Posting will be light this weekend, so here’s a long one that might need to breathe a little.
I recently had the good fortune to travel to Sweden and take part in the celebrations for the 60th Anniversary Saab Festival.
It was a heck of a trip. The trip of a lifetime for a hardcore Saabnut, actually. My head still spins when I think about some of the things that I got to see and do. All those people, places and cars that I’d only read about in books before – they were all there in abundance, almost to the point where they blended in to the background. When you turn around and see Erik Carlsson crossing the street and all you think is “There’s Erik again”, well, you know you’ve been spoiled.
The Festival, the place, the cars, the people. All of these different elements gave me a new appreciation and a deepened understanding of the Saab marque.
During my second-last day in Trollhattan, I was standing out front of the hotel having a cigarette and there was a drunk guy hobbling down the street in the distance. He was actually doing one of Billy Connolly’s drunk walks. Anyway, I knew he was coming towards me. He was only walking in my general direction, but somehow I knew he was coming towards me. And indeed he was.
I just stood there looking around and he staggered up, eventually pulling up behind me. I could hear some incoherent Swedish rambling and as there were a few other people around as well, I assumed he was talking to them. But really, I knew he wasn’t. Sure enough he pulled up beside me and kept rambling in a manner that I couldn’t understand. I said “Sorry mate, I only speak English”.
He got all wide-eyed like I shouldn’t have been there and in the heat of the day I thought maybe he’s tired of all these festival-goers in his town. He had a few bruises and some blood on his knuckles, which could have been from anything but most likely was from breaking his own fall. I wondered what was going to come out next, but it turns out that even the drunk scruffy looking guys in Sweden have benefited from what must be a good multi-lingual education system.
He pumped his fist (drunkenly) and said with considerable authority “Saaaaaab. Sweeeeeeden! Trolllllhattan. Sixssssssty Yearsssss!!!”
And promptly wandered off again.
This was one of the shorter meetings I had with people there, and definitely one of the colorful ones. I met enthusiasts from all around the world and the one thing we all had in common was that we all knew that these occasionally strange little cars from this small city in western Sweden were just brilliant!
There’s a fair bit of concern, though, about how brilliant they might be in the future. There’s a definite vein of thought that says GM aren’t the right owners for Saab and they’d be better off in other hands – and that may well be true.
I don’t necessarily subscribe to that theory, however. Saab have been under GM’s full ownership for seven years now. Anti-GM folks would say that there’s only been one new model released in that time and that the character of the brand has been diluted in that time. I don’t disagree. But having been to Trollhattan, having met some of the people that make the company what it is, I can tell you that the spirit of Saab is alive and well there.
There remains a passion for building the kind of unique and different cars that Saab became known for and it sits side by side with that Swedish trait for doing things in the right order.
Let me pass on one observation from the trip.
In the middle of my factory tour we stopped and had lunch in the company cafeteria. Christer and I chatted away about the company and the blog (and the fact that people that pass information on – yikes! – no names or locations were mentioned). At the conclusion of our meal, we took our trays and systematically began to sort our stuff. Cutlery went in one spot, the plate in another after we’d deposited any scraps in an appropriate spot. The tray was placed in a rack.
It’s the same at any McDonalds you visit there. Here in Australia we have garbage recepticals at McDonalds too (duh) and you open the door, clear the contents of your tray and then stow the tray in a spot above. Not in Sweden. There they have different spots for all the things you have on your tray. Drink containers go in the round hole. Scraps in another spot. paper products in yet another. And there’s a tray-shaped slot for you-know-what.
Having visited there, I now get the feeling that back at the start of this decade, Saab were building the cars that they thought they should. The 9-5 was still young and fresh and the 9-3 had technology in there that Saab had developed in-house at considerable cost. And that was the problem.
Costs got out of control to the point where GM pulled the reins and made Saab accountable. Now, Saab are having to re-learn their own trait of doing things the right way, but within the constraints of some considerable financial control.
A bad thing? For creativity it may well be. For business, it’s an essential.
Having my own experience with Saab to draw on, meeting a number of people that have made Saab tick over the years and then driving the latest 2008 Saab 9-3 I now feel a renewed level of optimism for the future.
I’m no GM apologist and 20 minutes in the Letters to GM archives here on the site will make that clear. But I am a realist and I know that what Saab needs is investment. My time in Sweden gave me enough first-hand experience to say with some confidence that they’re getting that.
GM has screwed Saab over in the past, no doubt about it. But don’t forget that Saab screwed themselves over to some extent as well. The good thing is that now Saab are providing GM with tangible benefits in terms of research and development. As much as I hate it, GM are pretty much reintroducing Cadillac in Europe on the back of Saab. It’s a commercial reality that I dislike, but it’s meant that Saab will benefit from greater cabin and ride quality and better technology, like XWD, which may not have been viable without some Exec’s EuroCaddy dreams.
It’s taking some time, but I really do think that Saab are now on the right track and will do some great things in coming years. I’m not a big fan of SUVs at all, but the 9-4x is reputed to be a great vehicle in the making, one that every dealer I’ve heard from is excited about. One guy in another area of the company assured me some time ago that Saab have some “really cool stuff coming. Cooler than the Aero-X” which is a pretty tall order, but he was definitely in a position to know.
I think it was the first day of the festival when I had the unexpected pleasure of being introduced to Bjorn Envall, the guy who started on the Saab 99 with Sixten Sason, designed the EV-1 and finished his career at Saab when the NG900 was complete.
Bjorn, although retired now, still pokes his head in at the plant every now and then as he only lives about 15 minutes or so away. Consequently, he’s seen what’s coming in the future. Now bear in mind that this is a guy who’s had a big hand in the heritage we all love so much.
Bjorn Envall looked at me and said something to the effect of “now, we are still small, still recovering.” Then he lifted both arms and curled them a-la Arnold Schwarzenegger before he became the Governator. “In a few years though, when you see what’s coming, we will be like this”.
The 2008 Saab 9-3 really is a great start along this path. I can’t wait to see what the 9-4x and 9-5 bring to the table. And like many, I’m really hanging out for the 9-1.
Whether it was forced upon them or of their own making (the truth is somewhere in the middle), Saab have struggled. That’s not over yet, but I really do believe that the plans for the future will give them some of their identity back, and something for the enthusiasts to smile about, too.