Historiography: Born From Jets

Saab Show/Swap Meet 9
All Photos by Randy Stern

When automobile brands disappear, it becomes a challenge to try to maintain their legacy.

This is the new challenge for Scion owners. Though Toyota made a commitment to honor warranties, continue with service and parts support, the owners of these cool cars have the burden of keeping the brand relevant for their enthusiasts and current owners.

This is a challenge that continues for many other orphaned brands. Since 2000, we witnessed Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Mercury, Pontiac, Hummer, Suzuki, Daewoo and Saturn disappear from our showrooms. Their legacies have not been as honorable to support on a larger scale. You could still get service and parts for these brands, but even that is becoming challenging these days.

This is true for Saab. The once unique manufacturer from Trollhattan still invite a hearty group of enthusiasts to keep the flames of the old Swedish car company alive worldwide. In America, this remains true to a core group of loyal owners and enthusiasts. They often meet to discuss the challenges of maintaining their chosen rides. Yet, their uniqueness keeps these loyal folks together to maintain the legacy of a car that was complicated and brilliant at the same time.

For an aircraft producer, car production was not exactly the first idea. In Post-World War II Sweden, it became a necessity. They had to do so by scratch. By 1947, Saab produced an automobile so unique that one wondered whether it would be practical to own or perhaps too stylish for anyone’s tastes.

Some of the principles of these first Saabs were questioned by those who did not understand it. Why front-wheel drive? The answer to that would be exhibited when a snowfall would come across Scandinavia and that aerodynamic looking Saab would be the one pulling through it. What about those two-stroke engines? Those are usually reserved for lawnmowers and motorcycles. Ah, but consider reliability and the lack of materials in the aftermath of World War II.

From these questions came the Saab 92. After working with the Ursaab prototypes, Svenska Aerolplan AB answered the naysayers with this 25-horsepower two-cylinder, two-stroke, front-drive small two-door coupe in 1949. It is an interesting machine, since the thermosiphon engine itself was derived from a DKW design. The driver controlled a unsynchronized three-speed gearbox with a freewheel device installed for some control. Saab employed torsion bars for its suspension.

For 1949, this was considered quite advanced, even with some simple technology. Yet, there were some that were doubtful of its acceptance by the general motoring public. That was proven two weeks after the first Saab 92 vehicles left the factory, when a company engineer took one of the Swedish Rally that year. To everyone's amazement, that car placed second in its class.

Many automobile companies will tell you that motorsports help sales. Volumes were small, at first. It took some updates to turn up the momentum for consumers to grab hold of these teardrop-designed coupes. Updates began to address customer needs, starting with the 1953 92B. The rear window was enlarged and more trunk space was offered. Power went up in 1954 to 28 horsepower, thanks to a better carburetor. There was even a soft roof option available – a novelty for this car. Though one wondered if it foretold a future where the Saab convertible would be a desirable car to own. An electric fuel pump and new taillights were added for 1955.

By the end of 1955, it was time for a new Saab. The format of this new vehicle would continue with a two-stroke engine, front-drive and an unsynchronized gearbox. The biggest change was an addition of a third cylinder to this 750cc motor. The third cylinder gave the newly christened Saab 93 just 33 horsepower. It sported a more conservative coupe design, while emulating the original teardrop body silhouette. The glass was larger overall, as was trunk space over the Saab 92. By 1957, customers can get the 93 with seatbelts. The introduction of the 93 signed the first official exports by Saab to various markets – including the USA.

Not only was the Saab 93 captivating for customers, it became a champion on the rally circuit. The great Erik Carlsson won the 1957 Finland Rally in a 93, followed by a Swedish Rally win 1959. These particular victories launched the legend of Saab and showed that a two-stroke, small engine driving the front wheels can achieve great things in the face of convention.

The year 1959 signaled a small change in the motoring world. The British Motor Corporation launched a small front-drive car sporting optimal space efficiency – the Austin and Morris Mini. The original Mini was seen as a contemporary to the Saab 93, even though the Swede was actually larger than its British rival. Both cars would play a huge role in the gradual switch to front-wheel drive for many vehicles across the planet in this post-World War II era.

Saab Show/Swap Meet 13

The Mini itself was advanced in its own way – four-stroke engines, inline four-cylinder engines, synchronized gearboxes and compact suspensions. However, Saab already had something up its sleeves. The progress made on the 93 lent to the introduction in 1960 of the Saab 96.

Exterior-wise, it was seen as a carryover of the Saab 93. A closer examination showed a larger rear window and greater access to the cargo area. The 96 initially offered the two-stroke, three-cylinder engine, now increased to 841cc in size and 38 horsepower. By 1967, the four-stroke era arrived with the installation of a 1.5 liter V4 engine from Ford of Germany, providing 65 horsepower for future 96s. This car would serve the company well for two decades.

