Saab are Swedish

I figured I’d better write that headline just in case anybody who’s important at Saab forgot. Or maybe it’s for those at GM who aren’t directly playing in the Saab sandbox, but make decisions that effect Saab.

It sounds pretty rudimentary, but sometimes it’s the simple things that get overlooked.

After writing the recent editorial piece at The Truth About Cars and after thinking about Bell Springsteen’s follow up piece a little, there was something he wrote that resonated with me:

I read Trollhattansaab.net in order to explore the main question that Mr. Wade often contemplates on his site. How does a brand that currently sells under 160k vehicles a year attract enough passionate owners that Trollhattansaab.net receives well over 5k unique visitors per day? Why is it that Saab drivers are so passionate about being Saab drivers?

Firstly, being the pedant that I am, I need to clarify those numbers. Saab sell around 130,000 vehicles per year. last year was their best ever at around 134,000. Also, sadly, this site attracts more like 4,000 individuals per day on average. It serves around 6,000 pages to those individuals, but there’s not as many as mentioned.

——

Onwards then, to the crux of the matter.

What gives this brand it’s mojo? Why do we Saab drivers love being Saab drivers? And is that in danger?

There’s lots of little answers to this question, but there’s one big one. That one big answer is because the cars are Swedish. I can’t recommend highly enough the adventure that is going to Trollhattan for the Saab Festival. Because of your support, I was fortunate enough to get there this year and the connection between these cars and their home country is undeniable.

They do things different over there. They consider things a lot longer and in more depth there than what I’d ever experienced here in Australia. It’s pretty hard to nail down, but as much as early Saabs were different because they sprang from an aviation background, they’re also different because they sprang from the Swedish mindset.

This is just me, but I love the Saab brand, the culture and the cars primarily because of the history of the brand. And you can’t separate that history from their homeland.

I love an underdog that does incredible things, one who punches well above their weight. Saab’s innovations and motorsport history speak of a much bigger company.

I love how well thought out their early cars were (well, except perhaps for the whole no-trunk thing on the 92, that could have been done better, maybe. it looks smooth, but not entirely functional).

I love the way their looks get under your skin. How an ugly duckling base model 900 can be linked to a 1,000 pound gorilla of a tuned 900 Aero T16 S.

I love the fact that as I look back, there’s a whole lot of history there. Distinct history. History that few others could claim in terms of individuality and identity.

I love the whole hatchback thing. And I always have, even before a knew what a Saab was. Back in my redneck Holden days I actually yearned for an LH Torana Hatchback. And the XC Falcon GT’s always made more sense to me than the XY’s, even though the XYs would sell for a whole lot more and the XC’s weren’t really hatches at all, just coupes. Neither sedans or wagons never really did it for me. The hatch was a sports car without the problems or limitations of a sports car.

And yes, I do love the fact that Saabs aren’t mainstream.

It’s no big revelation that Saab’s distinctiveness has faded in recent years. And it’s not all down to GM, either. Saab went for a sedan as far back as the 99 in the 1970s, though they didn’t focus on sedans as a mainstream model until the 9000 and subsequent 9-5 models of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

But prior to 2003 there hadn’t been a Saab lineup completely devoid of a hatch variant since the advent of the combi coupe in 1974. The all-sedan/wagon lineup of the post-2002 era has now been complimented with the 9-3 SportCombi, which is as close a hatch as we’ll get for a few years. It’s a great car, too.

Is Saab’s Swedish heritage under threat?

Recent reports that the Trollhattan plant’s capacity might be reduced actually sent shivers down my spine. The 9-3 and 9-5 are already planned for a move to Germany. Trollhattan is scheduled to get production of GM’s Delta-based vehicles as a replacement and this will include any coming Saab 9-1 on that platform. The reduction in space is a matter of efficiency and from a business point of view, it’s understandable.

What’s of concern to me is whether or not there will come a day when Saab won’t have a manufacturing presence in Sweden. Their design area has already moved to Russelsheim and aside from manufacturing, all that’s left in Sweden is a brand centre and some administration. The technological development centre is across the road from the factory, but no doubt they consider themselves a GM facility now, rather than a Saab facility.

