70 years since Saab hit the road
Swedish manufacturer Saab started with a mission to build aircraft for the Swedish Air Force, but ended as a General Motors reject, passing through multiple parent companies in the process. Think of it as the awkward third child, the one who just never went with the crowd, but underneath was the smartest of them all.
Saab has made a whole host of different vehicles, generally centring on the classic consumer market with forays in the performance coupe and sports car markets (with varied success). While they may not be renowned for making the most capable performance cars or for the most innovative design, Saab has instead made its impact on the unusual kind of buyer, targeting those who do not want the usual 3-series or C-class but looking for a more luxurious experience than available from the work-a-day brands like Ford and Vauxhall.
Saab has fallen prey to growing costs of car development as well as some of its own misdemeanours, eventually going under in 2012 when dropped by GM. Many owners still stand by their favourite brand however and multiple firms have taken up the responsibilities for providing spares and repair services.
A Brief History of Saab
Saab started out on its mission to supply aircraft for the air force back in 1937, resulting in Saab AB being founded. Due to its experience in aerodynamics and manufacturing knowledge Saab soon moved into the growing automobile market. Saab Automobile AB was founded in 1945, with the intention of designing a small mass-market automobile. In 1948, one of the company's sites in Trollhattan, Sweden was converted in order to build their upcoming 92 model. The Saab 92 began production in December 1949, almost exactly 70 years prior to this article.
The cars stayed relatively similar through the 50's, with minor updates to the powertrain and other body-style variants including a sports model and estate version added to the company's roster. 1960 saw the first Saab to reach outside of Sweden, the Saab 96. The 96 was the third major revision of the original 92's platform and proved popular, selling over half a million units.
The Saab 99
The company's fortunes were changed for the better in 1968 when they released the Saab 99. This was the first model from the company to completely separate itself from the original 92 platform and set the styling trend that was carried forward by Saab for nearly five decades. This was followed shortly by a company merger with Scania (the Swedish commercial vehicle manufacturer) which preceded many decades of changing ownership and platform sharing with other brands. These cross manufacturer agreements led to cars such as the Saab 600 (based on the Lancia Delta) and the Saab 9000 (based on the Alfa Romeo 164).
In 1989 Saab was restructured into an independent company, owned in a 50:50 share between General Motors and Investor AB. This led to all future Saab models being based loosely on GM (read Vauxhall) platforms, starting with the Saab 900 in 1994. The new investment and new model led Saab to earning its first profit for seven years in 1995. GM was pleased with its investment leading to them taking control of the remaining shares in 2000, again followed by a new model with the 9-3 appearing in 2003. Though the 9-3 was Saab's final sales success. However, before we look more into the demise of the Saab company let's take a look at some of their innovations and the best cars from the brand.
Some of the Best from Saab
The most recent headlines you have seen about Saab will be about the company's failures, less than interesting modern vehicles and the underlying company issues, not exactly positive, right.
Saab was always about more than this though, as a company, they have created some properly interesting and obscure vehicles. It all started with the car pictured above, the prototype for the original Saab 92, labelled the Ursaab.
The car was created by a team of just 16 engineers, without prior experience of automotive design, only two had driving licences. Astonishingly they pulled it off, creating the two-stroke oddity, which led to the first production Saab ever hitting the road, four years later.
The concept car is instantly recognisable in the later production model, with the concept using a similar two-stroke engine and featuring an incredibly aerodynamic teardrop shape. The Ursaab had an outstanding drag co-efficient of just 0.3, impressive even by modern standards. The car also featured front-wheel drive and wide wheel arches to ease snow-weather driving.
Made between 1955 and 1957, the Sonett was Saab's first attempt at making a sports car, but due to racing regulation changes and changes in the market, just 6 of the above pictured Sonett 1 models were ever built. The name was rebooted in the 1966 for the Sonett 2, V4 and 3, these actually made it to forecourts but did not sell particularly well and for me, don't capture the imagination as well as the original concept.
