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Saab 60th Anniversary Celebrating Sixty Years of Independent Thinking Review

January 2007
Filed under: SAAB Car News | SAAB Headlines

Saab Aero X / First Saab

2007-01-29 -- Did you know that.... James Bond, special agent 007, drove a Saab 900 Turbo? Or that Grand Prix driver Sir Stirling Moss once navigated for Saab rally legend Erik Carlsson? And that Saab not only produced aircraft, but also a series of ultra-light caravans? Whatever your interest, we hope you’ll find this review of Saab’s first 60 years entertaining, informative, and even a little surprising in places – just as you would expect from the Saab brand.

The first Saab car was revealed to the automotive world on 10th June 1947 in a staff canteen at the aircraft company’s Linköping headquarters in Sweden. Such humble beginnings marked the birth of what has become a major international brand, now represented in more than 60 countries all over the world.
In celebration of our upcoming diamond jubilee, we’ve assembled a potpourri of 60 little ‘gems’. It’s intended to express something of the passion and tradition for innovative, independent thinking that continues to inspire the Saab brand and the development of its products today.

1. Greta Molander, a Swedish-born woman who began rallying in 1929, was the first driver to win a prize for Saab on the Monte Carlo Rally. She took the Ladies Cup in 1952, driving a Saab 92, ten years before Erik Carlsson achieved the first of his two Monte Carlo victories.

2. Saab once considered going into boatbuilding. In 1944, as war was drawing to a close, Saab the aircraft maker was looking to diversify into other products during peacetime. A number of aluminum-hulled boats, including some with hydrofoils in the bows, were built but, in the end, automobiles were considered to be a better bet.

3. It was back pain suffered by a senior Saab executive that prompted the development of the heated driver’s seat, an innovation from Saab in 1971. The pain was particularly bad on cold, frosty mornings and a colleague devised a means of heating the driver’s seat to minimize the discomfort. As the result was so effective, and also so popular, the solution was put into production.

4. A 1:10 scale model of an early Saab 92 prototype was tested in an aircraft wind tunnel in 1946. Such testing was very unusual for a production car manufacturer of the time but very much second nature for an aircraft maker. The final prototype’s 0.32 co-efficient of drag was exceptionally low for a production car of time and would still be competitive today.

5. Rather like the first T-model Ford, you could have an early Saab 92 in any color you liked – as long as it was bottle green. The paint was readily available in surplus army supplies left over from the war. Saab did not offer a color choice until 1952.

Saab 92 Bottle Green

6. In 1993, Saab adopted a feature commonly found in aircraft cockpits when it introduced ‘need to know’ instrument and information illumination on the new Saab 900. The innovative ‘Night Panel’ feature on Saab cars allows the driver to eliminate potential distraction by switching off main fascia displays, except the speedometer and essential warning lights.

7. Saab engine guru Dr Per Gillbrand – often described as the father of the production turbo – has a very simple explanation for his commitment to turbocharging. “All engines have an oil pump, a fuel pump and a water pump”, he said. “So why not an air pump, which is all a turbo really is? I think it's odd that all engines don’t have one!”

8. Saab staged what is probably the world’s highest car launch when it presented the Saab 9-5 Aero Wagon in 2000. At an airstrip near a New Mexico ski resort in the United States, 2,650 meters (8,700 ft) up in the Rockies, journalists were invited to carry out acceleration runs with the new Saab and other high-powered cars from premium class competitors. The results demonstrated how Saab Trionic engine management was able to maintain the turbo engine’s performance, despite the thinner air of high altitude, while the other cars that were left behind.

9. In 1966, to keep the arrival of the upcoming Saab 99 secret, endurance testing of prototypes was carried out inside an old aircraft hangar. Non-stop runs were conducted as the prototypes circled round and round for several days at a time to test driveshaft durability.

