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Driveable Dream, No More: Revisiting a 1963 Saab 96 at the 2019 Carlisle Import and Performance Nationals

Published in blog.hemmings.com

While walking through the ever-impressive Saabs @ Carlisle section during May 17-19’s Import & Performance Nationals, more popularly known as Import Carlisle, I stopped to admire a handsomely restored “bull-nose” Saab 96 with a rare factory sunroof that was parked in the Vintage 9’s class. This car was next to the 93F racecar of our friend and dedicated Saaber, Tom Cox.

I’d met Tom back in May of 2012, when Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car editor David LaChance and I found him and his rusty little red 1963 96 Sunroof stirring up the crowd at Import Carlisle. His car was a point of fascination with showgoers that year, and it would win awards both within the Saabs @ Carlisle group, and from the Carlisle show at large.

This example sported the new-for-1963 grille, with cast-in logotype and airplane, as well as the rarely seen Golde sliding sunroof, the version on this car having creatively (and amusingly) been replaced some years earlier with repurposed vinyl pool liner.

We talked Tom into letting us shoot the 96 there on the grounds during the show, and the car turned a lot of heads and prompted a lot of grins as its 42-hp, 841-cc (51.3-cu.in.), two-stroke three-cylinder popped and smoked its way around the lower property.

That photo shoot led to the car’s appearance as the Driveable Dream feature for the October 2012 issue of HS&EC.

Tom’s had some health issues in the past couple of years, so it was a genuine surprise and pleasure to find him hanging out by the big Saab tent, behind the 93 and a handsome Toreador Red 96 with a black sunroof. The card in the window indicated the latter belonged to Virginia residents Philip and Amy Klene, so you could have knocked me over with a feather when Tom told me this was his old car, our former Driveable Dream, reborn!

It was after I learned this that I noticed the car was being displayed with a photo board that showed some of what went into its restoration.

Philip shared the story of how this car came to look as it does today.

“Tom had seen some of the different Saab projects we’d brought back to life, and we mentioned to him, during a show, that we were looking for a bull-nose sunroof car that we could return to its previous glory. A month later, he contacted me to suggest this car, here. We exchanged it for a number of large trees planted, and the removal of a very large dead tree.

“We got the car from Tom in fall of 2017. We enjoyed driving it up and down the drive on our farm for a while, showing it to visitors and just having fun with it. We knew it needed a lot of structural help, and we wanted to give it cosmetic help also.

“That winter, Al Huseman, Andrew Durant, and I delved into repairing the front spring perches, inner fenders, firewall and the front floor. The spring perches were adapted from a long-nose car, which actually used a heavier-gauge metal than the bull-nose cars. We harvested part of a floor from a long-nose 96 parts car, and fabricated additional metal pieces to repair the front floor, removing the old license plate repair patch. Once we had the front structurally sound, we completely disassembled the car, removing the bumpers, glass, fenders, interior, sunroof, and engine.

“The car was then sent off to the painters we used in Maryland, and they worked on it until we got the chassis back in late March of this year. The other metal components — fenders, hood, trunk, cowl and other metal pieces — trickled in over the following weeks. We assembled parts back in the car as we got them, and replaced the windshield, using a new gasket we got from Tom Donney.

“We swapped some stuff into the interior; it’s not 100-percent correct. This car originally had red cloth, but this 1967-style vinyl upholstery was put in before Tom got the car. We haven’t figured out how we’ll finish it.

“The pieces we selected to put back, including bumper parts, door handles, and quarter-window handles, were the best of what we could find in our parts collections. We refinished the wheel rims and looked for the best hubcaps and trim rings in our stash. The sunroof came with the car, and required quite a bit of effort to stretch the replacement fabric. This was done over several days, with multiple heat guns, and several people stretching it to get the latch to engage. I had to figure out how to restore the headliner, where that connected to the sunroof.

“We are currently having two-stroke guru David Baugher rebuild the leaking ‘waternator’ [this car’s unusual water pump and generator units, driven off a common shaft]. Then we are looking forward to getting out to some shows and enjoying driving it.”

I asked Philip about his takeaways from the restoration, and he pondered before saying, “It was a good learning curve for us to handle that metalwork. It was a stepping stone for more projects that we’d been leery of, including a Sonett III and a 1969 Sonett V4. The Golde sunroof fascinated me with its intricacy- it was interesting to see how it was engineered with aluminum, wood, and flat screws, and reminded me of of the woodworking projects my German grandfather did in that same era.

“I’d been sending Tom photos of our progress, but when he saw the car, he was grinning like crazy. He said, a number of times, ‘I could never have done what was needed.’ Not everybody agrees about our decision to get rid of the patina and make it look pretty like it once did, but most seem to like the result.”

Philip (left), Tom, and our former “Diamond in the Rough.”