Whether you admire the cars for their idiosyncratic styling, for their strong bent towards turbocharging, or for their toughness and longevity, Saab cars have always drawn a strong following. They've been doing just that for over 50 years, and here we look at some of the history of the company, its products and technology.
The First Saab
Regular production of cars at the Saab factory in Trollhättan began on 12 December 1949. The first car - a green Saab 92 - rolled off the production line a few weeks later, and almost 3.3 million Saab cars have been produced since then.
As the end of the Second World War was approaching in 1944 - 1945, Saab - which is the acronym of Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget or Swedish Aircraft Company Limited - decided to begin making cars as a supplement to its aircraft production. Gunnar Ljungström, who had been employed as Wing Designer at Saab since early 1937, was allocated a team of around 15 people and was instructed to create a new car. After Styling Designer Sixten Sason joined the project, an aircraft-inspired and very advanced car gradually emerged. In many ways, the car was very different from the norm in those days.
The Saab 92 incorporated a number engineering approaches that have remained with Saab cars ever since. Front-wheel drive was adopted when this layout was the exception rather than the rule. Sound aerodynamics - without going to extremes - were allowed to dictate the shape, along with the emphasis on good space utilization. Calling upon their aircraft experience, the design team even tested scale-models in a wind-tunnel to make sure they were on the right track. Again thinking in largely aviation terms, they gave predictable handling and directional stability a high priority as means of helping the driver to avoid accidents. Similarly, the body structure, with reinforced side panels and A-pillars, was designed to protect the occupants in a crash or even a severe roll-over.
The first prototype - designated the Saab 92.001 - was ready in the early summer of 1946. One year later, on 10 June 1947, a second car - designated the Saab 92.002 - was ready and was unveiled to journalists assembled in the personnel cafeteria at the Saab offices in Linköping.
Development work thus began in Linköping, where the Design Department was located. Soon after being set up, the Car Department was moved to Trollhättan in the late autumn of 1947. The operations were modest enough to be transported in the "001" and "002" prototype cars.
Engine development work was pursued in parallel with the development of the prototype cars. After joining Saab in September 1946, Rolf Mellde - an engineer who specialized in engines and was a racing enthusiast - was put in charge of engine development.
By the late spring of 1949, production preparations for the Saab 92 - the designation was a logical progression from the earlier Scandia (90) and Safir (91) aircraft projects - were sufficiently advanced to enable production of a pilot series of 20 cars to begin.
Cars Instead Of Aircraft
The part of the Trollhättan workshop that was available for producing cars had a floor area of 17,700 square metres and accommodated the whole production process - bodywork panel pressing and body assembly, engine and gearbox production, upholstery and painting departments, final assembly and final adjustments. Production consisted of 6330 working operations.
Since the car was to have a unit construction body, the roof was pressed as one unit - from the windscreen right back to the rear bumper. The design of the roof panel determined the size of the biggest press that would be needed for production. This press, together with two smaller presses, were ordered from Clearing in Chicago and arrived in Trollhättan in the summer of 1947. The presses arrived in Gothenburg by sea, and were then shipped up the Göta River to Trollhättan in dismantled condition. The heaviest part was the crown of the biggest press, which weighed an imposing 87 tonnes. When the parts arrived, it was found that the headroom in the press shop was insufficient, and a hole had to be made in the roof to allow assembly to begin. Lifting the heavy crown 5 metres and then moving it sideways was no easy task. The problem was aggravated by certain parts being incorrectly marked and arriving upside down!
Practically all bodywork tools were made in Trollhättan. The bodywork jigs were completed by the end of October 1949, and the count-down then began for production to start in earnest. Regular production of the Saab 92 began on 12 December 1949. The Christmas and New Year festivities naturally intervened, but the first three regular production cars were ready for delivery on 16 January 1950. As the first cars began rolling on the production line in Trollhättan, the last Saab 21 propeller fighter aircraft was rolling out of the factory. Aircraft production was being moved to Linköping.
When Saab cars finally hit the showrooms, they aroused enormous interest. Estimates of prospective buyers queuing up to buy the cars ranged from 15,000 to 35,000 persons. But production was initially fairly sluggish, with only four cars a day leaving the factory. A mere 1246 cars were produced in the first year. All of them were of the same bottle-green colour, and all of them appeared to have been De Luxe versions, even though the sales brochures at that time mentioned that a standard model with less equipment was also available.
