At the recent Saab 9-5 launch, I had the chance to drive an iconic Saab from the back catalogue: the 93A from 1957. This is the very car that Spyker and Saab owner Victor Muller drove in the 2010 Mille Miglia, with the same decals and roof-mounted spotlight from his Italian adventure.
Powered by a 750cc triple, this is a Saab from the Old School and on loan from Saab’s own factory collection. Better not crash it then.
Saab 93A (1957): the classic road test
You swing open the back-hinged front doors and settle into a wonderfully spartan cabin, basic and uncomplicated by all the trivia of modern manufacturing. The result? There’s loads of cabin space and a brilliant view out – it’s a timely reminder that modern A-pillars have become thicker than a GCSE drop-out – despite the split screen with individual wipers and a rear-view mirror fitted to the dash top.
This being a race-spec 93A, there are full Sabelt four-point belts fitted and I ensure they’re snug enough to keep me safe but with enough frantic arm waggle so I can use the scary-sounding wheel mounted gearchange. There are four speeds arranged in a conventional gate, and there’s a freewheel pedal to master too.
A freewheel pedal, you say?
Yes, the Saab 93A is a two-stroke, you see. If you cruise at high speeds and then roll downhill, the engine won’t lubricate and could seize. So a prod of the button to the left of the footwell disengages the driveline and keeps everything safe. Freewheeling expert Saab CEO Jan Åke Jonsson tells me over dinner that Muller didn’t touch the pedal once during the Mille Miglia, so I reckon I’m safe to leave that well alone on my brief drive.
The 750cc triple starts with a rasp and sounds like a sewing machine on acid. More worrying are the massively offset pedals, which seem to sit in the middle of the car. There’s no tacho and the speedo runs to 140kph, so I gingerly select first and we’re off.
The Saab 93A revs like a maniac – it thrives on a bootful of right foot when it takes on a mini 911 soundtrack and zips along with alacrity that wouldn’t dismay a contemporary warm hatch. Thankfully, the four-speed fully syncromesh ‘box is actually a pussycat to use and comes as second nature.
What’s the Saab 93A like to drive?
The wonderfully spindly, thin steering wheel rim fizzes with feel, and the lightweight little Saab is darty and quick to respond. The 93A’s suspension is soft and pliant but – as ever on older cars – the brakes feel rubbish and act as a useful safety valve. It reminds me of the road safety argument that a metal spike on the steering wheel is the best way to cut road deaths. I’m paranoid about pranging this priceless Saab relic and the anchors’ lack of bite is enough to keep me at sane speeds.
The three-pot certainly has other ideas. It revs and revs and sounds better at high rpm, but that lack of rev counter keeps a lid on things. In standard form this car would’ve produced around 33hp, but ours has received competition tweaks to yield a fulsome 45-50hp from its single carburettor triple.
I’m later told that in fact the 93A is limited to around 6500rpm; the zingy soundtrack is a result from those three cylinders going berserk on their two-stroke mission. What an invigorating drive - the engine dominates the driving experience!
And the link with today’s Saabs?
Is there any link with contemporary Saabs in this old-timer? To be honest, it’s far fetched. This 93A with its wonderful eccentricities and that aviation-spec badge on the steering wheel feels far removed from the 9-3 and 9-5. But the large boot and teardrop shape set a template for what made Saab great.
Let’s hope that under new ownership, they can rediscover some of this fizzing personality and fresh thinking for new products.
>> Buy the new July 2010 issue of CAR Magazine out now for our eight-page feature drive of the new Saab 9-5