Saab : Time gentlemen, please?

Very few car makers can get away with producing a vehicle which on paper at least, seemed so wrong yet in fact, were so right. Sweden’s second largest car maker Saab, seems to fading away into oblivion, while here in the UK, so is the dealer network. So how and more to the point why has this been able to happen?

Mike Humble

From £7500 to £7,500,000 The Saab Scania range in the glory days of 1986

Many years ago, I found myself being taught by a rather eccentric old teacher who: wore tweed, smoked a walnut pipe, was never without a bag of toffee and point blank refused to walk around the playground at break times without his flask of coffee and trilby hat, his name was Mr John Hill – and he drove a Saab 900. Some remember where they were and what they were doing when JFK was shot or the time Neil Armstrong placed his first foot onto moon’s surface, I remember the time I fell in love with Saabs – it was during history lesson in Darlington in 1983. 

Ever since those halcyon carefree days of Secondary School, I have loved these strange yet soothing Swedish cars and have since owned three of them. All of them were utterly reliable, rock solid and had a certain something that gave you a warm inside contented feeling, just like the one you have after a hot bowl of rice pudding. Mr Hill was a truly much adored teacher, never a man to loose his cool he simply oozed charm and character from every pore, and if they say you can gauge a man’s character by his car, then Saab and John Hill were as matching as Morecambe & Wise!

During half term, I would sometimes ride my 10 speed racer to the other side of town to see his huge house, sit in his garden drinking orange juice that his lovely wife would freshly make and he would show me his Rabbits of which he used to breed. If I was really lucky, I would be treated with a whizz along the A66 in his stunning 900i. Looking back it seems scary to some, but back then, it was 100% innocent, the guy loved teaching and never once did anybody think it was dodgy. Thanks to the late John Hill, my love affair with Swedish birds began – albeit a Griffin!

Around the same time, I knew an experienced car salesman called Ian Sale, he sold Honda for many years and I recall him telling me that Saab had the third highest brand loyalty behind Rolls Royce, BMW and Honda. As I grew older, learned to drive and worked in the trade, I began to understand why – nobody ever seemed to have a bad word against them, and even though there hasn’t been a ‘pure’ Saab since 1993, today Saab still portray a certain ‘je ne sais quoi‘ other makers seldom achieved.

Back in the 1940s, the Svenksa Autoplan AB was an impressive company building both civilian and defence aircraft. They also built cars, but just like Honda did for some time, viewed the car side as being more of a portfolio plaything to a serious mass producing concern, that was until the 1960s with the launch of the Saab 96, a car which took the world by surprise selling just over half a million by the time it was replaced in the mid 70`s. I`m sure many readers will remember that model, often seen in a mustard colour belching smoke from its two stroke engine – much more idiosyncrasy was to come!

The Saab 96 - For three decades Saab was a formidable rally team.

The ’60s were important times for Saab, following considerable success in the Monte Carlo rally with driver Erik Carlsson and the launch of the Saab Sonnet, sales soared and towards the end of this decade, Saab were merged with the mighty Scania Vabis corporation to form Saab Scania, this formed an impressive company of forward thinking engineering along with rock solid dependability. Saab slowly and surely gained momentum while building a reputation for superb engineering, quality, performance and a unique style of its own, which looking back today became  – very Saab!

Initially, as sales climbed, the good folk at Volvo were very concerned -and they had every right to be. Volvo, even in the early 1970s enjoyed considerable sales success in the UK as well as the United States. As with anything from Sweden, Volvo too had an image of solidity and quality engineering. However, with the exception of the P1800, Volvo were hardly seen as trend setters or builders of exiting cars. They were not to worry though, as Sweden’s two very different car makers catered for two very different buyers and the two very different ranges almost seemed to compliment each other.

At the end of the ’60s Saab launched what many consider to be the start of the revolution – the Saab 99, conventional looking enough to conform to the norm, yet unconventional enough under the skin to be a Saab. The earliest of the 99’s were fitted with a British Leylandsourced1850cc Triumph engine differing from the Dolomite spec by having a single CD Stromberg carbs, opposed to the twin SU set up on the Triumph. The usual woe’s of cooling and mechanical fragility became commonplace requiring Saab to re-work the engine, subsequently designing their own power unit loosely based on the Triumph design.

Where Saab differed over Volvo in its mechanical presentation was the adoption of front wheel drive, and with the power units being slanted over to 45 degrees, gave the car a low centre of gravity even though the body height was fairly lofty. Just as Renault did with the 4, 5 and 6 range, the engine was mounted back to front and had the gearbox fitted towards the front of the car, thus aiding the weight distribution balance between the front and rear wheels. In true Scandinavian tradition, disc brakes were fitted front and rear and were much beefier than its UK and main European rival makers.

The 99 range became an instant hit but more radical events took place in 1978 with the launch of the fire breathing 99 Turbo. This 125mph 145bhp 2.0 saloon and hatchback were industry standard setting cars, the first mass produced turbocharged saloon cars in the world. Since its launch, Saab and turbocharging have been constantly associated with each other even to this day. This new model changed the makers image overnight from a credible, yet quirky Volvo alternative, to makers of radical and exiting cars that simply brimmed with up to date technology that was driver friendly and reasonably affordable.

