Making the Aero-X

UPDATE: There are some new entries to the blog below. I just wanted to elevate this one again for the Euros coming online.

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This is my take on the Aero-X design process based on several articles and press releases, the most recent being the Car Design News article that you can’t see without a subscription. You might need Flash player to see the pictures.

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When the Aero-X debuted at the Geneva International Motor Show back in February 2006, many hoped it would be a vehicle that Saab would consider for production, even if that meant some modifications to the pure form it exhibited at the show. Sadly, this won’t be the case.

The Aero-X will, however, provide some inspiration for restyling of existing Saab models in the future. According to Auto Motor and Sport, it may even provide the direct basis for roadster or coupe in the near future. But it seems we won’t see the Aero-X itself in production. It’s a design study only, but what a successful design study!

Saab’s design team, under the ultimate supervision of Brian Nesbitt, commenced work on the Aero-X in January 2005. They were told to create the ultimate vision for the Saab brand – a designer’s dream. The chance to look into the future and see what a brand can be, unencumbered by the limitations that engineers and beancounters would place on a model due to volume concerns.

Anthony Lo called the final product “Aeromotional thinking”. I like it.

Of course, given a free hand, the team at GM Europe Design began by sketching sporting cars. It is in many ways the default option for car designers. Something desireable, sporting, sleek, yet functional. But in the case of the Aero-X it was a little more deliberate than that. Saab’s historical connection with aviation, jets in particular, is one that inspires excitement, passion and a desire for experience. In automotive terms this means sporting character, advanced technology and stunning looks.

Just one month into the project, the design team had whittled their ideas down to one smaller car and a larger sports coupe. Sketches, drawings, clay models – in just a month they had the bones they needed to flesh out the vehicle, full scale, into the final design that we ended up seeing in Geneva. Car Design News point out that the design process was notable for the extensive use of manual methods, which were employed due to the urgency of the project. The use of computers is commonplace in the design world, but can be time consuming. The inference being that as this was a design study, rather than a production vehicle, there were certain production-oriented details that could be side-stepped in this instance.

Whilst all this was happening with the exterior, sketches for the interior were also being prepared, examined and sorted. The final interior design was based on a theme provided by Erik Rokke.

Details pertaining to the interior lighting and cockpit instrumentation were based on a design by David Leary. It was appropriate that he used Hasselblad cameras as an inspiration. Saab’s original design guru, Sixten Sason, also worked on Hasselblad camera design. Whether this link was deliberate or not, it is interesting nonetheless. The instrumentation relies on glass layers that are finely etched, with light applied from the rear and the top to illuminate them as required. There is also a high reliance on new LED technology.

The canopy opening was a deliberate attempt to do something different as well as tying in with Saab’s aviation heritage and the classic wraparound screen from the 99 and 900. The resurgence of the wraparound windscreen was hinted at in an interview with GM Europe head, Carl-Peter Forster:

It has a great heritage but has lost much of it. How the hell could it give up the wraparound windshield? I would rather invest in that than electrical systems. The next generation will be distinctly Saab.

The removal of the A pillars was an inspired decision, but one that necessitated some innovative thinking and problem solving. The large canopy featured the largest piece of curved acrylic ever required for a car that opens/closes in 20 seconds.

The full exterior design was finally approved in May 2005. This included the turbine wheels, the mirrors and the symmetrical exhaust designed by Alex Daniel, who would eventually take over full responsibility for exterior design. Design work continued at G-Studio, at the Institute of Applied Ards and Design in Turin, Italy. Here they had to construct a bespoke test rig in order to ensure that the critical canopy opening would function effectively.

Other issues included the materials to be used for visible parts of the car when the canopy is open. Remember, this is a design study, not a production car, but the photos still need to show a high quality finish. Back in Sweden, final details such as the steering wheel and other interior fittings were being overseen by Rokke. Leary’s innovative controller device was also finalised – a centralised block that closes the canopy, starts the vehicle, is a gear selector and media driver all in one unit.

Alex Daniel split his time between Sweden and Italy and by December, just two months from the premiere at the end of February, was overseeing the whole project.

An inspired body needs an inspiring powerplant to propel it. As this is primarily a study in design, the actual engine in the Aero-X is merely there for functional purposes – moving it from A to B. Saab did come up with a concept engine to accompany the press materials, however. A 2.8 litre twin-turbo V6 tuned to run on 100% bioethanol and produce 400HP.

Power is applied through a seven speed manual gearbox via an AWD system that applies the 500 Nm of torque to produce performance projected in the sub-5 second category. All of this is, of course, theoretical, though much of the technology underpinning the theory is in use already.

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Did the Aero-X live up to it’s vision as the ultimate statement for the Saab brand?

The reaction in Geneva was all-encompassing and overwhelming. The Aero-X won the best-in-show award and has been the subject of numerous automotive news and magazine articles since. It has provided a blueprint design language that we’re assured will make its way through the Saab model line in due course. Perhaps it will be personified in a smaller coupe in the near future as reported. Time will tell.

It’s clear, however, that the Aero-X has had a profound effect. It’s inspired, inspiring, passionate and it has everyone wondering what it would be like to drive in THAT cabin behind THAT windscreen. People are talking about Saab again and it’s in no small part due to this fantastic concept – designed and built from scratch in just over 12 months.

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REFERENCES:

Car Design News (subscription)
Saab Magazine
Trollhattan Saab
GM Press releases

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6 Comments

  1. Thanks for a brilliant insight feature Swade- this really showed me things I did not know and had wondered about.

    Congrats on a great bit of “off the Troll-ey” thinking in collating all this and adding your own angle.

    I really enjoyed reading this. It’s what makes Trollhattan Saab superior.

    Come on folks, respond…

  2. Thanks Lance, but don’t believe the timestamp. As at the time of your comment it had only been up for around 10 minutes.

    Just finishing off reading your work now, by the way. Whetting my appetite for another 99T!

  3. I thought computers were supposed to make us more efficient, but sometimes they get in the way. The remark that “the design process was notable for the extensive use of manual methods, which were employed due to the urgency of the project” reminds me of another revolutionary auto, the Avanti which also had some aero basis. Raymond Loewy designed the car in a matter of weeks in 1962, and it was in production in 63.
    But, of course, they didn’t have the govt regulations to deal with back then.

    ctm mentioned in other comments that the 900 is the real Saab for the designers. I understand that Saab has too much on its plate right now, however, once they get over the hump and are stable, I hope they produce a 92 or 96 reminiscent car, kind of like the successful Mini Cooper.

  4. I still dont see too much Saab in the Aero-X design. A good Saab design is a car that when all the badges are removed you would be able to say “that is most definitely a Saab”. I actually think one of the best Saab designs was the 900 from 1993-1997 as it was a modern update of a classic Saab which they in turn ruined by sticking huge great bumpers on to make the first 9-3.

    Regretfully, the Aero-X looks like something designed in Asia – not Sweden and any resemblance to a Saab is pure coincidence.

    Very interesting article though Swade, thanks for sharing it πŸ™‚

  5. Well the debates go forth again ! πŸ˜‰

    Either way, Swade you rock ! Thanks for providing this in-depth look at the Aero-X for the masses to see. CDN is great but only for subscribers πŸ™

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