My Saab column in Auto Motor and Sport magazine

As mentioned yesterday, Auto Motor and Sport magazine in Sweden have a special section on Saab their current edition (2/2012) and I was invited to provide an article for it.

As the magazine is in Swedish, I figured it would be good to provide the original English version for those of you not yet blessed with the ability to read/speak Swedish (like me).

I don’t know what they’ve used for a headline, so I’ll post it without one, below.

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I officially became a Saab employee at the beginning of April 2011. In the week before I joined the company, we had a brief factory stoppage due to an unpaid account with our freight company. During my first week with Saab, we had some occasional production, and then a stoppage that continued almost uninterrupted until the company declared bankruptcy on December 19, 2011.

The opportunity to work for Saab was a dream come true after writing about them as an enthusiast for just over six years. The job itself was equal parts joy and frustration but I wouldn’t have traded this opportunity for anything in the world.

As I write this, there is still a window of opportunity for someone to step in and purchase Saab as a whole from the bankruptcy administrators. The alternative is for the company’s assets to be broken up and sold around the world. One option gives some hope for the brand, the other makes certain that we’ve seen the last of this innovative company from Western Sweden.

The sad part about this whole episode is that was all so avoidable. I won’t go into all the details here, but suffice to say that there were a lot of short-term, reactionary decisions made both inside and outside Saab. Decisions that could have been different if the people concerned had a longer-term outlook.

Saab made a short-sighted decision to not pay their freight company. That was mistake #1. Suppliers, however, also made a short-sighted decision to act as one and not allow any parts deliveries. The supplier body spokespeople made a short-sighted decision to fight this battle in the media, talking our business down and reducing confidence even further. The authorities made a short-sighted decision to withhold approval of our property sale, which could have saved the day. Before you could say “fully funded business plan”, a very small problem turned into a problem big enough to bring the entire company down.

Consequences?

Aside from the closure of the company and the loss of well over 3,000 direct jobs and maybe another 7,000 indirect jobs, there’s also the loss of fantastic product that people will be no longer be able to buy.

Saab’s former overlords at Opel told our engineers that any attempts to get the Saab 9-3’s CO2 emissions under 120g/km would have been a waste of money. It couldn’t be done, they said. Well, we did it. And not just for the Sport Sedan, either. Saab were due to launch the low-emissions 9-3 SportCombi just as the factory stoppage interrupted our operations.

A car with full 180hp, proper cargo capacity AND tax incentives? No problem.

That was just the beginning, however. There was work underway to bring the 5-meter long Saab 9-5 into the low-emissions group as well. This would have brought major benefits for Saab and its customers in several of the company’s major markets.

Then there’s the 9-5 SportCombi, which was due for launch in the second half of 2011. This model, even without a low-emissions benefit, would have been a major boost for Saab in Europe. It was a very handsome, well equipped and a fantastic driving vehicle featuring all the technology that Saab could bring to a modern motor car. If Saab could bring it under the low-emissions regime as well, this would have been a very appealing car for customers.

That’s just the stuff that was ready to go straight away…..

The vehicle that was being developed to replace the Saab 9-3 was ready to blow Saab fans away. It would have been more spacious. It would have had a lightweight engine from BMW, tuned by Saab, as well as a revolutionary all-wheel-drive hybrid system being developed by former Saab people in a joint venture co-owned with American Axle.

The exterior would have incorporated elements of the Saab PhoeniX concept first shown in Geneva in March, 2011, designed by our new head of Design, Jason Castriota, and executed by our own design team based in Trollhattan. The inside of the vehicle was set to return Saab to a richer interior environment, the highlight of which would have been the new IQon information and entertainment hub.

I’ve been in a test vehicle fitted with IQon and I can tell you first-hand that the system was absolutely brilliant. Even in prototype form, it was delivering a new level of functionality in terms of vehicle information, control, connectivity and entertainment. The applications that we would have delivered with IQon would have brought the automotive sector into line with the smartphone market that has caught people’s attention so much in the last few years. All delivered in a seamless, safe and fun-to-use package within the car.

The Saab 9-3 replacement was going to arrive on time, and in doing so, it would have proved something that we at Saab have believed for a long time now – that smart people working together can do amazing things in a timeframe that many experienced heads in the automotive sector say would be impossible.

This vehicle would have meant vindication for Victor Muller, the executive team and most importantly, the extremely talented workforce at Saab. It would have also been a just reward for Saab’s loyal customers and fans, who have stuck by the company through so much in the last few years.

