Q: Greg, I’ve always enjoyed reading about the old Saabs, and how novel they were. Do you remember those great Saabs of the late Fifties that sounded like bumble bees? Mark J., email from Maryland.
A: Mark, I sure do. I, too, was a Saab fan, especially of those “bumble bee” sounding 1956-1959 models with a four speed on the column and a three cylinder, two stroke engine.
Saab was founded back in 1949 when the Swedish company Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget (Swedish Aircraft Company) felt it could impact the car industry. Saab is still best known by car collectors for these very unique “humpback” sedans and coupes that roamed the roadways in the Fifties, and also competed in SCCA road racing, too. But it wasn’t until 1956 that Saab appeared on United States soil.
In a release provided by Saab, they noted that in late 1955, Saab’s chairman, Tryggve Holm, came to the U.S. to meet with Saab’s USA aircraft parts-buying agent Ralph Millet, an ex-pilot, aeronautical engineer and graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Millet’s company, Independent Aeronautical, was based in New York and had close communications with Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, known as Saab.
Between the business discussions, Holm asked Millet his opinion of importing the new Saab 93 model. Millet was pessimistic about the idea and skeptical of American consumers’ acceptance of a two-stroke-powered car, as it was necessary to mix oil into the gas tank, like a motorcycle or lawn mower. And Millet confessed that, frankly, he knew nothing about the car business.
But, two days later, as Millet was driving Holm to the airport, Holm insisted that he wanted to send a few cars to be shown at the next major auto show, and see how the public reacted. Without delay, five Saab cars were shipped, and Millet dutifully booked an exhibit space at the 1956 New York Auto Show. Three cars were shown: two Saab 93 models and a Sonett Super Sport.
Saab’s first major model evolution of the original two-cylinder 92 was the 1956 Saab 93, equipped with a 33-hp, three-cylinder, two-stroke engine and a four speed on the column. A partially cut-away model – revealing the unusual engine, front-wheel-drive and hearty steel construction – was exhibited along with a road-ready car. The Sonett Super Sport was a limited-production roadster originally intended for competition; only six examples were built. As an original Saab “concept car,” the Sonett Super Sport was a sensation on the auto show circuit. By the end of the car show, Millet was in the car business with Saab.
In 1957, the first full year of U.S. sales, 1,410 Saab 93s were sold, approximately 14-percent of total output. By the end of 1959, some 12,000 Saab 93s had been shipped to the U.S., making it Saab’s biggest export market.
The two-stroke engine was well suited for winter operation, and owners reveled in the fact that it always seemed to start, even on very cold days. Salespeople would promote the fact that there were only seven moving parts to this simple engine: the crankshaft, three pistons and three connecting rods. But it was not without its flaws. Lubrication problems due to long stretches of consistent-speed highway driving or an incorrect fuel-oil mixture could lead to engine seizure, a catastrophic problem that required the motor to be rebuilt. Rather than ship the broken engines back to the factory in Sweden, Millet set up an engine rebuilding workshop at the Connecticut warehouse facility.
“We had an assembly line – two or three people – working to rebuild engines,” recalled Len Lonnegren, Saab’s public relations chief from 1963 until 1989. “Regardless of the problem, it was often best to simply replace the engine – a relatively quick and easy process in an early Saab. We kept many customers quite happy and loyal by doing this without charge, as Ralph Millet had initiated a lifetime engine warranty to boost confidence in the two-stroke motor.”
Thus, the first “lifetime” warranty came from Saab and the Model 93. A station wagon, the Saab 95, was introduced in 1959, followed by the 1960 Saab 96 two-door.
I want to thank Saab for all this valuable information, and thank you, Mark, for the question.