Saab has never been an ordinary car company. Most obviously in that it wasn't founded to be a car company at all. It was an airplane maker that opened its doors in 1937 and, about a decade later, went into the car business. Saabs were built around that unique engineering heritage.
And now Saab is just about dead, again. Just like Pontiac, Plymouth and American Motors, Saab will probably be put out of its misery very soon.
But Saab wasn't always miserable. The Swedish company had its highlights. From the day the first 92 two-door ran off the company's Trollhättan assembly line in 1949 until General Motors purchased controlling interest in 1990, Saabs were epically quirky. Wonderfully so. And it's by those standards that each individual model's relative greatness can be judged. After all, this is the company that put the ignition key between the front seats, and insisted on keeping it there for over 50 years.
Choosing the best five Saabs of all time wasn't exactly easy, but it wasn't like choosing the five best Ferraris either.
One thing's for sure, if Saab does go down, it will be missed.
1. 1950 Saab 92: If nothing else, the original Saab 92 rises to the top of this small heap by virtue of setting an epic standard of eccentric engineering for all the Saabs yet to come. Except that it ran on four circular tires, there was virtually nothing conventional about the Saab 92.
At a time when virtually all other cars built around the world utilized body-on-frame construction, the Saab 92 was a unibody. While most cars back then had solid axles holding up at least one of their ends, the 92 was fitted with all-independent torsion bar suspension. Beyond that it was front-wheel drive and had rack-and-pinion steering, too. And it looked like a cockroach redesigned by Buck Rogers in an alien wind tunnel. What it didn't have was a rear trunk lid.
But by far the 92's greatest eccentricity was its 764-cubic-centimeter, two-cylinder two-stroke engine. Producing about 25 horsepower burning a mix of oil and gasoline, the two-stroke engine was chosen since it was, the logic goes, more likely to start on a cold Swedish winter morning and featured far fewer parts to go wrong. Feeding a three-speed gearbox, Saab claimed the 92 was good for 65 mph. Others claimed it was lucky to hit 50 mph.
Saab only built 1,246 cars during the 92's first model year of 1950. Production rose to 2,179 in 1951 and 2,298 in 1952. It wasn't until release of the revised "92B" (which included a trunk lid and an additional 3 hp) that production cracked 5,000 units.
2. 1978 Saab 99 Turbo: When the Saab 99 went on sale in 1969 it seemed startlingly ordinary — for a Saab. After all, it had a conventional four-stroke, inline four-cylinder engine under its hood and the styling was almost, well, handsome. But it wasn't until nine years later that the 99 evolved into its best form, the 99 Turbo.
Porsche had led the 1970s turbocharger renaissance with its 1976 911 Turbo (model 930). But a Porsche was a sports car built for high-speed hero work. It was Saab that put a turbo on a car that could be used by families every day.
Based on the long-tail 99 three-door hatchback body, the 99 Turbo's engine used the same Triumph-derived SOHC four-cylinder long block as other 99 models. But the compression ratio was dropped from 9.2:1 to 7.2:1 and the fuel-injected engine was fitted with a Garrett turbo. The result was a bump in output from the standard engine's 115 hp to a robust-for-the-time 135 hp.
The 99 Turbo suddenly made Saab, in many buyers' minds, a viable, somewhat stylish alternative to BMW or Mercedes. And it set the company on an engineering trajectory that would redefine its products for more than three decades.
3. 1963 Saab 96 GT850: By 1961 the 92 had evolved through the three-cylinder 93 into the more robust 96. But the ultimate two-stroke Saab came in 1963 with the arrival of the GT850.
Based on the 96, the GT850 (or "96 Sport") featured a "big" 841cc three-cylinder two-stroke engine fitted with three individual carburetors. That was enough for the GT850 to roar with a full-throated 57 hp, which it pushed through a four-speed manual transmission. With that much gumption aboard, Saab wisely fit the GT850 with its first pair of front disc brakes. After success in rallying, the GT850 would later come to be known as the "Monte Carlo 850."
That success in rallying came, in great part, due to the talents of Erik Carlsson. It was Carlsson who piloted 96s to wins in the Rally of Monte Carlo during 1962 and 1963 and another big win at San Remo in 1964. And of course Carlsson won dozens of victories in cold-weather rallies around Scandinavia.
As this is written, Carlsson is 82 years old. He's still a better driver than you.
4. 1955 Saab 94 Sonett I: There was always an urge within Saab's engineering culture to push out into more sporting arenas. The first evidence of that was the type 94 Sonett sports car built between 1955 and 1957 at the staggering rate of about two a year. That's right, a total of six Sonett I's were made.
Built around established Saab mechanicals, including the 748cc, three-cylinder two-stroke engine, the Sonnet was intended to go into mass production with the aim of competing in European sports car racing events. As such it was nearly a racecar, with its fiberglass roadster body intended to knock weight down as low as possible. But rule changes obviated the need for the purpose-built Sonett I, and it never entered series production.
Saab, of course, later produced Sonett II and Sonett III GT coupe models. But it's the Sonett I roadster that remains the most intriguing and attractive. Plus, in 1996, the amazing Erik Carlsson took a restored Sonett I out and set a speed record of 159.40 km/h for cars under 750cc. That's 99.05 mph, which is dang studly.
5. 1986-'94 Saab 900 Turbo Convertible: The Saab 900 was basically a 99 with the nose and wheelbase stretched to better withstand U.S. crash regulations. But that stretch was enough to produce the classic and definitive Saab. And the ultimate version of the 900 was the Turbo Convertible.
Built at the behest of the man running Saab in America, Bob Sinclair, the 900 Turbo Convertible was produced at a plant in Finland using the conventional 900 two-door body as a base. The result was, almost counterintuitively, maybe the best-looking Saab of all time. It was an almost perfectly proportioned car that somehow didn't lose its distinctive Saab-ness.
But beyond that, the 900 Turbo Convertible was also a sweet driving car. Saab's 2.0-liter four now sported a 16-valve head, and the development of improved engine electronics vastly improved daily drivability of the turbocharged engine. And output for the 1986 model year was a full 160 hp.
By the time the last of the original 900 Turbo Convertible models, the 900 Turbo SPG was in production, 175 hp was on tap and was the epitome of everything Saab could be.
Don't confuse this car with the second Saab 900, based on GM's Opel Vectra, which arrived for the 1994 model year. For most Saab lovers, that was the beginning of the end for Saab.