The freewheel is operated by a ‘T’ shaped handle in the driver’s footwell and it’s very important the freewheel is used on two-stroke powered cars, as these engines will suffer from lubrication starvation issues if allowed to rev on the overrun when the throttle’s closed. Although Saab retained the freewheel facility on V4 powered cars, some owners find the facility a boon in heavy traffic, as it tends to save excessive wear and tear on the clutch and gearbox. The freewheel can seize up, so check it works and get to understand how to use it before handing over any cash.
Suspension & braking issues
First check when inspecting the underpinnings on a Saab 96 is to check for any excessive free play in the front ball joints and steering rack. Front CV joints can wear and any heavy clicking while driving the car slowly on full lock will indicate worn driveshaft joints. Any surviving suspension components on early cars will require regular strokes from a grease gun – later car were fitted with ‘sealed for life’ joints.
Undue clunking from the front or rear suspension during a test drive will be down to worn rubber bushes or a failing telescopic shock absorber.
Any car fitted with a freewheel facility requires a decent set of brakes and even an early Saab 96 equipped with an all-drum set-up has an impressive amount of stopping power. Later cars were fitted with discs up front and whichever braking system is fitted to the car you’re viewing, all the usual checks should be carried out. First, take a look at the condition of the brake lines and flexible pipes. Any corroded lines or perished looking pipes are good bargaining points and should be changed as a matter of urgency.
While test-driving a Saab 96, pick a suitable quiet stretch of road and apply the brakes with a little bit more force than normal. The car should pull up squarely and not wander to one side. Knocking front brakes, particular in reverse, can be cured by fitting reconditioned calipers. The handbrake, which on the 96 is located approximately where a floor-mounted gear lever would sit, should hold the car on an incline without causing too much fuss. However, a weak handbrake on these cars can often be improved by adjusting the mechanism.
What to pay
As expected, early two-stroke powered Saab 96s command a premium and you won’t get much change from £13,000 for a well cared for Condition One example. A decent Saab 96 required a bit of TLC will cost around £6500 and a project can be picked up for less than £1600. Sport and Monte Carlo models are rare and these will be more expensive. Beware of dismantled basket cases, as it’s important that all the parts come with the car. Check everything thoroughly, especially if the engine has been taken apart, as finding any missing parts will prove time-consuming and expensive.
V4-powered examples are a lot more affordable and a really nice example can be put on the drive for a sliver over £8500. If you want to improve a neglected V4 Saab 96, expect to pay somewhere in the region of £3500 and a complete ‘barn find’ in need of a total restoration should be able to be picked up for no more than £1200.
However, it’s worth remembering that parts for these cars are scarce and expensive and if buying at auction it only needs two people wanting the same car for the final price to go way over estimate. Don’t ignore a left-hand drive 96, as driving a left hooker can often add to the entertainment value.
We purposely didn’t go into too much detail about the 96’s interior, as projects will no doubt require the attention of a professional trimmer and decent cars should come with a well-sorted interior. Despite the 96’s diminutive overall size, cabin space is reasonably generous – the car’s got an enormous boot – and the seats should be well padded and supportive. Saab was always big on safety and headrests and seatbelts complete with their odd buckles were fitted to most models, along with a heavily padded steering wheel. The only downside to the cabin layout is that the switchgear seems to have been fired at the dashboard from a scattergun and is all over the place.
Winding the drop glass down on a 96 results in it pivoting neatly on the forward edge before finally disappearing into the door. It’s little quirks like this that make the Saab 96 so special and despite battling hard to retain something of its individuality the company final bowed out in 2017 and today this once highly respected marque is just another redundant name in motoring hall of fame.