Wednesday, March 24, 2010

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1969 Saab 96 V4

Old imported cars are relatively common in the Bay Area, but most are German, Italian or Japanese. BMW 2002s and Alfa Romeo Veloce Spiders are everywhere. Vintage Swedes are also somewhat common, but most of the really old Swedish cars are Volvo Amazons and P1800s. San Francisco's yuppie population embraced Volvo and its fellow Swedish competitor Saab for their quirkiness and safety, and 1980s examples from both brands exist in large quantity.

But where 1960s Volvos survive and thrive in San Francisco, 1960s Saabs do not. Why is that? Were the early Saabs too unusual? Too slow? Too antiquated? The Saab 96 was a design which dated back to 1960, but the Volvo Amazon dated back to the mid-1950s. And the Volkswagen Beetle, the best-selling imported car in the US at the time, was first developed in 1938. Over half a million 96s were ultimately built over 20 years. Over 667,000 Amazons and some 21 million Beetles were built. So the Saab was rarer to start with, and was likely only a niche model in the US, making parts and service harder to come by.

The Saab 96 was designed and built by a company that started out making aircraft. The first Saabs resembled an airplane wing and were powered by a two-stroke, three-cylinder engine making 38 horsepower. Power gradually increased over the years. The big difference was made in 1967 with the introduction of a Ford-designed four-stroke, 1.5-liter V4 engine producing 55 hp (bumped up to 65 hp in 1977). In 1965 the 96 lost its "bullnose" front end design in favor of a longer, more conventional look with full-width grille. Around 1970, rectangular headlights were introduced. Production ended in 1980.
This car is most likely a 1969 Saab 96 V4. I can't say it's a very clean example, but it's the only one I've ever seen in San Francisco and beggars can't be choosers. It must be difficult to restore a car like this, as parts can't just be sourced from any junkyard. The last one of these I saw in a junkyard was a decade ago. At least this one runs. It seems to be an elusive one, too, because there are only two known pictures of it on Flickr as I type this. Here's hoping this rare Swede receives the attention it deserves before the salt air and dirty hippies of the lower Haight get to it.

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