Saab Humbug

December 23rd, 2011 by Tim Grimley

Once again we find ourselves at Christmas. A time of peace to the world, joy to all mankind and general festive overindulgences for the purpose of gaining suitably flabby midriffs around which we can base our hopelessly overoptimistic January resolutions. But amongst all this good will and gastronomic excess, it is also a time where we should spare a thought for those not as fortunate as ourselves.

The advent period is never a good time to be the recipient of bad news, so we can only imagine the pain of those at Saab who have just found out that after 64 years of car production, it is very likely that they will be taking a one-way trip down the gurgler of history.

Where did it all go wrong?

On the surface of it, it seems that the evil behemoth General Motors is to blame. Firstly, they sold Saab to Spyker – a small Dutch concern that was not particularly adept at making money from its low-volume efforts at sports car production and had a business plan for the Swedish motoring giant that, with hindsight, was probably dreamed up following a particularly intense session in one of Amsterdam’s “coffee shops” – and then when it was blatantly obvious everything was turning to custard, barred the obligatory rescue package from the Orient.

But like the heinous and evil mother who decided it was the fault of government agencies that she had beaten her children inside out and then locked them in a wardrobe, the people at Saab would do rather better to engage in a little more navel-gazing than finger pointing.

Firstly it must be noted that the bosses at GM were in a pretty difficult position. In the week when it was revealed the USA misses out on US$250 billion of revenue a year due to industrial espionage, it was never going to be a good look to gift wrap the Chinese a Saab-load of your technology. Potential suitors could certainly have been chosen with a lesser degree of desperation.

But even if an agreeable knight in shining armour had been found, Saab really didn’t deserve to continue.

For the last few years, Saab has survived by wheeling out a succession of very slightly improved vehicles cobbled together from whatever could be found in the GM parts bid and some inadvisably offensive chrome trim. While this may be enough to put you on the same playing field as the Fords and Toyotas of this world, Saab has long been pitched against far more rarefied opposition. And when lined up against the equivalent models from German and high-end Japanese manufacturers, it has been apparent for some time that the Swedes don’t even come close to being competitive.

Ah. That'll be it.

And that only left them with their last line of defence to fall back on – “quirkiness”.

As far as I can tell, Saab’s reputation for embracing the wacky is based entirely on one car – the 99 Turbo. Others may point to their earlier, aircraft inspired vehicles, but I prefer to view these as inspirational and visionary in their use of aerodynamics rather than downright crazy. The 99 Turbo was different; it was a front wheel drive car with a turbocharger manufactured at a time when chassis engineers had absolutely no idea how to make them work properly and as a result the driving experience was rather lairy. And despite being around in one shape or form since the late 1960s, the styling still appeared to have been dropped from space.

Saab had a car that was genuinely exciting, interesting and desirable, but rather than move on they favoured evolution over revolution and refined the looks and performance to the point when they became rather too mainstream. And with that unique selling point watered down beyond the point of all recognition, hope was gone.

Maybe at some point down the line, the Saab name will find its way back onto the roads – even if only as a branding exercise for an emerging manufacturer – but for now at least it seems destined to become a ghost of not only Christmas present, but the foreseeable future too.

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