What’s of concern to me is that a brand, or company, as distinctly identifiable as Saab has to maintain strong roots with it’s origins. If Saab aren’t Swedish anymore, if they’re not true to their core values of design, safety, innovation and responsible performance, then they’re just another car company. You can’t just inject Swedishness, as one GM executive espoused a few years ago. Thankfully, I think they know that now.

Why do we Saab nuts love owning and driving Saabs? I think part of it is because even though the recent ones lack some of the distinctiveness of the older ones, they’ve still been designed with those core values at heart. They’re still Swedish. And GM needs to realise that Saab have to stay that way – distinct and true to their origins.

BMW can make some vehicles in the US and elsewhere because a) they’re mega-successful, and b) those vehicles are still very much BMWs. They make Minis in England. As they should. Alfa Romeo have been through more ups and downs than I care to mention but they’re still unmistakably Italian. Cadillacs should be huge American behemoths, not small and comparatively downscale wagons.

Every successful and aspired-to brand that’s going around today has a strong identity, be it national or sporting, or both. GM need to make sure that Saab’s identity is built not only on outstanding vehicles for the future, but with a strong and visible link to where they’ve come from.

I’d suggest that a strong and loyal following is riding on it. Though maybe they figure they can build up a new following without us?

I hope not.

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17 Comments

  1. You are soooo absolutely right.
    I could have written this article. It ‘s just the way I think about it.

  2. Steve there is another aspect as to how GM and Ford in fact do support local markets, if volume was the only criteria then no cars should have ever been built in Australia or for that matter Sweden. Sales of the GM local built commodore was 5134 for July 07 Ford falcon 3186 for the same period these numbers make these cars almost handbuilt specials , the fact is that brand positioning is God even in a miniscule market. Something also to consider is that here in Australia we have an automotive industry that has no relative volume scale compared to Europe or to North America , however what GM and Ford have done in Australia very well, is produce high performance ‘Hero ‘ cars that on a performance value of $$’s per HP are in fact world class. Ford falcon GT’s and the the GM performance models have produced local brand loyalty for the cars that is somewhat unique, I believe that SAAB has created similar brand loyalty on a global scale that very few other marques can match if at all. The actual global ownership of SAABS must be huge when you take how many older models are still owned and that the long term retention rate, is, l believe a lot higher for SAABS than for a lot other brands . Add to this that SAABS have a very active global network of owner clubs showing off the “brand ‘at no cost at all to GM as well as a thriving aftermaket network that provides quality product for a range of models. GM could do a lot worse than own SAAB, they in fact have a brand loyal global owner network which must be at a guess in the millions , if GM believe that they can simply trade brand loyalty ie simply sell your SAAB and buy a cadillac because it is also a car… mentality will not work , certailnly when there is true loyalty and respect for a small Swedish car maker called SAAB

  3. For me Saab is the car with “common sense”.
    In sweden it’s common sense to have fwd in the winter because it’s safer, it’s also common sense to have good headlights to be able to spot a moose on the road and if you cant stop in time despite your disc brakes, diagonal split brake lines etc it makes sense that the car should sacrifice it’s life for the good of it’s passengers. Hence a strong, safe passenger comparnment combined with seat belts and ample deformation zones makes common sense. Swedish cars are (were?) build with alot of common sense. I hope that doesn’t disappear…

  4. Well, Mats hits on a good point: “Saab is […] common sence”

    What I find interesting in comparing Saab with Alfa, is the fact that “Alfa is the car with no sence”.

    Comparing some more, it becomes interesting to note that Alfa produces about the same number of cars per year as Saab.
    But in my oppinion, Saab should sell more cars than Alfa, because Saab work in the same market space as Alfa, plus north America, which should be a large market.

    Still, with the N.An market, Saab are only able to sell as many cars as Alfa. To me, this observation has always been puzzling.

    So the answer – and I know Swade’s hit on this before – is perhaps not to sell more cars in the US, because that has proven difficult for several reasons, but rather sell more cars in Europe.

    Why is it I see more new Alfa Romeos in Finland than I see new Saabs? Why is Alfa succesful in France, but not Saab? And as you progress into even more latin countries, this trend becomes even more obvious.

