Featured: Swedish Surrealism: This Saab 96 Has Been Chopped, Widened, And Reborn Atop Modern Mechanicals

Swedish Surrealism: This Saab 96 Has Been Chopped, Widened, And Reborn Atop Modern Mechanicals

Robb Pritchard By Robb Pritchard
November 5, 2020
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Photography by Robb Pritchard

Custom classic builds don’t come more wonderfully weird than this one, a  combination of Saabs. You may have seen Mercedes 190SL bodies fitted over modern platforms, or any number of similar modern-and-classic mashups of the American muscle variety from SEMAs past, but I’m guessing this genetically modified Saab is a first for many of you like it was for me. I recently went to the northern outskirts of London to visit the Neo Brothers, long time purveyors of the eclectic defunct Swedish brand, to get a closer look at their unique creation.

Established 30 years ago, Neo Brothers has long been known as the go-to place for spare parts and servicing for all Saabs, from venerable classics to the last models of the 21st century, when the Saab story came to an end in 2011 with the final iterations of the 9-3 and 9-5. Wanting a show car to demonstrate the skills their team is capable of, the titular brothers decided to create something unique to epitomize over seventy years of Saab history. A meld of modern amenities, like the drivetrain and suspension, under the classic lines of yesteryear… is what they created a masterpiece? You can decide for yourself.

From 1960 to 1980, the Saab 96 had an impressive 20-year production run, going through several facelifts from the rather ungainly looking initial version to the more confident looking model with the recognizable Saab grille. The body donor for this project was a 1973 example, which although still running at the time, wasn’t economically viable as a restoration project— coming to the end of its first life, it was destined to be scrapped. The project that ensued included a whole lot more than simply fabricating some mounting points to get the classic body to sit on a modern chassis.

To keep the lengthwise dimensions of the 96 body, they cut the floor plan from a 2003 9-3 and re-welded it a few inches shorter to fit the wheelbase of the classic body. But it didn’t go quite to plan, as Chris Neocleous explains, “One of the main changes we had to make along the way was using the convertible floor pan instead of one from the five-door hatchback which we started with, as the convertible was a lot more rigid. This was after we had already begun work on the five-door, so it was a significant setback. But, we wanted this car to be as good as we could get it, so it had to be done!”

Compared to more modern cars, the 96 has a rather slim footprint, but reducing the floor plan’s width by cutting the subframe or reducing the length of the half shafts was never an option, so the body had to be slightly modified. A set of the brothers’ self-made flares are integrated so well into the design though, that compared to all the other altered lines they are barely noticeable. With a wide track relevant to the thin body, they were limited to what wheels they could use. Even the thin original 96 items were too wide, so to get them to fit flush with the body the offset had to be significantly increased.

Under the bonnet is a two-liter turbo engine from a 9-3, the 202bhp output being a significant upgrade of the V4’s 65bhp that propelled the 96 in another life. The ride quality was also improved, even over the modern base car, with Bilstein shocks, MapTun lowering springs, and Powerflex poly bushings all around.

Most of the hours of work went into restyling the body. Even the most diehard Saab fans must admit that the 96 is a rather ungainly looking design—an acquired taste—and it didn’t age anywhere near as well as its iconic successor, the 900. The Neo Brothers also thought so, and decided that more of a fastback shape would complement the widened arches. As far as they knew, no one has done anything like this to a Saab 96 before, so without reference to any other builds, they had to do everything themselves from scratch.

“By far the hardest part of the project was trying to retain the shape of the original 96 body as much as possible, whilst combining it with the new floor pan,” Chris tells me. The boot lid for example had to be completely fabricated to suit the new shape of the rear end.

Furthermore, the roofline was lowered by shortening and slightly re-angling the B pillars. “This was all worked out beforehand, but as with any project, there were some tweaks that were made along the way. It doesn’t matter how accurately things are planned, there will always be setbacks and obstacles you’ll find once you get started.”

But as well as adjusting the height of the doors, the new roof position meant that the rear screen and door glass couldn’t be used, so once again, new ones had to be made from scratch. Inside, the dashboard has been sourced from the 9-3, and has about a foot and a half missing from the passenger side, giving an indication of just how much thinner the classic 96 body is than its younger relative. Along with the dash, the door cards have been trimmed in leather, and with the cabin being significantly lower than stock, they also had to redesign the 9-3 seats to be shorter.

“We get a real sense of satisfaction when looking at the car now as it is a total head turner and gets a lot of attention,” Chris continues, “And it’s also an absolute pleasure to drive as it has the appearance and charm of a classic car whilst still feeling modern and completely usable. You could quite easily take it on a road trip, enjoying the air conditioning and sound system and general comfort not present in the original 96.”

Is it the best of both worlds, or a compromise that sheds those elements in favor of mixture for mixture’s sake? Whatever judgement you pass on this odd Saab, we can agree that it’s doing its part to keep the story of Saab alive. It’s a new creation using the remnants of a dead brand, and while that may be putting things melodramatically, that’s something worth admiring.

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Bryan Dickerson
Bryan Dickerson

Very cool! I’ve also harbored ideas of modernizing a 96. In my dreams I’d retain the vintage character of the interior too.

Stefan Thulin
Stefan Thulin

Real Nice car