The Sonett was developed on a shoestring budget before being revealed at the 1956 Stockholm motor show. The car was designed to race around Europe, with a planned production run of 2,000 cars. However, regulations changed, meaning the Sonett would be uncompetitive and therefore would be unlikely to sell well. The project soon faded and led to just six (all RHD) cars ever being created.
The car features a 750cc 2-stroke engine, making just 57.5bhp. The car was light though, tipping the scale at just 600kg, thanks to its small footprint and minimalist aluminium box chassis. The car was projected to be able of 120mph. Though this was never proved, the car does hold the record for a Swedish sub-750cc car's top speed, Erik Carlsson piloting the restored #1 prototype to 99mph.
The 99 Turbo, arguably Saab's best ever car and the first mass-produced, turbocharged car that real, working people could afford. The car debuted at the 1977 Frankfurt motor show, instantly stealing the imagination of BMW and Mercedes faithful's and pushing Saab into a new market.
The 99 Turbo was a game changer for Saab, blowing away all its rivals by offering not just impressive performance, but also reasonable running costs, practicality and impressive safety. The turbocharged engine in the 99 Turbo was way ahead of its time, being the first turbocharged engine that worked properly in day-to-day driving, keeping lag to a minimum and employing a smooth power band once the turbo came on song.
Motoring journalists at the time were full of praise for the little Saab and heralded its drive-ability as well as its performance credentials. They particularly noted the cars in gear acceleration, one of the cars strongest points thanks to 174lb ft of torque on tap. The 99 Turbo was never matched again by Saab, but this model showed that the Swedes knew what they were doing and wouldn't sit quietly and follow the trends of its German rivals.
The last good car to come out of Saab, the special edition 9-3 Viggen. The Viggen did not move the game on or outclass its rivals in the same way as the 99 Turbo, instead it offered an interesting alternative to the traditional hot hatchbacks of the era. Sold from 1999 to 2002, the car was marketed as being inspired by jet fighters but in reality, it fell short against the M3 it was originally targeted against.
The car was far from a standard Saab 9-3 however, packing a turbocharged engine that pushed out 230bhp and 252lb ft of torque through the front wheels alone. It managed this feat through numerous engine upgrades compared to the standard 9-3 turbo, including; a performance exhaust, bigger intercooler and modified engine ECU. The car also received upgraded suspension, brakes and a bespoke body kit to make it a little less sleepy looking. Unfortunately, this was all bolted to a platform based on a late 80's Vauxhall Vectra; I think you can see where this is going.
The car performed well in a straight line, capable of 0-62mph in under 7 seconds. But the car was too powerful for its own good, making it difficult to control wheel spin and leading to the car suffering from large amounts of torque steer, this made the car particularly entertaining in the wet. All of these quirks add to the driving experience though, the car is fun in a way that no Saab since has been, the laggy power delivery and quirky interior all add to the character of this car. This, aligned with reasonable performance, decent handling and a fairly luxurious interior make this a hot hatchback like no other.
Innovations from the Brand
First Headlight Wipers on Any Car
So, as you have probably established already, Saab didn't play by the rules. They were much more interested in doing things their own way and while this did lead to financial meltdown, it did also make some interesting cars and some impressive innovations in the motoring world, especially for a manufacturer with the low volumes and budget of Saab.
For starters, there was the ingenious decision to move the cars ignition onto the centre console from 1969. This seemed like a fun and quirky design feature but it was actually moved in order to minimise the chance of a driver's knee injury, with many people suffering permanent damage in the event of an accident due to the ignition barrel being behind the steering wheel. The next year in 1970, they brought to market the first headlight washers and wipers (as seen above), a feature now available on almost all new cars.
The firms work with turbocharged engines was also incredibly innovative. Bringing the first wastegate controlled turbo engine to market in 1976 and placing the first 16-valve turbocharged engine into a production vehicle in 1983.
