Story and photo by Bill Vance

1960 Saab GT 750
1960 Saab GT 750. Click image to enlarge

Saab is a well established up-scale marque, and a respected member of the General Motors family with a devoted following. But Saab has always had a somewhat off-beat persona, and one of its characteristics is a minimalist approach to engines. In the beginning, it was based on the best engineering tradition of using the simplest, most efficient possible means to an end.

For many years Saabs had only two cylinders when most of its contemporaries had at least four. Then Saab switched to three. Even today, its stalwart powerplant is a four in a sea of six and eight cylinder competitors.

Saab was a product of the Swedish airplane company, Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget (acronym Saab), which was established in Trollhattan (meaning troll hill) in 1937. After initially building planes designed by other companies, it was soon engineering its own military aircraft.

As the end of the Second World War approached Saab anticipated a decline in its aircraft business. It decided to go into automobile manufacturing with a kind of low cost “people’s car.” Airplane wing designer Gunnar Ljunstrom was placed in charge of the project. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the Saab came out with a profile that resembled an airplane wing.

Ljunstrom had the prototype of the Saab 92 ready by mid-1946, and it was shown at a press preview in 1947. Its unit construction, two-door sedan body was so aerodynamic that its drag coefficient was only 0.32, a respectable figure even today.

The 92 had a two-cylinder, two-stroke DKW engine driving the front wheels. A two-stroke was chosen to simplify production and reduce tooling costs. Production of the Saab 92 finally got under way in 1950, and by March 1954 output had reached 10,000.

Saab carried on with two cylinders until 1956 when the Saab 93 appeared with three cylinders, although still a two-stroke. It was now mounted longitudinally rather than laterally as the two cylinder had been. The 92’s all-independent torsion bar suspension was replaced with independent coil springs in front, and a beam axle and coils at the rear.

Saabs were still unknown in North America, but company management optimistically put the Saab 93 on display at the 1956 New York International Automobile Show. This publicity, plus a surprising individual and team win in the Great American Mountain Rally in New England, gave Saab an auspicious start. Saab would become a legendary rally winner, notably in the hands of Erik “on the roof” Carlsson.

The 10 original Saabs shipped over for the show were soon sold in the Northeastern U.S., and American sales reached 1,400 in 1957. Saab initially concentrated on New England where its superior front-wheel drive traction and good handling were highly valued. It gradually moved south and west, and finally came to Canada in 1975.

Because the two-stroke engine used crankcase compression for cylinder charging, the Saab lacked a traditional oil sump, being lubricated instead by adding oil to the fuel. This was foreign to American motorists, and some Saab engines succumbed to seizure before owners learned to add a quart of oil to each eight gallons of gasoline.

Saabs were also fitted with free-wheeling, which disconnected the engine from the driveline when coasting. This prevented engine seizure on long downhill coasts, and allowed clutchless shifting, but the lack of compression braking placed an extra load on the brakes.

Road & Track (5/57) found the Saab 93’s acceleration in line with the popular Volkswagen Beetle with a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 27.2 seconds compared with the VW’s 28.0. The Saab had a little higher top speed: 120 km/h (74.8 mph) vs. the Beetle’s 113 (70.2). The Saab’s $1,895 price was, however, approximately $400 higher, but the Saab did have a better heater.

For those seeking more than the 93’s modest performance, Saab obliged in 1958 with the Gran Turismo 750. Its 748 cc (45.6 cu in.) engine was increased from 38 to 50 horsepower, giving a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) of just 15.2 seconds, and topping out at 142 km/h (88 mph). This was fantastic performance for a 3/4 litre sedan; Road & Track (9/58) called it a “family sports car.”

The three cylinder Saabs continued with the same basic shape, but with continual improvements. A station wagon was added with 841 cc, which the sedans got in 1961, (except in the GT 750 until it became the GT 850 in 1962), a four speed transmission became available, automatic oil injection eliminated the messing re- fuelling, a dual braking system arrived, and the rear-hinged “suicide doors” were replaced by front-hinged types.

By the mid-1960s it was becoming apparent that the era was ending for the two-stroke with its rough, “corn popper” idle. It also tended to be a dirty engine when increasing attention was being directed to emission control. Thus in 1967 Saab began fitting Taunus V4s purchased from Ford of Germany. When the two-stroke, three-cylinder was phased out in 1968, Saab lost one of its principal idiosyncrasies.

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