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The cars Saabs little green car a classic in swedens welfare state

The cars: Saab's "little green car" - a classic in Sweden's welfare state

11 min read

It was peace which paved the way for Saab’s focus on cars. The first prototype of a small car was tested in secret in 1946 and became a classic in Sweden’s Welfare State. The design was influenced by aerodynamic, sweeping lines from the world of aviation.

Autumn 1945. World War II was finally over. But this also brought new challenges for Saab. The company’s management realised that there would be a rapid reduction in the demand for military aircraft. This was a direct threat to the factory in Trollhättan. The solution was therefore to expand the product range.

An important route was the development of civilian aircraft. But many other projects were discussed as well. Ideas abounded – everything from casting rods with reels to prefabricated metal buildings. Fairly soon the focus started to turn towards cars. Before the war the German company DKW had had some success with a small car and now, after the war, the market was ripe for development.

Saab’s engineers thought that they could use their knowledge of aerodynamics from aircraft manufacturing and improve the acceleration compared with the German cars. The main architect and father of the Saab car was Gunnar Ljungström and its styling designer was the Saab designer Sixten Sason.

The first drawings of the car body were ready in January 1946 and a full-scale model was made from wood. Work began on the metal body at the same time. This was done in an artisanal – and highly unexpected – way. A sheet metal worker worked on an oak block which was placed on a heap of horse manure (!) so that it would have the right level of resilience.

In summer 1946 the first Saab was ready, glossy black and streamlined. The engine, gearbox and other mechanical parts had been picked up from various scrapyards. Extensive testing was then carried out and based on that the second prototype car was built, which was more elegant.

The cars Saabs little green car a classic in swedens welfare state
It was peace in 1945 that paved the way for Saab's investment in cars. The first small car was premiered in secret in 1946 and became a classic in Sweden. Here the production at Saab in Trollhättan in 1953. Photo: Almqvist.

Première in Linköping

In June 1947 the time was right to unveil the car to the public. The demonstration took place in front of a large press presence in Linköping. With its round contours and aerodynamic sweeping lines the Saab 92 was something completely new. Thanks to the design it was possible to keep down the power required and reduce the fuel consumption. It went up to a top speed of 100 kilometres per hour. One innovation was front wheel drive, which was seen as an attractive sales argument in the Nordic climate.

A third prototype was built before the entire production operation was moved to Trollhättan. The three cars were tested over a total of 280,000 kilometres’ hard driving.

There was, however, uncertainty over whether Saab ought to consider investing in large-scale car production. A generous offer from the distributor Philipsons Automobile AB came to the rescue. Philipsons undertook to buy 8,000 cars, which was equivalent to three years’ production, in one go – and with a large proportion of the purchase price paid in advance.

It took quite a long time for series production to get going. It was only in mid-December 1949 that production in Trollhättan had started in earnest, although at a rate that was no more than around three to four cars a day.

All the cars were painted bottle green, a colour that became something of a trade mark for Saab cars. The underlying reason was that the armed forces had bought large quantities of a green cellulose paint for camouflage painting. However, the paint did not suit the terrain and the entire consignment of paint was sold off. Saab bought it and that was why both the aircraft and cars ended up green.

There was huge interest in the new, sporty cars. Buyers put their names down on long waiting lists at Philipsons, even though the Saab 92 had a number of shortcomings. This included the lack of a boot lid so that you were forced to put your cases in from the rear seat. But the design was improved and when the new Saab 92B was showcased in 1953 it was equipped with a boot lid as well as a large rear window, a removable rear seat and a battery that had been moved to the engine compartment. In addition, you could now choose from several different colours.

The ‘little green car’ was displayed at the International Motor Show in Geneva and it was clear that the company had produced a product that was also of interest in the rest of the world. There were even plans to produce Saab cars under licence at São Paulo in Brazil, but they came to nothing.

There was a high level of demand and the workshops could not keep pace with it. So Saab bought an old washing machine factory in Gothenburg and moved its engine production there. This allowed it to increase its capacity at Trollhättan to an annual production of around 6,000 car bodies.

The cars Saabs little green car a classic in swedens welfare state
Saab Sonett was a series of sports cars and was introduced in 1956. Sonett was developed in several versions and shared technology with contemporary Saab models. Sonett was initially called Saab 94. Here is a test run on Saab's airfield. Unknown photographer

Saab cars among New York skyscrapers

A new chapter was written on 1 December 1955. That was when the Saab 93, which was similar to the 92 in its contouring, was unveiled. But its appearance concealed major changes. It now had a three-cylinder engine, which was much more powerful. The torsion springs had been replaced by coil springs and the tyres were tubeless. The front section had also been modernised.

Right from the start the company saw an opportunity to access the US market, and a subsidiary company, Saab Motors Inc., was formed with sales offices in New York. In the first year, 1957, 1,410 cars were sold in the USA, which accounted for 14% of its entire production.

The cars were now sought out like gold. Aircraft builders in the company were retrained as car builders and SEK 30 million was invested in expanding the capacity of the car workshops. The objective was for a new car to roll out every five minutes – rather than every eleven minutes – and 5,000 cars were ultimately exported in 1960. The shortage of space became evident and the company was forced to house the spare parts warehouse in a large 600 square metre marquee in the factory area at Trollhättan.

In 1959 the new car factory at Trollhättan was inaugurated. The production rate doubled from 12,000 to 24,000 cars per year. This was then followed by the first estate car, the Saab 95, which had a full 500 kg payload. The seats in the boot were popular, especially with children, and this made the estate car particularly family friendly. It was manufactured until 1978.