As the 1970s progressed, Saab in the UK became more and more commonplace, quickly becoming the chosen car for the Doctor, Teacher, City banker and other professions. The trade viewed them as the thinking mans alternative to other more established middle class cars, and as a result, second hand Saab cars held their value as they were mostly cared for by their owners and seldom gave problems if serviced correctly. Dealers tended to be family concerns that offered unrivalled levels of customer care while Saab never questioned any warranty claims if the car had a stamped service book.

Saab offered a new model for the 1979 model year – the 900. The car was based on the current 99 range using many of its established and proven components but its front and rear overhangs were slightly longer. The interior design was certainly a lesson in ergonomics and driver usage, where the 99 had heater and other non essential controls mounted lower than the dials, the 900 had ever single switch and lever right in the drivers line of sight and within reach of the steering wheel. The clocks and dials were colour coded featuring bold digits and fibre optic illuminated pointers and larger headlamps offered superb night vision.

The 900 Turbo 16S - The ULTIMATE icon of '80s Saabs?

The 900 was offered in 2.0 form in carb, injection or turbo with a standard five speed gearbox or automatic transmission. Whereby the 99 had its engine mounted back to front, the 900 featured an in-line engine slanted at 45 degrees as before but with the gearbox final drive mounted underneath transferring power via a set of chains giving the 900 its characteristic whine when driving through the gears. Bigger rear light clusters gave the car an impressive rear look and underlined the image of solidity and quality.

As Saab progressed towards the mid 1980s, models such as the 96 & 99 were deleted in favour of a two car line up of the established 900 and a new model called the 90 – which was down spec 900 with two doors only. More radical Turbo models including an aggressive 16 valve S version further underlined Saab’s expertise in turbocharging offering a then staggering 175bhp from a 2.0 engine. The way Saab advertised their range also became legend, with much accent being placed on the makers aircraft heritage and massive engineering background. Glossy brochures, vivid press and even cinema short films pushed home the Saab brand.

Saab also became the chosen car for many pop stars, TV presenters and football celebrities with famous owners including Des Lynam – Sir Bobby Robson and the sadly departed Whitesnake drummer Cozy Powell were all affectionate of the brand. A 900 turbo even appeared in the pop video of ‘Don’t You Want me?’ by The Human League, the car was actually owned by lead singer Phil Oakey. In the same decade, the svelte looking cabriolet model came on line, initially a styling exercise, the 900 cabriolet still commands high prices secondhand if in excellent condition and with leather trim – once again, a massive sales hit on both sides of the Atlantic ocean.

The 9000 went on to sell over 500.000 units and is still a resepected car.

The 1980s was in fact Saab’s most progressive decade and world press once again were in a frenzy over the latest new model – the Saab 9000. Aimed at the executive market, the 9000 shared a common chassis with the Fiat Croma – Lancia Thema and Alfa Romeo 164 which was known as the Type Four. Although the Fiat and Lancia bombed in terms of volume sales, the 9000 also sold well in the UK, initially offered in 2.0i 16 valve form, the range topping Turbo 16 was launched soon after. Following on from the 9000 hatchback, Saab introduced a saloon version badged as the CDE though this model did not sell in the same numbers of its 5 door stablemate.

Even though the 9000 was pitched at the next sector above the 900, it was in fact a shorter car so far as length was concerned. The car had a much longer wheelbase yet shorter overhang at either end of the body, giving an impressive amount of space while still giving a huge boot area – something that was expected with a Saab. Build quality of this new model was also held in high regard, and certainly gave rival makers Audi and BMW  a good run for the money.

Saab were very cunning so far as marketing went, and supply was held back that tiny amount to make sure that prices and values of new and used stock remained in their favour. But events of the start of the 90’s were to make sure things would never be the same for Saab.

Many will remember the recession that hit Europe in the early 1990s – one of the worst since the war. Over in Europe, the commercial vehicle market was dying on its knees and the Scania side of the business along with the Aero works were being hit harder than ever as they went into a pricing war with Daf – MAN and Volvo trucks. Daf were to go into liquidation in 1993 almost taking Leyland trucks and the old Freight Rover business with it. Scania were fighting a take over bid and needed hard cash to ride the storm that was threatening to drown them.

The Saab 9000 by the early ‘9os continued to be a steady selling vehicle on a global scale, and skillful yet tasteful updates with the 900 kept the car palatable to the buying public. Its main problem was its age, and no number of equipment or pricing revisions would detract anybody from the cold hard fact that the 900 was an old car selling into an ever increasing cut throat market. The Saab was always a little more expensive than the rest of the class, and buyers were prepared to pay that premium for something a little different, but the problem Saab faced was the cost of a new design and the cost involved in building the cars themselves.

A huge percentage of parts involved making a 900 were in house built, engines, gearboxes, axles, braking systems even a large part of the trim were assembled in Saab or Scania’s own factory – the man power involved during production was colossal. As the car market suffered during the financial trauma of the late ’80s & 1990s continued, Saab Scania could no longer sustain the loss of heavy discounting in both car and commercial environments. Even in the glory days of Saab popularity, the profit on an average model was quite slim compared to a volume model such as an Audi 100 or a Mercedes-Benz 190, and simply because Saab’s production was limited by space and time involved building the cars owing to the thoroughness and quality nature, caused great financial strain on the group.

