How To Appreciate, And Drive, The SAAB 95
Story and photography by David Grimshaw
The SAAB 96 had dual personalities. On one hand, it was a car for getting the groceries: a small, solid, dependable car that would get the family home whatever the weather or the state of the roads. On the other hand, it was a rally monster. Drivers like Erik Carlsson and Stig Blomqvist drove SAABs to victories in events like the Monte Carlo, RAC, and Thousand Lakes rallies. It was a sturdy, practical car that would take on more exotic machinery like Mini Coopers and Porsches and BMWs, and frequently win. It was evolved from an even more singularly practical car though, the SAAB 95.
In 1959, Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget introduced their latest model: the 95, an evolution of the 93 sedan. It was supposed to be a station wagon, but with its top-hinged rear hatch and just two doors, it was really a sort of primordial hatchback before anybody knew what a hatchback even was. The 95 featured a bigger engine than the 93, and could be had with a 4-speed gearbox, making it considerably more fun to drive. On top of the upgrades, it still carried on the best SAAB hallmarks from the 93: a freewheel in the transmission, a 3-cylinder 2-stroke engine with the radiator mounted behind, and lots of other little ingenious details.
My SAAB 95 rolled out of the Trollhättan factory in 1969, a full decade after the model’s debut. Of course, some changes were made over the long lifespan of the model. By the time of my car, the 2-stroke was gone, replaced by a 4-stroke V4 sourced from Ford Germany. But while the power plant had been sourced externally, an abundance of SAAB charm was still present.
And that charm is where all the appeal is. After all, no true car enthusiast finds SAABs uninteresting. They may love them, or hate them, but they cannot deny that the old things are captivating in their idiosyncrasies, unique engineering, and distinct driving experience. Forget about the racing victories and the SAAB is still just about the most interesting production car of its era. Forget you had ever heard of one, and it would immediately arrest your attention if you just happened to randomly spot it on the street. And the closer you looked it over, the more astonishing the thing would become.
You sit in the car. The floor is well off the ground, and the seat itself is high and upright. The front wheel wells intrude upwards from the floor, and the pedals are offset in accordance—the accelerator is nearly in the middle of the car. The seat tracks are angled slightly toward the middle of the firewall, so the pedals aren’t as awkward to use as they might seem at first glance, and the very present wheel well makes a handy dead pedal for the left foot. Just to the right of the accelerator pedal is a plastic T-handle. This controls the freewheel. Pull it out and the freewheel is locked to provide engine braking, push it back in and the freewheel is reactivated.
Freewheeling is one of the odder features of driving a V4 SAAB. The freewheel is a giant roller clutch; when you lift off of the accelerator, the rollers unlock and the car can coast at speed while the engine idles, and when you get on the gas the rollers lock up and power is transmitted through the gears again. With a little practice, one can learn to shift gears using the freewheel and never setting foot on the clutch pedal. If you’d rather shift with three pedals though, the clutch is hydraulic, and the master cylinder is the same unit as used for the brake master on the Morris Mini Minor (indeed, quite a lot of the SAAB is built out of parts sourced from Britain).
Having mastered shifting with the freewheel, the clutch only really needs to be used when getting started in 1st. 1st is the granny gear, as you’d be familiar with on cars made in the 1940s and earlier. You’ll reach redline before you reach 20mph. If forward motion is perceptible, you should never downshift into first, unless tackling a particularly steep hill. The V4 is flexible beyond 1st gear though, with 3rd being useable from 15 to 55mph. Once in motion, you can more or less drive the SAAB like a big American car; unlike many imports of the time, you don’t have to constantly stir the gearbox searching for torque.
Handling, for anything that came out in 1959, is brilliant. SAAB’s use of rack-and-pinion steering at the time was unusual. For those used to numb recirculating-ball steering boxes, the quick, precise steering of the SAAB really was remarkable. With less than three turns lock-to-lock, a large-diameter steering wheel, suspension and steering geometry with zero scrub radius, and skinny 155 R15 tires keep the steering effort relatively light for a vintage front-wheel-drive. And that’s the V4—95s equipped with the smaller 2-stroke motor will have even lighter steering.
The front end is suspended with unequal-length A-arms: the spring is seated on the top arm to provide space for the axle to pass through the lower arm on its way to the hub. A front anti-sway bar was standard, and the rear used a peculiar form of solid axle that SAABs continued to use for decades. They definitely wouldn’t have won all those rallies with cars that handled poorly.
Beyond the driving experience, there are still so many little things that make a SAAB a SAAB. For instance, the hood is hinged at the front so that when it snows the hood can be opened without snow sliding onto the windshield and then down into the engine bay. The pivots for the hood are held on by two clevis pins. Remove them and the whole thing can be lifted off for all-around access to the engine bay—a practical advantage over similar clamshell hoods on other cars, for example as used on the BMW 2002. Looking at the opposite end of the car, you’ll notice an airfoil over the rear window. That piece does double duty: it extracts air from the cabin as part of the flow-through ventilation system, and it also provides a stream of air flowing down the back of the car to keep it free of dust or snow.
The interior features the typical fold-flat rear seats in the usual station wagon fashion for more cargo space, but if you need more people-carrying capacity, the rear floor also folds up into a jump seat to carry two additional passengers. Most people associate this feature with Volvos, but SAAB did it before their Prancing Moose countrymen.
In my opinion, if you actually like cars you cannot help but find the SAAB 95 interesting. And if you like driving cars, the SAAB 95 (and 96) make great vehicles for daily duty, being robust and practical enough for use in modern traffic. As an illustrator and comic artist whose work often relies on looking for and focusing on the little things, the 95 is an absolute delight. Every corner of the car is loaded with arresting details. It has character and charm, and it is certainly a weird car in some regards, but one that doesn’t let its eccentricities override practicality (unlike say, the Renault Le Car I owned many years ago). Above all else, the 95 is functional. And although it may have some unorthodox surprises here and there, it is a simple machine to work on at home. I even pulled the engine out by myself in the garage to replace a crank seal and oil pan gasket (in addition to the replacement of all the brake hoses, suspension bushings, and other age-rotted rubber bits).
Some cars are only attractive when immaculate. Some “build character” as they age. Even well worn, wearing scrofulous green paint and stained with rust, this car presents an attractive character that cannot be denied. It is like a rustic cabin, or a comfortably worn pair of shoes; the tells of its age only make it more welcoming, not any less attractive. If you have the chance, get to know a SAAB 95. I know you’ll appreciate it.