10. The best selling Saab of all-time is still the first generation ‘classic’ 900. A total of 908,817 were built between 1978 and 1993, of which 48,888 were Convertibles. Widely viewed as one of the most charismatic Saabs, many 900s are still seen on the road today, 13 years after production ceased. Some are treasured by collectors, but most are used for regular daily transport. Saab reliability and durability has enabled them to clock up extremely high mileages.

Saab 900 Turbo

11. In 2006, 20 years after its launch, total sales of the Saab Convertible passed the quarter million mark, confirming Saab’s prominent position in Europe’s premium soft-top segment. In many markets, the Saab convertible has been the best-selling model in its class.

12. When the cameras roll and the action begins, it is the Saab Convertible that often gets the part. Jack Nicholson (As Good As It Gets), Matt Damon (The Bourne Supremacy), Richard Gere (Final Analysis), Paul Giamatti (Sideways), Jerry Seinfeld (Seinfeld TV show) and Reese Witherspoon (Sweet Home Alabama) have all appeared in a Saab Convertible on screen.

13. As early as 1952, Saab set an industry standard in locating the Saab 92’s fuel tank low down, between the rear wheels – for good impact protection and improved weight distribution.

14. In 1991, Saab set another industry design standard by introducing handy, under thigh, storage pouches on the leading edge of the front seat squabs on the new Saab 9000CS. This feature has now been commonly adopted by other manufacturers.

15. The smooth, choreographed action of the Saab 9-5’s cup-holder so impressed a UK journalist from the Times newspaper, he likened it to watching a Saab Gripen fighter rolling out of formation and lowering its undercarriage before coming into land.

16. Saab engineers love to ‘talk torque’ when discussing turbocharging, referring to the effortless, tidal wave of pulling power that is on tap without needing to ‘rev’ the engine hard. In fact, the long, flat torque ‘curve’ of a typical Saab turbo engine has frequently been likened to the plateau-like profile of Ayers Rock in Australia.

17. Gunnar Ljungström, the aircraft engineer who led the Saab 92 project, maintained a spirit for innovation long into his retirement. In his 80s, he designed a wooden chair that converted easily into a step ladder for elderly people in the home. It was produced for a time by a firm in Trollhättan, Saab’s home town.

18. There are several good reasons why the ignition in Saab cars is traditionally placed between the front seats. Good ergonomics, inherited from the cockpit design of Saab aircraft, dictated an easy-to-use location adjacent to the handbrake and gearshift lever. This position also reduces the risk of knee injury in a crash impact. And it is no coincidence that the central console is where most controls can be found in aircraft.

19. In 1985, long before green energy became an agenda item, Saab’s first concept car, EV-1, featured solar roof cells to power a ventilation fan to keep the interior cool when parked in hot temperatures. It also included integrated, self-repairing bumpers and an instrument ‘Night Panel’ facility, both features to appear on later production cars.

Saab EV-1 Concept

20. The design of the innovative rear cargo tracks on the Saab 9-5 SportCombis was inspired by the seat-mounting rails used in the cabin floors of passenger aircraft. The tracks are strong enough to support the entire weight of the car, as once demonstrated at a 1998 UK press launch, when the complete vehicle (minus fluids) was suspended on a crane from just two hooks in the tracks.

21. The stunning 2006 Aero X concept car draws on Saab’s aviation heritage to provide the driver with a clear, 180° field of vision by adopting an aircraft-style canopy to completely eliminate the need for windshield pillars – and even doors. Inspirational design that won US Autoweek magazine’s ‘Best in Show’ honors on its world debut at Geneva and Autocar’s ‘Concept Car of the Year’ award in the UK.

Saab Aero X concept car

22. The brand name ‘Saab’ is an acronym for Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, Swedish Aircraft Company Limited, founded in 1937. A stylized aircraft wing, a feature of early Saab car badges, can still be seen in the grille design of today’s cars as homage to Saab’s unique aircraft heritage.

Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget (SAAB)

23. According to popular myth, none of the 16-strong project team behind the first Saab car had a driving license. While that is not strictly true, most of them did not, as they were originally trained as aircraft engineers. We are certain only project leader Gunnar Ljungström and test driver Rolf Mellde had a car license.

24. The ‘92’ model designation was chosen for Saab’s first car as the number was next in sequence for what had until then been civil aircraft projects. The Saab 91 was a two-seater training aircraft and the Saab 90 a 24-seat passenger plane.

25. Sixten Sason, the designer of the early Saabs from the original 92 to the highly innovative 99, was a leading exponent of the emerging discipline of industrial design. Working as a freelance, he also designed the first Hasselblad camera, Husqvarna motorcycles and Electrolux domestic products.

26. The basement of a house in Trollhättan, Saab’s home town, has wall paintings of Nordic scenes, including a large sketch of the Saab 92, signed by Sixten Sason. The mural is dated 1955 and believed to been painted by Sason during a party at the house.

27. The ‘four dimensional’ Saab 9X concept – unveiled at the 2001 Frankfurt Motor Show – was voted Best Concept Car in the 2002 European Automotive Design Awards by Designers (Europe) members among car manufacturers, design studios and suppliers. The 9X’s innovative design offered coupé, roadster, wagon and pick-up body formats within one versatile architecture.

28. The Toppola Camper is an extraordinary accessory, popular in Sweden among hatchback Saab 99 and ‘classic’ 900 owners. It converts their cars into an instant ‘campervan’, complete with cooker, heater, rear standing room and a double bed. The entire module, resembling an automotive ‘rucksack’, is fitted by removing the car’s rear door.

The Toppola Camper

29. The steel body panels of the first Saab prototype (92.001), built in 1946, were pummeled into shape by panel-beaters working on wooden benches standing in horse droppings. Apparently, this cushioned surface gave them just the right responses and feel for their work. An earlier full-scale wooden mock-up was covered in shiny, black shoe polish instead of paint.

Saab 95 Hatchback Prototype

30. The ‘unknown’ Saab models numbers – 94, 97 and 98 – were each used for car projects, one of which went into commercial production. Project number ‘94’ was a two-seater sports car, Sonnet 1, of which six prototypes were built in 1956. ‘97’ was assigned to what became the Sonett II and III sport coupés, produced from 1966-74. ‘98’ was a prototype designed in 1974 as a hatchback version of the 95 wagon. Anticipated sales volumes were considered insufficient to justify commercial production.

Saab Sonett I, 1956

Saab Sonett II, 1967 V4

Saab Sonett III, 1974

31. Erik Carlsson earned his nickname ‘On The Roof’ for early rally exploits in Sweden. It was also inspired by the ‘On The Roof’ Karlsson character in Astrid Lindgren children’s books. And he could even have earned it for a novel ‘roll-over’ technique he developed with co-driver Gunnar Palm to get their car out of the mud on another Safari rally.

32. Sten Wennlo, Saab’s Managing Director in the 70s, was a key supporter of turbo engine development. After a secret night-time turbo test drive, he stopped at a hot dog kiosk and phoned the engineering department to give the green light for production. The kiosk owner later became Saab’s first turbo customer.

33. In 1957, a press advertising photograph illustrating the versatile ‘beddable’ attributes of the Saab 93 caused controversy in Sweden. It showed a young couple settling down for the night on flat-folding seats inside the car – but the woman was clearly not wearing a wedding ring. This caused public objections and a ring was hastily drawn in on the woman’s finger.

34. In 1986 and again in 1996, a fleet of Saabs stormed the high speed Talladega Speedway in United States, setting a string of speed and endurance records for standard production cars. In 1986, the lead 9000 turbo covered 100,000 kms (62,140 miles), stopping only for servicing, fuel, tyre and driver changes, at an average speed of 213 kph (132 mph). Ten years later, the fastest 900 turbo covered 40,000 kms (24,800 miles), achieving an average speed of over 226 kph (140 mph).

