An open letter from Jason Castriota – Saab Design Director

RE-POSTED to the top as this is undoubtedly the feature entry for today….

I’m pleased to be able to present this letter, received today via email from the new head of Saab Design, Jason Castriota.

It’s a direct response to the open letter addressed to him, which I published on site a few days ago.

My sincere thanks to Jason for writing this and responding to some of the concerns raised in my open letter and in your comments to it. He’s done so in an open, forthright manner and it’s truly appreciated.

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Dear SWADE and all the faithful of Saabs United,

First let me thank you for your kind open letter, and invitation to address your community. I needn’t tell you that your passion and devotion to Saab is truly impressive. Given the key role you played in rallying support around Saab and helping to fend off its demise, I appreciate your strong emotional attachment to the brand. You are all part of the Saab family, and as such have a very personal view on all events surrounding Saab.

I am excited to share a bit about myself so we can begin to become better acquainted.

Having read many of the comments regarding my appointment, I was left with the impression that I am a bit of an unknown, and misunderstood entity in your inner circle. I feel it’s important for you to know that I am a true enthusiast of automobiles and car culture in general. Some kids grow up kicking a soccer ball around; I literally began sketching and studying cars at the age of five and haven’t stopped since. Distinctive car design was and is my passion, and thus it should come as no surprise that Saab captured my interest from a young age.

I actually grew up in a Saab family. My parents and their friends all drove Saab’s, and my first car – a hand me down from my mother – was a 1989 Saab 900 3 door hatch. I must admit that the Rose Quartz metallic and burgundy velour interior was not my preferred color combo, but I cherished it nevertheless!

Looking beyond the love affair that one inevitably has with their first car, I was enamored of its distinctive silhouette and clamshell hood, its durability (which was certainly put to the test!), and above all its phenomenal snap over steer and drifting capabilities at the limit! Which, I might add, in my overzealous hands was more often than not! The utility of the hatch back and fold down rear seats was great for all my sporting activities, not to mention my social life – I was a teenager after all.

Of course as much as I enjoyed my 900, I was young and lusted for another – the 900 SPG turbo. I even spent appreciable time sketching a new more modern version in math class for an entire semester. Clearly Saab has always held a place in my heart and twenty years later from sketching Saabs in math class (and bending the laws of physics with my 900 on twisty back roads) I have the honor of being a part of the team that will rebuild the company! Needless to say I am humbled and excited to be given this opportunity and responsibility.

In your letter you mention the “responsibility” and the “weight” of working for such an iconic brand with such a loyal fan base. By giving a more in depth explanation of my career to date I hope to allay your concerns.

While your posts regarding my career mention that I am associated with some exotic sports cars, I feel that my true professional experience is not fully understood in your circle. You should know that throughout my entire career, I have had a similar “weight” on my shoulders while working for Pininfarina and Bertone. I can assure you working for these iconic design houses – which many consider the founders of car design – carried tremendous responsibility that was never taken lightly or for granted. It was an honor and a privilege to be a part of these great companies, not to mention the realization of a lifelong dream – a dream shared by countless other car designers as well.

My years in Italy gave me the opportunity to work with a myriad of iconic brands: Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Peugeot, Citroen, Maserati (which at the time like Saab was also in a period of urgency and rebirth), and Ferrari. Akin to Saab, all of these brands conjure strong emotions for their devoted legions of fans, and places a tremendous responsibility on all those who must work for them. While exotic Italian sports cars may not be your cup of tea, Ferrari is considered by many as being more like a religion than an automobile manufacturer! Even though they may only sell a few thousand cars a year, Ferrari is obsessively followed by millions of fanatical enthusiasts who are always watching, waiting, and anticipating their every design move and latest offering. This responsibility was accepted with enthusiasm and never taken for granted.

It may surprise you to know that the various “one offs” and limited production sports cars that I have worked on were not created in some sort of car design utopia without rules or industrialized process and with unlimited Formula 1 style spending. As much as I hate to destroy the myth, cars such as the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano and the Maserati Granturismo – were conceived in the exact same process as any other mass production car. Even the most rare multi million-dollar supercar is subject to budget and time constraints, parts sharing, and must still conform to all the same legislative standards. Regardless of the vehicle typology and production volumes, car design is a give and take process.

Whether you are working on a city car that will be made in the hundreds of thousands of units, or a supercar that will only be produced in handful of examples, compromises will always have to be made. Ultimately, the success of a design has nothing to do with how much a car costs or doesn’t, or how fast it is or isn’t. In my eyes, a successful car design is one that is created with passion. Deeper still, it must be coherent and properly reflect both its end purpose and the brand’s core values.

Given your love for Saab I appreciate your concerns, but rest assured I have always maintained the utmost respect for the legacies of all the great companies I have worked with. Like you, I’m an enthusiast and it is for precisely this reason that I was attracted to Saab. Helping to push and evolve an icon is in my eyes one of the greatest challenges a designer can face. To do this in a time of urgency and need – such as this moment in Saab’s history – is an even greater challenge and responsibility! Without passion, you will not succeed and I am delighted to see that you are clearly passionate and hold strong opinions of your beloved brand. This makes my job all the more special because I want people to care passionately about our design and engage with it! Indifference for me is akin to death. Love or hate what I do, I want you to feel something. Judging by your posts, it certainly appears that you won’t be holding back either way!

