Memo to Steve: I think you ought to reconsider Hirsch

I don’t know if, on a 35,000 unit run rate where we are now, what kind of a business opportunity there is unless SaabUSA were to significantly fund and help grow that business…and with everything else on our plate right now, that’s just not a high priority.

The quote on the right is Steve Shannon during my interview with him a few days ago. The full interview runs just over an hour and you can listen to the full recording here.

As you can see, one of the things we discussed during the course of the conversation was Saab tuning, and the possibility of Hirsch being marketed in the United States. In short, it sounds like it’s not going to happen in a hurry and I think that’s got to be disappointing for the Saab enthusiasts living there.

First, a word about the Hirsch arrangement.

Hirsch have been approved as Saab’s official tuners. Despite this status, their presence in any given country is not automatic. It’s up to Saab in each country to see that Hirsch modified vehicles will comply with local safety and design rules and then they have to market the products, usually through their dealer network.

Earlier in the interview, Steve Shannon questions why Hirsch aren’t in the US under their own steam. As far as I understand it, Hirsch won’t sell into a country without an arrangement with the Saab group in that country because their arrangements with Saab Automobile AB preclude them from doing so, mainly because of warranty issues and consistency of the relationship.

I think there’s a number of reasons why Saab USA should look at Hirsch again, and reconsider the possibility of bringing Hirsch vehicles to the US market.

The product

The #1 reason why Hirsch modifications should be made available in the US is because it’s a bloody good product. I’ve been fortunate enough to get a drive in Jeff B’s Hirsch 9-5 here in Australia and it was hands-down the most dynamic Saab I’ve ever driven. It’s a very driveable car (though a bit too low for someone occasionally inattentive like me) but it’s also pure, unadulterated aggression when you decide to kick it in the guts.

And it’s not just the engine tuning that makes these cars exciting. The suspension and most importantly, the brakes are just outstanding.

I’d take a Saab over a BMW on any given day because that’s where my heart is. If I were to function purely on rational thought, though, I’d take a Hirsch Saab over a BMW any day because not only has it got the styling and ergonomics that I love, it’s got the performance to match.

The individual

Tuning isn’t just about 20-somethings in Honda Civics.

Saab tuning is about taking a great car with design features and cues that you love and making it your own. Whilst the Fast and Furious crowd usually end up with garish look-at-me-mobiles that end up as cop bait, I’ve rarely seen a tuned and customised Saab that’s offended me. That’s not to say that it hasn’t happened – it has. But more often than not we’re talking about tasteful upgrades in looks that enhance the design but keep the original aesthetic, and upgrades in performance that give people the chance to make their Saab the best it can be – for them.

Hirsch 9-3
This is not a racer….unless it wants to be. Click to enlarge.

There are aftermarket providers out there now doing this and doing a great job of it. But the fact is that not all parts fit perfectly from aftermarket guys and what you can end up with is a car that’s not quite up to the standard you’d like.

The good thing about Hirsch is that because they’re in relationship with Saab, the stuff’s guaranteed as if it came from the factory that way – and they can’t do that without providing an equal standard of fit and finish.

If you want to individualise your car and you’ve got the option of choosing individual parts endorsed by the factory, then that gives you the ultimate option.

The market

Steve Shannon raised concerns about whether Saab’s US market is big enough to consider entering in the custom business. I’d be more concerned about whether Hirsch are big enough to handle the extra work.

First, there’s the unavoidable fact that Hirsch are doing business in multiple world markets and all of them are smaller that Saab’s US market. That happens when you’re the biggest.

Second, it’s not just the 35,000 you’ve sold this year that you’ve got as potential clients. There’s 4 years of Epsilon 9-3 sales to consider and almost 10 years of 9-5 sales. That’s a lot of cars. It’s still less than the number of Toyotas sold in a month, but it’s still a considerable client base, especially when you consider the next point…..

The qwan

BMW don’t sell bucketloads of M vehicles and Audi don’t sell bucketloads of RS vehicles, either.

