The demise of Saab: Why there can be no more

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Imagine holding a piece of red-hot coal in your right hand. That’s pretty much been the ownership experience of all who have tried (and failed) to keep Saab going in recent years.

Reading news headlines on Saab is like a rather depressing soap opera: “Saab Saved from Bankruptcy!” “Saab is Bankrupt!” “Saab is Officially Back!” “There Will be no More Saab Cars!” Now it is official. The Saab name will no longer appear on cars.

You might think it has been dead for years, but NEVS, the company that bought the Saab factory, is* (*caveat) building an electric version of the 9-3 from 2017. NEVS (National Electric Vehicle Sweden) is a Chinese-founded company that continues to employ many ex-Saab engineers. Their effort since the founding of NEVS has been focused entirely on electric cars and infrastructure – so a slight deviance from Saab heritage there then.

A brief recap of recent events
NEVS initial plan was to build all-electric versions of the 9-3 sedan for the Swedish and Chinese markets. When you consider the pollution levels in China and the potential demand over the next decade you can see why they made the decision to go all-out electric. However, the company soon suffered the fate of Saab’s previous owners and went bankrupt after building only a few hundred cars — losing the rights to use the Saab name in the process. While NEVS was fighting to retain the rights to the Saab name in court, Indian tractor manufacturer Mahindra was in talks to buy NEVS, potentially providing the company with enough cash to restart Saab’s long-dormant production lines.

After a little bit of “wrangling” and passing around the hot coal, Saab AB, the Swedish aerospace company that owns the Saab brand, will no longer allow its name or logo to be used on future models produced by National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS). At first, NEVS were still able to badge the car as a Saab, but without the Griffin emblem. Now the new car will be badged NEVS and not Saab. The Saab name reverts back to the aircraft company and is a blow for NEVS.

electric-NEVS-9-3

Electric NEVS 9-3 – with Saab badge, missing Griffin emblem. Soon to be re-badged NEVS

Image credit – autoweek.com

The Golden era
The Saab 99 was a strong success for the company in the 1970s. With the introduction of the groundbreaking 99 Turbo model in 1977, Saab became one of the first companies to use a turbocharger for increased performance on mass-market cars. The Turbo established Saab as a builder of left-field sporty alternatives to cars like the BMW 3-series, and helped to increase sales in the American market.

Saab 99 Turbo

Saab 99 Turbo. Image credit – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1060013

The new 900 followed in 1978, looking like an updated 99, but featuring an upgraded interior, revised engines and all-new modern independent suspension. This made it one of the best handling cars of its day. Like its predecessors, the 900 had an incredibly long production run with nearly 1 million cars sold. It became the most popular Saab of all-time.

Saab and GM. A marriage made in hell
The beginning of the end for Saab can be traced back long before its final day. General Motors was desperate to acquire a European brand after unsuccessfully trying to buy Jaguar (thank goodness), and Saab AB was willing to divest its automotive operations and focus on its successful aerospace programs. By 1989, a deal was worked out, and suddenly the proudly Swedish company was American-owned.

General Motors bought a 50% stake in the newly-formed Saab Automobile AB for $600 million. At the time, the deal looked like a win-win for both companies. General Motors gained a foothold into the competitive European luxury car market, and Saab benefitted from GM’s massive global dealer and supply chain. Included in the contract was an option for GM to buy the remaining 50% from parent company Saab AB for $125 million after 10 years, which they exercised in 2000, turning Saab into a wholly-owned GM subsidiary. By the time GM jettisoned Saab during their bankruptcy proceedings in 2010, the company had gone from being one of the most exciting and unique car manufacturers in the world to a husk of its former self.

The wheels start to come off
GM was ill-equipped to handle Saab’s idiosyncratic approach to car building. Saab bristled against GM’s orders from Detroit, defiantly persisting to make cars the way it always had. Instead of treating Saab like a separate entity, GM pressured the company to begin badge-engineering already existing European GM cars for future models.

Saab eventually relented. The Saab 900 in 1993 was heavily based on the Vectra. While paying lip service to Saab’s design hallmarks, the car lacked the company’s unique personality, over-engineering, and handling characteristics. The new 900 was also beset with terrible reliability issues, and its trim pieces from Opel’s parts bin lacked the level of refinement that it needed to stay competitive in the luxury market. The replacement for the 9000 was delayed until 1997, when they released the Opel-based 9-5 to little fanfare. When GM bought the rest of the automaker from Saab AB in 2000, the Saab image had already been tarnished.

By 2002, Saab’s Opel-based cars were a sales disaster, and the company was losing over $500,000 a year. Unlike the long-lasting success of the older cars, the GM-based models were poorly engineered and unreliable, and GM was reluctant to invest money into the development of new models. Adding insult to injury, the last models introduced under GM’s ownership were the 9-4X and 9-7X, two American SUVs built in Sweden. To many purists, it was the epitome of bad badge engineering and a slap in the face to Saab’s rich heritage. By the time the global financial crisis hit, Saabs had already developed a reputation for being outdated, unreliable, and uncompetitive cars in the hard-hit global luxury segment, and the company was on the chopping block.

This aint no Saab.  9-7x

This aint no Saab. (Image credit – IFCAR – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19011639)

During GM’s bankruptcy proceedings it announced that the corporation would be downsizing by shutting down the Pontiac and Hummer brands and selling off Saab. There appeared to be a silver lining for Saab when Dutch supercar company Spyker was eager to buy and revive the brand.

Despite ambitious plans for an all-new lineup, Spyker was beset with money and supply chain problems. The last 9-5, an attractive looking car, was under-developed and launched too early. It was a sales flop. Spyker quickly tried to sell the company. Despite finding a willing Chinese buyer, GM stepped in and prevented the sale, successfully arguing that Saab’s sale to a Chinese company would compromise GM-patented engineering. With that, the Saab name was put up for sale, and the NEVS holding company bought the assets in 2012.

“While Saabs certainly had a kind of quirky cachet, and were plenty safe in modern times, let’s be real: If you want a lumpen Swedish nerd car that goes fast, won’t kill you, and will convince everyone you have a good education, Volvo has you covered.” – Mr C.P.Kashue. TopGear fan.

To die-hard fans, the prospect of a revived and successful Saab is an enticing fantasy. However, the possibility of Saab returning to the marketplace as a competitive builder of mass-produced cars dwindles each time the brand is dragged through court.

“The GM-Saab agreement is a high-profile example of an established small company losing its brand identity within an indifferent corporate structure.” – James Derek Sapienza

After 20 years of mismanagement and another five of protracted court battles, we agree that it is time to let Saab rest in peace. Hold on to your Saab if you have one, it is for sure the end of an era and a fine piece of motoring history. Apart from the 9-7x. That can just go to hell.

Credits / Sources
This post relies heavily on information provided originally by Autonews, Cheatsheet, and TopGear.

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