The last car I owned was a 1969 Subaru 360. What could possibly replace that thing? How about this?

For five years I didn’t own a car. I didn’t really have the money - or the need. In fact, living only three miles from downtown Austin, Texas - a bicycle was fine for most of the time. But eventually I needed a vehicle to haul stuff in and to protect me from the cloud water that comes out of the sky sometimes. I began looking for another car, and after realizing that nobody in Austin likes or owns old cars (well at least not foreign ones with non-insane asking prices) I found a SAAB 96 about an hour and half away in the middle of nowhere. After being listed for several months with no buyers the seller accepted my offer and I drove home with this 1973 model.

Such engine. Many power. - What moves a 96? A 1.7 liter Ford Germany V4. Yes a V4. Two banks of two cylinders. It’s teamed up with a four speed manual with freewheel. What’s a freewheel? Well basically it’s a one-way clutch that allows the transmission to overrun the engine. Like the freewheel of a bike, when you go down hill you can stop pedaling and the bike coasts. So when you let off the gas in a 96 - the engine falls down to idle and the car just keeps rolling. This is great because you don’t even have to use the clutch once the car is rolling. Let off the gas, let the RPMs drop - shift.


The shifting is done with a column mounted lever. It seems odd today, but at the time it was still a pretty usual thing for the gear change to be on the steering column of cars. The SAAB 96 is a properly narrow car so there wouldn’t be much room for a floor mounted gear stick anyway. It is annoyingly common to turn on the windshield wipers by accident while changing gear though. Starting in the late 1960s the heater controls of cars needed to be lighted for safety reasons. For some airplane-science genius reason, SAAB, rather than putting a light over the heater levers - apparently decided it would be smarter to put a bulb inside of the gas gauge that projects just a hint of light out through the glass and over to the heater levers at an angle. I don’t know what they were thinking either.

Driving a 96 is a lot of fun. Unless you like driving new cars, in which case it would be awful. Old cars are noisy and they smell funny. Also you sit very high by modern car standards; This SAAB has 7” of ground clearance. That’s almost as much as a modern Ford Explorer. The seats are also mounted high, and there is a lot of body roll when cornering. Plus there is no power steering and this thing is front wheel drive. At slow speeds you have to work for steering. Have you ever wondered why everybody in old photographs have really well toned arms? Because no power steering. But - if you like old cars you might be pleasantly surprised. Disregard the body roll and the car handles very nicely, it won’t plow off a corner face first, or fly off ass backwards, even in the rain - this was an incredible feat of engineering in 1960 when that was “just how cars handle”. The 96 won tons of rallies in the 60s because of this “no unexpected flying off the road” feature. It’s also well planted on the road and has quick, tight steering. And the freewheel allows for clutchless shifting in traffic as long as you don’t come to a complete stop. Very nice in Austin where you often go less than 20mph on certain highways at certain times of the day.


1973 was the last year for the 96 in the U.S. - it seems strange given how terrible most of the small car competition was in the early 1970s, but even as bad as cars like the Vega and Pinto were - they looked new. Even with the 1969 facelift the 96 was an old car. Plus with the new 99, SAAB didn’t feel like investing money in the 96 to bring it up to U.S. spec for 1974 (5mph bumpers, recessed fuel cap, etc.) - so they dumped their economy car in the middle of the oil crisis. Honda then brought over the Civic and we all know the story from there. The SAAB 96 is not as cute, or as fun, or as weird as a Subaru 360 - but it is sort of cute, and sort of fun, and sort of weird in its own ways, and it can be driven on highways. I like it - and a V4 makes wonderful sounds.