The history of Saab
2 August 2020 - autocar
The Saab name reached the end by 2012 - but how did it all get started? We chart the brand's life
Saab's car production was rooted in a firm creating military hardware for the Swedish airforce. At the time, Sweden was building a defense force to protect its neutrality during the World War 2. As the threat receded, so did the need to build aircraft. With factories and a workforce, the firm needed to branch out.
By 1948, Saab had built four 'Ursaab' prototypes. The radical styling was developed through the firm's aerospace expertise, and had a far lower drag coefficient than any other car on sale. A year later, those prototypes evolved into Saab's first-ever production car, the 92.
Named in series after the 91, a single-engined plane, the 92. Some 20,000 were sold, and the two-cylinder 92 gained an extra cylinder and became the 93 and an estate, the 95 joined the range in 1959. The 94 – more widely known as the first Saab Sonnett – was the firm's first sports car.
As Saab was enjoying sales success, the firm entered into Swedish motorsport, and later it gained fame on the world motorsport stage. Victories in world rally events and a second in class finish at the 1959 Le Mans 24 Hours gave the small Swedish firm a big reputation.
Saab's increasing profile came as the 92-based 96 was launched. It was the first to be widely exported, and the first to be imported to the UK. Almost 550,000 were built over an incredible 20 year production run.
But it wasn't until 1968 that Saab finally severed ties with the aging 92. A year before Saab's merger with Scania, the 99 became a defining moment for the firm. It incorporated features such as headlamp washers, bumpers which could retain their shapes after low-speed impact and the 'hockey stick' side graphic – Saab's version of BMW's Hofmeister kink.
It was built by Valmet, and was powered by Triumph-supplied engines. And it would go on to spawn the Saab 99 Turbo – one of the first popular and useable turbocharged cars. And it was that turbo technology that went on to define the firm.
The Saab 900 would become the firm's most iconic car to date. More than a million were sold between 1978 and 1998, and the firm's marketers played heavily upon its overtly aero-themed design cues. The wrap-around dash and deeply curved front windscreen played right into the hands of the Top Gun generation.
Turbo models continued to capture the public's imagination, and with power outputs as high as 175bhp a UK race series, the Saab Turbo Mobil Challenge followed. It attracted drivers including Lionel Abbott, founder of renowned Saab tuner Abbott Racing, Tony Dron and Mark Hales.
While the 900 enjoyed sales success, a deal signed between Saab and Fiat yielded the first luxury Saab, the 9000. The model also ushered in the Alfa Romeo 164, Fiat Croma and Lancia Thema. The Saab/Fiat deal saw the introduction of the Saab 600, too, a rebadged Lancia Delta for Scandinavian markets.
Towards the end of the 1980s interest in premium brands took off and GM and snatched Saab from under the nose of Fiat, buying a $600m controlling 50 per cent stake. Saab needed serious investment and modernisation to replace the ageing 900.
That replacement carried on the 900 name. Saab decided the Opel Calibra platform it was required to use needed extensive re-engineering to meet its own safety standards. The resulting car offered poor dynamics, but the car still shifted 68,000 a year. In 1998 it was overhauled with 1100 under-the-skin changes and became the 9-3. Despite GM refusing to fund a restyling exercise, sales increased by around 15,000 a year.
A year earlier, the 9000 was replaced by the 9-5, an executive car which shared some 35 per cent of its components with the Vectra. It was considered by some to be one of the safest cars in the world, but limited by the paucity of GM's parts bin, a lack of decent diesel engines and four-wheel drive; it was never really a match for contemporary BMW 5-series and Audi A6 models.
In 2000, GM bought the remaining $125m share of Saab it didn't already own and work began on a new 9-3 which would launch three years later. Sadly, the value of the Swedish krona against the US dollar forced cost-cutting and GM bosses were furious when they discovered how much of the 9-3 was bespoke and strayed from the Epsilon platform Saab was given. The rumours go that GM's response was to delay the introduction of the 9-3 estate and cancel a planned 4x4 variant.
In 2005 GM boss, Bob Lutz commissioned two new co-developed Saabs to prop up the US dealer network. But the plan failed: just 10,000 Subaru Impreza-based 9-2x and 20,000 Oldsmobile Bravada-based 9-7x units were sold. That same year the second-generation 9-5 was canned as GM pulled out of a deal with Fiat to develop new large cars. GM also walked away from its Subaru alliance, sealing the fate of the Subaru Tribeca-based 9-6 SUV. These - and the delayed 9-3 models - were blows that Saab would, subsequently, never recover from.
By March 2009, Saab was in Chapter 11 administration. Two months later, Koenigsegg, alongside Norwegian backers and Chinese maker BAIC, were poised to buy the company but the deal collapsed the following November – the month production of the newly unveiled 9-5 was to begin.
However, on 18 December, GM announced Saab was being wound up. BAIC reappeared and bought the rights to the second generation 9-3, first-gen 9-5 and the Saab slant-four engines. Total Saab production in 2008 was just 90,000 cars and it lost around £215m.
The following month, GM announced that Spyker had arrived at an agreement to purchase Saab, and in February, the deal was signed. Bosses expected to sell around 50,000 in 2010, but fell short by around 20,000 units.
Saab boss Victor Muller negotiated a series of deals with Chinese suitors, starting with Chinese distributor and dealer Pang Da. Pang Da's investments, however, were not enough to re-start production and wages went unpaid in June. The European Investment Bank also vetoed attempts by the Russian businessman Vladimir Antonov to become a part owner of Saab.
Saab went into bankruptcy protection on 7 September. For the rest of the year Saab management fought to put together a deal with Chinese car maker Youngman Lotus and Pang Da. GM killed a deal to sell Saab to the two Chinese companies by insisting that it would not allow the new owners to produce the GM-based 9-3, 9-5 and 9-4x SUV.
Twenty two years and four days after GM bought 50 per cent of the brand, the US car maker's insistence that it would not allow Chinese car companies anywhere near its technology finally killed Saab off. Saab filed for bankruptcy just two years and one day after GM first announced it was winding up the brand.
But the story wasn't over quite yet. In June 2012, a newly formed holding company National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS) announced it had purchased the bankrupted firm. The investment briefly triggered the restart of production, a small number of cars were made under the Saab name, and bosses said a range of all-electric 9-3s would be produced. But the decision from NEVS not to use the Saab name signaled the end for the famous name.
Saab now lives on in spirit only, with NEVS having auctioned off the final 9-3 model for charity at the end of 2019. The unused crash-test car sold for 465,000 Swedish krona (roughly £41,000) by a Danish Saab enthusiast, who was then invited to tour the Saab museum in Trollhattan, where the Saab factory was once located.
The company is now concentrating on electric platforms, including a self-driving shuttle, and has invested in fellow Swedish car maker Koenigsegg.