In 2014, the very last Saab-badged car emerged from a factory in Trollhattan, Sweden. It was one of just 420 build by the brand’s last owner, NEVS, which now concentrates on designing electric vehicles. Saab, once part of General Motors, had died slowly and painfully, to the regret of many supporters who appreciated the company’s off-centre approach to car design.
Things had once been very different. Seventy years ago, Saab’s first car went into production. It was an interesting diversion for a business whose main talent was building aeroplanes – its four-letter name is a shortened version of Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolag, which in English means Swedish Aeroplane Company Ltd. (Saab still exists as an aerospace manufacturer, the now defunct car division having been sold off some time ago.)
For reasons we’ll explain later, the car was given the model name 92. For 1949, its shape – the work of the great Swedish industrial designer known as Sixten Sason, though he was born Sixten Andersson – was futuristic almost to the point of being shocking.
There was a good reason for that. Having built planes since 1921, Saab didn’t need a lecture from anyone about aerodynamics, and it was natural that its first car should be able to guide air round itself in a way that seems quite reasonable now but was at the extreme of motor industry thinking in the immediate post-War era.
Despite its oddness, the 92 was the ancestor of many Saabs over the next 19 years, nearly all of them following the same design principles. It wasn’t until 1968 that Saab adopted a completely new policy with the 99, another product of Sixten Sason’s imaginative thinking.
The 92 was preceded by four prototypes. The first is now known as the Ursaab, which translates roughly as ‘original Saab’.
This project began in 1945 and was handled by a team of engineers who knew a lot about planes but very little about cars. Their first prototype was completed the following year.
The teardrop-shaped Ursaab had a two-cylinder two-stroke engine very similar to the one developed by German company DKW.
Like DKW, Saab also favoured front-wheel drive. Still rare at the time, though by no means a new idea, this was believed to provide an advantage on snowy Swedish roads. Similarly, Saab gave the car very wide wheelarches to prevent a build-up of snow from obstructing the wheels.
Like the production 92, the Ursaab had a three-speed manual gearbox and a gearlever mounted on the steering column.
This system is almost unthinkable today, but Saab persevered with it for many years in the 92’s successors.
Production of the 92 began in December 1949. The styling of the Ursaab had been toned down considerably, but the first Saab put on sale to the general public still looked very different from almost anything else on the road.
Saab used two-digit names starting with the number 9 for civilian projects, as opposed to military ones. The 90 Scandia (no relation to the 90 car of the mid 1980s) was a passenger plane, while the 91 Safir was a single-engined trainer aircraft.
Every Saab with a project number from 92 to 99 was a car, though the 94 and 97 were sports cars marketed as Sonett, while the 98 was a prototype which never made it into production.
Saab became involved with motorsport almost as soon as the 92 was launched. The idea came from Rolf Mellde, Saab’s head of engine development and a keen driver himself. Within a year of the 92’s introduction, he drove one to victory in the 1950 Rikospolaken, a memorably tough Swedish event.
Perhaps the best-known of all Saab rally drivers was Erik Carlsson, wife of Pat Moss (another top-level competitor in the sport) and brother-in-law of Stirling Moss.
Carlsson (pictured), who was so closely associated with the brand that he became known as Mr Saab, came to prominence driving later models, but he did win the 1952 Rikspolaken in a 92, beating two Porsches.
From 1927 to 2000, the Coupe des dames was awarded to the best-placed all-female crew in the Monte Carlo Rally. In the 1950s and 60s it was a high-profile award which manufacturers took very seriously.
It’s worth mentioning here because of Greta Molander, a travel writer with a lot of rallying experience who became one of the first Saab team drivers in 1950. Two years later, she and navigator Helga Lundberg won the Coupe des dames in a 92. Its engine had been tuned to produce 35bhp, 10bhp more than the little 764cc unit was capable of in standard form.
The original 92 was replaced in 1953 by the 92B. The update included some modest restyling, a wider choice of colours and slightly more power for the two-stroke engine.
Like Sweden’s other major car manufacturer, Volvo, Saab was always concerned about safety. In an attempt to make it as strong as possible, the 92 had two small pieces of glasses serving as a rear window and a luggage compartment which couldn’t be opened from the outside.
As good as these features were for structural rigidity, they didn’t make the 92 very practical. Both were changed in the 92B, which had a much larger single-piece rear window and a proper bootlid.
Saab’s next model was the 93, clearly influenced by the 92 but with several changes including the use of a more powerful (but still two-stroke) three-cylinder engine.
The 93 did not directly replace the 92. The cars were produced together for nearly two years, starting from the 93’s introduction in December 1955.
In its centenary year of 2008, General Motors compiled a list of its top ten production vehicles. Most were American, but there were two exceptions, one being the Opel Olympia produced in the mid to late 1930s several years after GM had taken a full stake in the German company.
The other was the Saab 92. The presence of this quirky little Scandinavian two-stroke in a list which also included several Cadillacs, the original Chevrolet Corvette and the Pontiac GTO was impressive enough.
What makes it particularly surprising is that GM had nothing to do with the car. The American giant did not begin to invest in Saab until 1989, 40 years after the 92 was launched and more than 30 years after it was discontinued. GM’s desire to take at least partial credit for the first car devised by a group of Swedish aeroplane builders perhaps says more about the 92 than anything else ever could.