Perhaps many of you are now thinking, “…Ok, so he grew up with a Saab, is passionate about design, and has worked with other iconic brands…. BUT what on earth is the correlation between designing a Ferrari or a Maserati, and a Saab?”

As I alluded to earlier, we are dealing with brands that have rich histories, distinctive DNA, and the undeniable weight of enthusiasts’ expectations. Thus the homework assignment and approach from a designer’s perspective are actually one and the same. If you are a slave to your own design history you will never move forward and become stagnant and irrelevant. On the flip side, if you throw the baby out with the bathwater you will alienate your core and lose your identity that took generations to build. Thus when tasked with putting forth a vision to progress an iconic brand, a designer must first understand the essence of its DNA. Once this essence has been understood, he needs to evolve the DNA into a valid and modern context by anticipating where the world and its trends are headed.

While at Pininfarina, as lead designer for the Maserati Granturismo, we faced nearly the same conditions and pressures to those we face today with the new 9-3. The Granturismo was designed and conceived on an extremely tight time schedule and budget during the most critical phase in the rebuilding of the Maserati brand. Like Saab, Maserati needed a design that captured the essence and magic of the brand’s DNA. We needed to design a car that is undeniably a Maserati but also one that simultaneously pushed the brand forward.

My former colleagues and I fought to create the best car possible under extremely difficult circumstances, and I am proud to say we succeeded. The Granturismo has been a runaway success, and thus helped Maserati re-establish themselves as true players in the sports luxury marketplace. This is largely the same challenge we face with the new 9-3. We need a successful car that will bring the brand forward and be instantly recognizable as a true Saab.

It is no secret that much of the “saab-ness” has been lost over the last generation of vehicles and now we must return to Saab’s roots. Mind you, we will not pursue a retro design, nor can we simply take an evolutionary step. If Saab is to be truly successful in today’s increasingly competitive market, we need to create a car that will satisfy you, the Saab faithful, BUT at the same time we must also win hearts and minds of new clientele who may have never previously considered a Saab. This means we must strike a very delicate balance of respecting SAAB’s unique DNA, but still having the courage to push it forward.

Victor Muller and Jan Ake Jonsson came to me because of my experiences and success with precisely this type of challenge. They gave me a clear and concise message of three simple words – to design a “TRUE, BOLD SAAB.” It is our goal to create a new Saab car that is instantly recognizable as a Saab long before one sees the badge. We are pushing to make a bold car that reflects our independent thinking, and the entire team is working flat out to accomplish this feat. Everyone is going the extra mile.

I promise to do everything possible to help SAAB succeed. I have no interest in keeping Saab on life support – I want to see it flourish! Being part of the leadership team headed by Victor and Jan Ake means that my responsibilities go far beyond designing cars. I am working hand in hand with marketing on a long-term strategy, and with PR on promoting Saab.

As you have noticed this responsibility also includes presenting and promoting the new 9-5. Please know that I am the first to cite that I had nothing to do with its creation, but as Design Director I now carry the responsibility of making sure it is a success. Your community has been overwhelmingly critical of my efforts and to be honest I feel you have done so without having proper context. I needn’t tell you that information is power and we still need to spread the gospel. The fact is, Saab’s image has been tainted globally, particularly in the USA – arguably it’s most important market in terms of volume. Since joining Saab I have been shocked by the number of people I have encountered who think Saab is bankrupt, in liquidation or worse still, dead! We need to spread the message that Saab is alive and well to people beyond true enthusiasts like you, and we need to do this immediately. Your community can and should continue to play a significant role in this.

I believe in Saab, and I believe that we will accomplish great things. I now leave it to you to give us “newbie’s” a fair shot at rebuilding this company. Rome wasn’t built in a day and Saab will not be saved in one either. As loyal fans, I know that you understand the power of sending a positive message. It was your loyalty and positivity that helped breathe life back into Saab. But you must also recognize that the fight is not over – on the contrary it has just begun – and we need that positivity now more than ever. Victor and Jan Ake have created a winning strategy, but this story will play out over the next few years, not in days, weeks or months. I for one, plan on being there every step of the way, and I hope you will be too.

In your letter you have asked for “proof of life” and “substance.” It is of course up to you to form and evolve your own opinions, but I believe that taking on the tremendous responsibility of helping to rebuild Saab is “proof of life” and “substance.” Now that you have had a chance to hear from me maybe you will reform your opinions, and maybe you won’t. While I imagine that you will reserve your final judgments once the new 9-3 arrives on the road, I hope it is clear that I am on board for all the right reasons and have the best intentions. Personally, I feel that we are far more similar than any of us may have imagined.

Finally, I understand that loyalty is arguably the most highly valued commodity in your community, and your support for Simon reflects this. He has seen it all in Saab over the past twenty years – the good, the bad the ugly – and he fully deserves your loyalty and support. Simon remains a key member of the team, and I am truly happy to have him onboard. Since I clearly cannot speak on his behalf, I would like to invite you to address him personally as well. Perhaps hearing from him directly will give you even further insight to the realities of Saab design over the past year or so? I am sure he would be happy to oblige.

On that note I will thank you again for the opportunity to address you all and for welcoming me into your family. Now back to work on the 9-3!

All the Best,

Jason

PS: Congratulations on receiving the first annual Saab’s United Award!

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