I know Saab is seen differently from within Sweden compared to an outsider’s point of view. Many ordinary Swedes today seem to think of Saab as something they hear about in negative terms, week in and week out. It’s just another struggling company, one that perhaps deserved its fate because it simply couldn’t sell enough cars. Those who didn’t view it that way might have simply thought of it as ‘the other domestic car company’.

Outsiders tend to see the brand differently. Saabs have always been different, rare. They’re generally the choice of a buyer who wants certain qualities in a car but who wants that choice to be a discreet one. Long-term Saab customers tend to be very loyal to the brand. More recent customers aren’t quite so attached, but in my experience as a Saab enthusiast, many recent buyers who come into contact with the Saab community find a brotherhood there, something that gives a voice to many of the thoughts they had themselves.

Personally speaking, I’ve always regarded Saab Automobile with a certain sense of awe and a lot of passion. Unlike behemoth companies like Ford, GM or Toyota, Saab was small enough that you could get to know the company and the people who ran it in a personal way. They have always been fighters, innovators, people who were passionate about their work and created machines that made much bigger companies sit up and take notice.

The improvement to GM’s fleet of global vehicles in the last five years is a great credit to Saab’s engineering an safety contributions. When you hear about new GM vehicles with all-wheel-drive, turbochargers, active safety features and more, think of the time Saab engineers contributed to developing them. Saab was a GM center of expertise for six or seven different areas of vehicle development over the years. Perhaps GM blocking Saab’s sale to Chinese interests is not so surprising, after all.

In the early years, Saab Automobile was the offshoot of an aircraft company. It was then the offshoot of a larger heavy machinery company. It was then sold and became the minnow in a big pool of big brands managed in offices thousands of miles away. To them, Sweden was a place to dump their accounting problems in order to gain some tax advantages. It wasn’t a place to build cars. Through all of this, Saab survived, created and innovated. The sad fact is that it wasn’t until Victor Muller and Spyker bought Saab back in 2010 that the company became the sole focus of its owner.

I guess that’s one of the reasons I’ve always loved Saab – for its intelligence and its fighting spirit.

Many of us non-Swedes see Sweden as a place we’d aspire to visit, or perhaps even live in. Saab has been an introduction to Sweden for people around the world. The company has been, in many ways, an ambassador for Sweden – and a very good one, too. Same with Volvo. You can never underestimate what your international exports say about you as a country and it’s very sad to see one of those exports in decline.

So where to from here?

As mentioned above, as unlikely as it may seem to some, there is still potential for Saab to be sold. A buyer would get not only a very efficient manufacturing plant, but also a Phoenix platform that is very close to hosting a brand new vehicle of its own, something that could take years and a lot of money to build from scratch. They would get a talent pool that, whilst smaller than it has been, could quickly be rebuilt with the right resources in place. They will get a brand that has suffered some damage in recent times, but still has a loyal following and 60+ years of heritage that you can’t manufacture (just ask Hyundai, Kia, Lexus, etc).

It might sound unlikely as I write this, but it pays to remember that Saab was in liquidation when it was sold to Spyker in 2010. Whilst the future for Saab may not look particularly rosy right at this minute, it ain’t over til it’s over.

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13 Comments

  1. Nice article! I agree about the interior. One of the most striking things in the early model 99 turbos was the bright interior. When the rest of the automotive world was doing brown, beige, tan and boring nondescript colours, SAAB actually coloured the world of car interiors.

  2. Excellent piece, Swade. We can only imagine what you really experienced “on the inside” in your six months of excitement and frustration, and how much potential you know there to still be…

  3. OK, we’ve seen Chinese, Turkish, Indian companies show interest. How about some oil-rich country (Saudi… Quatar…?) – don’t they need a high-tech, state-of-the-art car company????
    Just wondering. Wouldn’t be too much of a strain on their budgets. Pocket-change, actually…

  4. Could the Liquidation company make public the body prototype that everyone has been waiting for for the next generation 9-3 ? I think Swade saw it but signed an NDA not to divulge anything. It could heighten interest for potential buyers of the Phoenix platform , since it would generate buzz and excitement from the die hard Saab fans, who are, as well all know, the 900 & 9-3 converts !

  5. Thank you for these lines! I wonder if you have taken any pictures of NG 9-3 or any other developing products, and if Saab is really lost, will there be any chance of getting a glimpse of what was on the way from Saab?

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