But they sell a lot of base-level vehicles from the reputation that they’ve built on the back of these high-performance elite cars. This is the qwan. The mystique. The aspirational.

I could never have afforded to buy one of the three Hirsch vehicles that came out to Australia for compliance purposes a few years ago. But having seen one I straight away wanted to drive it one day. And having driven it I wanted to do what I could with my Viggen to make driving exciting again.

These vehicles build passion. They build loyalty. They build excitement into the brand. They let people see what the potential for their car is. What company – what aspiring premium company – doesn’t need these elements in their brand-building strategy?

——

Steve Shannon’s other reasons for not looking at Hirsch include a lack of engineering resources on the ground to ensure the cars meet American needs, standards and regulations, as well as concern over how much they’d have to commit to build that business.

On that front, Hirsch modifications have to be developed to factory standards. I’d imagine that their agreement with Saab Automobile AB places a pretty big mandate on this. They’d still have to be emissions and economy tested – but I can assure you that anecdotal evidence seems to point to tuned Saabs running more efficiently, not less.

In terms of marketing, all of the imagery etc is already there. You’d only have to change it if you really wanted to. It’s well produced and consistent with Saab imagery around the world.

——

Steve summed it up by saying that it all comes down to having to make a business case for the product. Either it’ll sell well enough to be sustainable, or Saab will see it as important enough to sustain it, or it just plain won’t work.

His final word was that with his current to-do list in terms of getting the brand stable in the US, that something like Hirsch just isn’t a priority. In life-and-death terms I can see what he means, but I just hope that the file is put to the side of the desk rather than in the bin.

——

As per his request during the interview, I sent Steve a link to the 9-5 Turbo S Edition that I dreamed up a few weeks ago as a way to send the 9-5 out with a bang. That concept relied heavily on Hirsch development so I guess it’s a complete non-starter from that point of view.

But I also included a brief encouragement for Steve to try out a Hirsch vehicle next time he’s in Europe.

And if you get the chance, I’d encourage you to do the same.

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24 Comments

  1. +1 from me. One thing I didn’t get from the interview, the US is the biggest market for Saab so how can it not be a win for Saab if it works in other markets which are much smaller.

  2. I’m definitely a tuner/modification guy. I’ve always done modifications with my Mustangs when I had them…. which is kinda’ the purpose of a Mustang, “affordable power with room to grow.” …

    As I look forward to purchasing a Saab within the next year… provided my college costs and financial income stays relatively the same… I’ll definitely be looking to modify my future Saab when the warranty ends… Maybe even earlier, provided my warranty isn’t in-validated by the modification. We can always dream, I guess.

  3. Personally, I don’t think Steve Shannon understood Hirsch’s relationship with Saab. I think he thought they were just another aftermarket parts dealer. This is understandable, I suppose.

  4. what they have to understand in the US, is that Saab makes wonderful, and powerful cars with a great and unique soul… and tuning it up with some Hirsch products is like giving a present to that miracle of beauty and technology… and the Hirsch parts are made so well: Swiss manufacturing… 😉
    well, it’s not “just another Saab tuner”: Hirsch is THE Saabologist, I mean, they’re like “Motorsport” for BMW or like “AMG” for Mercedes-Benz… Hirsch should be integrated to the car manufacturer as the over-aero model in some way Audi does: the A-series, then the S-series which are like the Aero-series at Saab, and then, Audi has the “RS”-series… and that should be the place of Hirsch everywhere where you can find a Saab dealership…
    but i guess the US won’t wake up that fast…
    it’s sad!

  5. Well, for one, I think that Saab was short sighted when they pronounced a small Swiss company their “official tuner”.

    Swade mentions the BMW M-series in comparison — which is tuned by AMG, a company with resources on virtually every continent. There’s a HUGE difference there. For AMG (or any other major aftermarket supplier) to market in the US, they just add the parts to the US catalog. If someone orders, ship the stuff to the AMG group distributors in the US and it’s done. Hirsch has nothing here, in Australia, etc.

