DIFFERENT STROKES

ROB’S LAMENT: WHERE HAVE ALL THE TWO STROKES GONE?

WORDS ROB BLACKBOURN

While mention of two-stroke motors generally brings leaf blowers or chainsaws to mind there are occasions when my thoughts take other directions.

Sometimes my two-stroke imaginings have a distinctly Swedish flavour (nothing to do with the meatballs special on the IKEA café menu). It’s the late, lamented SAAB that comes to mind.

For a company that consistently produced impressive aircraft, SAAB’s automotive division did a lot of ducking and weaving regarding its engine choices over the decades.

For 17 years from the vehicle’s inception in 1949 all SAABs were two-stroke powered.

I was blissfully unaware of this fact (and to be honest, unaware of SAAB itself) until Pat Moss, sister of Stirling, arrived in Melbourne in the mid-1960s. Mention of the Moss name was an attention grabber for petrol-head kids like me. Pat Moss, a rally driver of some note herself, was here for the BP Rally with husband Erik Carlsson, the first of the flying Scandinavians, who entered a SAAB 96 powered by a highly modified 841cc two-stroke motor.

It was interesting that SAAB replaced its little two-strokes with a four stroke from Ford – the Essex V4 from Ford’s Transit and Corsair range. This far-from-faultless powerplant was a stopgap measure to keep SAAB on the road until its own four-stroke, the excellent OHC inline four was introduced. It was a design produced for SAAB by the British Triumph company. SAAB was clever enough to eliminate a fundamental design flaw that afflicted Triumph’s Stag and TR7 models before putting it into production. But that’s another story… These days any future prospects for a resurrected SAAB brand seem to centre around yet another engine compartment option – electric power.

Although two-stroke cars never had a significant presence on our roads they were far from unknown back in the day. Two strokes from Audi’s predecessor DKW and another German factory, Goliath, were part of the mix, post-WWII, before more or less disappearing from view in the 1960s.

There was also that short-lived oddity, the Zeta, produced by Adelaide concrete-mixer company Lightburn. And we saw a handful of ‘bubble cars’ like the Messerschmitt. By contrast the amazing Bill Buckle guaranteed a small but enduring niche for two-strokes in Australian motoring history with his creative and enterprising approach to Goggomobil.

His fibreglass bodied versions of these tiny German vehicles – what is it with Germany and two strokes, I wonder? – made their mark, with a remarkable total build of around 5000. If they didn’t actually warm the cockles of mainstream hearts at the time, Buckle’s unique Dart sports model charmed our socks off in the end.

As a complete contrast with leaf blower and chainsaw thinking it’s worth saluting bigger engines, the two-stroke diesels that commonly powered line-haul trucks a generation ago. The GM Detroit motors in particular really pressed my buttons. It was the exhaust note that did it. Far from resembling the ‘ring-a-ding-a-ding’ sound of an old motor scooter the ‘Jimmy’s’ sound was a life-affirming, full-blooded howl.

Another wonderful howler was the truly eccentric British truck and bus engine commonly called the Commer ‘Knocker’.

If these pleasant reminiscences about two-stroke glory days leave me hankering for a two stroke of my own, I’m a bit hamstrung.

There’s no room at our place for a 6V53 GM-powered R190 International truck. The only two-stroke SAAB I’ve ever seen was Carlsson’s. Goggomobil Dart prices are out of control. You never see a DKW or a Goliath… Silly me. Why didn’t I think of it earlier?

Suzuki’s cute 4 x 4 from the ’70s – the LJ50. With a lovely little 550cc threecylinder, two-stroke donk. And they’re affordable. Just the thing.

I’ll jump in before the collectors get on to them. Just follow my smoke…