The once-great Saab holds a special place in the hearts of car enthusiasts. When the brand was around was around, buying a Saab meant getting something with some quirky engineering and offbeat design. Saab just did some things differently, and even in the GM years Saab still had some things going for it. But as if you didn’t need another reason to miss the brand: Did you know Saab once and very briefly got into the camper space? The Saab SaabO camper is made out of glass-reinforced plastic and weighs around 700 pounds so that just about anything can tow it, including a 38 HP Saab 96.
I’m always fascinated by past efforts of automakers to get into the RV industry. Perhaps the most famous example for Americans is the 1970s GMC Motorhome. Don’t forget about camper vans by the likes of Volkswagen and recently, Hyundai. Then there are the countless collaborations between RV makers and automakers. For a time so short it was basically a blink of an eye, Saab threw its hat into the ring and made SaabO camper.
In production from 1964 to 1968, the Saab SaabO sold just 438 units over its entire production run. This unique piece of history is rolling across the Bring a Trailer auction block as I write this and given the trailer’s rarity, you probably won’t see another for sale for a long time.
If you’re abreast of your Saab history, you’ll know that Saab wasn’t at first a car manufacturer. As Saab explains, during the 1930s, the threat of a second world war was looming. Sweden was neutral, but it wanted to create an air force that utilized domestic industry. In 1936, Prime Minister Per-Albin Hansson said in a speech that
“our country should manufacture its own weapons as much as possible. We have good shipyards and armouries but we have no production in the country for warplanes.”
Svenska Aero AB was founded in April 1937 to produce combat aircraft. Over its expansive history, Saab would help build the Swedish Air Force with its aircraft. The company continues that during the Cold War, the Swedish Air Force was one of the world’s largest. Saab aircraft hits include the Draken, Gripen, and Viggen.
Saab AB wasn’t content with just staying as an aircraft manufacturer and it was interested in getting into other markets. The manufacturer says car development started in 1945 with the Saab 92. The vehicle’s name was unimaginative–it was just the next number in sequence after the Saab 91 trainer aircraft–but it was the genesis of what would become a beloved car brand. Back then, Saab’s engineers thought they could apply aircraft aerodynamics knowledge to cars to make them accelerate faster than the German cars imported into Sweden.
As Saab Planet writes, the SaabO camper is another example of Saab’s push for diversification, and it also involves aeronautical engineers getting into a different kind of vehicle.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Saab was working on the Markeffektfarkost “MEFA” experimental hovercraft vehicle project. The MEFA project, which would be developed into a single working Saab 401 prototype, was supposed to be a military vehicle. The Saab 401 would be capable of hovering over both ice and water at speeds of around 40 knots.
The Saab SaabO Camper
Two engineers involved in the hovercraft project, Bo Bjernekull and Birger Lindberg, embarked on their own personal project in their off-hours. The 1960s were a time when people all over the world wanted to get out and enjoy the outdoors. It was also a time of innovation. Here in America, we had a coach who helped coin the term “motorhome” and the Canadians innovated with the Boler molded fiberglass camper.
As Saab Planet writes, people in Sweden wanted to go camping, too, but a lot of them were driving the successful Saab 96, a car that at the time, was powered by an 841 cc two-stroke triple making just 38 HP. That’s not a lot of tow vehicle for a camper. Others were driving Volvos that also weren’t very powerful. Bjernekull and Lindberg would design a camper that was so lightweight that a Saab 96 could tow it without limitations. At the time, Saab Planet writes, there were speed limits for campers, but vehicles towing sufficiently light trailers were exempt from it.
Bjernekull and Lindberg produced a 1/10-scale model of their camper in the hangars of Saab Aéronautique. The engineers presented their concept to the Saab diversification committee, which greenlit the camper for production.
The SaabO’s prototype was built at the Fisksätra shipyards, where it was constructed from two glass-reinforced plastic hulls glued together. It was designed to sleep four or five and included two sofas, a folding dinette table, a galley sink, two wardrobes, and a gas cylinder to utilize for cooking meals, lighting, and heat. Oh, and the prototype came in at just 507 pounds.
The production SaabO remained just as innovative. Like the prototype, it’s built from glass-reinforced plastic hulls featuring cellular plastic insulation. The interior includes all of the aforementioned basics. Something unique about the SaabO camper is its low front and rear windows. This design allows the driver of a Saab 96 towing the SaabO to look in their rearview mirror and see through the trailer as they drive down the road. Honestly, I’m surprised we don’t really see this in today’s small trailers.
The restored SaabO up for grabs on Bring a Trailer is a sweet unit. In addition to the above features, the trailer has stabilizer jacks, an AM/FM cassette stereo with two speakers, an ice box, and a floor-mounted radiator heater. You also get a ceiling vent, a cover, drum brakes, and an awning. According to Saab documentation saved by the seller, the trailer’s dry weight is 771 pounds and you get 5.9 feet of interior headroom.
The seller has provided a 1964 review of the camper from MOTOR. The reviewer complains that the quality of the trailer wasn’t great. Apparently, the table legs wobbled, the floor was just painted plywood, and the interior of the brand-new unit looked dirty even though it wasn’t. The reviewer went on to say that the plywood cabinetry and the laminate countertop were substandard and the interior plastic didn’t look professionally done. Continuing on, the reviewer noted that the cabinet doors didn’t have latches, which meant a total mess to clean up after taking the trailer down the road. Apparently, the stove wasn’t standard, nor was a water pump or water tank.
So, don’t expect to get something of incredible quality. However, most of those issues have easy solutions. Still, this camper has survived for 56 years, so even a sort of crappy Saab camper is better than a lot more modern rigs. It’s not said why Saab built just 438 SaabO campers, but they’re a rare and seemingly obscure part of camper history.
Of course, while Saab only briefly made its own camper, there have been other campers for Saabs. In the 1980s, EMICO, then later Scando, made the Toppola camper. This wasn’t a trailer, but a camper that slid into the back of Saab cars. During the early years, Saab partnered with the firm to make sure the campers had a fit, finish, and design befitting of a Saab car. Toppola campers were made for a variety of Saab cars and even the Ford Sierra, but the business fizzled out in 2006, not long before Saab itself tapped out.
I think this SaabO is even cooler than a Toppola. Back in 1964, a SaabO cost 5,475 kr. That’s the equivalent of 70,744 kr today, or about $6,471 of your American dollars. So, these things were pretty cheap! As of right now, the 1967 Saab SaabO camper is bidding at $1,200 on Bring a Trailer in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts with five days to go. Thankfully I’m not in the market for another camper or else I would probably be a bidder.
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