The Saab Smell. A personal tale of odour by Lance Cole

This is an article that was originally published back in 2007 on my old website, Trollhattan Saab. The archives to this site were lost for some time and I’ve only recently got access to a backup. This is one of the most popular articles written on TS and I’ve always wanted to share it again with a new audience here at Inside Saab.

The author is Lance Cole. Lance is an automotive and aviation writer based in the UK and would be known by Saab enthusiasts in particular for his book, Saab 99 and 900: The Complete Story. The book is an essential read for the 99 and 900 enthusiast and that link will take you to Amazon, where it is still available for sale and available on upload for Kindle.

Lance is also working on a new book, which will be called “Saab Cars – The Complete Story” with 300 colour photos and previously unpublished design notes from the history of Saab. The book is due out in 2012 from Crowood Press.

My enduring thanks to Lance for his OK to re-publish this here at Inside Saab. Enjoy.

——

Old aeroplanes smell, every classic aviation enthusiast knows that. Sit in a Spitfire or a Messerchmitt 109 and the patina of leather, aluminium, bakelite plastic, oil, grease, and canvas, lends a tangible reek, an actual smell.

The same whiff pervades the interiors of Catalina flying boats, Lancasters, Douglas DC 3s and just about any old aeroplane. Even old, first generation jetliners have a smell – think Boeing 707 or Comet or Caravelle or VC10.

When it comes to cars however, the smell thing seems less defined.

Yes, classic 1930s race cars reek, so too do 1960s Alfas, Lancias and Morris Minors. But some cars have no smell at all – not even old ones; when did you last scratch and sniff a 1980s Honda or a plastic lined Ford hatchback – you didn’t because they don’t pong.

All of which begs the questions – why do old Saabs have that unique, special, Saab-only smell – and what is it? And is it something to do with aviation?

To answer the questions, I took my mind way back to days of yore, When Saabs were Saabs and Abba were gold.

My first car was bought in 1981 and was a 1968 early model steel bumpered, Saab 99 two door (well it would be for 1968). It had that lovely cockpit style fascia with a top roll coaming that arced back into the door side panels. The clock was off a 96 and there was chrome detailing on the seatbelt buckles and some very fungal vinyl in the cabin.

Above all, there was the smell: The car had this really strong pong – and it smelt just like my grandad’s Auster light aircraft – a sort of vintage eau d’ armpit mixed with stale canvas, cigar, oak, horsehair, alloy and an air of classic French polished woodwork.

The Saab smelled.

It was not an off putting odour, but it was a definite pong. My mate had a 96 V4 – a white one, and we both suddenly realised that both cars smelt the same.

We could not work it out so we just put up with it.

I sold the Saab for a fat profit and (somewhat idiotically) bought a Citroen GS. The Citroen was brilliantly designed, had a flat four engine, strong hull, and like all Robert Opren designs, caught the light beautifully. Needless to say it disintegrated in front of my eyes, but when it worked, it was truly a spaceship of a car.

Years later we had a dog poo brown 1976 Saab 99 and that also had a smell. And even more years after that I owned my classic 900 five door GLI in blue with blue trim. And you guessed it, that smelt too.

But along came a NG 9-3 and an early 9-5 – and the smell was gone.

I have always wanted to know why my Saabs smelt and what the smell was. On visits to Sweden, no one at Saab knew what the smell was, but they all knew that Saabs had a smell – “Oh yes, definitely Saabs smell,” they would say in lovely sing song Svenksa speak- but “No, we do not know what the smell is.”

Tak, mate!

So what was that smell?

The answer, I believe, partly lies in a mix of low tech glues that were used to stick trim in all cars and aircraft up until the late 1970s. From the 1920s to 1970s, seats and trim were put together in the same way- stuffed, padded, tied, strung, and stuck. And the interiors of cars and aircraft were made of alloy, tinplate and mild steel – even dashboards were metal – albeit covered in lovely rubbery vinyl (kinky stuff I know).