900 Cabriolet - Sought after and highly valued if in pristine condition.

The long and once mighty alliance between Scania and Saab came to an end in 1990 and the car side became a stand alone unit, no longer able to call upon the superb engineering expertise of the truck and aviation division. General Motors came on board and invested just over half a billion dollars into Saab AB it now became known. Within three years a new 900 was developed using a platform shared with the Vauxhall Cavalier using many running components such as braking, steering and axles. Although this new car looked very much like a Saab while turning around the fortunes of the company – making a profit in late 1994. Purists mourned the passing of the classic 900, and from this point onwards, many viewed the new 900 as a Vauxhall-Opel in drag, something that was not entirely true.

The GM900 - Made Saab turn in a profit not seen for seven years!

One of the biggest advantages of the GM alliance was the fact that the build time was pulled down from over 100 hours with the outgoing 900 to around 33 hours, this meant more cars being built and massive cost base savings. With mass production came a marked reduction in quality, not enough to render the cars poor but not quite as good as other class vehicles such as Volvo or VAG.

GM failed to realise how astute the traditional Saab buyer was, soon after a brief flurry of sales, the 900 started slipping in the charts owing to questionable reliability and quality. Saab addressed many of the problems with the launch of two new cars in 1998 – The Saab 9-3 and 9-5. The 9000 was phased out as Saab ushered in a new range of cars that on face value, seemed to have regained some much missed quality and desirability.

The svelte looking Saab 9-5. Early fragility harmed its credibility.

The 9-3 looked similar to the outgoing GM derived 900 but included many revisions and tweaks to its suspension, electrical system and rear styling while the all new 9-5, still heavily based on a GM design, looked modern, sleek and was superb to drive. But quality still failed to impress many owners with tales of failing dashboards and even premature engine failure becoming known. The cars used Saab designed engines, but to pay for these new models, the bean counters studied long and hard over where they could save money. Engine breather systems were cheapened, as were the timing drive gears and tensioners along with countless engineering cut backs – often having catastrophic results. Blown up engines became commonplace and fleet buyers walked away, dealers became disillusioned and reserved their right to sell alternative brands, while many of the loyal Saab customers either held on to their current car or bought elsewhere.

The decline of Saab in the recent 15 years has been a long and painful event to watch, but there were some pleasing arrivals to the range. The grand looking Saab 9-5 estate came onto the scene along with some subtle revisions to the 9-3, namely the addition of a diesel using a GM 2.2 unit as seen in the Vectra range. At this point, Saab could now have a crack at the fleet market with a car that on paper at least, should match the mainstream rivals for fuel economy and offer something a little different in styling to the more conventional looking European rivals. Sadly, the 2.2 TiD was never a runaway hit and the driving experience was no where near as precise or refined as its petrol brothers.

The tried and trusted Saab power units were replaced with GM EcoTec designs.

Some say the nails in the coffin were hammered in with the launch of the all new 9-3 for the 2002 model year. After many years of Saab building a hatchback with truly enormous luggage space, the new model was a saloon only, but its biggest difference was in its engineering. As a further attempt to reduce core costs, GM deleted the range of the traditional Saab engines which were 2.0 and 2.3 replacing them with EcoTec GM engines. The 2.2 diesel unit was also changed to an all new 1.9 unit which was an alliance power unit jointly developed with Fiat and Alfa Romeo. This new range of power units kept Saab in the game with emission and fuel economy criteria but simply confirmed to the trade that Saab were now seen as nothing more than a Vauxhall in drag.

In an aim to increase sales and stem the loss from fading dealerships, GM offered Saab franchises to many Vauxhall agents in the UK with a number of family businesses signing up for the brand. For a short while, things picked up and Saab launched the stunning looking sport hatch estate model, which In my own opinion, was one of the prettiest looking estate cars around at that time. Some subtle styling revisions took place with the rest of the range, with the 9-5 gaining a more aggressive looking nose, but as time progressed through to the late 2000s, GM was suffering a massive cash crisis and any loss making subsidiaries were killed off or sold off.

The Saab Swansong? - The handsome yet GM Insignia Based new 9-5

In 2010 GM passed ownership of the brand to Spyker cars, but as recent news events has shown, Saab are now in a perilous state. Production in Saab’s global factories has halted three times in less than two years owing to unpaid supplies and critical cash flow problems. The parent company are currently in talks with the Chinese regarding a rescue package but some parity with our very own MG Rover is evident.

Long term future is becoming doubtful as economies get even more difficult and the general image of Saab within the trade is one of insecurity. No doubt the Chinese will pick the carcass once the lines shudder to a grinding halt for the last time, but in fairness, Saab has been a tainted brand which has only been able to survive with regular cash injections and recent events have all been inevitable.

Yet Saab will always be remembered with fondness to many, they changed the train of thought into the way cars are built and engineered. Safety, performance and driving experience are by-words of the brand. The current trend of turbocharging, all round disc brakes and emission control are all thanks in part to some of Saab’s unique and technology lead car design.

The classic 99 and 900 turbo remain to be an icon of design, while the cabriolet continues to have a loyal following amongst owners here in Britain and the USA. Some of the best automotive talent the world has ever seen hails from Sweden, and I for one truly hope that some form of security can be sought for Saab. My biggest concern is the worrying though that yet another once legendary car maker is become another Far Eastern badge engineering exercise!

I personally know a semi retired ex Saab sales manager who now trades in used cars, recently he told me that the 1980s and early ’90s were golden years for the marque, with every available car being sold. He went on to state “only the speed of the production lines would limit our earning potential and over 70% of my clients were repeat buyers“. Enjoying a cup of tea at his premises in Surrey, I asked him what he thought of the current situation and also asked if he thought General Motors had contributed to the slow, painful trauma Saab currently are experiencing and if there is any real hope long term….

