Saab is gone – its struggle for survival terminated with a brief bankruptcy statement just before Christmas.
While this small Swedish car maker was never a major player, it brought something unique to the car world and its passing creates a small but black-hole-deep void in an industry that has seen a number of famous marques teeter on the brink in recent years, and also a sense of personal loss.
Over the years, I’ve chronicled the failure of many car companies but there has never been a personal emotional investment such as I’ve had with Saab since the late 1970s when I went to Sweden for the launch of the 900, the car that marked the beginning of its modern era and I suppose, mine.
Saab’s business obit reads like this:
Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget – Saab – was founded in 1937 as an aircraft manufacturer, built its first prototype car in 1946 and put it into production as the Saab 92 in 1949. It went on to become the other “national” car of Sweden, win international rally laurels, bring turbocharging to popularity and create a loyal fan base around the world.
Unfortunately, there were just never really enough fans and, as car-making became more costly and expensive, Saab slipped further behind the automotive eight ball. Its production – which I don’t think exceeded 100,000 in the 1980s – couldn’t generate enough profit to support new product development. Help arrived from General Motor in 1990 to keep things going, and sales peaked at 133,167 in 2007, but even GM’s pockets didn’t prove deep enough.
It sold the company to tiny Spyker Cars of Holland in 2010, which couldn’t manage to keep the factory gates open either and sought Chinese investment, which was blocked by GM over issues related to technology transfer, sounding the company’s death knell.
For me, there’s much more to it than that.
That Saab 900 launch was my first “foreign” – i.e., other than U.S. – car intro and an eye-opening introduction to the European way of conducting these things.
It included a factory tour during which I was fascinated watching a simple-by-today’s-standards welding robot and long hard thrashes at high speeds through the countryside and on a racing circuit.
Driving over a spiked device that blew a front tire at 100 km/h to demonstrate Saab’s vaunted front-drive stability was interesting. As was sipping a kir in the Operakallaren restaurant tucked behind the Stockholm Opera House – before heading to a strip club. Things were a little less politically correct in those days, and Sweden did have a certain reputation Saab’s PR guys felt should be upheld.
There’s also a memory of a frozen lake in Quebec on which a serpentine circuit had been plowed to give Canadian journalists a chance to see just how good a studded-up Saab could be in winter conditions. One of us managed to put one up on its roof on a snow bank.
But riding shotgun with Saab rally legend Erik Carlsson as he employed his uncanny ability to judge speed and what grip the studs and ice provided to carve laps at impossible speeds and slip angles was the highlight for me. At one point in a full-four-wheel-drift at 80 km/h or so, he took his hands off the wheel and explained, “Bob, you yuust have to let the car do vat it vants” while giving the steering wheel the occasional nudge with his not-inconsiderable belly.
A few years later, I was driving a Saab convertible around top-down in the mid-summer gloaming at 3 a.m. at Nordkapp in Norway up above the Arctic Circle. On another press trip, they emptied out the museum to let us drive everything from their earliest models to the sexy mid-1950s Sonnet sports car and some of Carlsson’s rally cars.
In the mid-1990s, Saab staged the Rally Monte Carlsson during which we journalists drove from Monaco up into the Maritime Alps on some of the famous rally stages.
There’s a model Saab 96 on my shelf and written on the mounting plaque is “To Bob the winner [I co-drove with the Toronto Star’s Jim Kenzie]Erik “On the Roof” Carlsson.”
I also lapped the Talladega superspeedway in a Saab Turbo at 220 km/h – as fast as it would go. Saab had set records there running three cars, stopping only for fuel, for 100,000 miles in what became known as “The Long Run.”
By this time I was a full-on fan and driving my own third Saab, one of the second-generation 900s built under the increasing influence of General Motors, which now owned 50 per cent, but it wasn’t the same. What had set Saab apart from the mainstream seemed to be fading away under GM’s influence. Perhaps this was mostly in my imagination, but that’s largely where your enthusiasm for a certain make exists, isn’t it?
Saab’s early designers, like the people at Porsche in Germany and Bristol in England, had brought a fresh and uniquely aero-industry approach to the development of their cars. The first 92s were highly aerodynamic and powered by tiny three-cylinder, two-stroke engines and proved tough enough to win Swedish rallies from the start.
They won more when Carlsson arrived on the scene. His famous victories included the 1960 RAC Rally in Britain – now 81, he celebrated the 50th anniversary of that win in 2010 – and the Monte Carlo rally in 1962 and again in 1964, while his 850-cc model 96 that put out maybe 60 hp. Drivers such as Stig Blomqvist, Per Eklund, Ola Stromberg and Pat Moss (Sir Stirling’s sister) also rallied factory Saabs.
The road-going cars evolved from those ringy-dingy two-strokes – including the super little Sonett sports car of the mid-1950s – to more sophisticated designs with “proper” four-stroke motors in the 1960s and 1970s.
It introduced the first 99 Turbo in 1977, and the Saab name was ever after strongly linked to turbocharging. Later, it even tinged the power-boosting technology green with a demonstration in downtown London that showed a Saab Turbo’s exhaust gas was actually cleaner than the air sucked in the other end.
The 1980s, and the introduction of the more up-market 9000 and the surprisingly good-looking 900 convertible, brought promise, but it was never realized.
Saabs, always produced with limited resources, were never cutting-edge designs, but always had character – with signatures such as the ignition key down between the seats. And you either “got” them, or you didn’t.
I thought they were really neat.