I was fortunate enough to sit down (in a Saab 9-3x) and have a good long chat with Simon Padian about all things to do with Saab Design. We covered a lot of different subject areas over the course of around 45 minutes and I’ve transcribed all the things I’m allowed to 🙂 in the following text.
My thanks to Simon for the interview and insights. There will be a few more parts of this interview to come in the next few days.
Saabs United: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you start working for Saab?
Simon Padian: Back in 1989.
SU: So I imagine you’ve worked on every vehicle since that time?
SP: I have. Pretty much everything we’ve produced since then. There were a few things that I haven’t worked on and there are quite a few things I have worked on that have never come out, as well. The very first project I worked on was the ‘new 900’ as it was then, working for Bjorn Envall….
SU: …and that was completely scrapped, wasn’t it?
SP: The theme was kept, but as you probably know we changed platform at the eleventh hour and we basically had to re-do everything. It became narrower, for instance. We did try to keep the theme but it was a re-start.
SU: How much time would you have lost because of that?
SP: It’s difficult to remember, but it must have been between eighteen months and two years.
SU: You mentioned to me earlier that that new 900 was originally going to be built on the same platform as the 9000.
SP: That’s right. That’s what we were working on when I joined. It felt a bit more compact and had a pretty good stance, actually. It was really well proportioned with a wide stance but a compact body. That was one of the ones that didn’t work out.
SU: So that’s around the time of the first series of the Saab 9000. Did it have that sort of look, or was it more like the second series, the CS etc?
SP: Well, we did try and keep the original theme. So the 900 that eventually came out (i.e. th NG900) wasn’t too dissimilar to what we had, it’s just that the proportions were a little bit different. The one we lost was a little bit wider and slightly larger all round, but it still that sime kind of feel – the C-Pillar, the hatch, the whole rear-end. It was actually quite similar.
SU: Was there a working version of the car? Did it drive OK?
SP: I can’t remember one. I certainly never drove one at that time. I think there were probably test mules, but we hadn’t got that far that there was a tools car or anything like that. We swapped designs just in time, I guess you could say.
SU: Can you tell us about any of the other interesting things that slipped through the net?
SP: Mmmmm. I guess the one with the most attempts is the whole story of trying to get some sort of Saab SUV. We ended up with the 9-7x, which…..was what it was…
SU: That’s very diplomatic of you (much mirth and laughter)
SP: ….Exactly, but we did have a number of projects to try and fill that format,
SU: OK. So how far back are we talking? Are we going back to the 9-3x concept vehicle or further than that?
SP: The first one I can remember we started back around……’98 or ’99 I can remember working on one, for example. And since then, right up to when the 9-7x came out there were two or three things that were on various platforms, programs that were stopped. There was a lot of focus at that time….that was the one thing that we didn’t have and everybody thought ‘yes, we need something’ and of course, we were trying to do it in a way that was more like a crossover, more towards the Saab character. Not some sort of great big, brash SUV but something that was a bit more car-like and so forth. There were a couple of iterations of that.
SU: So was this the 9X Concept, or something even different from that?
SP: No, different from that. I don’t think it’s a secret, the co-operation we had with Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru…. there was one that was being looked at….
SU: OK, so that’s more recent then, the Tribeca….
SP: Yes. We had two other platform proposals that I can remember, which were more mainstream GM platforms. There was a Cadillac platform, of course…
SU: ….not the Escalade!
SP: (laughs)…the SRX, which we’ve got a very good proposal on.
SU: There must be a lot of time spent chasing your tail, doing things that don’t eventuate?
SP: Yeah. In a way that’s the nature of design in the car industry. Even if you’re just donig a regular project where everything’s known, you start with multiple proposals and gradually work it down to the one that goes ahead. There’s always this feeling where people put a lot of energy into something and then it’s stopped. It’s just the way it is, the nature of the business.
SU: Sort of a scattergun approach?
SP: Mmmm, well I mean, typically you might have all sketches at the first step. You can have hundreds of sketches….and at least in the old way of working you’d end up with some scale models, anything up ten, or a dozen scale models. Then perhaps you’d do a couple of full-size models, perhaps three full size proposals going simultaneously and then from those you pick the theme. It’s changed a little bit because we tend to work a lot more digitally now so the process has got a little bit more compact. It’s a little bit quicker now. But certainly, that feeling of putting all of your energy into something and then (snaps fingers) it’s stopped. That’s something you have to get used to.
SU: That’s be almost heartbreaking. I imagine there’d be a real sense of ownership there.
SP: Yeah, the designers who have worked on the proposals, especially if there up to full-size level and they’re told “no, it wasn’t selcted”, there’s a…….
SU: Are they temperamental types? Are there some tantrums?
SP: There can be. There can be. Most of the team now… in fact all of the team, are Swedish and Swedish people tend not to have tantrums as much as some others. But all designers….we’re quite sort of, because we tend to lean towards the emotional side of things rather than the logical…it’s natural to have your feeling involved.
SU: I’ve spoken with a few of your Saab colleagues over various shows that I’ve visited and I know that you’re all very keen to go and see what other designers are doing. You all like going to the shows and seeing what others have done….
SP: Yeah, well in a way, it’s important. It’s the only time where you get to see so much in one place. You can go to a dealership and look at the latest whatever, but then you’re judging it in that surrounding, not related to other stuff. At a show you can get the real overall feel for what’s going on, and the trends. Not to say that you do that because you want to copy it, but it’s just that everything’s there in one place. You take in a lot more in a shorter period of time.
SU: Do you get any say in how a car is presented at an event like this? If you’ve been involved with it? Like the staging here, etc?
SP: Yeah, we do. Well, I do now, certainly. I think it’s important that everything, visually, is communicating the same message. It all effects the customer’s perception of the brand. Whether it’s the car, the brochures, the show stands, dealerships even…. it’s not always that easy to affect but we do try and get involved in the way they look and steer that a little bit. The merchandising….everything that says Saab on it or comes from Saab, that builds up an impression in the customer’s mind and it has to be the right quality and convey the right message. So it is important, we do therefore try. Whether it’s camera angles in brochures or anything like that, it’s very important that we’ve got that interaction with whoerver’s doing it.
SU: I think it works. I seems all quite coherent: the merchanidising, the brochures, the website….
SP: ….which I’ve got to say is one of the things that I love about the Saab brand, that there’s this consistent, distinctive image.
More to come…..