[Editor’s Note: Here, Ronan Glon of Ran When Parked takes us on a tour of the Saab Museum in Trollhattan, Sweden.]
Visiting the official Saab museum in Trollhattan, Sweden, shouldn’t be taken for granted. The museum was on the brink of shutting down for good when Saab collapsed a couple of years ago, and it wouldn’t exist today if the local government and car-savvy philanthropists hadn’t joined forces to save it at the last minute.
We’re glad it’s still around, because it’s home to the largest collection of Saabs in the world. Visitors walk among over 100 cars including prototypes, concepts, and one-offs. These models shed valuable insight into the minds of Saab designers, engineers, and executives.
1956 Sonett Super Sport
Saab had little interest in designing a sports car in the early 1950s, so the original Sonett was developed and built in a barn located just a stone’s throw from Trollhättan. The project was the brain-child of Saab engineer Rolf Mellde, who enlisted the help of a few of the men he worked with at Sweden’s then-youngest carmaker to design and assemble the convertible in his spare time.
The first Sonett took the form of a two-seater convertible with a fiberglass body. Power came from a two-stroke, three-cylinder engine borrowed from the 93. The engine was mounted behind the three-speed manual transmission for weight distribution reasons, so Mellde and his team had to make it spin counter-clockwise.
Saab executives warmed up to the idea of building a sports car when they saw the Sonett, and they asked Mellde permission to display it at the 1956 edition of the Stockholm Auto Show. Selling a convertible to Swedes was a tough proposition, as rival Volvo found out at about the same time, but Saab believed the Sonett would be popular in the United States, where enthusiasts had a seemingly insatiable appetite for small sports cars.
A total of six first-generation Sonetts were built before the project was axed. Finished in white, the very first car (pictured here) is the only one that rides on an aluminum chassis; the five newer ones all sit on a steel chassis. The Sonett I remained an obscure oddity, but it was only the beginning for the storied nameplate.
The Monstret is one of the most fascinating Saab prototypes ever built from a technical standpoint. While at first glance it’s little more than a 93 modified for rallying, a peek under the hood reveals that it hides a surprise.
Determined win races, Saab engineers fused a pair of two-stroke, three-cylinder engines to create Saab’s first-ever straight-six engine. The longitudinally-mounted six boasted a displacement of about 1.5 liters, and it was tuned to send 138 horsepower to the front wheels via a three-speed manual transmission. The Monstret – a word that means “monster” in Swedish – hit a top speed of over 121 mph. The six was promising on paper, but development stopped when Saab discovered that most sanctioning bodies wouldn’t allow such a Frankenstein-esque car on the starting grid.
Saab’s research and development department continued to look for ways to build more powerful cars. While the company dropped the Monstret’s two-in-one setup, it later became one of the first carmakers to launch a production model equipped with a turbocharger.
The Catherina prototype was penned by Sixten Sason, Saab’s first designer. Story has it he initially wanted to design a Saab-based sports coupe to use as his personal car. He commissioned a Swedish firm named Svenska Järnvägsverkstäderna to build his dream machine in 1964 using mechanical components that were readily available in the Saab parts bin.
The finished model featured an elegant look that shared virtually no styling cues with the 96 that it borrowed the bulk of its drivetrain from. Notably, it was equipped with a targa-style removable roof panel that could be stored in the large trunk when the sun came out.
Saab was impressed by the coupe. It was close to breaking into the sports car segment, and it seriously considered approving the Catherina for production without making any major changes to it. Ultimately, executives green-lit another prototype, called MF1 13, that later morphed into the Sonett II.
1965 Paddan (The Toad)
The 99 represented the first major shift in Saab design since the company’s inception. Saab wanted the new look to remain under wraps until the very last minute, so it built a 96-based test mule to put the new drivetrain through its paces in real-life conditions.
The issue was that then then-upcoming 99 was much wider than the 96. Saab plucked a 96 from its assembly line, cut it in half, and added nearly eight inches of sheet metal before welding it back together. At first glance the prototype could pass as a standard 96, but a closer look revealed modifications such as a windshield crafted from two individual pieces of glass and an ignition barrel moved from the dashboard to right beside the shift lever, where it would reside in the 99.
The prototype was nicknamed Toad (“Paddan” in Swedish) due to its awkward proportions. Four examples were built, and only one remains. In hindsight, the Toad wasn’t very convincing because the differences between it and a standard 96 weren’t exactly subtle. Subsequent test mules featured a regular-production, un-camouflaged 99 body with – oddly enough – Daihatsu emblems on both ends.
1981 900 Safari
The Swedish carmaker most often associated with Ikea-worthy station wagons is undeniably Volvo. Saab built the two-door 95 for nearly two decades, but it chose to focus its resources on developing spacious hatchbacks like the 99 Combi Coupé instead of designing a full-on wagon capable of rivaling Volvo’s 245.
A Swedish coachbuilder named Nilsson Karosserifabrik saw the potential of a spacious, family-friendly wagon based on the 900 and allegedly performed the conversion twice during the 1980s. Built in 1981, the example pictured below was ordered by Setrab, a Swedish components manufacturer, and later purchased by the Saab museum. The second example features the more aerodynamic front end that the original 900 wore from 1987 until the end of its production run, though it was also built in 1981.
Saab never offered a factory-built 900 wagon, and it didn’t warm up to the idea of selling a four-door station wagon until it introduced a long-roof version of the 9-5 in 1999.
Saab teamed up with Fiat in the early 1980s to design a brand new model, one that would represent another crucial shift in the brand’s design language. Executives decided to hide the new car from the press and the public until it was ready for its official unveiling – sound familiar?
Instead of hacking a car in half and widening it, Saab dropped a 900 body on a 9000 chassis and fitted it with fender flares over all four wheel arches. It was much more discreet than the Toad, though careful observers likely noticed that the fuel filler cap was on the wrong side. Test pilots affectionately named the mule Cecilia.
The EV-1 was presented to the public in 1985 in order to showcase what the sports car of the future could look like. It was characterized by a cutting-edge design and a sleek, highly-aerodynamic silhouette, and it was built using novel materials such as carbon fiber-reinforced plastics. Solar panels ingeniously integrated into the roof powered the A/C to ensure that the cabin stayed cool even when the EV-1 was parked in the scorching sun.
A regular-production 900 donated its chassis, its running gear, and its turbocharged four-cylinder engine to the EV-1, though the four-banger was tweaked to generate a stout 285 horsepower. The coupe hit a top speed of 168 mph, a supercar-esque figure during the middle of the 1980s. The EV-1 (a moniker that stood for Experimental Vehicle #1) was never approved for production, though some insiders point out that it was never even a candidate for production and only built as a rolling display of technology. Saab wouldn’t live to build another standalone sports car, and it’s on life support as roof-mounted solar panels are becoming increasingly common in the auto industry.