Driving Saab 98
Saab wanted to modernize the old 96 with a new rear end in the early 1970s. We hit the road with the prototype and spoke to prominent Saab veterans to understand why this promising newcomer on paper was never put into production. This is the story of the unknown Saab 98.
The starter motor does its best, but the engine fails. Only after a good dose of Startpilot does it come to life with a loud crackle. The stone walls of the old factory hall reflect the raw sounds. Due to the long standing period, the exhaust silencer no longer functions for what it was once designed for. The resulting sound is strongly reminiscent of a two-stroke engine, the engine type with which Saab’s first model was delivered from 1949 to 1967. One and one is two, you would think, but this car really has a Ford V4 under the hood, which brings the very long-produced model series 92/93/96/95 at the end of the 1960s completely up to date, at least in terms of engine. is. It also has a completely new rear end, which should have been introduced in 1973. However, it remained a plan. Long-term research has been conducted on the prototype with which we stand face to face today. This 98 stood in a corner of the Saab museum for years. He is allowed to leave his accommodation once for our test drive.
Prototype drawn and built by Italian coachbuilder
We pull the upright handbrake lever and press the clutch pedal. The gear lever on the steering column is a bit unruly when selecting first gear. We carefully roll out of the hall. The wide world awaits in front of the Saab’s nose. We immediately feel at home behind the thin two-spoke steering wheel. The mechanical feeling that the controls give, the somewhat front-loading handling and the robust, not very refined drivetrain: it is all known from Saabs with a V4 engine, whether it is a compact 96 or a 95 Kombi. Yet this 98 is one step higher in the pecking order. With both its capabilities and its naming, it is closer to the modern and larger 99 that Saab has supplied since 1968. Bodybuilder Carrozzeria Coggiola, located near Turin, designed the prototype that we are on the road with today. Even brand enthusiasts are often unaware of the existence of this model and the plans the manufacturer had for it.
When developing the larger Saab 99, then chief designer Sixten Sason considered a body with a rear that was more sloping and sportier than the 99 sedan. There are also advanced plans for a conventional station wagon, but the choice is the variant with a sloping rear, which will be given the project name X14. In 1973, the Combi Coupé based on the 99 experienced its baptism of fire. The model serves as a blueprint for a possible modernization option for the old 96. The intention is that the technology, i.e. the underbody and the drivetrain, of the 95 (the station wagon version of the 96) is retained. The changes would only affect the rear part of the body.
Saab 95 for the conversion
Designer Sason, known for his Saab models and Hasselblad cameras, died after the creation of the 99 in 1967. His successor Björn Envall set to work on creating a Combi Coupé version of the smaller model. Furthermore, industrial designer Aribert Vahlenbreder is commissioned to make a concrete proposal. In his archive he finds a sketch of a 95 with a new roof, long rear side windows, upright rear lights and a large tailgate. The sketch was made on September 3, 1973.
Saab 95 model year 1974
Two days later, a polar white Saab 95 was registered, model year 1974. The first owner: Saab’s passenger car department. To find out the rest of his life, we talk to no fewer than three icons from Saab history. The car is awarded to Gunnar Larsson, later technical director at Saab. Then he cannot have imagined that his new 95 will play an important role in this history story. “I had just been appointed head of department and that’s why I got a company car for my wife,” says Gunnar. “After a few weeks, Saab wanted the car back, I hadn’t even driven it at the time. They quickly needed a car that they could send to Italy for a conversion.”
He cherishes special memories of the car, although he does not remember everything. “I think the car was involved in a collision on the way to Italy. All the damaged body parts were replaced, but I was never able to find out whether the crashed Saab was really the car they converted in Turin.”
One or more prototypes?
We have yet to find out whether only this prototype was built or perhaps several copies. In any case, Björn Eric Lindh’s book ‘Saab – Bilarna de första 40 åren’ (‘Saab – the first 40 years’) contains a photo of the 98. It is bright orange in color. Matte black stripes adorn the sides. The sporty-looking black finish has also been applied to the window frame and the small, triangular panel around the exterior mirror mounting. Chrome-plated moldings around the rear windows are conspicuous by their absence.
All these details are different on our test car. The only official drawing of a Saab 98 is included in the book ‘Bilar på Saab-vis’ (‘Cars as Saab builds them’) by Saab engineer Gunnar A. Sjögren, known under his initials GAS. The same strip can be found on the inside of the side window as on the orange Saab. On the other hand, the tank opening here is still equipped with a metal flap instead of a screw cap. The 95 and the 96 do not have this, nor does the 98 that is in the museum. We find more photos in the archives of the Saab Museum. A blurry black and white photo shows a Saab 98 that was apparently photographed in the same place as in Björn Eric Lindhs’ book.