And then there were veneers of wood, of fake wood, and more spreads of the marmalade of glues that were car (and aircraft) interiors before slush moulded, toxic lumps of dashboards and trims, were bunged into post 1980 cars and began their leach of nasty chemcial compounds into your car and your body.

The glues used in old cars and old Saabs would have been animal based – and let us hope they were organically fed! – and interiors had bare metal, plastic vinyls, chrome, carpets and seats that may well have contained horsehair and fibre glass in a combined heady mix, topped off by the whiff of ancient Bakelite (younger readers will have to look Bakelite up…).

Even the last Saab to smell –the 900 Classic with its moulded trims, new dashboard and that headlining monster, combined some of the old world craft of interior trim artisanship.

Throw in the effects of damp and, the fact that even the late model 900 Classics had wooden panels in the back end of the cabin – plywood for something’s sake – and the smells created a list of ingredients just like a 1950s Saab! The plywood has got be the secret ingredient in the fragrance.

I reckon the mix of the above, all brought together as only the Swedes can, is the reason why Saabs smell.

Newer Saabs have none of this – it’s all moulded micro pores and polycarbonates – with no bare metal to stroke and nothing organic to smoke.. Which is why they do not smell like Saabs.

So there you have it, my theory on why old classic machines, and notably old classic Saabs, smell. It is a wonderful, nostalgic mix of animal, metal, mineral, all blended and smeared together to create an aura like no other.

All we need now is a Saab aftershave of the same smell – one that can be dripped from a dispenser into the air vents, and then we can all go back in time.

There is only one problem. Volvos from 1960 to 1970 and 1980, were built in the same country using the same techniques- but they did not smell!

Called to odure, as they say…

You may also like

13 Comments

  1. The most distinct aircraft smell for me was a DC-3 on my first army parachute jump, It was the wood. I am allergic to perfume and I wish women had one that smelled like new car interior!

  2. Oh my gosh, all My Saabs has a distinctive smell which, I’ve have to admit, I loved.  I also flew quite often on smaller commuter planes.  Although I didn’t know the saab plane models, I always knew the instant I stepped off the jetway and into a saab plane- it had that SAME smell.  I always attributed it to the leather seats inthe car and the leather seats in the plane comeing from the same source, but now that I think about it, not all my saabs had leather seats yet they still had the “Saab smell”.

    If they could bottle that, I’d buy it.

  3. A lovely read, and I’m very thankful I got to read it. I was not with you at the time of trollhattansaab, I only started reading SaabsUnited when things started to look dangerous a few years back.

    From my own experience, with a not-so-sensitive nose, I think the 9000 also had a similar smell, but way less than in the old 900. I also think it was even less prominent in the newer of the 9000’s we’ve had in the family.

    I’m tempted to do the research of all things possible that was used in Saab’s but not in Volvo’s at different times in history. A chance guess is that it has something to do with seat stuffing, since that is the most obvious difference when you take a seat in those cars.

    Furthermore, here in Sweden we also have both Scania and Volvo coaches, although not many left from those years, that might show the same phenomena. Intriguing, indeed.

  4. I never smelled antifreeze in an airplane like my Saab 9000 heater core leaks (replaced twice) with repair procedure on par with an airplane landing gear repair. I still love my Aero ’97 and wouldn’t trade it for another car. The long life of the car is a testament to it out living two heater cores I guess.

  5. Scott Hamrick is right. When my ’01 9-5 was still new my brother got in one day, took a big whiff and said “smells like JC Penney in here”. LOL, I love to retell that story. I never thought it smelled like a department store, but I always loved that smell. And even after ten years on a hot summer day after it’s been sitting in the sun when I get in I get a faint whiff of that new Saab smell. Ahhhh, wish Saab bottled that.

  6. I haven’t owned a 2-stroke SAAB for nearly 20 years, yet I can still conjour that smell up in my mind and, sitting in a stroker immediately brings it all back.  No 4 stroke SAAB ever had that sweetness.  The 3 C900’s in the family are all pungent in different ways, but I put that down as much to age as anything else.  If those seats could talk…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *