In the mid 1990’s, when I was in my early twenties, I stumbled on an opportunity of a lifetime to purchase a royal blue Saab 96 from 1964. I probably understood even then that this was something big, but I don’t think I could fully grasp the rarity or delicacy of this particular Saab. Every two-stroke Saab must be regarded as unusual, cult-proclaimed and valuable in some sort of cultural manner, but the very fact that it was a “bullnose” from the model year of 1964 was invaluable.
This was the last year with the “bull” front-end, which was a lot prettier than the redesign the following model year, as well as the first year of the four-speed gearbox (they exclusively used to sport a three-speed unit). Furthermore, the price was the vastly humane sum of 5 000 Swedish crowns (roughly 750 USD), which was almost unbelievingly cheap also nearly 20 years ago.
The Saab 96 of the model year of -64, then, is the finest of all Saabs, at least if we exclude the sport/rally versions (93 GT, 850 Monte Carlo and 96 Sport). My conviction for this fact was irrevocably determined when I at one point many years ago read an article where a rugged, old auto journalist claimed that a Saab 96 from 1964 was in fact a duty to own!
Finding this car was hardly a coincidence since it was owned by my cousin who kept it in a barn at his parents’ house. Already when I was a small boy my cousin’s two-stroke Saab was a famous item among my relatives, and I still remember when me and my brother got to take a ride in it sometime in the mid 1980’s. Already back then I was in love with it. The beautifully sculptured front-end with the bomber plane molded into the aluminum grille, the deep navy blue paint, and the elegant light grey interior, all accentuated a restrained elegance that we just don’t see anymore.
The ample sound of that tiny three-cylinder engine and the freewheel mechanism that made the car waft so lightly and quietly over the road, completed the magic of this archetypal Swedish people carrier of lost times.
The Saab was named “Ann” since that was what the Swedish Transport Administration had named her. When I picked her up, the handbrake had jammed, the tires were finished and the paint job a bit rosy and bleached. But it started at once and seemed ready to drive besides the blemishes. There was a little rust in the front down by the bumper as well as in the floor on the front passenger’s side, but the rest of the bodywork, including the underside, was completely undamaged.
Following a new set of tires, my father’s 15 minutes of tinkering and a round with the polish rag, I had myself a great classic in my hands. The MoT went like a dance and one reason for that is probably the fact that there isn’t much that can break on a Saab 96!
Immediately I began to use it as an everyday car and the streets of my hometown certainly became prettier by the presence of that beauty in the summer of 1996. My Saab was exceptionally reliable and always started at the first try also in the height of Swedish winter, and the heater did its job also at minus 20 degrees Celsius. Mostly it was used during summer, though, and it was such fun that I could just jump into it and take a drive for no particular reason, just to feel good.
The three cylinder 850 c.c. motor offered 38 frisky PS and on demand revved all the way to heaven. The four-speed ‘box probably made the car more usable than earlier editions with only three speeds, and it was a true pleasure to play between the gears on twisty roads. The gearbox, of course connected to a lever mounted on the dashboard beside the steering wheel, had a marvelous mechanical feel to it. And how can such a potent soundtrack appear from such a tiny machine with such a strawish exhaust pipe? This little Saab sounded almost like a Maserati!
Before the eyes of the driver, a light-grey painted dashboard was enthroned, with round instruments surrounded by chrome, and the steering-wheel was one of those fabulous, thin and white Bakelite things. You maneuvered it by letting your fingertips lightly touch the large wheel, and just precision-steer the car through the bends.
The balance was fabulous and the 96 neither over- nor under-steered; it was just neutrally balanced. If you happened to approach a bend too fast, it just started to slide wonderfully with all four wheels. My favorite path was a long left-turn that went beneath the huge roundabout in my hometown Karlskoga.
I pushed the car as hard as I could and caressed it through the sweeping bend with an addictive roar from the exhaust pipe. I could easily push it considerably higher than the allowed 70 km/h and it still just flowed through the bend. It reached a top speed of around 120 km/h with a high squeak in the cabin, and to cruise at 90 was no problem at all. At one point I took it on a 230 km trip and it handled it perfectly.
Except for the pleasant exhaust note, I used to brag about my Saab’s rally succeses in the glamorous Monte Carlo Rally in the early 1960’s. Surely the rally versions were tuned sport-editions but no one can deny the feat of beating the exceedingly powerful Ferraris, Porsches and Jaguars in an international race! Following my move to Uppsala to study at the university, I chose to sell Ann. I just didn’t have the time, funds or skills to keep her in shape, so on a chilly day of spring she moved on to a new owner.
Today, unsurprisingly, I wish I had kept her. To turn to her on rough days would have been effective therapy. To just visit her in the garage and say hello, take a seat and grip that stunning bakelite wheel and let my eyes rest on the chromed detailing. A test drive, then, could have cured the deepest of depressions.