35. ‘78 Saab’ is not another ‘missing’ Saab model designation, but the name of a popular Australian ‘soft rock’ band formed in June 2005. The name was adopted because one of the members owned a 1978 Saab when they were thinking of a catchy title for the band.

36. In the early 70’s Saab moved into international sponsorship by backing promising young Swedish athletes, helping to set tennis player Björn Borg and skier Ingemar Stenmark on the road to international stardom. Under the umbrella ‘SuperSwedes’, these two also helped launch the Saab 99 Turbo.

37. James Bond, special agent 007, drove a Saab 900 Turbo in the first three novels written by James Gardner in 1981-85, following the death of Bond creator Ian Fleming. A ‘replica’ of 007’s so-called ‘Silver Beast’ was built by Saab for promotional use and is now displayed in the Saab Car Museum. It features developments such as a built-in mobile phone with text messaging and tear gas ducts.

38. Erik Carlsson is the brother -in-law of GP legend Sir Stirling Moss, who was co-driver to Erik on the 1965 Safari Rally. They got lost and had to retire, but it was not Stirling’s fault – the navigation equipment was faulty.

39. In 1980, Saab produced an innovative promotional video featuring tennis star Björn Borg and rally ace Stig Blomqvist ‘doing each other’s jobs’. It showed Borg coaching Blomqvist at tennis and Blomqvist teaching Borg the finer arts of car control. Afterwards, Björn said it was the most nerve wracking experience he had ever had. But he was far better at rally driving than Stig was at trying to play tennis.

40. During the 60s, Saab produced a small caravan – the SAABO – in limited numbers. Light and simple, yet extremely versatile, several of these have survived and are valued among collectors. SAABOs are often seen at classic Saab gatherings, adding to the spirit of camaraderie among owners – and helping them save on hotel bills.


41. Senior Saab executives are currently participating in user trials of Saab’s AlcoKey, an innovative ‘alco-lock’ device that immobilises the car if the driver’s breath sample reading is found to be over the limit. The Saab volunteers are part of a 100-strong trial program underway in Sweden. The device has already won the Swedish Automobile Association’s 2006 award for innovations that contribute to improvements in safety or the environment.

42. Saab’s core real-life safety philosophy is born from its aviation heritage, where pilot and crew safety is always paramount. Saab’s current database of more than 6,100 real-life road accidents involving Saab cars goes right back to 1948, the first entry relating to an accident experienced by a Saab test driver.

43. The fastest production Saab ever is the current 9-3 Sport Sedan with a 250 hp, 2.8V6 turbo engine, also available in SportCombi and Convertible bodystyles. This sophisticated powerplant represents the state-of-the-art in turbo technology, drawing on Saab’s vast experience accumulated over almost 30 years since the launch of the first 99 Turbo.

2007 Saab 9-3 SportCombi

44. In 1982, Saab was the first car manufacturer to take advantage of new materials to replace asbestos, introducing asbestos-free brake and clutch linings. In 1991, it also led the industry in eliminating CFC’s from in-car air conditioning systems.

45. In 1996, a Sonett 1 sports car from the Saab Museum – with Erik Carlsson at the wheel – set a new Swedish speed record of 159.4 kph (99 mph) for a 750 cc road car, exactly 40 years after it was built. All six Sonett 1’s that were produced still exist today, two of which are at the Saab Museum.

46. The Saab 9-5 BioPower is the only bioethanol-fueled car in the world to give the driver increased engine power and performance – as well as lower fossil CO2 emissions. That’s because its turbocharged engine allows Saab to exploit the higher octane rating of E85 fuel. Flex-fuel cars are able to run on gasoline and/or a renewable fuel, such as E85, which is 85% bioethanol and 15% gasoline.

Saab95 BioPower

47. For good roll-over protection, the windshield pillars and header rail on the current Saab 9-3 Convertible are strong enough to support a total weight of 3.5 tonnes, equivalent to 2.2 times the weight of the car.

