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Feature Stories


by Bob Hagin

April 25, 1997

When the Svenska Aeroplan Aktibolaget (abbreviated to SAAB and later Saab) decided to get into the auto business in 1944, it was in an enviable position. World War II was obviously ending and most of the car making plants in Europe and Britain had been devastated in air attacks. At the war's end, governments struggled to make order from the chaos and they worried first about food, then housing, then transportation. Anything that rolled was at a premium and non-military private vehicles were just a dream.

But Sweden had managed to stay neutral. Throughout the war years, Saab had continued to build peace planes" for Sweden's defense and the only drawback to its industrial productivity was raw materials. Saab had a clear shot at the potential market, which gave it an opportunity to keep its workers employed and its corporate books in the black.

But there were drawbacks that Saab had to address: the company had never been in the auto making business, had only one person on its staff of executives and engineers with any previous experience in the auto business and really didn't know where to start.

But Swedes are a logical bunch, so the company started by examining the potential market and determined that small, rugged, inexpensive and economical machines were what was needed by car-hungry Scandinavia in particular, and Europe in general. It also looked into which European cars sold best in Sweden before the war and determined that the German DKW (Das Kleine Wunder) sold well and had all the attributes needed for a successful post-war Swedish car: low cost, rugged construction and an inexpensive two-cylinder two-stroke engine. The DKW Reichsklasse became the mechanical model for the new Saab.

Saab engineers then went about designing their car and settled on a design by Sixten Sason, a world-class Swedish design engineer. Its chassis followed aviation practices in that it was a frameless monocoque construction which kept it light but strong. It was also aerodynamically efficient and made maximum use of internal space, but by general consensus, the design of its front end was amazingly ugly.

Of particular interest to auto historians is the matter of the Saab two-stoke engine. Most cars today utilize a four-stroke engine in which only one "stroke" in four produces power. They either push out exhaust gas, pull in fresh fuel or compress the air/gas mixture to be burned. A four-stroke unit requires lots of valves, one or two camshafts, chains or belts to drive them and possibly a plethora of lifters, pushrods, springs, keepers, collars and assorted other hardware. By contrast, the Saab two-cylinder two-stroke had just five moving parts: two pistons, two connecting rods and one crankshaft. Other plusses were that every downward stroke of each piston produced power (thereby doubling the power output) and lubrication was done by mixing the motor oil with the gasoline, hence no oil pump. For further research on this subject, check the action of your outboard boat motor, power lawn trimmer or leaf blower. Unfortunately, two-stroke motors are environmentally "dirty."

The early prototype gave way to a more conventional but still homely front end design and after several working models were up and running, the Swedish aviation company was ready to enter the auto world. The Saab Model 92 was introduced on June 10th, 1947 and there were several features that immediately labeled it as "different," especially to American observers. Its two doors were hinged at the rear, a feature that in this country has long been referred to as "suicide" doors for obvious reasons. Its tiny 764 cc two cylinder engine was located transversely ahead of the front wheels and drove them through a three-speed manual transmission, also forward-mounted.

But the Saab 92 was put into a holding pattern until 1950 due to shortages and government restrictions. When it finally went on sale in Sweden, there was a reported waiting list of upwards of 20,000 buyers.

Of more importance to Americans was the fact that the two-stroke was introduced here at the New York Auto Show in April of 1956. By then the car had become the Saab 93 (it had sprouted a third cylinder and was mounted longitudinally) and a more "Italian" front end design. The 93 wasn't a blinding success in its first year (just under 300 were sold here that year) but its popularity increased to the point where more than 6000 were sold in 1959. It faced stiff small-car competition here in the form of the VW and assorted British makes, but its performance factor put it literally miles ahead of its competition.

But the days of the two-stroke engine were numbered and in 1967, the Saab was offered with a German-built V4 four-stroke engine. The modernized 90-Series appeared and the rest, as they say, is history. But history will long remember that the original Saab was the last successful two-stroke production automobile produced.