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THE NAME Saab stands for Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, Swedish Aeroplane Ltd. In fact, this company founded in 1937 didn’t built cars until a decade later.
And two of the most curious Saabs, the 21A and 21R aircraft, predated the cars.
Initiated in 1943 during Sweden’s complex neutrality in World War II, the 21A single-seat fighter was an unorthodox design with a pusher prop necessitating a twin-boom tail. Think a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, but with single Daimler Benz straight-12 facing aft.
This layout had an advantage of concentrating its firepower in the nose, with quad machine guns and a 20-mm cannon. Also the pilot gained an unobstructed view ahead.
It was not without a tradeoff, however: How could the pilot bail out without encountering that pusher prop? Saab engineers solved this with one of the first applications of an aircraft ejector seat.
The first production 21A fighters were delivered in December 1945. Their performance was more than adequate for the era, with a maximum speed of 400 mph, a cruising speed of 300 mph, a landing speed of 90 mph and a climb rate of 50 ft./sec. Not quite the performance of a North American P-51 Mustang, but not far off the pace either. Saab produced 298 21A variants between 1945 and 1948.
By the mid-1940s, though, everyone recognized that jets were the hot tip. (Agg! A propulsion pun.) In the autumn of 1945, Saab engineers undertook conversion of the 21A to de Havilland Goblin jet power.
The plan was to retain 80 percent of the prop version’s airframe, but this proved optimistic. The Goblin’s air intakes had to be incorporated. To avoid jet blast, the tail layout needed to be raised. Accommodating the jet’s thirst, all available space within the fuselage was devoted to fuel storage.
The first 21R flew in early 1947, its enhanced performance justifying this nontrivial reengineering. Maximum speed rose to 500 mph; cruising speed, to 435. The aircraft landed at 95 mph and had a climb rate of 56 ft./sec.
Observed Bo Widfeldt in Profile Publications Number 138, The Saab 21A & 21R, “the Saab 21R was by no means an unqualified success, but its design and construction provided unique experience which was of inestimable value to Saab in later projects.”
Indeed, counting four prototypes, only 64 of Saab’s 21R were produced, the last in 1951. By then, the company’s 29 “Tunnan” (Swedish: “barrel”) had begun its production run of 661 aircraft.
To me, though, the stocky swept-wing conventionality of the Tunnan didn’t have the elegance, not to say the romance, of the Saab 21. ds