Posted on 01. Jun, 1997 by in 1990-1999


Swedish Aircraft Company Switched From Wings to Wheels in 1947

NORCROSS, Ga. — Fifty years ago, the first hand-built prototype from a new automobile marque was unveiled to the automotive press in Linkoping, Sweden. The curvy black coupe received rave reviews for its unusual engineering features and unprecedented aerodynamic profile, which resembled the cross section of an aircraft wing. The car’s shape reflected its heritage; it was the first four-wheeled offering from SAAB, acronym for the aircraft manufacturer Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget or Swedish Aircraft Company. The unique two-cylinder, two-stroke Saab represented more than the birth of an automaker. Saab’s advanced and innovative engineering skills, enthusiasm and progressive management and manufacturing techniques would henceforth be a challenge to the automotive mainstream.

Since 1947, Saab has established itself in 48 markets around the world, but despite its global reach, the company has never abandoned its philosophy of engineering and building unconventional cars. A distinctively streamlined body, performance with efficiency, front-wheel drive and exceptionally robust body construction for occupant safety were some of the initial design parameters that continue to be the foundation of Saab’s current line.

Saab was established in 1937 as a manufacturer of military aircraft, a pedigree that has been evident in Saab design and engineering ever since. Saab automobiles also owe some of their technological roots to the Scania and Vabis companies, makers of wheeled vehicles ranging from trucks and buses to tanks and trains. Vabis was founded in 1891 near Stockholm and produced its first kerosene-powered, nine-hp automobile in 1897, followed by its first production motor vehicle in 1902: a truck, exhibited at the Swedish International Motor Exhibition in 1903. It wasn’t the only truck on display, however. Its competitor was a two-cylinder truck made by Scania, based in southern Sweden. The two companies competed until 1911, when they consolidated, becoming Scania-Vabis. Saab merged with Scania-Vabis in 1969 to become Saab-Scania.

In 1990, General Motors Europe (AG) acquired 50 percent of Saab Automobile AB from Saab-Scania, which signaled new opportunities for cost savings and additional resources for new product development. Saab Cars USA, Inc. is a wholly owned subsidiary, located in Norcross, Ga., just outside of Atlanta.

The History of Saab
In the mid-1930s, Sweden realized that its Royal Swedish Air Force needed to be strengthened to help defend the nation’s neutrality from the imminent World War. In 1937, the Swedish Aircraft Company was founded, abbreviated as SAAB and later Saab. Based in Trollhattan, the company manufactured hundreds of “anti-war” aircraft of many different designs.
Saab’s aircraft program began with a Junkers-derived B3 bomber with a light-alloy fuselage, and a single-engine B5 fighter-bomber under license from the American company, Northrop. After these initial projects, Saab soon was working on its own designs and in 1939, the plant size in Trollhattan was doubled.

A radical new aircraft design went into production: the J21, featuring an aft-mounted, “pusher” propeller engine and twin tail booms. Because of this unique configuration, forward visibility was excellent and weapon systems could be concentrated in the nose of the single-engine aircraft. A problem that remained was the danger of the rear propeller to the pilot if forced to bail out. The Saab solution was a revolutionary invention: the ejector seat. The Saab J21 was the first production aircraft in the world to be equipped with the life-saving innovation.
When the war ended in Europe in 1945, Saab realized that it must diversify its manufacturing capacity. In addition to newly designated civil aviation projects, the company decidedto draw upon its abilities in the field of precision design to build automobiles.

In 1946, Saab aircraft engineer Gunnar Ljungstrom, designer Sixten Sason and a staff of 15 craftsmen hand-built automobile prototype 92.001, unveiled to the public and approved for production in 1947. The new car’s model number was the first available non-military project number: 92. Numbers up to 89 had already been assigned to military projects; 90 and 91 were dedicated to Saab’s first commercial and private aircrafts. Saab was one of the few carmakers of the 1940s to utilize wind tunnel testing, achieving an air resistance coefficient of only 0.30 Cd, a respectable figure even today. Production of the Saab 92 started in Dec. 1949. Available only in military-aircraft green for the first couple of years, the four-passenger 92 was powered by a two- cylinder, two-stroke engine with an output of 25 hp. In a remarkable victory for a brand-new marque, a Saab 92 driven by Rolf Mellde (Saab’s development manager) took first place in an important 500-mile cross-country Swedish rally in 1950. Greta Molander won the women’s class, also in a Saab 92. Subsequent rally triumphs over the next several decades — including a consistent string of victories by rally legend Erik Carlsson throughout Europe — firmly established Saab as a contender on the international rally circuit.