    Hirsch, I love what they do. But it’s maddening to me what they can’t do — market globally.

    If Saab were serious about supporting tuning in all markets, they would strip Hirsch of the exclusive and grow partnerships that have some reach.

  6. Eggsngrits,

    You have a very good point- I hadn’t considered that before. A commitment to worldwide tuning means a commitment to a company with worldwide reach. On the other hand though, playing devil’s advocate, one could say that Saab should do more to help let Hirsch get into other markets. I doubt Hirsch has said “we don’t want to sell products in the US”; more likely, Saab hasn’t given them permission yet. Maybe Saab could change the nature of the contract so Hirsch doesn’t have to beg each and every market to let them in.

    I think a point should be driven home to at least start with the easier non-performance items. It’s all about getting a foot in the door! I seriously doubt much time or energy is needed to simply give Hirsch the green light to sell interior and exterior accessories in the states. And no marketing is necessary- those who want a spoiler, other rims, or a carbon fiber dash will seek it out. Just put it on Saab Accessories or even Hirsch’s site itself and people will find it.

    Again, start with the least time/money consuming for Saab to “approve”, and work your way up. Something has to be better than no Hirsch at all.

  7. Kroum:

    Oops, you’re right. AMG is in with the Mercedes-Benz crowd. M Technik does the M-series tuning.

    Well, what I said goes, except substitute Merc AMG series for BMW M-series.

    Carry on.

  8. If I understood correctly the mechanics of how this Hirsch supply may work as per Swade thorough explanation recently after meeting with the local Saab, what Merc, BMW and Audi do to supply their hotted up variances of their cars is by delivering these options as complete units shipped from Germany (or wherever they come from). This is fully kitted/modified models as “one unit”. The biggest obstacle with Saab is that they are not willing to ship complete Hirsch tuned/option vehicles from Sweden/Scandinavia fully delivered as one item. The present arrangement is that they endorse Hirsch as an aftermarket tuner and accessories supplier and nothing else. Unless they go further and supply the whole kit and caboodle as one, we are not going to see Hirsch optioned cars anywhere other than where Hirsch is made. This makes it hard since the present situation requires for an authorized independent Hirsch outfit to get Saab cars from their local entity, tuned them up and then sell’em. Well, that may be feasible/sustainable in Switzerland and some surroundings but nowhere else. We have a similar scenario in OZ with HSV Holden. But in this case these cars are sold in the UK and other markets as one unit and exported by GMH who has a substantial interest in HSV. I have done extensive research with our competitors and at least in OZ all AMG, M & S series are shipped as one. Surely, there are aftermarket service outfits to service them but that’s all they do and required to do. So, as much as I hate this whole debacle, unless there is an agreement whereby Hirsch optioned variances become a global supply from Sweden we are all stuffed !!!!

  9. “Swade mentions the BMW M-series in comparison — which is tuned by AMG, a company with resources on virtually every continent. ”

    I guess you mis-typed it here. AMG is, as we all know, Mercedes’ household tuning company.

  10. Good grief, why did I not see all the comments first time? If I’d seen I would have not written my comment, which now looks quite silly. Swade, you may slash it away. 🙂

  11. Nah, it’s alright Ken. Boosts the comment count, which makes me feel better on the occasional dreary day 🙂

  12. I thought I heard Steve Shannon say something about the litigious nature of the US as one impediment to promoting Hirsch, that is, GM hesitates to endorse a third-party product whose misuse might lead to expensive court costs. Does this make sense?

  13. Bruce – It would make sense if Hirsch was Maptun or Koni or BSR or whatever. If Hirsch was factory backed here like it is in Europe and whatnot, there wouldn’t be any problems.

    At least I think that’s how it works.

  14. to Joe Lobo:

    Well, you should watch the swiss saab website; in the part where you can build your own 93, you can choose between Linear, Vector and Aero (the standard saabs) but you can also choose the “Performance” with enhanced hp and torque, and some other extras added to a Aero. What I mean with that, is that in Switzerland, Saab gives the possibility to buy directely the Hirsch tuned-up car as a standard… why wouldn’t Saab do that to every markets?

