I figured I’d better write that headline just in case anybody who’s important at Saab forgot. Or maybe it’s for those at GM who aren’t directly playing in the Saab sandbox, but make decisions that effect Saab.
It sounds pretty rudimentary, but sometimes it’s the simple things that get overlooked.
After writing the recent editorial piece at The Truth About Cars and after thinking about Bell Springsteen’s follow up piece a little, there was something he wrote that resonated with me:
I read Trollhattansaab.net in order to explore the main question that Mr. Wade often contemplates on his site. How does a brand that currently sells under 160k vehicles a year attract enough passionate owners that Trollhattansaab.net receives well over 5k unique visitors per day? Why is it that Saab drivers are so passionate about being Saab drivers?
Firstly, being the pedant that I am, I need to clarify those numbers. Saab sell around 130,000 vehicles per year. last year was their best ever at around 134,000. Also, sadly, this site attracts more like 4,000 individuals per day on average. It serves around 6,000 pages to those individuals, but there’s not as many as mentioned.
Onwards then, to the crux of the matter.
What gives this brand it’s mojo? Why do we Saab drivers love being Saab drivers? And is that in danger?
There’s lots of little answers to this question, but there’s one big one. That one big answer is because the cars are Swedish. I can’t recommend highly enough the adventure that is going to Trollhattan for the Saab Festival. Because of your support, I was fortunate enough to get there this year and the connection between these cars and their home country is undeniable.
They do things different over there. They consider things a lot longer and in more depth there than what I’d ever experienced here in Australia. It’s pretty hard to nail down, but as much as early Saabs were different because they sprang from an aviation background, they’re also different because they sprang from the Swedish mindset.
This is just me, but I love the Saab brand, the culture and the cars primarily because of the history of the brand. And you can’t separate that history from their homeland.
I love an underdog that does incredible things, one who punches well above their weight. Saab’s innovations and motorsport history speak of a much bigger company.
I love how well thought out their early cars were (well, except perhaps for the whole no-trunk thing on the 92, that could have been done better, maybe. it looks smooth, but not entirely functional).
I love the way their looks get under your skin. How an ugly duckling base model 900 can be linked to a 1,000 pound gorilla of a tuned 900 Aero T16 S.
I love the fact that as I look back, there’s a whole lot of history there. Distinct history. History that few others could claim in terms of individuality and identity.
I love the whole hatchback thing. And I always have, even before a knew what a Saab was. Back in my redneck Holden days I actually yearned for an LH Torana Hatchback. And the XC Falcon GT’s always made more sense to me than the XY’s, even though the XYs would sell for a whole lot more and the XC’s weren’t really hatches at all, just coupes. Neither sedans or wagons never really did it for me. The hatch was a sports car without the problems or limitations of a sports car.
And yes, I do love the fact that Saabs aren’t mainstream.
It’s no big revelation that Saab’s distinctiveness has faded in recent years. And it’s not all down to GM, either. Saab went for a sedan as far back as the 99 in the 1970s, though they didn’t focus on sedans as a mainstream model until the 9000 and subsequent 9-5 models of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But prior to 2003 there hadn’t been a Saab lineup completely devoid of a hatch variant since the advent of the combi coupe in 1974. The all-sedan/wagon lineup of the post-2002 era has now been complimented with the 9-3 SportCombi, which is as close a hatch as we’ll get for a few years. It’s a great car, too.
Is Saab’s Swedish heritage under threat?
Recent reports that the Trollhattan plant’s capacity might be reduced actually sent shivers down my spine. The 9-3 and 9-5 are already planned for a move to Germany. Trollhattan is scheduled to get production of GM’s Delta-based vehicles as a replacement and this will include any coming Saab 9-1 on that platform. The reduction in space is a matter of efficiency and from a business point of view, it’s understandable.
What’s of concern to me is whether or not there will come a day when Saab won’t have a manufacturing presence in Sweden. Their design area has already moved to Russelsheim and aside from manufacturing, all that’s left in Sweden is a brand centre and some administration. The technological development centre is across the road from the factory, but no doubt they consider themselves a GM facility now, rather than a Saab facility.
What’s of concern to me is that a brand, or company, as distinctly identifiable as Saab has to maintain strong roots with it’s origins. If Saab aren’t Swedish anymore, if they’re not true to their core values of design, safety, innovation and responsible performance, then they’re just another car company. You can’t just inject Swedishness, as one GM executive espoused a few years ago. Thankfully, I think they know that now.
Why do we Saab nuts love owning and driving Saabs? I think part of it is because even though the recent ones lack some of the distinctiveness of the older ones, they’ve still been designed with those core values at heart. They’re still Swedish. And GM needs to realise that Saab have to stay that way – distinct and true to their origins.
BMW can make some vehicles in the US and elsewhere because a) they’re mega-successful, and b) those vehicles are still very much BMWs. They make Minis in England. As they should. Alfa Romeo have been through more ups and downs than I care to mention but they’re still unmistakably Italian. Cadillacs should be huge American behemoths, not small and comparatively downscale wagons.
Every successful and aspired-to brand that’s going around today has a strong identity, be it national or sporting, or both. GM need to make sure that Saab’s identity is built not only on outstanding vehicles for the future, but with a strong and visible link to where they’ve come from.
I’d suggest that a strong and loyal following is riding on it. Though maybe they figure they can build up a new following without us?
I hope not.