Looking Back

1984 Saab

In 1984 Saab had its first 100,000 car year. Achieved in large part to one of its most successful cars ever to come off the production line, the 900. The 900 was so successful that from 1978 to 1997 and two generations of this model, Saab manufactured and sold 1,182,378 of them.

The first generation was built between 78-93, a fifteen year life span and the second between 93-97.

In 1984 we saw the introduction of the 16 valve DOHC B202 engine which had hydraulic valve lifters and a pre-heated catalytic converter for reduced emissions and a top speed of 210km/h or 130mph with 175hp back in 1984.

Saab definitely had some performance in this car back in 84 and a lot of forward thinking too. I know fifteen years seems like a long run for a production car and it is but it was the 7 year of production before it had a 100,000 unit year and it continued to sell well after 84.

SAAB EV-1

In 1985 Saab took a step into the future with the SAAB EV-1, not to be confused with the GM EV-1 as this was its own model and GM had yet to enter the Saab picture although the EV-1 did have seats from the Corvette. The EV-1 was ahead of it’s time in many respects and had a top speed of 270km/h and did 0-100 in 5.9 seconds. Most parts came from the 900 turbo and the car had 66 solar cells mounted in the glass roof panel that helped with the cooling system in the car. The EV-1 was even seen in the background of the movie Back To The Future II.

Also we can’t forget that as far as GM goes, their EV-1 didn’t come to be until 1996 so they just stole our name.

1987 SAAB

1987 was the next big year for SAAB with worldwide sales exceeding 134,000 units and with vehicles like the 900, 9000 and convertible models.

The 1987 Saab 9000 was the first front wheel drive car to offer ABS brakes.

The 900 was still the first generation and had now been in production for nine years and still selling quite well.

Saab was at this point looking like a company that was moving in the right direction and was making money.

Two years later in 1989 GM bought 50% of Saab for $600 million USD. While working with GM we saw Saab sharing technology with GM and the GM brand was becoming better and they gained a lot from being partnered with SAAB. Funny to see years later GM not wanting to share at all.

1999 Saab sales were 131200 worldwide with the 9-3 which was launched in in 1998 and the 9-5 launched in 1997.

In 2000 GM bought the rest of Saab for $125 million. GM has had a habit of making many cars off of one platform which is meant to help control costs but also makes for cars that directly compete with each other. Saab was no different and over the years we would see more and more GM in Saabs then ever before. The 9-5 shared similarities with the Saturn L series and at least three different Opels, the 9-3 with Chevy’s and Opel’s.

In no way am I saying that GM was only bad for Saab because they did put a lot of money into the Saab factory but it would appear that they bought Saab and the IP and then when they sold the company, they held on to the IP that was so critical and were not open to working with new partners which doesn’t sit well with me when you consider what they got from such a partnership in the past.

If you look at the years highlighted in here, 84-87 without GM, Saab had some tremendous success and sold themselves on being a car for drivers in any condition and a company ahead of the curve when it came to innovations. I do believe we can be all of that again.

39 thoughts on “Looking Back”

  1. Intersting article Jason. Can you tell us if Saab was actually making profit during the years of that period?

    The sad truth for Saab is that they really lost their appeal as soon as they shared GM platforms. A Saab and a Vauxhall in the UK were worlds apart in their markets. The 900 was cool, the GM900 sadly wasn’t.

    One thing i think a lot of fans will agree – I’m not sure you can really call the GM900 the second generation of the og900, at least in very much but name! Good cars, just different perception in the market.

    • I know they made a profit I believe in 87 but I have very little sales data for those years. All in all, there was not a lot of years of profit and to which is why I think gm tried to absorb things by sharing as much as they did and probably not as much as they may have wanted.

    • I have both a 900NG cab and a 9-3NG cab and must say that the 900 is still going strong. Sometime I feel the 900 funnier to drive.

  2. Nice article Jason! These years Saab was at its absolute top, for sure. However, I don’t think the Saab EV-1 was an electric vehicle though – its name stood for Experimental Vehicle no.1 and it had a gasoline engine.

  3. The 900 Turbo in the mid to late 80s was the yuppie car of choice long before BMW sold many 3-Series cars. A 9000 actually cost more than a 5-Series but in those days BMW used to charge extra for a radio.

  4. couldn’t have said it better myself. Was with Saab development and purchasing from 1972 until 1998 and have some experience.
    The GO in the development dept. and in the mood of employees in Trollhättan and Södertälje was fanatstic, but unfortunately, the people and policies in Sales & Market Development where still living in a different world and lacked knowledge and finger top feeling. We all remember the happiness after good press of the Turbo-, APC-, 16 Valve w/ hydr lifters-, 900 Convertible, Aero’s and other successes. But the world wide markets never developed in the needed volumes. This together with the lack of interesting new model development decisions made the economy shrink and during the enonomy downturn at the end of the eighties drained the cash to the extent that the bid from GM was about the only way of survival at the time. Other proposals from i.e. Fiat where not attracting the Saab-Scania board.

    • ABS in a 1971???? Are you thinking air bags? I know GM/Olds offered air bags on those cars in the 70s, but I didn’t think ABS was available yet.

        • According to MSN Autos: “Started in the Late 1970s
          ABS has been available on U.S. vehicles since 1978. Mercedes-Benz was the first to install anti-lock brakes on production cars. By 1986, Cadillac began adding it to its high-end luxury cars.”
          I wonder what the first mass production car with ABS really was?

          • Angelo,
            ABS was first developed for planes, so I do believe Wikipedia and MSN Autos, as the second speaks about the first introduction of ABS in the car industry.

            Looking at the German Wikipedia, I can read that Bosch created their first electronic Anti-Blocking-System and got a trademark for the word ABS, so the first car with ABS ™ was in fact the S-Class from Mercedes. 😉

        • I can’t find dates on Chrysler’s self cleaning rear windows or headlight washers. Saabmuseum .com shows Saab using the rear air slicer in 1961 and headlight washers in 1970. Do you have dates for Chrysler?
          Not disagreeing with you, just want to know.

    • From Wikipedia: “Jensen were one of the first manufacturers to equip a production car with four-wheel drive, in the 1967 Jensen FF (Ferguson Formula). At the time it was hailed as a remarkable development, coming also with Dunlop Maxarat mechanical anti-lock brakes and traction control. ”

      This first ABS was iirc, directly taken from aircraft systems, end hence mechnical. An ABS is was, nevertheless.

  5. “Saab was at this point looking like a company that was moving in the right direction and was making money. Two years later in 1989 GM bought 50% of Saab for $600 million USD.”
    This is confusing to me because it conflicts with the opposite view which has been written here often. I’ve seen before that Saab was about to go under when GM “came to the rescue.” Here, it says that Saab was making money and moving in the right direction just before GM came in. Which is it?

    • Angelo, they needed to modernize the factory, a smaller model and a 900 replacement which would have cost money the owner didn’t have at hand or wasn’t willing to invest in Saab. Everyone thought the deal was a match made in heaven until GM got into serious trouble in early 90s which obviously changed everything regarding the Saab strategy as well.
      The decision to kill the 9000 V8 was however made right out the gate so maybe Detroit wasn’t entirely honest about taking Saab to the promised land after all? At a time BTW when German premium cars got more power just about every year.

      • Methink there were three phases. One was the development of the 900NG, in which Saab maintained a lot of its independence, but got technological help from GM (and some premature push to release the 900). The second phase, as you stated, was when times got worse, and the sales did not grow as GM had hoped. I think that was around 1999-2000. Here, GM tightened their grip, halved the number of developers at Saab, and tried reducing costs. That resulted in the 9-3NG, and the 9-5 Dame Edna. The third phase was when GM discovered that they needed to maintain more of Saab’s identity. They again invested in modernizing the factory and stuffed up development department. The results were some concept cars and the 9-5NG and 9-4x. Then, everything collapsed.

        • The Dame Edna iteration of the 9-5 came in 2006 while the first next gen 9-3 was in 2003. The 9-5 was introduced as a 1998 model. Its first refresh was with the 2002 model and then the Dame Edna look for the front-end in 2006.

      • And by a strange coincidence every Opel has had more power than the correspondent Saab with the same engine. It got really weird when Opel had a 3-litre V6 with 210 hp output while Saab had the same engine turbocharged to a mere 200 hp. I never understood that until I read the Opel somehow had to have the stronger engine.
        And that is yet another way how GM killed the Saab brand.

  6. The more I got documents about Saab automobile division, the more I figured how hard this division missed its global marketing and suffered under-funding nearly since its beginning.

    Some people like Bob Sinclair tried their best to give a more accurate perspective for the US market but it was not enough. Think that the first Saab french sales department was created only in 1982…

    Saab missed financial and commercial globalization back at the end of the 60ies. GM, Ford, Audi groups were already monsters at the end of the 80ies. The highest sales volume year 1987 (134Kunits) was at least 10 less than the ones of these big groups. Saab could not resist. Profitability was too low and risks were too high to keep investors interested in such activities with critical social costs in case of failures.

    During the 80ies, Saab managed to get its 1st R&D parner (Fiat) upset although the italian group wanted to buy shares from Wallenbergs Investors at a higher price than GM finally did. Saab-Scania Automobile Division faced high losses in its joint venture with GM..

