We're not going to act like it is a surprise, but we're still shedding a tear or two this afternoon after confirmation from GM that it is to shut its Swedish sub-division SAAB. After years of new product starvation and the collapse of talks with Koenigsegg and now Spyker, the brand from Trollhattan - beloved of sensible professionals the land over - will shortly close its doors.
The death of SAAB saddens me in a way that - I'm sorry to say - the demise of MG Rover didn't. I can't entirely put my finger on why, but perhaps it's a personal thing. My piano tutor throughout my formative years had a fabulous green 900 that I regularly used to ride in. I've known many architects who drove, and raved about, SAABs. Sarah's dad used to have a 9000 as a company car, and her mum runs a current generation 9-3 convertible, which to me is much cooler than its competitors from BMW, Audi or Merc, even if by any objective measure it's somehow 'less good'.
How it's come to this is well documented, and not worth raking over again - but what happened is a good example of why mergers and takeovers can be a bad thing. Prior to GM's investment, SAAB made sub-cool, idiosyncratic cars, which while rarely regarded as class leaders, were at least different. The aforementioned 900 run by my piano teach was bought in 1990 - largely thanks to it having a vast boot, needed for transporting her husband's paintings across Europe to their native Hungary for exhibitions. Back then - to the 9 year old me - a car whose ignition barrel was on the transmission tunnel, which wouldn't let you turn the car off unless you locked it in reverse, and which had a turbo boost gauge, was the height of excitement.
A real SAAB - in Detroit. Oh the irony.
It's testament to what SAABs were then that she still drives that very car to this day, and that as far as I know it's still running as sweet as a nut. Its qualities - safety, solidity, spaciousness, ergonomic intelligence and an image that was resolutely different to BMW, Mercedes or Volvo, was what attracted so many of the professional classes to the brand. Nice, smart people - doctors, architects and teachers, drove SAABs. In my view, it's to GM's eternal shame that they couldn't capitalise on this. They kept the looks, the funny ignition barrel and the good dashboard ergonomic, but started basing the cars on platforms that were far from in their first flushes of youth. The 90s 900 based on the 80s Vauxhall Cavalier/Opel Vectra being the classic example. That was fine for a while; the people who bought SAABs weren't bothered.
Yet the upper echelons of the car industry were changing, and GM starved SAAB of the ability to keep up. While GM were completely failing to get the appeal of SAAB to a predominantly European buyer, BMW and Mercedes were inventing and filling niches left right and centre, that were changing those buyer's perspectives. What they did was create demand among those very classes who once-upon-a-time had driven SAABs, for small premium hatches (1 series, A-class), SUVs (X5, X3, ML) and small lifestyle wagons (3, 5, C, E, A4, A6). Worse still for SAAB, while GM was dithering, Audi hauled itself out of VW's shadow, and turned itself into a premium brand that (until very recently) became what you bought if you wouldn't be seen dead in a Beemer or Merc. All the nice, design-aware people were suddenly driving Audis.
By the time GM admitted defeat, the 9-5, once the mainstay of SAAB's range, was 13 years old, and had acquired a pair of bizarre Dame-Edna Everage spectacles on its snout. Find another mainstream car in the industry that's anywhere near that age and I'll eat my hat. Its age alone sums up where GM went wrong. But there was so much more. The new 9-5 - reputedly signed off years ago, still isn't here - and probably never will be (at least as a SAAB). It was still running around Millbrook proving ground on final validation tests when I was there in September. A great shame, because even though the new 9-5 was unlikely to ever be a 5 series-beater, it was an impressive enough car, which priced right, might have hit its target quite well. Combine that with the fact that Anthony Lo and team in Russelsheim had knocked out some fantastic-looking, authentically SAAB-feeling concepts over the past few years, and one starts to think that had GM only had big enough balls and deep enough pockets, the story might have been very different.
In the cold light of day, SAAB clearly no longer stacks up. Sales are too low, and it's a European niche brand. The American's never really got it - certainly not well enough to own it - and GM needs to save money. So shutting SAAB is the only thing it can reasonably do now.
But stop for a minute and consider these things. The topic du jour in the car world (actually, with Copenhagen, just make that the world - full stop) is green issues. SAAB, thanks to its Swedish roots and early implementation of things like catalytic converters, has long been thought of as a green, clean brand. So when everyone else is busy inventing new faux green 'sub-brands', GM is busy killing a fully authentic one. Smart.
Continuing on the green theme, if we look to current and future gasoline engine technologies, today's talk is largely about turbo-charging. Ask anyone in the industry which company is synonymous with the word 'turbo charging', and I guarantee they'll give you one answer: SAAB. SAAB practically invented the technology, it has for years used it on its cars, and I think I'm right in saying every car it currently sells is turbo-charged. So just when you want to talk turbos, and how you’ve years of knowledge and history building them, you go and kill the world's most famous turbo-charged brand. Welcome to the world of GM.
Finally, design. In an era when people will pay - frankly - silly prices for an Arne Jacobson chair or table, and have more design ‘literacy’ than ever, Swedish design ought to be a major selling point. SAAB's design foundations, and design language feels apt for our times. Retrained, sophisticated, clean, pure, and non-showy. There's depth in SAAB's design too. The seats in SAAB's cars have long been regarded as some of the best in the industry, and to this day are still paragons of ergonomic comfort. Likewise the dashboard. Everything is ergonomically right, and falls to hand. And if you've ever been to a motorshow on press day, you'll usually find us folks from Car Design News down the SAAB stand, bathing in the cool white lighting and Swedish chairs, partaking in the best lunches and cappuccinos at the show. Cars like the Aero-X concept show that there are people working for SAAB/Opel who understand what good, Swedish, SAAB design is about too, and how it could be used as a selling point. And I haven’t even touched on safety. Yet now it’s all academic.
In years to come, books will doubtless be written about bad management, which will use GM's handling of SAAB as case studies in how things shouldn't be done. Such thoughts make us sad, so we'd prefer to remember some happier things about SAAB. Stig Blomqvist flying through a rally stage in a SAAB 99 Turbo, the comedic torque-steering power of various Viggen models, the theatre of the Aero-X concept’s lifting cockpit canopy, and lazy summer afternoons, wind-in-the-hair in the back of a top-down 9-3 convertible. They might not have been perfect, but SAABs had this way of making you feel deeply secure, happy and content. In a world where so much is changing, and so much is uncertain, we still think there’s room for that kind of car. It's just a pity that GM never saw it. So goodbye SAAB, you will be missed.
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 18th December 2009
On Saab's Passing (by Ben Kraal, on his blog).
Report from Detroit: We Bear Witness (Firebird Man).