“The glory days of Saab Scania are long gone now, GM were brave to invest massive sums of money into the brand. They put Saab in a true volume market position while allowing their own individuality to shine through. If GM had not come on board in 93, they would have shut down simple as that, they reduced the build time by almost 75% and by sourcing GM running gear in later models, reduced the cost base almost by a similar figure. The main problem was how astute the traditional Saab owner was, they saw the new owner as global corporation taking over and slowly walked away from the brand while buyers who had never owned a Saab perceived the car to be too expensive to buy and run – which in fact was the opposite.

“The thorny question of quality during the GM ownership is rubbish, as with any car, the more you make – the more that break. Long term in the current climate? I’m afraid that I can’t be optimistic”

Neil Mayes – Former Saab Sales Exec

To view the current market state, we need to remove the trusty rose tinted spectacles and reside to the fact that Saab are virtually dead in the water. Some parallels need to be observed here though, with our very own MG Rover. General Motors kept the company going, expanded the range, made them cost effective, made them acceptable to the masses while still looking like a Saab and dragged down the running costs. Saab needed a quirky company to keep them going after GM’s ownership, but with idiosyncrasy comes a need for indefinite cash investment. Spyker were brave yet hopelessly inexperienced with marketing and mass production, and there was where the critical problem struck its killer blow!

Maybe we were just a tad harsh on General Motors?

Posted in: Essays
Mike Humble

About the Author:

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade. Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

37 Comments on "Saab : Time gentlemen, please?"

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  1. Michael Jolly says:

    Saab has always had a troubled history but the General Motors takeover has diluted the brand. That’s a shame – I always thought Saabs where good quality cars with interesting features.

    I hope things good come for them as I have always promised myself a Saab and it’s one of the two cars which really interested me as a child – the other being the XJS. I hope they have a future as it would be a shame for them to go…

  2. David 3500 says:

    An interesting article which points to a number of pertinent issues which have lead to Saab being in its current position.

    Firstly, there was a lack of vision by Saab in taking the Saab technological ideology forwards after the demise of the classic 900 in 1993. I think it seemed as though Saab had done all that it could with turbo technology and was no longer able to keep pushing the boundaries forward or setting new standards. The new generation 1993 900 Series also failed to demonstrate any forward thinking in terms of how it looked.

    Secondly, having General Motors as a parent did not help – GM did not have a passion for building quality cars and was more concerned with cutting the cost base and increasing volume. For them, Saab was a convenient premium European brand which ultimately thrust them into a culture that they did not understand.

    Saab should have been considered as a product that appealed for how it drove and what lay beneath the skin in terms of its engine technology, rather than just the way it looked. Factors such as the lack of a 99 replacement to give Saab the potential to re-enter motorsport, Saab no longer being viewed as an innovator in turbocharging technology and the heavy discounting of its models in recent years have all eroded the perceptions of the brand. It is all very sad…

  3. Hilton Davis says:

    I have relatives who have owned a 1998 Saab (9000?) from new. They love Saabs and are only now considering changing it – for another Saab? I’ve always thought they were good cars and more desirable due to their relative rarity and hence exclusive tag compared to other mainstream products.

    I thought the Spyker takeover was a new dawn for Saab… That might not now be the case, but I hope they don’t disappear.

  4. KeithB says:

    General Motors probably saved Saab and kept it hanging on longer than it should have. GM’s mistake was in treating Saab as another “marque” and attempting to battle the Germans head on. Maybe Tata Motors should take a look at the books? They appear to know how to revitalise a brand and could maybe add a sub-Jaguar quality brand to their portfolio. FWD “quirky” SAAB and RWD “relaxed” Rover, anyone?

  5. Stewart says:

    Saab did not make the first mass-produced turbocharged cars. GM did in 1962 with the Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire which used a certain 215CID all-alloy V8.

  6. Simon Hodgetts says:

    I too fell in love with Saab thanks to a teacher who owned one – it was a five-door 900i and, compared with the BLs, Fords and Vauxhalls everyone seemed to own, it represented real sophistication.

    Alfa Romeo, Citroen, Lancia and Saab became my preferred brands of car. Sadly, Citroen soon copped out and produced nothing more than frilly Peugeots. Lancia was blasted into oblivion by Esther Ransom (sic) – thanks, Esther – which just left Alfa Romeo and Saab.

    I have now owned two examples of each marque. One has brought nothing but motoring pleasure. The other nothing but aggro. I currently drive an Alfa Romeo and will replace it with another Alfa Romeo. Much as I love (and still love) the 99, 900 and 9000, I wouldn’t touch another Saab even if someone else paid the bills. I’m not the only one to share this view. This, I’m afraid, is why the marque is fading.

    The GM-based products were fatally flawed. A very sad end – but there is a lesson to be learnt – you cannot replace marque values built upon building cars largely by hand, by mass production, and expect to retain the bullet-proof reputation customers have come to expect. The days of the 300,000+ mile Saab ended with production of the 900 range in 1993. Sadly, it was all downhill from there…

  7. David Dawson says:

    I have fond memories of Saabs – my dad had three 99s and one of the first 900s. However, that was before his employer stopped staff ‘adding’ to the standard company car allowance which was at the time a Ford Cortina 1.6L!