Other minor innovations include the first use of a cabin air filter in 1978 (something now used on every car), the first manufacturer to fit heated front seats as standard in 1971 and pioneering direct ignition in 1985, another technology used on many cars since. So they weren't just a little crazy with their car designs, but also a leading light in the automotive industry, even if you never heard about it. Come to think of it, this is a similar strain of madness and innovation shown by Sweden's only supercar manufacturer Koenigsegg, who interestingly had intentions to purchase Saab back in 2009, but deemed it not viable.
If You Can Even Call it a Saab
The Demise of Saab
Truly, the downfall of Saab started way back in 1989, when GM acquired their initial 50% stake, looking to take a strong foothold in the European car market. Saab was the obvious choice, as the company had shown potential but didn't have the sales volume to continue on its own, making it 'cheap' to acquire for GM. The relationship however, was instantly thrown into question. The management of GM wanted to employ their usual top-down style on Saab, but the little Swedish company refused to work in the same way as the big conglomerate and continued to work with their own unique management style.
GM forced their badge-engineering onto Saab, leading to the Saab 900 in 1993, a commercial success for the company, but the car was fraught with issues and never really captured the spirit or build quality found in older Saabs. GM continued to invest, but after their full purchase of the company in 2000, Saab was well on its way to failure. The company began recording losses in 2002, after which GM continued in their attempt to push low-cost badge engineering exercises onto the unrelenting Swedish bosses.
Continued losses and high development costs meant that as the global financial crisis began to hit home for GM, Saab was one of the first child companies destined for the chopping block. The company, compared to other GM brands and European rivals was only selling cars in low numbers, meaning it was not covering the high costs of developing new vehicles. This led to new car programmes being delayed, leading to an ageing lineup, continually slowing sales.
GM let Saab go, along with Pontiac and Hummer, in 2010. Saab looked to be saved however, with interest from multiple companies including Spyker and the aforementioned Koensigsegg. Both sales however, were fraught with issues. GM did not want to release the Saab name and had the right to veto any takeover by another brand.
Saab as we know it was dead, resurgence was attempted in 2013 when NEVS (national electric vehicles Sweden), who are ironically Chinese owned, bought the Saab name. The company bought the assets of the defunct car firm with plans to build fully electric cars based on the latest 9-3 platform (though not the 9-5 as GM would not release the licence to the name). The company re-opened the doors to it's original Trollhattan facility and production of both petrol and electric powered 9-3 restarted. It didn't last long however, NEVS was in financial turmoil and after just 162 cars had been built, the doors were closed for the final time and the Saab name disappeared once more.
So What Are we Left With?
After a littered history and financial troubles, spanning multiple decades you may expect that people would have given up on the brand by now, but far from it. Many owners stick by their Saab's, especially those with a classic status. Older cars such as the 99 Turbo are now becoming increasingly rare and increasingly expensive, even some of the earlier GM models are starting to receive more appreciation in the motoring world. Later cars however are not receiving the same treatment, their GM underpinning and outdated engineering means that few are interested in keeping these poorly engineered cars on the road.
Support is not difficult to find either, multiple companies took up the load of manufacturing and distributing replacement parts for these cars, allowing the dedicated owners to keep their cars on the road and in good condition. Owner's forums still appear to be holding up, thriving even thanks to people sharing over the internet.
I feel that some of the classic Saabs are yet to see the limelight that they truly deserve. The unique styling and engineering of the early models such as the 92 and 96, I feel, will be appreciated more in years to come, but are not yet seen in the same circles as European rivals from the same time period. This may be due to their low production numbers or their less than youthful image (think of the stereotypical Saab driver).
I hope that, as the Saab name drifts further into the darkness, the internet can shed some light on what was a truly interesting company. A company that maybe never truly got the recognition that it deserves. It cannot be denied that just writing this article has me prowling through the used car ads for a 99 Turbo, anyone else?
Let me know your thoughts on Saab down in the comments, maybe you have one yourself?