In the background is a smoking worker with a brush in his hand, who is apparently very proud of his work. The car does not have an interior or windows. The body rests on supports and the roof is supported by reinforcements. The side windows are more oval in shape and the ventilation grille at the C-pillar is longer. The rear lights are not transparent on this car. The car is white, just like Gunnar Larsson’s. It would be a mock-up with a fiberglass structure. However, two other photos show an orange car at the same photo location, which, unlike the one in the book, has chrome strips instead of black stripes. Through the windows we see door trim and seats in the color ‘lion yellow’, just like in the old car from Gunnar Larsson’s company and just like in the car we are driving today.
The number 98 is emblazoned on the tailgate. Unlike the other cars, the rear bumper does not extend around the corners of the body. However, the ventilation grilles at the C-pillars are equipped with a chrome strip with the number 98. In addition, the car has a fuel filler flap. His license plate FPY 236 is in a list containing all cars that were registered for Saab-Scania on September 7, 1973, exactly one line above the white 95 with license plate AYY 330, which in all likelihood served as the basis for the Saab 98 in which we’re driving now. It is possible that there were at least two Saabs 98 for a short time. One thing is certain: our car was changed and brought to its current condition after the photo shoot that took place at the time. However, the question remains why this Saab was first built and then rejected. Who pulled the plug on this project and why?
In any case, during our small test drive on the way to the photo locations of this article, the car makes a harmonious impression. There is sufficient space available on the seats, even if the interior width is limited.
On the other hand, the luggage space is enormous and, above all, much more usable than in the 96 with its small tailgate. The angular 95 – with its third row of seats placed in the luggage compartment against the direction of travel – cannot of course beat the 98. And let’s be honest, as familiar as the driving behavior may seem, it is not modern, not even compared to its competitors. That was a colorful group in the 1970s, as becomes apparent when we take a look at Jan Ullén’s Swedish catalog ‘Bilfakta’ (car data), in which the Saab 98 L Combi Coupé is said to have been given a place after the most expensive car, the Rolls-Royce. Camargue.
Or at least the Swedes themselves would have taken this car to their hearts and whether the modification would have reawakened interest in the otherwise quite outdated construction? In any case, next to its sister model 96, the shape of the car does not look strange. We can say that the 95 with its fins and double small side windows would have looked even more bizarre next to this car.
The Saab management harbors serious doubts about the sales potential during that period, which is quite justified. After all, after the introduction of the 99, Saab is winning over more and more foreign buyers and is expanding its international dealer network. Non-Scandinavian markets should not expect this effectively outdated model range to be a success. In fact, the radically modern image built up by the 99 would have been damaged in the export markets by launching the 98. And even in Scandinavia the 96/95 is clearly past its heyday. Volvo launched the 343 in 1976, which the brand acquired through the takeover of DAF, and fresh, modern car constructions came from abroad, such as the Volkswagen Golf from 1974. No records have survived of the thoughts of the directors at the time, and the men who made the decisions at that time are now deceased.
However, the 99 was given priority in those years, and those involved with Saab at the time further said that the 98 would have been a bastard with its Italian design and that it would not have had a long life due to the old technical basis.
An early Saab 99
It is so obvious that the plug will be pulled on this project that no one today knows who made the decision and when. From 1974 onwards, Saab sold the small Italian Autobianchi A112 through its dealer network, expanding the model range downwards. However, armpit fresh is no longer that model. The attempt to market the brand new Lancia Delta as the Saab 600 in 1980 seems almost an act of desperation. After initially promising sales figures, the Delta’s heating systems collapsed in the Swedish cold in the first winter, meaning that dealers only managed to sell the last copies of the first model year in 1983. The ‘premium’ 9000, which shares its basis with models from Alfa Romeo, Fiat and Lancia, has brought success to the brand, but that is a completely different story.
The journey of discovery comes to an end for us. After its short excursion into the wide world, it is time to return the car to the safety of the museum. In the field, the odometer jumps to 2,726 kilometers. When we park the Saab 98 between its more popular brothers, we make sure that the lanterns also illuminate it well. He deserved that.
This is a shortened version of an article that appeared in AutoWeek Classics 11 2021.
– Thanks for information from Autoweek.nl