    The picture should finally be completed with what consumer’s reports pay little attention : political and financial strategies. The wallenberg group began to get on a financial point of view exposed to foreign competitors while Sweden entering the EU open market. Therefore it became clear that they had no choice but to rase funds to invest in other areas before it was too late. Saab automobile division had not been profitable from 1989 to 1995 and went back to the red line in 1997. At the begining of the XXIst century financial groups like Wallenberg or Ford start thinking different : the “too big to fail” went wrong and we finally had many proofs in last bigest crisis of 2008 : Saab was just one of the many collateral victims of years of financial governance without political and substantial industrial long-term vision. It is higly probable that Saab automobile division would not exist anymore if GM did not invest what they did in THN over last 25 years, partly under Saab Scania division. It could hurt to write this but in my opinion it is true…

  7. As far as platform sharing goes—-success depends on how good the platform is. Also, like it or not, success depends on pricing, advertising/marketing and sometimes, just plain luck. I know the landscape changed dramatically over the decades, but remember, back in the 70s and even into the early 80s, GM had an enormous market share in the U.S. and the world. In the U.S., about half the cars sold were GM products. That is astounding. And it was more than just platform sharing—-the cars were virtual clones, with different front ends, taillights and emblems—-interiors slightly different—–but the same basic cars, offered much of the time with the same engines. Examples? (Chevy-Pontiac-Oldsmobile-Buick): Monza, Sunbird, Starfire, Skyhawk. Monte Carlo, Grand Prix, Cutlass, Regal. Impala, Catalina, Eighty-Eight, LeSabre. Caprice, Bonneville, Ninety Eight, Electra 225. Nova, Ventura, Omega, Apollo. Camaro/Firebird. Toronado, Riviera, Cadillac Eldorado. Citation, Phoenix, Omega, Skylark. Guys (and ladies)—-millions of these cars were sold. Millions. This formula worked for decades for GM. What happened? First and foremost, the quality and desirabilty of the cars diminished dramatically. Next, heightened competition on the lower end from Japan and on the higher end from Europe. Also, the U.S. government (EPA) mandates that benefitted companies already specializing in smaller, more fuel efficient cars (Japan/Europe) and made it very hard for the U.S. companies to catch up quickly. In affect, our own government made it very hard for our own car companies to get products to market that made sense. Why was there a Cadillac Cimarron? Simple, it was to meet fleet CAFE standards. Cadillac had to put underpowered V6 engines in their larger cars and introduced a Chevy Cavalier wearing a Cadillac badge, which was a disaster—-all to try to comply with Washington, DC. GM also rushed a crappy diesel engine to market, and busts like the Cadillac HT4100, to try to comply with fuel economy and emissions standards imposed on car makers. Also, in addition to lousy engineering, the assembly line workers became lazy and lousy. Product quality was awful. But here is the point: Platform sharing in and of itself does not guarantee failure and in fact, has proven to be a remarkably efficient way to succeed. I love my GM era Saab. My Saab won’t be confused with any other GM product, inside or out. GM’s lack of success with Saab was an element of pricing, marketing and lack of an entry level car to bring new buyers to the brand. It’s frustrating because if a different parent had been in control of Saab, there’s no doubt in my mind that things could have worked out differently.

    • GMs lack of success with SAAB is plainly (GM) they had no clue about SAABs true customers, wants, needs, or that intelligent people wont buy crap! I worked for SAAB when the GM900 was released as a Product Specialist for the International Auto Shows. People who had been customers for years were already complaining how. SAAB was becoming Opelized, and those cars, although engineered and upgraded by SAAB- were not what SAAB customers wanted.
      Personally passing off Subarus, Trailblazers, and keeping the 9-5 for 12 years did not help SAAB at all.

      • But Aero, those customers you’re referring to—apparently didn’t buy enough Saabs pre-GM, because I’m reading here that Saab was “rescued” by the infusion of GM cash. A small group of boutique buyers who didn’t trade their cars in very often—-were not enough to keep Saab in business. Then they complained about a perceived “feels like an Opel” issue. In fact, in the real car world, 1990s and later—-the actual problem with GM ownership of Saab is precisely the opposite of what you and others are saying. GM didn’t go far enough in platform sharing with Saab. In the worst way, Saab needed more cars (and trucks) to sell to be viable, to make money. They needed that and they needed much better advertising/promotion. They didn’t get either. GM didn’t know what they had in terms of a powerful brand. That’s too bad. Had they known, even as late as 2008-2009—-they could have folded Saturn into Saab—-rebranded exciting and competent cars like the Saturn Sky and Astra into Saabs. They could have also provided a platform for a compact and affordable Saab SUV, giving Saab a full product line for the first time ever. No one cared about the Saturn brand and there was only a little bit of loyalty to Saturn—-a relatively new division. Saab, in the U.S., had built up an image of a fine European make—-and GM could have traded on that. I go back to feeling that in 2012, Mahindra would have traded on that too. NEVS, not so sure. I don’t know what they’re doing because they won’t say.

