The Saab Sensation – Lance Cole on how only design and money can save Saab.

When I got this one my inbox I told Lance that I was really looking forward to it and expected that it would be the best thing I’d read in 6 months.

I was right.

Lance Cole is a writer living in England and has penned several books on automobiles and aviation. Saab enthusiasts would know him best for the book Saab 99 and 900: The Complete Story, which is an excellent volume and available for sale at the SU Bookshop.

Click here to read all of Lance’s previous contributions at Trollhattan Saab.

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If the Swedish Gods made Volvo on a misty, straight lined sort of day, then they must have made Saab on a summer day in Southern Sweden. The sunny disposition of Saab’s cars has taken what was essentially a domestic product, to a place in the heart of the wider world.

From Canada to Tasmania, from Japan to the mid-west of America, not to mention many points in between, Sweden’s small car maker – the one that did not build copies of contemporary trans-Atlantic cars – has a beloved following across the globe in an achievement that is often overlooked.

After all, unlike the British, the Swedes did not have the mechanism of Empire through which to force themselves and their cars upon a global market and care little if they lost a few brands along the way.

Like many Saab fanatics, I own my Saabs with feelings that relate to an inanimate lump of metal in a differnent manner to the way a man (or woman) might feel about a Ford Focus, a Daewoo Desperanza, or a Honda un-Civic.

The workers at Saab’s factories have similar feelings about the cars they build. Building Saabs means something to a person.

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Yet the Italians also have relationships with their cars -feelings just as emotional as our Saab bond. Be it Fiat, Lancia, Alfa Romeo or Ferrari, Italians cars have soul. But then so do Citroens- my grandfather loved his Citroen DS, and I know why. And who can deny the Americans the social iconography of the Mustang…

But all these cars come from places where they are brands amongst many brands.
Saab comes from a place where it is a unique brand amid a commercial landscape populated by just one other, very different brand – Volvo, (who by the way, now make excellent cars).

So there really is something special, something unique about the design, the drive, the feel, the very essence of a Saab. Remember, in the beginning, a small team of men crafted every aspect of these cars and the driving and ownership of them; it is a legacy that was almost lost in the chapter of GM’s general mediocrity.

Saab inspires people, Saab has character – a recognisable lineage of design across the models, a soul that makes a Saab part of your family. I’ve even gone as far as dedicating an entire column (and a very popular one at that – SW) to the undeniable presence and truth that is The Saab Smell.

Saab is in fact part of the Swedish psyche- a social science ingredient and part of the national identity.

It is not just Saab’s design language I am talking about – it is the very essence of the thing.

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Do the 2009 model year Honda, Ford, Toyota, Lexus, model ranges show any visual or design links with their ancestor models going back across 30 years or so? No, they do not, for there is no evolved look – no family identity. Why? Because they have changed shape through fashion rather than evolution. They are the result of marketing and short term trends triumphing over depth of design and brand integrity – although this does not necessarily make them bad cars – and once one model generation has dumped the family design look, the argument becomes pointless.

Yet the current VW, Audi, Mercedes Benz, and BMW ranges do have design language that is clearly descended from the previous models- these cars are instantly recognisable for what they are, what they mean, and what they say.

For the German industry, design is again leading the world – and selling cars.
Do not think that I am advocating retro-pastiche for the sake of it – as in the new Mini, Ford GT40, or Fiat 500; design development reflecting a true identity is the key- as Pininfarina or Bertone will tell you. Peugeot used to epitomise this thinking, but no more.

There was a time when Citroen made styled cars at the expense of properly built cars – which eventually tried the patience of even the most loyal owners in a way only Alfa Romeo drivers might understand. But then, after being rescued from financial oblivion, Citroen made boring cars with a dearth of Citroen design, that were more reliable yet dull: Citroen lost its mojo in a bid to be profitable – a paradox that left it wilting. (Read Swade’s previous post on Saab’s mojo for more).

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Mazda, that wonderful alternative Japanese brand of car design also lost its way, yet managed to give us the MX 5 – even it if is a car with no parents. But who remembers the Cosmo, the pretty coupes and the Wankel RX series?

And look how Subaru has just thrown away its customer base by dumping its design language and product lineage, by re-inventing the Imprezza to look like the spawn of a bad night out between a Daewoo and a donkey. And now they have done it again by ruining the brilliant Legacy range and morphing it into a barge of obesity that defies belief.

Subaru design has been dumped at the altar of the fashionistas and focus groups of people who know not what they think, and ought to be shown what is good design, not allowed to dictate it. If you don’t believe me, go and look at Subaru’s new big saloon and estate where its celebrity inspired muscular-bling fashion (if you can call it that), has triumphed over function. It is truly dreadful to look at – jewelled headlamps, swaged and sculpted panels, in a dated, copyist, ‘me too’ look.