    I reckon that the late seventies, early eighties ‘Turbo era’ was, the Saab marque’s high water mark by a long, long way…

  8. Jonathan Carling Jonathan Carling says:

    I enjoyed this article – it shows the benefits of extending AROnline beyond ‘pure’ BMC>MG-related content. Saab hasn’t yet gone the way of MG Rover and the Chinese have shown with MG that they can understand a brand and keep production in Europe, using local Engineers to do the design. I suppose it’s possible, then, that the spirit of Saab could live on under Chinese ownership, but major investment is going to be needed.

  9. Stoke396 says:

    Surely, in the right hands and with the right development, Saab can be turned in to a true ‘alternative’ premium product to truly rival Audi, BMW etc. rather than just a reskinned GM product (this may be a little harsh!)?

    Mind you, the reviews of the new 9-5 have not exactly been great which is a shame. It needs to offer some thing different and have a premium Dealer Network.

  10. Mikey C says:

    The global Automotive Industry is incredibly tough now. Saab cars were brilliant because of their unique (and expensive) engineering but, unfortunately, they never sold at volumes sufficient to pay for the next generation.

    What we have ended up with is a mass of models on sale but, under the skin, great commonality. Saab under GM never managed to make themselves special enough – people saw them as Opels in drag in the same way the X-TYPE was seen as a Mondeo in drag.

  11. Richard says:

    I have fond memories of the 95 and the 99 but I’ve also driven a lot of 9-3s and 9-5s and I have to say there were pretty good cars. I accept that they weren’t Saab enough for the purists but they were good cars and a sight more interesting than a lot of the opposition.

    I guess enthusiasts of any marque are never happy when larger car makers buy up their favourite brands but, as we all know, developing and manufacturing cars is an expensive business and, without major investment, smaller companies will go to the wall.

    These days it appears that only companies from the BRIC economies have the money and vision to make that kind of investment (e.g. Geely buying Volvo and Tata Motors buying JLR). I don’t know how much it matters where ownership of a company ulitmately resides but at least these takeovers mean that companies live to fight another day.

    Perhaps SAIC Motor should look at buying Saab. After all, if future MG cars are going to be more closely related to other other SAIC/GM cars then maybe there’d be some sense in Saab joining the clan. MGSaab, anyone?

  12. Eric van Spelde says:

    “Maybe we were just a tad harsh on General Motors?”

    No. The GM version of the 900 which was launched in late 1993 was an unmitigated disaster. ‘Securing’ the steering rack by bolting it to the car’s firewall using a flimsy sheetmetal clamp may have been just about acceptable for a boggo Vauxhall Cavalier back in 1988, but there was no excuse for it in a car which was supposed to tackle Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz head on and followed in the footsteps of a car that was highly regarded for steering response and overall dynamics regardless of price.

    Indeed, that also applies to the tendency for said firewall to develop cracks later on in the car’s life to say nothing of the fact that it actually performed worse than its ancient predecessor (with roots that traced back as far as 1967) in the standard Type Approval crash tests. There were also the massive tolerances in its torsion beam rear axle assembly.

    The endless stream of quality problems even prompted German magazine Der Spiegel to print a multi-page article of which the headline could roughly be translated as “What the (*&^% is going on at Saab?”

    Admittedly, with the 9-3, Saab fixed as many trouble spots as it reasonably could (quite a few of them silently half a model year before in the last model year 900s). However, it can’t be denied that, from here on, Saab was always playing catch up with one arm tied to its back because GM brass became a bit twitchy about the amount of money Saab ‘lost’ – not, at least, thanks to some very dubious accounting which added the proceeds of cars sold in North America to Detroit’s bottom line while the cost of making them was burdened on Trollhättan’s.

  13. Will says:

    What a shame…

    My dad’s old boss had a 900 turbo in the 1980s – I thought it was great and the cockpit seemed like the adverts of the time – like a fighter jet!

    Sadly, as with all stories of demise, the beancounters at GM took over. There are penty of cheap, secondhand Saabs about – in fact a 1998 9-5 still looks modern and expensive, although the expense may be in terms of repair/servicing.

    Hopefully, a bit of QA, solid engineering and a pinch of quirkiness can revive Saab as not so much a mass-market executive model, but a more exclusive executive car which appeals to the discerning professional who shuns Bavarian saloons.

  14. KenS Ken Strachan says:

    I thought GM bought Saab as a response to Ford getting Jaguar – they haven’t been the same since the sills became part of the chassis instead of the doors.

    The 900 Turbo had different wheels and tyres on three-door and five-door models as the three-door was sold as “sportier” – remember that for your next Motor Club trivia quiz!

    Incidentally, I remember explaining to a neighbour in 1983 that the fact that their 900’s distributor was not rotating as they cranked the engine was A Bad Thing.

  15. Chris C says:

    GM diluted Saab’s image, just as the Jaguar X-TYPE had Mondeo overtones. Look at the very poor NCAP rating of the original GM-based 900 – they did not understand the marque values. Saab used to have the highest customer repurchase loyalty of any car manufacturer in the UK, followed by Peugeot (!)

    Did Saab lose the plot when it split with its Scania truckmaking parent and did the same happen to Volvo? Should Volvo and Saab have merged to maintain critical mass? Is there nowadays even more of a case for a manufacturer of solid/tough/durable cars with original/non-mainstream engineering concepts?