48. A Saab car is designed to help you survive hitting a wild moose. Saab’s simulated moose crash test, developed in the mid-80s, involves the car striking a 350 kg (770 lbs) dummy moose head-on at 70 kph (43 mph). Hitting one of these large animals is a relatively common occurrence on rural roads in Sweden and the introduction of this demanding test is typical of Saab’s real-life safety approach.

49. In order to win his third RAC Rally in the UK in 1962, Erik Carlsson left a Saab 96 owner rather upset after ‘stealing’ a rear suspension component from his parked car to replace a broken piece on the rally car. The two became good friends afterwards.

50. The most ‘extreme’ development of the Saab 9-3 Sport Sedan is Per Eklund’s 550 bhp entry in the European Rallycross Championship. With all-wheel-drive, it can accelerate from zero to 100 kph (62 mph) in 2.2 seconds, as fast as a Formula One car.

51. Saab’s real-life safety philosophy is also demonstrated by the development of the unique ‘pendulum’ B-pillar design on the Saab 9-3 and 9-5, found to be effective in helping to deflect side impact forces away from the passenger compartment.

52. In 1997, with the introduction of Saab Active Head Restraints (SAHR) on the 9-5 model, Saab led the auto industry in developing a system to help provide protection against whiplash neck injury in rear-end impacts. A Saab study published in the US Journal of Trauma in 2003 found a remarkable 75 per cent reduction in severe neck injuries when comparing the accident performance of Saab cars fitted with SAHR against older Saab models not equipped with the system.

53. The first hybrid vehicle entirely free of fossil fuel emissions is already here. The Saab BioPower Hybrid Concept, based on a 9-3 Convertible and premiered at the 2006 Stockholm Motor Show, combines electric power generation with a turbo engine using 100% pure ethanol fuel. It is also the world’s first hybrid soft-top model.

54. Saab has already developed a flex-fuel engine that can run on pure E100 fuel – completely eliminating fossil-based CO2 exhaust emissions. The technology is showcased in the 400 bhp, twin-turbo engine of the award-winning 2006 Aero X concept car.

55. Saab calculates that a Saab 9-5 BioPower driver averaging 15,000 kms (9,300 miles) a year on E85 fuel (85% ethanol/15% gasoline) will consume 1,060 liters (233 gals) less gasoline, thereby significantly reducing fossil-based CO2 emissions.

56. Billionaire businessman Sir Richard Branson drives a Saab 9-5 BioPower to demonstrate his commitment to greener motoring. Branson’s Virgin Group is to invest £1.6 billion over the next 10 years in the research and development of biofuels, including bioethanol, for transport.

57. Innovative Saab concepts that did not make production include a thermo-accumulator, designed to store engine heat for a quick warm-up during cold starts, and an exhaust gas storage bag, intended to briefly collect and then recycle exhaust emissions when the car’s catalyst gets up to working temperature. Installation and packaging issues prevented development for commercial production.

58. More than four million Saab cars have been produced since commercial production began in December 1949. The four millionth car, 9-3 SportCombi rolled off the production line in June 2005 and is now on display at the Saab Museum. Production milestones are being reached with increasing regularity. The millionth car – a Saab 99 Combi Coupé – was built in January 1976, the two millionth – a Saab 9000 Turbo – in March 1987 and the three millionth – a Saab 9-5 Sedan – in October 1997.

59. In the United States, a1989 Saab Turbo has clocked up more than 1 million miles (1.61m kms), equivalent to 40 trips round the world. Owner Peter Gilbert plans retiring the car to a local Wisconsin auto museum.

Early Saab Car Badge

60. Saab enters its diamond jubilee year with global and European sales running at record levels. In 2006, over 130,000 cars were sold around the world, including more than 80,000 in Europe. Innovative concepts, such as the Saab Aero X and Saab BioPower Hybrid, point to an exciting future for the brand. And with new products coming in new market segments, the next 60 years for Saab are likely to be even more eventful.

Source: Saab Automobile

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