  15. Simply because in the place of origin all this work is being carried by Hirsch themselves, the Saab dealers only supply the cars to Hirsch and they do the rest. So, under this business model unless there were such outfits from Hirsch in all local markets it will go. As it’s now, it won’t unless Saab themselves distribute their own cars with at least the ECU and suspension upgrades. Unless you are a local you will relate to the HSV outfits that we have locally and how they work as they do a similar job than Hirsch. This whole debacle really needs some entrepreneurial will from both Saab and Hirsch to make it a global concern. As it stands unless the local Saabconcerns backs Hirsch optioned vehicles kitted outside of Switzerland, Hirsch themselves will not supply directly to anyone. On the other hand Saab could supply the Hirsch optioned cars from Sweden which is an avenue that they do not seem interested in pursuing despite the potential business case. Maybe GM politics prevents this, who knows but why Merc, BMW and Audi do it and Saab can’t ??? Why our own local Holden establishment has the HSV branding even going overseas despite being part of GM and Saab don’t seem to get their act together on this ??? Surely they could learn/copy even from HSV on how to do it !!! When these polemics arise it really makes me fume since once again we behave like backwards thinkers..

  16. J Lo:

    1. Holden likely outsells Saab 10 to 1 or better in Australia. I don’t know the numbers, but it’s substantial. That’s all the difference.
    2. Back in the day, AMG parts were available for local shops to install, so I don’t agree that certain parts must come installed from the factory.

    Again, we need a tuning partner that has global reach rather than one that must rely on Saab for wider distribution.

    And, to further confuse myself, I didn’t know that M-B had acquired AMG a handful of years ago, so they aren’t available outside the MB channel. My bad. They used to be, trust me. Any-hoo, that’s what we need. A partner that will make parts available in several markets for dealer or individual installation.

  17. Call me silly but … If Hirsch tunes Saabs … and Saabs increasingly have components in common with other GM products … uh … well … it would seem that … it would make far too much sense … that … oh … forget it.

    (I’m just saying that GM could invest in Hirsh to the point that they occasionally offer Hirsch versions of other products – as a special edition. Look at how much AMG influence has found its way into some everyday MB models.)

  18. Chaaalie’s got a real good point. There’s a turbo charged 260 hp Chevy Cobalt coming out next year. A Hirsch edition? Well the Cobalt is targeted right at the Civic’s that Steve talked about.

  19. The only problem with what chaalie has thought of, and expanded on by brushmore, is that Hirsch will become a competitor to in-house performace shops that the brands already have. Chevy has it’s Z models and SS, which are tuned by SLP (Street Legal Performance)… Atleast they were in the day of the F-bodies…. Haven’t really followed that crowd since the demise of the F-body.

  20. Incredible that amongst us there are various options to pursue but where there’s no will, nothing will happen. Eggsngrits points to have a Global tuner is certainly the most feasible/viable option but to get that entity potential sales volumes must be considerably higher than at present levels otherwise I doubt that there will be a queue of entities willing to jump in to a global deal.

  21. With GM’s recent financial statement, you’d think they’d be doing everything they possibly could to get mo’ money out of their lowest-cost leads … those of us who are already GM customers. Hirsch would be a good way to do that. (C’mon, GM could certainly buy Hirsch for less than they have wasted on the BLS, and see immediate results just across Saab and Opel — and if they start tinkering with Opel, they might as well move on to Saturn, since most of them are really Opels!)

  22. I’m all for GM buying a chunk of Hirsch and having them tune their eurocars. They could model it after AMG.

  23. From any angle wherever that is the business case and jsutification for Hirsch is simply abundant. Chaalie even has an argument to prove with the BLS fiasco vs Hirsch acquisition. Maybe GM should hire some of the heads of AMG to run a similar division/program to open their brains since these appear to be totally dead.