The History of Saab Saab Comes to the United States

Saab’s first major evolution was the 1956 Saab 93, equipped with a 33-hp, three-cylinder, two-stroke engine. The new Saab made its U.S. debut at the 1956 New York Auto Show. Ralph Millet, who was the American buying agent for Saab aircraft parts, was persuaded to expand his business to include importing Saab cars. “On the first day of the New York Auto Show,” Millet recalled, “I was an expert on spare parts for aircraft. By the final day, I was in the car business with Saab.” Millet founded Saab Motors, Inc. in 1956 in New York City. The company leveraged the Saab’s 93’s front-wheel drive, excellent handling on snow and ice, its powerful heating and robust construction to concentrate on sales in the U.S. Northeast. Great publicity and interest in the new Swedish import was generated when three Saabs entered and finished the three-day, 1,500-mile Great American Mountain Rally over snow-covered roads, with one Saab the overall winner. In 1957, the first full year of U.S. sales, 1,400 Saab 93s were sold. A station wagon, the Saab 95, was introduced in 1959, followed by the 1960 Saab 96 two-door. A new four-cycle V-4 engine replaced the three-cylinder in 1967.

Saab Firsts
The first Saab with an inline four-cylinder was the 99, introduced in 1968. The larger Saab 99 pioneered several Saab world innovations: headlight washers/wipers (1 970), electrically heated seats (1971), 5-mph self-repairing bumpers (1971) and side-impact door beams (1972). Saab research into active and passive safety systems began with the first Saab prototype, and has intensified ever since. Saab’s safety engineering team analyzes real-world data by investigating all major collisions in Sweden that involved a Saab automobile. More than 5,000 actual accidents have been studied over the past 25 years.

The 1974 Saab 99’s radical new “WagonBack” styling combined the comfort and sportiness of a sedan with the load capacity of a station wagon. With a large hatchback door, bumper-height liftover and fold-down rear seat, Saab’s utility set a standard that helped maintain an almost cult-like following of loyal owners in the U.S. Although a few other carmakers had dabbled in turbocharging, or offered turbos on high-dollar, limited-production sports cars, Saab was the first automaker to integrate a variable-boost turbocharger into a mass-produced family-type car for extra power and low-end torque on demand. The Saab Turbo concept debuted in 1976, and saw wide-spread production on the Saab 99 Turbo in 1978. Pre-production test vehicles provided to automotive journalists worldwide in 1977 received enthusiastic reviews. The era of the modern Saab began with the unique three-door and five-door hatchback versions of the Saab 900 in 1979. The 900 Turbo quickly became an enthusiast’s favorite. World innovations on the Saab 900 included a cabin air filter (1979), asbestos-free brake linings (1982), 16-valve turbo engine (1985), distributorless Saab Direct Ignition (1985) and award-winning Saab Trionic 32-bitelectronic engine management (1991).

New Saab Models for the ’80s
Saab introduced its “Large Car” platform, the Saab 9000, in 1986. In a spectacular demonstration of Saab durability and turbo reliability, three stock Saab 9000 Turbos were driven at top speed continuously for 100,000 kilometers (62,000 miles) during “The Long Run” at Talladega Speedway. Along the way, they set 21 world and international endurance records by averaging 131 mph over a period of 20 days.

The Saab 900 Convertible also debuted in 1986. After convertibles had disappeared from the American marketplace in the early ’80s, then-Saab President Bob Sinclair realized that there was a tremendous market niche waiting to be refilled. While the hatchback Saab was not quite suitable for conversion, a limited run of two-door Saab 900 coupes with conventional trunks sparked Sinclair’s interest. He commissioned a prototype soft-top Saab 900 based on the coupe. The pearl-white convertible was shown at the 1983 Frankfurt Auto Show as a “design study.” Overwhelming media response and consumer interest prompted Saab to draw up plans for production.

The first Saab 900 Convertibles were 16-valve Turbos, shipped in 1986 to the U.S., by far the largest market for the new Swedish soft-tops. By 1989, 10,000 Saab Convertibles had been produced. Currently, about one-quarter of Saab’s U.S. sales are 900 Convertibles.

After a production run of 15 years, the Saab 900 underwent a major redesign in 1994, emerging with stronger four-cylinder engines and Saab’s first six-cylinder, a 2.5-liter V6. Available initially as a five-door hatchback, the new 900 line was joined by a high-performance three-door 900 Turbo Coupe and sleek 900 Convertible in 1995.

Current car lines include the three body styles of the 900, available with a choice of three powerplants and two trim levels, S and SE. The popular 9000 line is comprised of the CS with award-winning Light Pressure Turbo (LPT) engine; 9000 CSE with choice of turbo or 3.0L V6 engines; and 9000 Aero, Saab’s performance flagship with its impressive 225-hp turbocharged engine.

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