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?
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 ’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 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
- Essays : Selling the brand - 18 November 2023
- Review : Land Rover Discovery – first off the line - 15 September 2023
- Events : Leyland National 51 gathering, Whitehaven 29-30 April - 5 April 2023