Robert Collin on GM’s 20 years with Saab

Robert Collin from Aftonbladet has posted a blog article on GM’s 20-year ownership of Saab and it’s a pretty damning post.
Swedes can click through and read it in their native tongue, but we English speakers will have to make do with my dodgy translation and summary.
Some of the facts about Saab’s history from 1989 until now:
* When the Saab 900 began losing sales in the late 1980s, Saab’s owners (the Wallenberg’s Investor corporation) looked for an expansion partner to help Saab develop new vehicles. That partner was GM. Saab had a great reputation at this time with the 900, the introduction of turbocharging and the revolutionary convertible.
* GM were willing investors, but didn’t pay much mind to Saab’s clientele of ‘individuals’. Actually, they didn’t pay much mind at all, preferring to leave the oversight and assistance to their other European brand – Opel.
* In the late 1980s, Opel were working on a new Vectra, the basis for which may have made a good base for a new Saab. Instead, Opel stuck Saab with the outdated Vectra/Ascona platform, which Saab had to make the best they could (a car that Collin said they failed with, though some may disagree. It should be noted that some in comments question this Ascona/NG900 relationship)
* The 900/9-3 failed as a drivers’ car and only got worse when given more power, the Viggen being the final example (a notion that I’d disagree with. The Viggen was a fundamentally flawed, but still magnificent machine)
* The 9-5 saw a Saab adaptation of the new Vectra platform that the 900/9-3 missed out on. Collin considers it to be a compromised vehicle as well, too soft riding (if my translation is correct).
* In contrast to Saab’s heritage of getting the power of a six from a turbocharged four, Saab now got a sub-standard V6 from Opel and a diesel engine from Isuzu.
* Saab got the Epsilon architecture for the 9-3 but it was optimised for an Opel-grade vehicle. The changes Saab needed to make were expensive and Collin considered the styling to be indifferent, which was a big mistake.
* Collin then explores the faiscos that were the 9-2x and 9-7x, which took Saab further away from their core identity through poor model choice and execution.
It’s not only a damning piece about GM’s poor handling of Saab, but it also illustrates the strenuous relationship between Saab and Opel, a relationship that Opel would seemingly like to continue.
Many commentators tend to think that Opel’s only interest in a relationship with Saab would be for the purposes of utilising their excess capacity in Germany and thereby protecting German jobs. The integrity of Saab’s products under this arrangement must surely be in question.
I guess the thing we have to be mindful, and grateful for, is that during these 20 years, Saab were still around. We have a chance to hope for an independent-spirited Saab today because GM kept them around until now. Small comfort, perhaps, but comfort nonetheless.

My apologies to Robert Collin if my translation has resulted in me mis-stating anything of substance here. It’s the best I could do via a web translation, and hopefully I’ve got the core of the article correct.

Student Saab marketing questions – continued

Back in January I published an email from a student in the US asking for some help in understanding the Saab company message and philosophy and how it’s communicated. Kirsten is leading a project on brand marketing and being a Saab driver, had chosen Saab as her group’s subject.
Many of you were able to help out then in comments and I thought maybe you’d like to help out again with these final questions.
I’ve provided some brief answers, below. Please feel free to add your thoughts in comments.
Why does Saab build cars? Their reason for being.
Saab started off as an aircraft manufacturer in 1937 and expanded to cars in 1947 with the goal to build a simple car for the Swedish people. The Swedes have always been a pretty practical bunch and the Saabs built under full Swedish control reflected this. They were safe, pretty efficient, capable of carrying loads much larger than what they looked like they were capable of, fun to drive and affordable.
They’ve become more sophisticated as time has moved on and under General Motors’ ownership, they’re also a lot more generic. They build cars today because that’s what a car company does. They’re a manufacturing resource that needs to be utilised. They have a philosophy of responsible performance, being driver-centered and they’re still a safety leader (though not recognised as such) but in essence, they’re not positioned anywhere near to the independent foundation they were built on.
There is some hope for a more independent future for Saab. That plan is being written as we speak and a lot will hinge on the plans GM submit to the US government tomorrow. The hope is that Saab will receive some support from the Swedish government to continue as a quasi-independent entity, building vehicles that are more closely aligned with the company’s original philosophies. Should that plan fail, they will probably be liquidated and the remnants sold to the highest bidder as part of a GM bankruptcy proceeding.
Since the very beginning, if you could name Saab’s purpose what has that been?
To build a relatively simple, strong and practical car in the Swedish tradition (well designed, user-oriented, safe, and fun-to-drive comes as a bonus).
How do you feel SAAB will inspire the next generation of SAAB owners? Or how do you feel SAAB will be able to connect to the next generation?
By re-connecting with that philosophy. Saab started building cars by using people who had no history with the car industry. They were good designers and manufacturers of machinery (aircraft) but many of them didn’t even drive! They built a car the way they figured a car should be built.
That car evolved into a great handling, practical and economical car that was safer than other offerings, able to handle a variety of driving tasks in all weather conditions and was different to almost anything else out there. Subsequent cars followed in the same tradition.
Being so different is probably more difficult in these modern times due to safety and efficiency standards that all companies have to meet. I do believe, however, that Saab thinking is still good thinking and that Saab designers and engineers are capable of building cars for the future that can inspire and be just as practical, safe and fun as Saabs of the past.

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