Great Men of Saab: Bob Sinclair

I thought it fitting to re-post this article from the archives in the week of Mr. Sinclair’s passing. I know that a few readers, Grippen in particular, knew Bob Sinclair and admired his knowledge, wisdom and attitude. I’m forever in his debt as the driving force behind the hugely popular Saab 900 convertible, which I’m proud to own.
The reprint is after the jump.

From January 12, 2008
If you are a regular reader, you may remember that I started an occasional series featuring the “Great Men of Saab” back in June of last year (2007). Naturally, the man behind the designs of the Saab 92, Saab 93, the first Sonett and the Saab 99 would be first: Sixten Sason.
I had intended to follow with another Swedish designer, Björn Envall, in the second part of the series. However, given that Swade has just spent some time with Mr. Sinclair, and, for the record, he was on the short list anyway, I decided to bring him forward to provide a little background on just who he is and why his opinion may matter.
Bob Sinclair Barber Series Car.jpg
Robert J. Sinclair joined Saab Motors, Inc. as a sales representative in 1958, the year that Saabs were introduced to the US. As he puts it, he was the second salesman hired, and the first guy had claims on New England. He had “all the rest” — the remainder of the United States. He covered this territory in a Saab 93B two-stroker for some time, until Saab hired a few more salesmen and installed him as Sales Manager. Subsequently, he replaced first the Advertising Manager, then the PR Manager while maintaining his responsibilities in sales.
Once Ralph Millet, then president of Saab Motors, Inc., gained approval to move the headquarters to New Haven, Connecticut and re-form the company in the early 1960’s, Sinclair elected to leave and join the Volvo (yikes!) distribution operation in Eastern US in the capacity of Advertising Manager. He was promoted to President of the Western US distribution arm of Volvo in 1967, and returned to Saab as President of Saab America, Inc. in 1979 where he remained until his retirement in 1991.
That is to say: Mr. Sinclair is a man that knew Saab during three distinct times of transition. The first, of course, is the introduction of Saab automobiles to the North American market. He sold small two-stroke, front wheel-drive cars during the heyday of the huge chrome-laden iron tanks of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The second being the early days of turbocharging in the late 1970’s, plus the rise of the newly introduced Saab 900. His latter days were spent preparing to move the Saab 900 onto a platform provided by Saab’s new controlling owner, General Motors.
Bob Sinclair’s seen a lot folks. He really has.
His accomplishments are myriad, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll give simply the bullet points. I encourage you to access my sources listed at the end of the post. The 20-plus minute interview on is well worth the time.
– Bob Sinclair was almost single-handedly responsible for the hugely successful Saab 900 Convertible. He took a very dim view of the two-door model which was aimed at a low-end market which Saab wasn’t successful with here in the US, but when forced to take them anyway, he said that he would take them as convertibles. After a row with the Swedish HQ, he agreed to pay for the development and the 900 convertible was born.
– Bob Sinclair was instrumental in bringing Saab more upscale and more performance-oriented, particularly in the US. During early and middle 1980’s, other Saab markets were trying to compete on price, demanding more austere models. On the other hand, Sinclair saw that Saab’s future in North America was up market, demanding more powerful engines, better upholstery and a better variety of cast alloy wheels.
– Bob Sinclair understood the value of keeping the iconic and hugely popular Saab 900 in production alongside the new 9000, and he demonstrated that the two could coexist and create new market penetration for Saab. However, as those of us in the United States will lament, there was a price to be paid: to accomodate both vehicles at such low sales volumes (Saab sold about 20,000 vehicles per year in the United States the 1980’s), he was forced to limit the number of models and options available. This is how we in the US ended up with the everyone-gets-gray body kits and a unique US-only nomenclature.
– Bob Sinclair personally negotiated Saab’s involvement in the Barber Saab Pro Series racing circuit. For about ten years, all of the identically prepared cars in this open-wheel series were powered exclusively by the Saab 2.0l 4-cylinder turbocharged engine available in the 900 and 9000 of the day.
– Having started in the earliest days of Saab, Bob Sinclair knew that success was directly related to the profitability of his dealerships. He built a very strong, loyal and involved family of dealerships and invested in their success. The Saab dealer network in the United States was healthy, even robust, during his tenure.
An amusing quote attributed to Bob Sinclair:
“…the difference between Volvo drivers and Saab drivers is that Volvo drivers drive in the right lane…. Saab drivers drive in the left lane.”
Bibliography – Saab 60th the Racers
The Car Guy – Car Guy of the Year, 1996 – Interview with Bob Sinclair. – The Early Years with Saab
JPowell’s Saab Rarities Page – Barber Saab Series
Wikipedia – Barber Saab Series