    The 99/900 showed how keeping a car in production for a long time builds core loyalty/classic status, a bit like the original Range Rover – if it ain’t bust don’t fix it!

    By the way, the Saab in the Human League video is actually a black 99 Turbo (just like mine) – oh, and for what it’s worth, there’s also an SD1 in it.

  16. Mike Humble Mike Humble says:

    @Ken Strachan
    Was the timing chain lying like a dead dog in the bottom of the engine timing chest?

  17. Eric van Spelde says:

    I’d guess that it was an H-engine with the distributor being driven directly from the camshaft – the preceding B-engine had an intermediate shaft for the distributor drive….

  18. Engineer says:

    I spent my teenage years in my dad’s Saab 99s. He was very loyal to the brand – the first arrived after Mum rolled our Hillman Hunter AND it was followed buy another four! One was handed down to me to replace my rusted out Austin 1300. The last was replaced by a a Fiat Uno (big mistake), before they quickly switched to VWs and now Nissans.

    The reverse gear lock and clamshell bonnet are the two things I recall most. I still keep a couple of 1980s brochures of the 99 as a reminder.

    Incidentally, like you, my first Saab was related to school. The Headmaster at my secondary school drove one. Strangely, I preferred that to the Deputy Headmaster’s Lotus Europa!

  19. Dr Bobby Love says:

    *Sigh* Oh, Saab… We’ll miss you…

    My family have owned three 9000s and a 9-5. The first two 9000s were 1997 plate CSEs. They BOTH got stolen – first a Black one and then my Uncle’s silver one (they’d both been bought together). The funny/tragic thing is that the Silver one went two days after the Black one from THE SAME SPOT! Dad had borrowed my Uncle’s while he was on holiday until his Black one was to be replaced. The Black one never showed up, but the silver one did – on bricks!

    The third 9000 was the replacement for the Black one. However, by this time, the 9000 was on it’s was out and the remaining stock was quite cheap. That’s why an 2.3-litre Anniversary replaced the plain 2.0 CSE. That car was only sold to my mate last year with 110ish on it! He now enjoys it! 🙂

    The 9-5 was actually the replacement for the Silver 9000 when it finally came to the end of it’s lease. It was a VERY early Griffin 3.0 V6. Yes, the dash failed and the engine had MASSIVE problems but it’s still with us and now serves as a pool car at my dad’s firm… I think it’s on about 90k.

    Anyway, like I said, I think my whole family will miss Saab if it does go pop. Maybe we’ll pick up a cheap 9-5 out of the ashes? Mind you, having driven an Insignia, I’m not convinced there’s much Saab left in there at all – short of some styling lines on the dash and shell.

  20. Dr Bobby Love says:

    Oh, as an aside, the 9-5 Griffin was a little bit of a let down on spec. The 9000 Griffin was an awesome car, with extra wood and exclusive toys like power seats (Maybe the Aero had power seats as well?) but the 9-5 was simply a 9-5 with a few more optional extras – it wasn’t really a special model.

    The exterior didn’t look any different either. The door handles and mirrors remained in black plastic. I’m sure the wheels were just another option that had been ticked – it just wasn’t a Griffin. I think, perhaps, that the “Diplomat” badge might have been more fitting. 😉

  21. Paul says:

    I think General Motors’ ownership did Saab no favours at all as its core models, the 9-3 and 9-5, were woefully neglected. The 9-5 was in production for 12 years! How on earth could you convince Audi A6 and BMW 5 Series buyers that this was a viable alternative?

    The new 9-5 is too little, too late – it looks OK but it’s bombed in every magazine test and nobody is going to pay the thick end of £30k for a car whose manufacturer is technically insolvent.

  22. C K says:

    The trouble with Saab is/was that it was its own worst enemy.

    By trying to be exclusive and unique, the cars appealed to only a small sliver of the car buying populace. With developmental costs rising by the day, Saab just cannot afford to develop a new model on their own from scratch.

    Furthermore, there are no economies of scale when you are struggling to sell 100,000 units across two model lines worldwide. That’s why Saab has always needed to source engines from other manufacturers – the Cologne Ford V4 for the 95 and 96 models to replace the earlier two stroke unit, the Triumph Dolomite mill for the early 99, the GM Ellesmere Port V6 for the 900, 9-3, 9000 and 9-5 and now (if it survives) BMW power units for future models.

    Saab’s mistake was in going the whole hog to develop their own engines (albeit based on the BL power unit) and engine management system (Trionic) – the cost of doing that must have crippled them beyond repair, particularly when the world economies tanked after Black Monday in 1987. This came just after Saab’s best ever year and they embarked on a massive new plant in Malmo, Sweden, that was eventually mothballed – another deja vu concession to BL/Rover.

    Saab’s other structural issue was its limited offerings. Simply put, Saab offered limited coverage of the overall car market, even at the rarified premium end. No SUV/crossover (forget the badge-engineered 9-7X and 9-2), no people carrier and no entry-level and large flagship models do not make for a competitive range.

    Saab’s hatchback format may be loved in Europe but, in most other markets, it spelled the kiss of death for the 900 five-door and 9000. This format is not accepted by most in the Middle and Far East markets (and, one may add, even in the US). With China becoming the nucleus of booming car sales, had Saab persisted with this format, it would have failed dismally even earlier!

