Launched in 1960 and remaining in production all the way through to 1980, the 96 was the car that threw the international spotlight on Saab as one of Europe’s quirkier but quality manufacturers
The individualistic teardrop shape was born out of the marque’s aviation origins and clearly related to the Ursaab of 1947. Although there were tweaks in the styling during the car’s life, the fundamental appearance stayed mostly the same for its 20-year manufacturing run.
In 1965, the ‘bull nose’ front was lengthened ready for a new engine. The initial three-cylinder two-stroke engine continued to be used until 1967, after which Ford’s V4 unit from the Taunus was adopted. Throw in front-wheel drive and freewheel transmission and these are cars that intrigue with their mechanical novelty, impress with their build quality and surprise with their overall ability.
Classic Saab 96 Exterior
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Likely corrosion points are the front inner wings close to the suspension mounts and outer ones around the indicators. Rust can break out around the windscreen and will spread to the bulkhead due to blocked drain holes. Sills can also rot, along with doors if their drain holes get blocked. At the rear, inner rear wheelarches corrode, as does the boot floor, especially at the point where the mudflaps attach on the outside. Suspension mountings should also be checked; lift the back seat, and also check the inner back wings. Later cars have stoneguards fitted, which probably do more harm than good as they can harbour corrosion.
Two-stroke engines have just seven moving parts. However, they can rust internally if laid up, as oil is only present if the engine is running. Listen for rumbles from the main bearings and small end noise. V4 engines are resilient, but the fibre balance shaft gear can strip itself from 50,000 miles upwards. See if it has been replaced; metal ones are available but they increase noise levels. Try to pull the fanbelt pulley up and down – if there’s play, it suggests the balancer shaft bearings are worn, also indicated by the oil lamp flickering at idle. The standard Ford Autolite carburettors have a bad reputation; sensible owners fit a single-choke Weber.
Gearboxes were three-speed up to 1966 and four-speed thereafter. They’re a weak point and oil should have been changed every 6000 miles. The first sign of problems is usually when the freewheel stops working – you’ll get a whirring noise and a loss of power. Post-1974 V4s had tougher gearboxes and selection problems are usually down to adjustment in the steering column or linkage. Clutch judder can strike the V4 models.
With regards to suspension, try to get underneath and check the lower damper mountings; they can come adrift from the wishbones. Front suspension bushes wear with age. Check them by eye and also see if the steering is vague during a test drive.
You’ll find drum brakes on the ‘normal’ two-stroke cars, and front discs on Sports and V4s. They rarely give trouble but handbrakes do, as the operating arms in the hubs wear out. They need to be reshaped and rewelded to be effective again.
Interior and Electrics
Interior trim is hard to source, so ensure what’s there is reasonable.
Rear seat tops suffer from sun damage and the parcel shelf tends to bow in the middle. Check the front and rear screen seals – they’re near-impossible to find for two-stroke cars and V4 variants are scarce, too. Ignition locks should be lubricated, otherwise they get gunged up and, because they lock the transmission, the car will be immobilised. Feel how stiff things are when starting.
With electrics, most trouble is down to damp or corrosion issues in the fusebox, under the bonnet on the bulkhead. If the headlamps are playing up, it’s probably the relay in the same area.
Because they’re different and quite eccentric, as well as being rugged. While the two-stroke cars are hard to find, they’re definitely the quirkiest and purest of the bunch. V4 cars are more common and more practical in terms of performance, spares availability and general use. Prices are still quite reasonable given the scarcity of the cars these days.
A 96 is a machine you’ll never get bored of driving – or even just looking at and admiring that very distinctive shape.