  8. The idea was to implement solar cells in the roof of the EV1. But this were fakes, cut out of paper. Have a close look in the bil museum. But keep in mind that the EV1 had an accident and was rebuild, so may be they fitted real solar cells in the roof. The car on show at IAA in Frankfurt had the fakes in the roof.

        • I was not saying that Saab lied about the tech they wanted to show, I just wanted to say, that prototype cars in Car-Shows are mostly not “real” cars, but car “sculptures”. Maybe the EV-1 was more a car than the normal “prototype” showed on car-shows, but if Saab was at that time testing solar panels to improve the HVAC performance, they would be using some “normal” 900 or 9000.

  9. My first Saab was a 1984 900 and that year has been shown to be a good year for producing a reliable car. I put 236,000 miles on the one clutch and never had to touch the engine or transmission. This was not a turbo car so that may have helped.

    • Steve: Ironically, many people love Saabs for the turbos. I say “ironically” because from a pure reliability/cost of ownership standpoint, those final Saabs made without turbos were more reliable than the turbo Saabs. You were blessed to own something bulletproof in a non-turbo Saab—-end of an era in fact. I never bought into the idea that Saab had to have a turbo. I felt (and still think) if they ever come back with IC engines for Saabs—-on an entry level car, they should offer one without a turbo.

  10. Seb,

    Mercedes was the first European luxury manufacturer to utilize ABS, not Saab. I don’t think even Saab knew who their market was for and that added to the confusion especially in 1980’s America.

    The Saab 900 was an awesome vehicle, albeit with very mixed reliability and quality control was spotty even in the 1980’s. What Saab did well was safety… Reliability, well that is a subject of major debate.

    My families’ pre-GM scania Saabs were fun to drive with very inconsistent reliability issues. You could say the same about BMW and Audi of the same era as well. The Saab was a much better well rounded vehicle than any 1980’s Audi or BMW product and safer.

    • Yes, I never owned a pre-GM era Saab. I know a couple people who had them and loved them. I remember reading about spotty reliability—but I also know Audi and Jaguar were much worse. Volvo was probably better in terms of reliability—at least in the States. Saab was probably average or above average for European makes coming to the U.S. during that time period. They were not nearly as reliable as Japanese makes, but on par with the American cars—-much more expensive to fix, but same reliabiity as GM. I often read here of those lamenting GM era Saabs. In fact, based on consumer guides/surveys, if anything, reliability during the GM era outpaced pre-GM Saab. Now, QUALITY is different than reliability. And I have been in the mid-1980s Saabs. And the quality feel of the seats, controls—-fit and finish—-better than anything GM did. But again, from an engineering standpoint, I believe the record shows that the GM Saabs didn’t have as many mechanical issues as pre-GM, at least among those imported to the U.S.

  11. And the Saab stats that you posted have been criticized by the auto industry for years as not being completely factual… That is what has gotten saab into trouble in the past by the auto press, industry analysts, and Saab loyalists. The 9000 was a ground breaking car because it was safer and faster than most European sedans but that is where it ends. The 9000 was grossly overpriced due to the high cost of Swedish manufacturing, labor, and taxes. The 5 series was a major step above the 9000 on many other areas and were built like a brick ##it house and in my IMHO had better road manners and center on steering feel.

    • Seb: I own both a BMW and a Saab (3 series and 9-5). Love them both. You compare the 5 series to the 9000 and what you say about handling is true—-I’m sure the 5 series did handle better (road manners in general and center on steering feel). But ordinarily, that is true of any RWD vs. FWD car in the same category. All things being equal, RWD is going to feel more refined every time. Except in bad weather you see. At that point, in a BMW, “traction control” or not, you’re taking your life into your hands. In poor weather driving conditions, the Saab would probably get you where you’re trying to go. The BMW? Hope you have an auto club membership for a tow. Bring a few extra dollars for coffee while you wait for the roads to be plowed. The Saab? It could pass the snow plow and be home in time for dinner.

    • The 5-series enjoys an abysmal safety rating in Folksam’s report, up until MY96.

      I do not know much about cars from back then, but could you get a cheaper BMW 5-series at the same equipment level as a 9000?

      I am not sure how meaningful your comparison is. You pitch a much safer and well behaved (in snow) car against what is basically a joke on wheels (that might have cost more…?).

      Today we were out driving my wife’s 9-3. I cannot emphasize enough how easy it is to leave beamers in the ‘dust’ (or should I say ‘snow-fog’). I am not a very capable driver, but I drive very capable cars.

      But yeah, at the end of the day, you are right. Saabs did not sell. Safety does not sell — no surprise there. But don’t pretend Saab customers did not get their money’s worth.

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