The transversely mounted, two-cylinder, two-stroke engine had a displacement of 764cc and developed 25hp (19kW). The engine and gearbox were integrated into one unit. The unit construction, all-welded steel body was strong and torsionally stiff. Due to the streamlined body design, the cars in their production form had a drag coefficient of only 0.35, which was an exceptionally good figure at that time. The first model years had no boot lid, and the fuel filler cap shone brightly just below the small rear window.
The 92 was followed by the three-cylinder 93 of 1955, which in turn was followed by the 95 and 96. An all-new car - the 99 - was introduced in 1969, with the turbo version of this car one of the first turbo cars in the world.
The Saab Turbo
In 1976, Saab surprised the motoring world with an entirely new concept in the way turbocharging could be used to improve road performance. Traditionally supercharging - either mechanical or exhaust gas driven turbos - had been used in high performance racing and sports cars to increase output at peak engine speeds. The new Saab approach was to use a milder boost pressure at lower engine speeds and thereby increase mid-range torque - ie pulling power - to improve performance in normal driving. Particularly in overtaking this was perceived as a safety feature since it dramatically shortened the time need to pass a slower-moving vehicle.
It also enabled Saab to provide performance from its two litre engines that matched much larger and heavier units, without the penalty of high fuel consumption. Despite the initial doubts expressed within the industry, the Saab Turbo concept was swiftly recognized as an efficient way to maintain performance, often being lost when meeting the stiffer emission standards being introduced at the time.
Saab Direct Ignition and Saab Trionic
In their efforts to refine even further the Saab Turbo concept and thereby meet even stricter demands on engine management, Saab engineers continued to be innovative. First came the Automatic Performance Control (APC) knock sensor system that constantly adjusted the boost pressure to suit the octane rating of the fuel being used, as well as the engine's condition.
In 1988, Saab introduced its patented Saab Direct Ignition system, a revolutionary development that entirely eliminated the conventional distributor as well as other moving parts. In the Saab DI system, a cartridge on the cylinder head has a separate coil mounted on each spark plug and produces a firing spark voltage of 40,000 volts that creates a more powerful and longer spark across the electrode gap. This in turn vastly improves combustion, especially useful in cold weather starting.
When the Saab Trionic System was launched in 1991, Saab became the first car manufacturer to use a 32-bit microprocessor in its engine management system. This powerful computer can perform up to 2 million calculations per second and then use all available engine data - plus information about the momentary driving conditions - to ensure the best possible combustion at all times. This includes using a voltage across the spark plug (which also acts as a measuring sensor) to measure the combustion for each engine stroke. If knocking or misfiring should occur, the boost pressure will immediately be adjusted.
Today Saab carries out some 40 different crash-tests, as compared with the ten or so that are legally required. The majority of these additional tests are designed to reflect real-life events as detected in Saab's on-going accident studies.
The most dramatic of these is the simulated moose collision in which the car strikes a 350 kg dummy moose carcass with its front roof pillars at speed of 70 km/h. Saab cars are designed to withstand such an impact and in doing so protect the occupants from injury.
Real-life testing has also been a Saab approach from the very start. Even when the first cars were leaving the assembly line at the beginning of 1950, Rolf Mellde, the chief testing engineer with a background in motor sport, convinced the management that the best way to test the newly designed cars was to enter them in a rally on rough wintry roads. His idea was that in competition the drivers would be testing the car to the limit under extreme real-life conditions and weaknesses could quickly be detected. This proved to be a sound policy and countless modifications were made over the years directly attributable to rallying experience with production cars. An added benefit was the positive publicity gained from Saab's early success on the international rallying circuit.
Another innovative testing procedure used more recently has been carried out on a high-speed raceway at Talladega, Alabama, USA. On the oval banked 4.2km circuit, cars can be driven safely at speeds of over 300 km/h. On two occasions, Saab standard production cars, chosen at random by FIA officials who then sealed the powertrain, were taken to the Talladega circuit and driven non-stop, around the clock. On the first occasion in 1986, three Saab 9000 2.0 litre Turbo cars were each driven 100,000km in just under 20 days, stopping only for re-fuelling, driver changes and normally prescribed service which included tyre and brake pad changes as required. In the process, the cars set two all-comers world records and 21 international records for standard production cars. The fastest car of the trio averaged 213.3 km/h, and this included the time for the routine stops and speed reductions in severe rainstorms.
In the autumn of 1996, Saab returned to Talladega with six Saab 900s fitted with three different engine types: 2.0 litre injection, 2.0 litre Turbo and 2.5 litre V6. This time the cars set 40 international records for standard production cars at distances of up to 25,000 miles.