Wednesday January 2, 2019
A car capable of carrying six people – seven if they were close friends – yet under 14 feet in length with an engine of merely 841 cc. As for the sound of that two-stroke unit at full cry, it was as unmistakable as the coachwork. When idling, the bodywork of a Saab 95 would vibrate and once on the move the engine note was akin to someone lighting firecrackers inside a twin-tub washing machine. All such details, together with vast amounts of charm, practicality, road manners and sheer individualism made the 95 one of the finest station wagons of its era.
The 95 debuted in May 1959 as Saab’s first estate car although full production commenced in 1960. This was the year that Saabs were officially available in the UK. Asides from the Citroën Safari and the new Austin Seven Countryman/Morris Mini Traveller the idea of a front wheel drive estate was an unusual one for many British drivers – especially one with a rear-facing third row of seats and the control for the transmission freewheel.
In 1963 Autocar thought that the 95 had ‘a special attraction for those who appreciate its remarkably good handling qualities and quiet running which makes it tireless to drive’. Import duties meant that the Saab cost £966 5d – over £300 more than a Mini - but many thought it worth the extra. The packaging was extremely clever – the footwell for rear seating doubled as an extra storage compartment and the combination of FWD and a steering column gearchange meant for a flat floor. There was also the cachet of owning “a foreign car” and having heads turn during your regular run to the grocer’s shop plus boasting that your Saab was used by rally champions. Indeed, Erik Carlsson recently noted that:
“Quite a few eyebrows were raised when I did the ’61 Monte Carlo with one. It was unheard of to use a wagon or estate car but the 95 handled and drove every bit as well as the 96. I was fourth that year. We used the wagon, together with its aerofoil on the roof, because it had just come out with a four-speed gearbox, which really helped on the steep alpine passes.”
Saab constantly upgraded the 95, adding that distinctive knife-edge spoiler over the tailgate for 1961 and a diagonally split dual circuit braking system for 1964. The 1965 model-year Saabs lost their “bull-nose” appearance in favour of a longer nose and in 1967 the debut of the V4 marked the beginning of the end of the two-stroke models.
Up until the mid-1980s the 95s were not an especially uncommon sight on British roads, but they tended to be the later V4s. Travelling in any two-stroke Saab is an experience never to be forgotten; the thick screen pillars, the heater controls reminiscent of a Boeing 747 cockpit and the triangular draught excluders in the front doors. There was also the ritual of pouring two pints of oil into the fuel tank before you added seven gallons of petrol.
Above all, there is the sense that here is a small car that is ready to transport you and almost any combination of family/luggage/dogs/cats during the worst of January weather. ‘Go Swift, Go Safe, Go Saab’ was the original UK slogan – one that 95 owners would surely agree. And -after seeing the vintage commercial, who could resist ‘the Swedish car with aircraft quality’?