Presentation to Swedish Car Day 2010

I was very fortunate to be asked by Charles River Saab to attend their annual Saab and Volvo car show – Swedish Car Day.

The following is a rough-ish text version of the presentation I’ve prepared, which will be delivered at the event here in Boston.

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Swedish Car Day presentation.

Sunday, August 29 2010. Larz Andersson Auto Museum, MA.

The state of Saab (as I see it)

….some opening remarks…..

I’d like to take a moment to thank the people at Charles River Saab, who’ve put on this magic day. They got their order in for the weather on time, as you can see. I know Pierre Belperron has been working on this day for months now. There’s a lot of organisational work that goes in to something like this and if you’ve had a great time today, go up and thank Pierre for all of his hard work.

My personal thanks also go to the powers that be at Charles River Saab, who allowed Pierre to convince them that the idea of bringing a blogger all the way from Australia might be worthwhile, too. It’s been a rare privilege to make this journey, meet all of you and see all of these wonderful vehicles on display today.

Of course, the other thing on display here is a very generous helping of Saab Pride – and we know that the love people have for this company is one of the most tangible, visible and real loves that’s right up there with any brand in history insofar as companies that have managed to capture the imaginations and the hearts of the people with the wisdom and willingness to try it.

It’s hard to believe that it was only six months ago that guys from Spyker, Saab and General Motors were sitting around a table in Stockholm, hammering out the final details of the deal to sell Saab. Just six months.

I can’t begin to tell you about the complexity of the work that 1) went into that deal, and 2) is going on right now to separate Saab’s working day from GM’s working processes. Everything that people do in Trollhattan – every part of their working day – was governed by a GM working process. Whether it was something as complex as a decision about engineering or crash testing, or something as simple as ordering new napkins for the staff cafeteria….. Everything was done according to a process that GM had ‘perfected’ over a century as an automaker.

Then……Combine the difficulties of separation with the difficulties of startup. It took Saab weeks to get the factory rolling again because the company was effectively in liquidation when it was sold. When you’re in liquidation, you don’t have a whole heap of stock hanging around. You’re not doing daily maintenance on the machinery that you need to build these cars. In fact, they were planning the deconstruction of the factory.

Now think about the thousands of parts that go into every car and the organisational effort needed to get the supply chain working again – from Sweden to greater Europe and Asia – think of the effort required to do that.

You think of these issues and the fact that it’s been only six months since the sale and you can see why I get a little bit antsy every now and then when some newspapers decide they’d like to turn what is essentially a nothing-story into some sensational headlines.

But why do we feel this way? Why the strength of feeling….?

  • Because of the heritage of the company, and
  • Because it all came so close to coming to an end.

I don’t have to tell you about the affection that people have for Saab’s history. The fact that you’re here today is testimony to that.

But I will anyway….

The cars that they built were so engaging, so practical and still so much fun to drive that they’ve inspired millions of people over the last 60+ years.

I don’t have to tell you how cool a Sonett is, or a 99 Turbo, a 900 SPG, a Viggen or a 9-5 Aero. You can walk outside right now and instantly – and you know this as well as I do – INSTANTLY you’ll fall for something and you’ll be scheming up ways you can get the money together to buy one. I’m already trying to plan – once again – how I might get a Sonett III back to Australia cost-effectively.

But on top of the cars, there’s the history of the company. This little company that punches so far above its weight.

Born from Jets isn’t a tagline, it’s a small variation on the truth and if people started getting a little tense about the whole BFJ campaign, it’s probably because it took a rich history with so many interesting stories, courageous people and fantastic designs and boiled it down to slick, catchy video clip.

That’s heritage. I could talk all day about that but I have to keep moving.

There’s also the fact that it really did almost come to an end. We did a fantastic collective job of continuing to believe back in early 2010. but I’ve got to tell you, there were a few days when it was hard to keep believing.

  • The day Koenigsegg pulled out of the deal. (talk more about Koenigsegg).
  • They day Eric Geers talked about moving to southern Europe (the Canary in the coalmine)
  • The day they announced Saab’s stay of execution in early December
  • The day GM stopped negotiations with Spyker (talk about the phone call with VM)

I was fortunate enough to be pretty well connected through this process, with various people in various places – all connected to the process in one way or another – updating me daily as to what was going on. That’s why when others were guessing about the players involved in this process, I was telling you who they actually were.

Keeping that story together, and accurate – keeping GM accountable for the potential closure of this great company – was the main motivator behind the hours that were put in covering this story.

