Sunday thought piece – who really owns Saab?

There’s a very interesting fight going on in the US at the moment between Carroll Shelby and the Shelby American Automobile Club.

In short (as I understand it), Shelby has rescinded the club’s right to use his name, is asking for all memorabilia to be returned to him and is also demanding club records relating to membership lists and finances. He’s planning to start his own Shelby organisation to replace what SAAC does and thereby leave his legacy in control of his family (if you believe him), or (if you believe his detractors) make some more money from all the ongoing appreciation.

For a fairly thorough review of both sides, try these links:

AutoExtremist talks about the work that SAAC has done on Shelby’s behalf over the years and how they feel that Shelby himself abandoned some of his own product at times. (read this link now, not in a week from now, as Pete at AE hasn’t discovered archiving yet and this will be replaced by another article midweek)

The Garage talks about Shelby’s character and the right-ness of his claim and has also reproduced a statement from Shelby that responds to some criticisms from SAAC officials.

I know relatively little about the situation other than those two readings. Whilst I can see Shelby’s point of view – it’s his name and he does know the history of what’s going here – I can also see the enthusiast’s point of view as well.

This situation is a bit different to what it would be like if Saab were involved because Shelby is THE man behind the cars. He and his team designed and engineered vehicles that have become legend in American automobilia.

Substitute GM and Saab for Carroll Shelby and Shelby’s various cars and substitute in the various car clubs, historical curators and websites for the SAAC and the picture becomes a lot more murky.


Saab has moved from being a totally individual company under independant Swedish ownership to a subsidiary of one of the biggest car companies in the world. The contrast couldn’t be more stark. And with that move has come a certain loss of character and individuality. This stirs up some passion amongst supporters of the brand as they long to have Saab embody that individuality once again.

Some people have left the brand and moved on, happy to keep their Saab as a distant memory, a reminder of happy times. Some hold on to their cars and either preserve them or let time take its toll.

You have Saab Owners Clubs that are dedicated to the preservation of older Saabs. You have other Saab Car Clubs that successfully blend old and new Saab owners and still others that have some divisions in the memberships between owners of older cars and owners of newer cars. Our car club here in Australia is one such club. There’s no division to the point of the club being under duress from its membership – it’s a harmonious division – but the interests of members can be very different.


GM own Chevy. GM own Cadillac. GM own Holden. I’ve no doubt that there’s a vast and knowledgeable enthusiast network around these brands, but the fact is that there’s also a vast enthusiast network inside the company itself for these brands. They grew out of the company, captured the imaginations of buyers and built a history that they are rightly proud of.

But do GM own Saab?

In a legal sense – yes. There’s also a generation of employees still working at Saab that were around pre-1990 and would take pride in what they’ve contributed to. They’re now GM employees and while they’re still around then there’s a definite link between Saab’s past and present.

Christer Nilsson, the guy who showed me around the Saab Factory back in June, has been with the company since 1972. His sons work there. I’m not sure how long Peter Backstrom has been the curator of the Saab Museum, but his unofficial title as Mr Saab II tells me that he’s probably forgotten more about Saab than I’ll ever know. Jan-Ake Jonsson started with Saab Scania in 1973 and even Simon Padian, who I’d have thought wss a relatively recent addition, has been there since 1989.

I’d defer to any of them in a discussion about the brand, its history and what it means. But I’d happily go toe-to-toe with Bob Lutz in a discussion about Saab, who they are and what they should mean. There’s no arguing the fact that many of the ‘keepers of the flame’ for Saab now reside outside the company. Simply put, where two or more members of the Saab Turbo Club of Sweden gather, there’s more Saabiness present than at many of the marketing meetings that might go on at GM in Detroit.

Yes, I’d count the community that hangs out here as part of that preservation movement, but we’re a small blip on the radar where this sort of thing is concerned. There’s a whole web full of Saab sites dedicated to doing much of the same thing – check the sidebar to your right.

And much more than that, there’s a huge group of very dedicated owners – people who enjoy not only the cars but also commit their time to knowing more about the company that made them. Some of them are extraordinarily good at what they do, be it recording the past or preserving their cars. Whatever their forte, it’s this ownership group that makes up the vast majority of Saab’s true ownership. Together we record what happened in the past, how things are going in the present and cast an eye towards the future – always in an effort to ensure that the Saab brand stays as true as possible to its heritage.

And if you want to feel good about something, feel good about the fact that there’s few brands still around that enjoy such a dedicated following.

GM might own the keys to the front door, but if they want to sell keys to the cars, then the brand just has to be true to itself. There’s a whole new generation of cars coming and hopefully GM will prove that they’re doing it right.

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  1. Don’t forget XWD guru Peter Johansson (Engineering Specialist Driveline & AWD). He’s a third-generation Saab employee. His grandfather was one of the 16 aircraft engineers who started the car company.

  2. A Jaguar XJ40 owner recently waved at me — first time in 15,000 miles.

    I mention that only because Classic 900 owners always waved back when I was driving one. There was a common bond due to the unique nature of the car. Nothing else like it on the road.

    Sadly, as the brand begins to look much like every other brand, the history of the cars won’t be significant … except when helpful for advertising.

    Something needs to change.

  3. Swade – nicely written reflective thoughts, man. And a heads-up to all of us as we watch these next few years of Saab’s new introductions unfold (what, every 90 days?).

  4. Not only has Shelby been legendary for his buck-grabbing through the years (seriously, putting his name on Chrysler K-cars in the 80s was hilarious- and if you really want a laugh- look at the trim in those special editions, especially the seats; nothing but his name stitched hundreds of times across it), but apparently his charity has been paying out far, far less than it rakes in.

    He’s a slimy bastard, and even if SAAC is not wholly on the side of the angels, it’s his last grab for cash.

  5. I wave at every Saab I see on the road, and no one ever waves back.

    I think this is because I never ever see classic 900s, they’d probably wave back. All I see are 9-5 wagons and 9-3 2.0Ts, plus that one 9-5 sedan that parks near my building and hasn’t moved in 2 months.

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