The Saab 96 came out in autumn 1960 – it was a ‘classic’ Saab that was similar to previous models. The rear seat was about 25 centimetres wider, the tail lights were new and the rear windscreen was much larger. The Saab 96 was an unparalleled success. When production ceased in early 1980, a total of 547,000 cars had rolled off the factory floor.

The cars Saabs little green car a classic in swedens welfare state
Press release of Saab 95 on may 12, 1959. Photo. Thuresson/Johansson.

The 1960s – the safety decade

Many associate the Swedish car industry with an advanced safety culture. Saab was a motivating factor in this respect. The company had already introduced safety belts into its cars as standard in 1961. Disc brakes were another example of this, as were the split brake circuits, where the diagonally split Saab design was unique. The inside of the car was also improved with a padded instrument panel and impact-absorbing steering shaft. And headlamp wipers came in 1971.

For competitive reasons it was necessary to try to sell the cars through its own organisation. Saab therefore bought up AB Nyköpings Automobilfabrik (ANA) in 1960. Saab-ANA became a widespread brand that many Swedes recognised.

The next significant event was the introduction of a major car model, the Saab 99, which went on show in 1967. The project was launched on 2 April 1965 under the name of Gudmund, it being Gudmund’s name day in Sweden. The first Gudmund rolled onto the roads the following year and was then called the ‘Paddan’ (Toad). The engineers at Saab had just taken a Saab 96 body, widened it by 20 centimetres and put it onto the Saab 99 base. But the deception was soon revealed.

The design of the Saab 99 was the result of 400,000 ‘engineering hours’ and a testing programme that exceeded anything carried out so far for any other Saab car. The new larger car was the gateway to a new market.

Saab’s Technical Director at the time once said: “As an extremely small automaker in international terms, Saab cannot afford to make mistakes. Therefore it is vital that our product development work be properly directed, and that every modification, every improvement should be fully justified – and preferably of an innovative nature.”

Merger with Scania-Vabis

In 1968 Saab merged with a traditional automotive company, Scania-Vabis. The roots of that company went back to 1891, when the Vagnfabriksaktiebolaget in Södertälje, Vabis, was formed and by 1897 it had produced its first car in line with drawings by engineer Gustaf Erikson. Their first truck came in 1902.

At the same time the Maskinfabriksaktiebolaget Scania was based in Malmö. It was established in 1900 to manufacture bicycles. It built its first car in 1901. In 1911 the two companies merged to form Scania-Vabis. The production of engines, motor cars and light vehicles was centred in Södertälje, while heavier trucks and fire engines were manufactured in Malmö. Production was centred in Södertälje in the 1920s. The company also became a leader in the production of buses and diesel-powered engines.

In 1968 the boards of Scania-Vabis and Saab proposed a merger between the company ‘to form the basis for better utilisation of the resources of both companies, particularly in relation to research, product development, production and export sales’.

The new Saab-Scania immediately cast its eye towards its neighbouring country in the east. There Valmet had for many years sought a partner to set up an automotive plant at Uusikaupunki in Finland. The new company, Saab-Valmet, was a 50:50 joint venture between Saab-Scania and Oy Valmet and was the largest Swedish/Finnish industrial project of all time. In the first 25 years close on 700,000 cars were produced. In 1992 Valmet became the sole owner and in 1995 the company was renamed Valmet Automotive.

Turbo concept and electronic age

The development of new cars during the 1970s was affected by the oil crisis and a greater desire to reduce fuel consumption. The Saab Turbo was launched in autumn 1976 and was immediately a great success. The turbo engine was largely a Saab innovation and would replace the large fuel-guzzling sixes and V8s. Turbocharging gave a four-cylinder engine the same performance, but with significantly lower fuel consumption. The turbo concept also represented a real international breakthrough for the Saab car.

During the 1980s electronics arrived on a wide front. Saab developed several of its own systems including the Saab APC, Automatic Performance Control, which allowed the engine to run on petrol of any octane number from 92 to 98 without any risk of engine damage. A new ignition system was developed – Saab Direct Ignition. This increased spark plug service life several fold and made the car safer. And it was now time to fit air conditioning in the car as well. Saab Automatic Climate Control, ACC, controlled the air conditioning according to a preset number of degrees.

There was a steady flow of new base models and they attracted attention throughout the world. There was everything from the Saab 900 and Saab 9000 to the new 900 and (during the 1990s) the Saab 9-5 and Saab 9-3.

The cars Saabs little green car a classic in swedens welfare state
The year was 1984 and Saab-Scania exhibits an impressive family of products including Saab 9000, Saab 900, Saab-Fairchild 340 and Saab 37 Viggen. Unknown photographer.

Saab Automobile becomes a separate company

In 1989 a major event occurred in Saab’s car history. The car division of the time now split off from Saab-Scania and formed its own company, Saab Automobile. The largest car group in the world, General Motors, took a 50% share in the company.

When Saab-Scania was wound up in 1995, the investment company Investor took over the other 50% share. From 2000 General Motors acquired full ownership and there were then no longer any links between car manufacturing and the sphere of ownership of the defence company Saab. They only had the trade mark in common.

In Trollhättan the public can browse through Saab’s long automotive history at the Saab Car Museum. The museum is owned by the municipality of Trollhättan and Saab AB. Financial support from the Marcus and Amalia Wallenberg Memorial Fund has helped to ensure that the collection remains intact.