Saab Automobile AB really does seem to be returning to Swedish ownership a little less than twenty years after GM took a 50% stake in the carmaking component of the Saab-Scania conglomerate. Many of us will think back to May 2000, when, putting a brave face on many uncertainties, the UK once again had a domestically owned car manufacturer.
Some parallels are striking. Saab’s core product is based heavily on a lacklustre, just-superseded, product of the erstwhile partner and has failed to make the expected impression in its sector – the 9-3 is Saab’s Rover 45. Waiting in the wings is the new 9-5, drawing heavily on the parent’s hardware and pitched into battle against German opposition with vastly larger development budgets. The chronology is rather different but the new big car runs the risk of being Saab’s Rover 75. I could stretch the point by describing the 9-2X ‘Saabaru’ as their City Rover but reckon that the parallels are clear enough.
On the other hand, MG Rover’s helmsmen, despite the vainglorious SV and ZT V8 ventures, never had the charisma or track record of Christian von Koenigsegg, who has shaken up the British and Italian supercar hegemony with far more modest resources than VW-owned Bugatti, who presumed to conquer.
However, in this context, supercars are a mere distraction and a rather tedious one. In the spring of 2000 there were two business plans in place for Longbridge: Alchemy – low volume sports car production, or Phoenix – volume cars, with an eventual manufacturing and technology partnership with another company.
I have looked in vain for any such statement of intent from Saab’s new masters. If Saab really employs only 3400 people it’s either an impressively lean organisation or heavily dependent on GM assemblies. With sales of under 100,000, Saab’s present model strategy – which I once unkindly described as targeting those who could not quite attain the Audi they wanted on the company car list – is patently not working. The new masters will only succeed if they can recover Saab’s highly complex corporate soul and that demands something far deeper than a ‘new 96’ on MINI, Fiat 500 and Alfa MiTo lines.
It is one hell of a brief and, if the answer is facing Audi, BMW and Mercedes Benz with ageing and undercapitalised products, the company will not stave off failure for long. Let’s hope Saab and their new owners find the inspiration to bring something genuinely new to a jaded marketplace. Every true car enthusiast would welcome that and Saab, one of the industry’s great survivors, surely deserves such an outcome.