For two decades, the Convertible from Saab has demonstrated that an open top car can also be a practical all-year-round means of transport. In becoming the definitive ‘car for all seasons’, it has achieved global recognition as an aspirational icon of automotive style.
The first ever Saab Convertible was sold in the United States in January 1986. It was one of only 400 built during that year. Now, more than 240,000 cars and three design generations later, the Saab Convertible has played a leading role in growing the premium convertible segment of the car market.
It injected panache and real-world credibility into a market niche that had a fallen into decline. Twenty years ago convertibles were a comparatively rare sight on the road, but the arrival of the soft-top from Saab changed perceptions about the feasibility of open top motoring. While many manufacturers now also offer convertible models, it was Saab’s early success that provided their inspiration.
In some European markets, such as the United Kingdom, Sweden and Holland, the Saab Convertible has accounted for as much as 50 per cent of sales in its segment and today global volumes continue to show a strong upward trend. The Convertible’s distinctive design, combined with sporty driving enjoyment and surprising functionality, have come to symbolize the core values of the Saab brand.
While commercial success began 20 years ago in the United States, the concept was born more than two years earlier when Saab took a bold decision to surprise the automotive world.
The first Convertible was unveiled as a concept at the Frankfurt Motor Show in the autumn of 1983. Saab had earned a reputation for building hatchback cars that were strong and durable, but the idea of an open top car coming from cold the climes of Scandinavia was beyond the imagination of even the best-informed journalist.
To ensure maximum impact, the shape of the veiled show car was disguised by a plastic block inserted above the trunk lid to give it the silhouette of a wagon. When the wraps came off, the assembled crowd found themselves looking at a stunning two-door car; the words ‘Saab’ and ‘Convertible’ were brought together for the first time.
With its gleaming, pearl white paint finish, deep red leather upholstery and clean, well-proportioned lines, the new arrival was the talk of the show. Most of the few convertibles on the market at the time had somewhat awkward lines, reflecting the requirements of adapting a sedan bodyshape. But the Saab was different. Although it was, in effect, a Saab 900 with the roof removed, it looked like a unique, ‘bespoke’ design without any styling compromises.
The soft-top was, of course, electrically-powered for speed and ease of use. Again, unlike many other conversions, there was still room left in the back to accommodate two adults. Just as important, this was a Convertible that looked good, roof up or down.
The four season, four-seater car had been born.
Although Saab stressed that this was a purely a concept, demonstrating what was possible, the overwhelming reaction from press, public and dealers alike made a decision to take the car into production almost inevitable. It quickly became a question of ‘when’, rather than ‘if’, it would be built. But Saab was cautious in committing resources to making a car so very different from its other production models.
The need to fulfil the Convertible’s all-weather customer promise placed an uncompromizing requirement on good build quality and materials. The decision was eventually taken to use the same expert coachbuilders who had assembled Saab’s show car, Valmet Automotive. Based in the unlikely location of Uusikaupunki in Finland, Valmet is one of the world’s most northerly car plants. The fact that a car designed to exploit sunshine and warm weather should be built in a land of snow and ice added to the Convertible’s mystique and its rapidly developing cult status.
Most of the first limited run of 400 cars for the United States found buyers before they arrived in the country. Demand was so great that people placed orders without ever driving car, which was just as well because dealers found it difficult to keep demonstrators on their books in the face of such public demand.
By the time the Convertible went on general sale in 1987, demand exceeded production capacity and a 12 month waiting list built up before facilities at the Valmet plant were expanded.
Unlike many of its competitors, all variants of the Saab Convertible were equipped with a powered roof as standard, as well as leather upholstery. The triple layer soft-top was extremely durable, snug-fitting and totally weatherproof. And, again unlike many of its competitors, the Convertible always had a glass rear screen fitted, not a plastic substitute prone to cracking and fogging. It was even electrically heated to quickly defrost in sub-zero temperatures. The exceptional power of the car’s heater also encouraged the enjoyment of open top motoring in cold weather.
Customers came to appreciate the Saab’s robust build quality and its impressive, all-weather capabilities. Here was an open-air car designed to withstand the harshest of Scandinavian winters. Saab had not only raised its roof, it had also raised the bar in automotive design, showing that four season soft-top driving really was a practical proposition. This was born out by the car’s outstanding success in markets such as the UK, where a convertible spends most of its time with the roof up and the heater on. This was a convertible that should not be regarded merely as a ‘second’ car, to be used sparingly when the sun came out.
After its launch with a 175 bhp, 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, the appeal of the first-generation Convertible was further broadened in 1990 with the introduction of a 128 bhp, naturally-aspirated engine, bringing the car within the budget of a wider audience. The product range was quickly expanded to include full and light-pressure turbo engines, more model specifications and a top-of-the-line Aero. The launch of a stunning, Monte Carlo Yellow color in 1992 turned even more heads.
The all-new, ‘second generation’ 900 range was launched in autumn 1993, but the arrival of a soft-top the following year was even more eagerly awaited. With imaginative marketing messages such as ‘We didn’t invent the Convertible, but we made a Saab of it’, the new car did not disappoint.
Unlike its predecessor, the new 900 Convertible – and its later Saab 9-3 evolution in 1998 – benefited from being part the new model program right from the outset, as its well-integrated lines clearly demonstrated. Just like its forebear, the second generation car became widely regarded as the best looking model in the range.
Designers were now able to achieve a completely flat rear deck and the soft-top, soon to be hydraulically rather than electrically-powered, was accommodated under a flush-fitting ‘tonneau’ cover, which was automatically operated as part of the soft-top mechanism. The flexible soft-top storage well in the trunk could now be hitched up to provide more space and the manual locking operation to the windshield header rail was also made easier still.
The new Convertible was an even greater success than the previous model, more than doubling previous production and sales volumes. Global sales for 1994-2002 totalled 140,500 units, averaging more than 15,500 units a year and accounting for 24 per cent of all 900/9-3 production. This compares with almost 49,000 Saab 900 Convertibles sold between 1987 and 1993, an average of 7,000 units a year, or 14 per cent of all Saab 900 production.
Now in its third incarnation, the latest 9-3 Convertible range represents the biggest technical step forward Saab has made in the segment. It majors on distinctive, ‘stand-out’ design, now with the added driving appeal of the Sport Sedan chassis.
Further refinements include a full, single-button hood operation; a light-colored interior headlining; Bluetooth communication; integrated front seat-belts for easy use and pop-up rear roll bars. And it is the first soft-top car to achieve a maximum, five-star EuroNCAP rating.
Launched in late 2003 and built in a dedicated facility at Magna Steyr Fahrzeugtechnik near Graz, Austria, the current model continues to accelerate the pace of sales, having sold almost 38,000 units in the last two calendar years, an annual average of more than 18,500 cars.
Its appeal as a surprisingly practical car that is ‘More than a Convertible’ assuredly picks up the design mantle of its predecessors. And in the next 20 years, Convertibles from Saab promise to set even more sales and design benchmarks.
Although Saab sold its first convertible exactly 20 years ago, a deeper glimpse in the rear-view mirror reveals that the first open-top model from Saab was, in fact, a two-seater sports car, the Saab Sonnet 1. And that was unveiled at the Stockholm Motor Show in 1956, 50 years ago this year.