Project 93C, as it was known within Saab, culminated in the announcement of the new Saab 96 at a Stockholm press conference on 17 February 1960. The Saab 96, featured a new 841cc, 38hp three-cylinder two-stroke, was well received and proved popular.
Capacity was increased to 50,000 units and the popular 96 opened up new markets for Saab. The 96 was not completely new - the front was relatively unchanged from its predecessor, the 93, but the rear was extensively redesigned to incorporate a 117% larger rear screen, a wider backseat, larger baggage compartment, a new fuel tank and larger rear lights.
Rally Success Helps The Evolution
Right from the get-go, the Saab 96 would slowly evolve thanks in no small part to the success in practically every major international rally. First, the 4-speed gearbox became standard and then, towards the end of 1965, the unique triple carburetor used on the high-performance Sport model was fitted as standard on all other cars in the range, thus improving acceleration and top speed.
The Saab engine had a very modest capacity of 841 c.c., but firing twice as often as a 4-stroke it made quite a respectable job of propelling its solidly built 15·8 cwt around. To some extent the high, slab-fronted styling was offset by a smooth, low-drag shape which allowed the the 96 a top speed of around 76 m.p.h. - 4 m.p.h. more than the the 1965 series and a full 10 m.p.h. quicker than the 1960-1963 models.
According to the sales literature we have read through, the net power had been increased from 38 b.h.p. at 4,250 r.p.m. to 42 b.h.p. at the same revs, while the torque stayed much the same at 60 Ib.ft. Unfortunately this gain was obtained at the expense of higher overall fuel consumption. Most road testers reported figures of between 22 and 25 mpg, not bad by any standards, but perhaps not as miserly as you would expect from a 2 stroke.
With the peak of the torque curve coming high up the rev range at 3,000 and the breathing capacity shutting off suddenly, like a governor, at 6,500 r.p.m. the Saab engine was one that needed to be revved. We are told that the best gearchange point was below 5,500 r.p.m. and the bottom-end pulling power being rather sluggish, there was only a narrow band of little more than 3,000 r.p.m. for useful torque.
The gearbox ratios were all low, first running out at only 20 m.p.h., and for all practical purposes second fell well short of 40 m.p.h. This meant that you would have to work hard on the steering-column lever to keep the speed up. Changing down to third in the 40-60 m.p.h. range produced no noticeable increase in acceleration compared with top, however, so driving the 96 necessitated watching the speed carefully and planning what was the most efficient thing to do well in advance.
Being a front-drive car without a great deal of power for its weight, the Saab was exceptionally stable and road testers were unanimous in their praise of the cars cornering capabilities. The transient condition between throttle open and closed in a corner produced no frightening tail swing and the car tackled bends undramatically and without roll, practically as fast as you would dare drive it. The ride was firm but not unduly harsh, although there was some noisy bottoming of the springs reported in several road test reports.
The steering was light for such a front-heavy car, and precise. On full lock there were some of the surges drivers of the era were accustomed to when acutely angled universal joints were at play, but most of the time very few shocks were fed back to the driver's hands. The flexible joints on the drive shafts apparently had a tendency to get out of phase with the engine mountings, causing the gear lever to waggle about and the car's behaviour to become rather jerky. This tendency was most apparent if the free-wheel was operating in stop-start traffic. On these lesser Saab 96 models (unlike the Sport which had a total-loss, pressure-fed crank) the oil had to be mixed with the petrol in the proportions of 1 quart to about 8 galIons. Getting it wrong would result in a great trail of blue smoke when accelerating.
The Hidden Cost Of Oil Adds To The Fuel Bill
By 4-stroke standards a pint of oil to only 90 miles would have been considered very heavy even in the early 1960's, but it did ensure adequate upper cylinder lubrication, albeit at a financial premium. This added use of oil was a hidden expense that increased the price of fuel. The 96 would start easily on full choke when cold, but tended to blow out noxious fumes from its oil-rich mixture in the process. The fumes would inevitably find their way into the car if you had to reverse first - but it was a minor irritation as you could push the choke knob in very soon after starting and the engine would then run smoothly and evenly.
Being a 2 Stroke, it would always
sound more powerful than it was. Mid life the designers fitted a large circular speedometer directly in front of the driver, with a fuel, gauge and water thermometer at either side. There was no radiator blind on the lower models (although QIe bracket for its chain was retained) and the temperature sensing unit must be very close to the thermostat on the engine side, because its needle relayed directly each opening and closure.
By American standards the visibility and accommodation inside the Saab was considered restricted and cramped. The windscreen was a narrow slot which became dangerously so if there was any dirt spray or falling snow, and rear vision was not much better. Two outside mirrors on the front edges of the doors (at a time when most cars only came with one external mirror) were standard and essential for safety. Big, square wheel-arches intruded into the front foot space, forcing the driver to sit skewed round towards the centre of the car; and the door and window rubbed against larger drivers left arm and shoulder.
The seats were well curved for lateral support during fast cornering - something the Saab was very good at. The backrests could be adjusted through quite a wide range by a side lever connected to a notched eccentric cam. There were useful little pockets stitched into the sides of the seat covers - this long before "cubby holes" became so popular. The painted facia was plain with a minimum of switches. On the right was a multiple lighting switch (with a spare above it ready for fitting a fog lamp) and on the left the combination wiper and washer knob. The powerful heater was controlled by three vertical slides for distribution, airflow and temperature with a 2-speed fan switch alongside.
The interior mirror was mounted low down on the scuttle where it could make best use of the restricted back window area, and it masked the nearside front wing when turning left-hand corners. Big drum brakes had good resistance to fade, but you needed to apply plenty of pressure to obtain only reasonable stopping power. One road test had it requiring 125 lb. load in the pedal to obrain the maximum retardation of 0·9g from 30 m.p.h. The handbrake held with the car facing upwards on a 1-in-3 incline
A novel safety feature for the time was the independent, diagonal linking of the hydraulic circuits, The boot was big and square, with a large lid and a plywood floor covering the spare. The hinges were assisted by a counter-sprung strut. The hoold would slide forwards about a foot, and could then be tipped up on its front hinges to clear the radiator grille. The radiator was relocated to the front of the engine in 1965, where it effectively prevented dirt from reaching the working parts.
One of the attractions of the Saab was its long life and freedom from maintenance. There was no sump to be drained and refilled, no tappets to adjust and no valves to regrind. The Saab owner only had to get eight points greased every 6OOO miles, the plugs renewed and the contact breaker cleaned at the same time, and the gearbox oil changed every other service.
It was a very robust piece of construction which served as a generally efficient and reliable means of tranport in many territories of the world. Its tremendous cornering ability to some extent made up for a definite lack of power and the very willing throb of the engine encouraged the driver to press on and make quite respectable averages on open road trips. But for the American market, it was claustrophobic and out of place on the open highway.