Saab are celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Saab Convertible this year. Today we take a peek into to the development of this model, one that was so unexpected from a Swedish company.
The guy generally credited with the birth of the Saab Convertible is Bob Sinclair. ‘Uncle Bob’ joined Saab in 1958 and later in his career – after a stint at Volvo Cars USA – he was the head of Saab in the US when the convertible was developed. Bob is one of the most revered figures in Saab’s history, presiding over 60 continuous months of sales growth during the 1980s and remembered for his straight talking, have-fun way of getting things done. Bob passed away in May 2009 and his passing left a huge legacy for people who care about Saab and their prosperity.
I was very fortunate to spend some time with Bob at his home in Santa Barbara back in January 2008, on my way to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. A few months later, we recorded an interview on Skype and during that interview, Bob gave his recollection of the development of the Saab Convertible.
Following is a transcript of that segment of the conversation (from 14:20 in the film, below). The full interview is available via video, below the transcript.
SW: I guess people like to hear the convertible story….
Bob: Hmm. Where to start on that one?
The US market was rocking and rolling by about 1983 or so. Saab was having some difficulty in what you might call the ‘lower discretionary income markets’. The Scandinavian markets, the Netherlands – countries that had difficult economies. The pressure from the European markets was to come out with a lower priced car, whereas I was pushing Saab upmarket, adding more content etc – they were two diametrically opposed directions when it comes to product development.
I was called over to Sweden with my sales manager and my marketing manager. We met with all of our colleagues from different markets around Europe and we were shown a 2-door sedan that had been stripped – it had no equipment whatsoever. It had stamped steel wheels, it didn’t have tinted glass, it didn’t have anything. It had wind-up windows, no central locking, no sound system…. and each market was asked how many of these they wanted.
The lowest discretionary income markets thought it was wonderful, the middle markets were in the middle and I thought it was an anathema. I said I didn’t want any at all.
That wasn’t well received, coming from the largest Saab market in the world, and I was asked to sit next to the President of the company that night at dinner. He made it very well known that he expected a different answer and I said “Sir, if you ordered me to take them, I’ll do that. I’m a good soldier and I’ll click my heels and salute. But they’re wrong for the market and when it’s a disaster, it’ll be your fault. But if I say yes and [inaudible]…so my answer is no.” It was one of those confrontations.
A few weeks later I received a telephone call from the sales manager [in Sweden] and I was told that they couldn’t meet our full volume requirements for the next three years. But if I would take 1,000 of those two-door sedans, that would make make up the slack. We couldn’t sell them with the equipment they proposed – we had federal emissions requirements at that time and (aside from that) we needed heaters, a/c, – and I was told that we could have any equipment that we already offered on our other 900 models. I said I’d think through it and was told that [Sweden] would require an answer the day after tomorrow.
I called my sales manager in and I had an 8×10 black and white photograph of that car from a side view. I took a pair of scissors and cut along the top of the doors and I said “How about if we ask them to build them like this?” He looked at me like I was mad and said “what do you mean?”
I said “Tell them we want convertibles!”
He said “Can we do that?” and I figured we’d tell them that’s what we want. They don’t have to build them.
So that’s really how the idea came about. A man named Sten Lundin who was the deputy sales manager, called me a few days later and he said “Do we have your decision, can you take those cars?” and I said “Yes, and here’s the equipment we want – cast wheels, a/c, tinted glass, central locking, power windows, heated seats….the whole litany…. oh, and one more item: we want convertible tops.”
He said “What?!” and I replied “You know, a cabriolet, an electric top that goes up and down.”
He asked “Are you mad?” and I said “Sten, if you want me to take 1,000 of those two-doors a year, then that’s how I want them.” He said “Let me call you back.”
About five minutes later, the President of the company was on the phone and he said “Mr Sinclair, what the hell are you doing now?!” He had his red face on, but I told him there was a huge opening in the market in the United States. All of the manufacturers had assumed that convertibles would be outlawed because of the safety regulations that were coming in [inaudible]
They said “we don’t know how to build convertibles over here” but I told them that there were plenty of people who knew how to build them in the United States and I’d be happy to take on the task of the prototype and paying for it out of our marketing budget, and that’s how it happened.
SW: It proved to be an incredible marketing move, didn’t it?
Bob: Sometimes you get lucky. You’ve got to have one bright idea in your lifetime, right?
SW: Let’s call it good management rather than good luck.
Bob: It was a tremendous success. It was introduced as a concept car at the Frankfurt Motor Show less than a year later and it had an unbelievable response. No-one expected this from Saab. It was covered in canvas. They smuggled it into the building the night before and placed it on a rotunda. The next day when we had the traditional press conference, they lifted the cover and all hell broke loose. It was amazing.
Volvo had their display around 10 feet away, across the aisle, and there were photographers standing on the hoods of the Volvo cars taking photographs. It was wonderful.
SW: In these days with the internet and instant reporting, we’ve all got a fairly good idea as to what’s happening. But back in those days, I guess no-one saw this coming.
Bob: It was absolutely, totally confidential. The build was done by the American Sunroof Company in Michigan and it was kept completely quiet. No-one knew anything about it and we put it in the container, flew it over to Germany and it just made a tremendous splash.
SW: The development by American Sunroof Company… there was also a prototype that came out of Europe, correct?
Bob: Yes. There was a shop in Lidköping (Sweden) run by a man by the name of Lief Mellberg – he did concept cars for Saab. He was a fabricator and he was commissioned to build a convertible. It was flown to California and we had management out here for a face-to-face to decide which one [inaudible…] [The ASC car] was a pre-production prototype. It wasn’t a show car. It was made in such a way that it could be manufactured. Whereas Mellberg’s was built as a concept car, to be shown, which is quite a different approach, of course. I told ASC that this is what they had to do (i.e. build a car that could be produced).
SW: ….And on a fairly tight budget, too
Bob: Extremely tight. And I couldn’t make any promises to them about it from the parent company, either. I told them that if they brought it in under budget and to the quality that I’d expect and demand, I’d do what I could to see that they got the contract to supply the tops, for the fabric tops and the mechanisms, etc. Saab had to buy them from someone. They got the contract and it all worked out very well.
The full interview with Bob Sinclair.
…..and the final six minutes….