    Contrary to popular belief, Saabs aren’t that well built either. Solidly executed for sure, but the way they were put together was always patchy at best. Additionally, these cars were only able to withstand temperate climates – just ask any owner in the hotter and more arid markets and many tales of woe appear. Sagging headliners, gas struts that failed to keep the bonnet and hatch open soon after delivery, pathetic air-conditioning, quick fading paint, iffy electronics and failing automatics (which most markets outside Europe demand) are common complaints.

  23. Eric van Spelde says:

    Um, it’s General Motors trying to widen Saab’s market and lineup in a bid to get ‘economies of scale’ that did it in for the brand! The same applies to Jaguar under Ford’s stewardship.

    You can try and sell 250,000 Saabs or Jaguars, but the number of people who actively *want* one and are willing to pay a premium to do so is much less than that. Try and play the volume game and you’re effectively competing against your own – sure people will take a Saab if it doesn’t cost any more than a Vauxhall, but what’s the point in that?

    Post-Black Monday, Saab and Porsche were in virtually identical positions. Saab fell in the hands of GM which fruitlessly tried to play the volume game even though they had no shortage of volume brands already and no global premium brand. Porsche called in the Japanese and, through vastly improved production engineering, made sure they could build the 40,000 or so vehicles their market would stand at the time, profitably. That’s why, having achieved that, they went from strength to strength and *then* widened their market with additional vehicles.

  24. Will says:

    Saab remind me a bit of Apple in the mid-1990s – quirky products which appealed to professionals and those who seeked something a little bit different from the beige wintel boxes.

    Apple turned it around by making products that were desirable and fashionable – the iMac of the late 1990s revolutionised the beige box industry. With the core business raking it in, they then diversified into MP3 players (iPod), content, phones and so can now sell anything at any price and it sells!

    Hopefully, Saab can take a leaf out of that book. They need their iMac moment – something that is different but will be embraced and revolutionary, without being quirky enough to push people away. A “Mini” sized hydrogen car, perhaps? A diesel-electric hybrid whereby the diesel generates electricity to drive the wheels?

  25. Michael Jolly says:

    I believe Saab had plans for a small, MINI-like car, although I doubt that will see the light of day now. 🙁

  26. daveh says:

    I love SAAB’s but the dilution of the brand has hurt it here in Europe. In the US it has a great reputation, as Americans don’t have the same hang up’s about cross platform and engine sharing just equipment levels. The new 9-5 is great – not driven one yet but I think is a good car which has again been mulled by the press as its not German and is technically the same platform as the Insignia. The ride is better than the teeth rattling germans, although it is a bit rolly polly in the corners, its no way as bad as the old 9-5. Hope SAAB can survive, but they need to get in naed with another major manufacturer to share technology or it will not survive.

  27. David 3500 says:

    I am sorry to be pedantic, but the Saab which featured in the 1981 Human League video for Don’t You Want Me? is a 99 Turbo Coupe, not a 900 Turbo. It sports the Super Inca alloy wheels that were never available on the 900.

    Digressing slightly, the other car featured in the video was a Rover 2600 finished in Pharoah Gold – a lovely colour. Was this car also owned by a member of the Human League and what happened to it?

  28. cakewalker says:

    Very well written potted history of Saab. It’s good to read something this comprehensive about this fondly-regarded manufacturer – particularly interesting reading why the ownership changed over the years not just to whom (and, along with the comments, some of the specifics of GM’s mis-handling of the company).

    I’m actually a bit surprised there hasn’t been more coverage of Saab here on AR Online. I know it has only quite a tenuous connection to BMC>MGR but given the emotional trauma MGR fans went through in and around 2005 I would have thought Saab’s sale last year and their subsequent efforts would have been of interest, if only to see if they have learned anything from the MGR debacle. I’m also a bit disappointed that this (otherwise excellent) article reads as though it was written as an obituary. There’s no point glossing over Saab’s current predicament. However, although they may be in a right pickle at the moment they’re not dead. Were there any similar obituaries for MGR in early 2005 (ie., before their collapse)? I can’t imagine such writing going down well with MGR fans and employees at the time and writing about Saab in this way at this time is unfair on their fans and those whose jobs depend on the company. Their favourite brand / livelihood is battling hard at the moment to stay in the game – it would have been good if this article ended with a bit more encouragement for those still pushing for the company’s survival.

    Also, given how detailed the story above is and the wish to draw parallels with MGR, there’s scant discussion of how Saab’s current situation compares with MGR’s. I don’t feel they’re as similar as the popular press would have you believe. Saab have new products which are more than competent and could foreseeably tide them over while they attract outside investment. MGR’s newest model in 2005 was the 7 year old 75, which had been (very unfairly) unpopular from launch. Saab’s and MGR’s leaderships are hugely different – there are decisions Saab has made since independence which betray what people see as Victor Muller’s lack of experience running a large company, but he has energy, entrepreneurial flair and business focus that seemed lacking in the Phoenix Four. Longbridge might have been a well-run factory in 2005 but it was overstaffed, which I’m fairly sure the world-leading facilities in Trollhattan aren’t. The current incarnation of Saab has also been born into an extraordinarily tough commercial environment (far more so than the era of MGR’s start), I don’t believe they’ve had the sort of financial dowry that BMW left with MGR and they’ve certainly not had the patriotic sales peak MGR saw in their early days. And while the British government didn’t go out of their way to help MGR it would seem at the moment that the Swedish government is actively hampering Saab’s attempts at raising money.