No matter what ended up happening to Saab, my determination was that GM would not be allowed to close this company down quietly. The story was going to stay in the spotlight as much as possible and you all know about most of the campaigns that were orchestrated to that effect (there is at least one campaign SU was involved in that you don’t know about).

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Saab/Spyker have now effectively bought themselves another five or six years.

As Victor Muller is so fond of saying, they were there in the midst of the Perfect Storm and bought a fully functional car company – with a factory, a workforce, and most importantly, complete brand new models that were ready for market – representing billions of dollars of investment.

So what they’ve got now is a company that’s ready to sell its products for the next 5 or 6 years – and that’s when the big test will come. The Big Test is whether or not Saab will be successful enough to be able to invest in replacing the new models that they will sell now. If they can do that, they’ve not only bought themselves jobs, but they’ve got continuity.

So what do we know?

Well, we know that they’ve got a bunch of new models coming up. The 9-5 Sedan is just rolling out into showrooms and (finally) the private homes of customers right now.

Next year Saab will add the 9-5 wagon to that range and they’ll also add a vehicle that I’m really excited about, the Saab 9-4x. What really excites me about the 9-4x is that it is a vehicle that Saab really need this market, in North America. I think the 9-4x is going to be THE vehicle responsible for a large portion of whatever growth we see in Saab’s marketshare in this critical market in the next 5 years.

And I have a feeling that the Saab 9-4x is going to be really, really good. Many of us standing here aren’t going to see it as something that would be appropriate for us. I had a drive in an absolutely beautiful white Sonett II last night and for me – that’s what the ideal of engaging motoring is all about. A fun, zippy little car that you look at, feel and enjoy every minute of. Extend that ideal to a more practical level and you get a fun zippy sedan, wagon or hatchback that will hopefully incorporate the engagement of a Sonett with the practicality of an everyday car that can carry people and stuff.

Which brings us to the other new model Saab are working on – the new 9-3.

Consider the range that Saab have had over the years, with cars having to evolve over the course of up to 20 years (or more commonly, around 12-13 years) before they’re replaced with something new.

When the Saab 9-3 comes in late 2012 as a 2013 model year car, the brand new 9-5 that you can see just over there will be the oldest car in Saab’s range. That’s a very exciting prospect.

Where the success of the 9-4x will be critical in expanding Saab’s market presence here in the United States, the success of the new Saab 9-3 will be critical to Saab’s survival.

We all have expectations about what the new Saab 9-3 will bring. It’s so very tempting to thing that now Saab are independent again and they’re going to build into the 9-3 everything that made the Classic Saab 900 feel so wonderful to drive. It’s tempting to think that now Saab are separate from GM, they can just revert back to being the old Saab that we all came to love.

My words to you would be resist that temptation. Block it, throw it out the door and open your mind to embracing a new Saab – one that will unfold in front of us over the next couple of years.

Why do I say this? Well, it’s because everything we’ve seen from New Saab so far indicates that that will most likely be the case.

The first big indicator of this was the appointment of Jason Castriota as the head of Saab Design. Whilst Saab have had external designers come in in the past (think Sergio Coggiola with the Sonett III), I think it’s pretty unusual to have someone being tasked with the job of heading up and leading the whole design department whilst still remaining outside the company.

It’s controversial, unconventional and personally speaking, I’m not sure that I like it, but it’s a considered decision that has shaken the people involved and the proof of the decision will be in the car that we see – a new 9-3 – at some unidentified Auto Show in a few years from now.

The second indicator that Saab will be going a different way is some of the recent advertising that we’ve seen. I made a big deal out of not liking a few of those ads just last week and there has been a lot of discussion about these in various circles. Whilst I still don’t like some of the writing that I’ve seen in some of those ads, I’ve now reconciled myself to understanding what they’re trying to do and a little of the science behind it.

As traditionalists, loyalists and enthusiasts, these decisions shake our boats a little, but maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Saab have to treasure, honour and keep telling the story about where they’ve come from. I’m convinced that their history can be a valuable loyalty builder and therefore a key part of their future.

But as much as these recent decisions have shaken me up as an enthusiast and commentator on the company, the one thing they show is that Saab are on a careful, considered path and that the people in charge have the intestinal fortitude to make a tough decision and to stick to it.

They know the cars they want to build, they know the place in the market they want to get to, and they’re charting a course to get there. It may not be the segment we were expecting. It might not involve a path that we thought we might have to tread.

Personally, though, I give them a lot of credit for having the guts to identify a vision and follow it. I just hope and pray that they bring the crowd that stood up for them along for the ride.

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