    Perhaps the latin temprament is the answer? Perhaps the air of “safety” doesn’t go well in a country where the driver is too good to make an error, so he would rather opt for a “sporty” car, since that will allow him NOT to crash, rather than to survive a crash (that he won’t be in if he drives a sporty enough car)…?

    //rant off//

    The above is not a pun on latin countries, it’s a simple observation that a car’s ability to sell, it’s air, it’s marketing values, must be in tune with the customer base in that country.

    I believe Safe sells in the nordic countries, Sporty in the latin. I believe Green will sell globally within a couple of years. I believe Scandinavian will sell to the masses. I believe Unique won’t sell to the masses. I believe BFJ wouldn’t sell a lollypop.

    But first and foremost, I believe Saab needs to sell more in Europe.

  5. TD – awesome.

    More in Europe is definitely something that should be happening.

    Saab and Alfa sell similar numbers here in Oz, too, so it’s a very relevant observation.

  6. Well folks, I agree in full with every single reason you are stating. But above all, Saabs are distinctively unique. Even the current sedans are distinctively Saab, and from the distance. Likewise are the owners and drivers of these cars as we love this unique distinctiveness with a passion. The reason why I believe we all congregate so frequently in TS is to identify our appreciation of the brand by learning from others what their fascination is all about. I’ve been a regular since the very end of 05 when searching for the name Saab in Google and visiting every site until TS turned up. Since then I visit it every single day unless I am on the road. Prior to this I felt somehow isolated and in a way as the odd one in the block as I did not know any other Saab nut aside from my mechanics at Saabserve.. TS has given me the chance to meet Swade, Jeff, Richo, Ferdinand and Simon in person and to communicate regularly with most. I also correspond with another few nuts electronically and soon we’ll meet as well. Really, it is impressive to learn that visitors like Danny in SA are so passionate as well as many more from Portugal and Spain. I never imagined that the passion went that far even to other Latin areas. For me the creation from Swade of TS is as unique as the brand itself as this is the meeting place for all of us 24 hours a day. I wonder if the BMW, Audi, Porsche and many other camps have what we have ??? There’s only one Saab and one Swade to keep us all united. Many Thanks Mate !!!

  7. I wrote my post above just before lunch and aparently I was suffering from starvation cause my spelling wasn’t very good…. 🙂

  8. Very well written Swade, exactly the same as what’s going on in my mind. Part of it should have been included in the TTAC article as it really conveys the passion of many Saab owner.

    The only Saab thing that’s going to be left in Trollhattan is the museum, unless GM wants to move that south as well. I wonder how they are going to sell the European Delivery Program in the future. Will the pickup be in Russelheim or still in Trollhattan? The factory tour will be a bit awkward to explain as there will only be Opels rolling off the line.

    One of the things that attracted me to Saab is (or was) its Swedish roots. I always identify the origin of cars by the country where they are designed and manufactured and look at the window sticker to see where they are made. The good thing about Russelheim is that it’s still in Northern Europe and the country has a rich history in automobile design and manufacturing. I can’t get the thought out of my head though of looking at Volvos that are still made in Goteborg. I hope I am the only one..

  9. How about an ad campaign that goes like:

    “SAABs = Swedish for cars.” =-) It’s simple and would tick off ovlov in the process.

  10. Swade, as many strides as Saab has taken to embrace the enthusiast community, I still get the impression that GM doesn’t think they need us. They’d sell-out everything to increase shareholder value and the way to do that is to sell more cars. If they have to sell-out everything that is Saab to sell more cars they’ll do that.

    What GM appears to want is their own BMW or Audi, whether it turns out to be Cadillac or Saab (or both).

  11. Speed King, that’s probably the headline I should have used for this article: “The ‘S’ in SAAB stands for Svenska”.

    Love it.

  12. It would be a absolute for GM to close dwon the Trollhattan plant. Although the quality of product that comes from GM Russelsheim Germany is very high, the staff in that plant is in decline also. Within ten years Saab would not be made in Germany (atleast the quality would be good) but made in Russia, Chech Rep, or China. Northern Europe will cease to exist for GM manufacture. Keep Trollhattan for Saab, and Keep Russelsheim for Corsa, Astra, and Vectra

  13. Saab is not gone! It´s moore alive than in many years…

    Saab – Ones you have drive you do until you die!