  29. Mike Humble mike humble says:


    Eventhough my first love is all things British, my sources are very reliable. Many Saab managers are jumping the ship as we speak. They are in a critical situation, so much so, that dealers are also running away.

    Unfair to mention about the Government not helping MG Rover, they did that from 1975 – 1988. Saab need a collaborator not just a huge financial shot in the arm. Stability is the key not throwing copious amounts of money into the pot.

    I love Saabs, and allways will but this time, I have my rose tinted specs on the mantlepiece – Saab is dying and dying quick, I would be genuinely heartbroken if they did go pop, but in todays climate, its survival of the fittest sadly – in the words of Mike and the mechanics…

    All they need is a miracle! – I so hope I`m proved wrong!

  30. cakewalker says:

    Hi Mike – sorry if my comment sounded overly critical, perhaps having read down your article with interest about Saab’s history it made the consensus that we’re seeing it drawing to a close all the more frustrating!

    I’ll admit my sources are based on what I read, not what I hear first hand – I hope the way I wrote the comment reflected that but perhaps it didn’t. It doesn’t surprise me that Saab dealers in particular are getting thin on the ground, given they’ve had precious little to sell for months. The one in my city seems to be hanging on. They’ve a brilliant location (on the same road as the AGA and Bang & Olufsen shops – can imagine those brands appealing to the same minds) which always seemed wasted given the dealership is very obviously a Vauxhall dealership selling Saabs. It’s better a combined dealer than no dealer though.

    Again I have to admit what I know of MGR and its predecessors is through reading this site. I know what you mean about government involvement, but I struggle to see that it was to the advantage of the company in the long term. I know we are talking about what-ifs, but wasn’t the formation of BL in the first place politically motivated? Presumably if it was just a 1970s-era BMC (big although that would have been) that had run into trouble the government wouldn’t have had quite such a task on their hands. And their actions during the 80s did seem to seed Rover’s over-reliance on other manufacturers – utterly criminal when you consider the company’s potential when it came to engineering and innovation.

    Saab don’t seem to be asking their government for money (did MGR in 2005?) but the regulatory processes involved in saying yes or no to potential investors seem from outside at least to be overly drawn-out. And like MGR I don’t think the intention was to continue going it alone, although I think Saab are trying to find partners rather than purchasers. I’d be curious to hear how active they’ve been at doing that since their independence as it only seems to have been in the past few months that there’s been much news on the subject.

    Anyway, I agree that the odds are without question stacked against them at the moment and if they do pull through the current crisis they will be stacked against them for some time to come. Agree also that I hope you’re proved wrong about their chances 🙂

  31. David 3500 says:

    Cakewalker – I have read your comments with interest. I understand that the Swedish Government does not look to provide state aid or any other finiancial assistance to their carmakers, as it would potentially open the floodgates from other industries seeking financial help. Hence the reason why both Saab and Volvo are in the different situations (and ownerships) they currently are after their long periods under American ownership.

  32. Mike Humble Mike Humble says:


    For what I heard from a dealer a while back, The Swedish Government has allready stated they will not bail the company out.

  33. cakewalker says:

    Sorry for the delayed reply…

    From what I understand, the Swedish government have stated they won’t bail the company out, but then Saab haven’t asked to be bailed out. The government indirectly have an investment in Saab already (via a loan from the European Investment Bank, limited to use for environmentally friendly R&D), however Saab have been seeking investment from a variety of other sources and have been hampered by the government’s approach to approving the investors.

    There’s talk of underhand behaviour on the government’s part (one minister eyeing up a potentially empty factory and ready workforce for her son to use to manufacture windmills and another on the EIB board of governors while the government were claiming not to know the EIB’s stance on the investor in question). I’m in no position to know whether this is to be taken with a pinch of salt or not, but two things I can relate to – a local market with an apathy towards home-grown goods and a tabloid press who see more sales from having their doomsaying borne out than seeing Saab survive. I feel therefore that the fact that Saab may be up against an uncooperative government on top of this is worth a mention. Sadly, all they seem able to see in their country’s talented technical sector (aside from windmill manufacture) is hamburger operatives.

  34. Jeff says:


    Just want to say a great piece of writing. Probably single best thing to read right now, with the recent news. Lots of caring, heart, and knowledge. Appreciate the long-term perspective.


  35. saeed043 says:

    Why why saab shutted down?????? it hurts me a lott. Though i have no car, but i have some sense about cars or the automobile industries and i really like the features and designs of saab cars i do really like as their first priority is safety and driving comfort… i really like to see them back in industry as soon as possible,,,,

  36. Chris Ivory says:

    The Saab in the ‘Don’t you want me’, video is actually a 99 Turbo three door, and still lives. I know the person who owns it.

  37. Michael 1963 says:

    La Saab è stata sempre una delle mie Case automobilistiche preferite! La 900 prima serie dei primi anni ’80 era il mio mito, assieme all’A.R. Alfetta di quegli anni!!!
    Sono profondamente rattristato nel vedere la fine ingloriosa che ha fatto la SAAB!!! Purtroppo la General Motors l’ha portata alla morte! In circa 20 anni sono stati incapaci di valorizzare un Marchio nobile e carico di storia! Lo hanno portato alla disfatta eppoi abbandonato a se stesso! Addio Saab! Resterai sempre nel mio cuore!!!!

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