Saab is surely at risk of replicating these stories, especially if its new owner puts short term fashion above creating long term cars for people who appreciate long term design and become loyal buyers of the brand. Of course, a Saab does not need a clamshell front to be a Saab, but it does need essential hallmarks – just as, say, a BMW or a Porsche, does. Such hallmarks often make it onto Saab’s concept cars.

The Saab 94-x range is the perfect analogy – a good car – yet it is millions wasted on a four wheel drive because the marketing men said, “everyone else has one, so we must too.” That was rubbish then and it is rubbish now – and hardly akin to “moving your mind” as Saab’s adverts implore us to do. In fact, the 94X is a paradoxical reverse of such mind moving thinking. A Skoda Yeti, is surely more of what the Saab 94x should have been? A Skoda Yeti? Go see – its fantastic.

Citroen, found its identity again and now has a range of stunning cars of great design depth, and which have build quality. And did not design save Skoda in the Fabia, and Fiat in the Grande Punto?

But what if Saab’s new owners are tempted to water down the brand, make do and mend for a generation – just to make enough money to survive? Making do and mending might be in order for a short period, but in the end such lack of investment in Saab’s soul would kill it- as GM nearly achieved.

If any car company should be alternative, Green, composites-aware and lateral thinking yet sporty, surely it should be Saab.

Saab needs a small car – a world beating small car, it could also return to rallying with such a car – and regain some much needed reputational profile.

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Saab needs to remember that when others were building rear driven, leaf sprung cars resembling brick crap houses, Saab was sculpting aerodynamic design icons – oh and the world’s first alloy-composite roadster. All this before Issigonis or Colin Chapman floated down and gave the world the so-called revolutions that were the Mini and the Lotus Elite.

And contrary to Ford advertising of the 1980s Sierra landscape, it was not Ford who ‘invented’ airflow control off the back end of the car- it was Saab – before Citroen did it.
For Saab the new 9-5 is a great car- whatever the arguments we can have about is roots and its ingredients, it is still a Saab – just…

But is it the last one?

So, if Saab’s new owner is reading this, please, in the name of Viking long boats, do not dilute the design and the brand, do not asset strip or descend into niche marketing to make Saab the Morgan or the Maybach of Sweden. Do not produce faux Toyotas benchmarked against the Honda Accord or the Mercury Sable. Do not fall for the Lexus design trick of smoke and mirrors to create a mix and match of your rivals design elements. Do not turn out a Rover 75 or a Fiat Croma – or fall into the Chinese design world of re-inventing the dinosuar.

What Saab needs, to survive, to employ people and to prosper again as one of the leading icons of industrial design and auto making in an ethical concept, could be the following:

  • A new, sensational, small Saab – a Fiesta beater, and to take it rallying, and to offer a hybrid city car version
  • To make a success of the new 9-5
  • To build a mid range, quality car in the 9-3 mould that brings us the essence of the 99 and 900, re-born
  • To use one of these floor pans to revive the icon of the Saab cabriolet
  • Then to bring us what we have waited years for- a premium designed, achingly beautiful Saab coupe- a re-invented Sonett, a car to beat the VW Scirocco yet be its own icon and perhaps made of composites

There may be alternatives to the above plan, but ask yourself this: If Saab does not produce ‘designed’ cars as opposed to fashioned cars, why should even the most loyal Saabist, buy one?

As a man with Saab carved upon my heart, I am already tempted by the VW Group and the way they have turbocharged and supercharged small petrol engines, allied them to a DSG autobox, and clothed the package of the new Polo: It is a truly brilliant car. And I just stare in awe at the total integrated design of the Scirocco and the Passat CC. I am also tempted by the ‘design’ of the Citroen C5. And what if Fiat relaunch Lancia to the world? For Lancias were lovely, before the bean counters ruined them with bad steel and shiny plastic.

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What if Saab followed the French and Italians and withdrew from America? It must not happen, for Americans love Saab (Thanks, Bob Sinclair). But Americans will soon be tempted by an auto industry recovering through design, something that ironically, GM championed in a glorious past.

Saab’s new owner must grasp what Saab is about and rush to a new era of design-led sales growth. It has worked for VW – Audi, it may be about to work for Toyota in the IQ. If you still don’t believe me, check out the new Nissan GTR and try to deny that it is not a peak of design and function, an instant icon even if fashion had a small hand…
If the new Saab company does not give us cars with style and integrity, it is going to lose an awful lot of money – before it dies. So money for design is the issue if you are the new owner of Saab.

If the money is not there, Sweden will lose a true part of its national identity and history, and we Saabists, we will lose our beloved Saab forever. Saabs should not be Fords , nor Buicks, nor a Honda-esque amalgam of Lexoid themes, they should be Saabs, and not rapidly ageing fashion statements exposed to the whims of the market place: Saabs should have integrity.

If you are Saab’s new owner, please be certain you can afford it- you will need hundreds of millions and that rare commodity, design. Wishful thinking and some be-jewelled headlamps cut into the front wings set around a gawping mouth of a grille won’t do it….
Save Saab. Make it so – Koenigsegg, soon, please…

Cole © 2009.

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