The V4 would also appear in Saab's own sports car – the Sonett. In 1966, the idea of offering a two-seat coupe was considered an interesting experiment for Saab. Initially, the three-cylinder, two-stroke engine was offered in the first Sonett II models. The V4 would be dropped in the Sonett’s engine bay for 1967 – a request from American customers. The coupe soldiered on through a re-body in 1970 for the Sonett III until a lack of sales killed the coupe by 1974.

Saab Show/Swap Meet 5

The mid-to-late 1960s saw a theme across Europe. Taking a cue from America, most European automotive entities were looking to provide modern transportation with a clean design, efficient and solid engines and drivelines and proper space for everyone. The modern era was seen as a huge advance from the dark days of post-World War II rebuilding and reinstitution of the industry. It seemed that everyone introduced a "modern" car – the Peugeot 504, Renault 12, Mercedes-Benz W114, BMW "New Look," NSU Ro80 and the Volvo 140 Series. These are just examples of what will become the trend that will catapult the European auto industry towards a run of success.

Saab also jumped on the modern trend with a conventional looking car that had its share of quirks. The 99 was introduced to the public in 1968 and it ushered in a new era for Saab. The quirks were plenty, with a front-opening, slide-open hood, a 1.7 liter engine tilted at 45 degrees, front wheel drive, ignition key placement on the center console, start-in-reverse, and a flat instrument panel – all of which would dictate Saab design through the 1990s and beyond.

The unique 99 would gain new fans around the world – in particular, North America. The notchback design was simple, even with the quirks in design. A Saab enthusiast would never call them quirks, but rather embraced these unique features as a celebration of Saab's arrival into modern transportation. These 99s were loved by their owners and still remembered by their enthusiasts.

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In the 1970s, two additional pieces completed the 99's puzzle. For one, the Wagon Back arrived. This three-door body style was more than just a mere hatchback. Rather, it offered a huge amount of cargo volume, with both the rear seat down or up. In fact, the Wagon Back extended the 99's body by 11 inches overall.

The second piece would be a lasting one for Saab – the arrival of the turbocharger. By 1978, the standard engine was increased to 2.0 liters in size. Adding a Garrett AiResearch turbocharger increased the power from 116 to 143 horsepower. The 99 Turbo was also capable of a top speed of 124 MPH. The added boost helped Saab's cause as it would take the company further into the 1980s.

Just as the 1980s loomed, an all-new car would be introduced – the 900. It is seen as an upgrade from the 99, rather than just an update. The Wagon Back would provide the focal point for the 900 line, as it would create a signature for Saab in the new decade. A sedan version was added, with a more modern look attributed to the Wagon Back. By 1981, the entire line would come into place, as the Turbo was added to the sedan lineup, as was a Borg-Warner automatic transmission to the boosted engine.

Saab Show/Swap Meet 11

The 900 did carry over plenty of elements from the 99. These include the 45-degree angle engine, the console-mounted ignition key, the reverse-start, the frontal slide-open hood and the flat instrument panel. Customers have plenty of body choices, even though the five-door model would soon give way to the four-door sedan. The three-door Wagon Back would also become the preferred body style for some of Saab's most iconic models – including the SPG. Any 900 model that was made for higher performance would get the Wagon Back three-door body above anything else, making them icons in their own right.

Saab's big opportunity came as it found itself heading upmarket in the 1980s. As the luxury car market began to walk away from the likes of Cadillac and Lincoln, they found instant prestige in anything European – save for Volkswagen and Renault. Saab would soon become a choice for "yuppies" who became successful in the Reagan years. Whether that is a good thing or bad remains to be seen. It did lead to a new kind of Saab – the convertible.

The 900 convertible would be the first open-top model in the company's history, when it was introduced in 1986. These were made off of the two-door sedan model at Saab's Finnish plant, mainly for body rigidity and continuity in design. The early convertibles were proven successful not only in North America, but in key markets worldwide.

Over the years, Saab had collaborations with various automakers for components, such as Ford’s German business unit. A collaboration with Fiat S.p.A. brought a combined platform that would spawn various models for the executive market. The basics of the platform was to be versatile for either a front- or rear-drive format. In Saab's case, they chose front-drive, but with a transverse-mounted engine. Thsi would be a major break from Saab's own conventions.

The car would be called the 9000. It would become Saab's entry into a growing mid-sized luxury market.

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The 9000 advanced a lot of Saab's design tenets. The hood was no longer hinged up front, or slid and folded downward. It was a conventional hood instead. The flat instrument panel would feature a center stack that would cascade down to the center console. It would signal the return of a five-door hatchback to the Saab lineup, even with a wrap-around rear glass design. The body was boxier overall – perhaps some influence by Fiat’s own designers.

Its 1984 debut trumpeted a new era for Saab, as sales grew due to the new model. Early models sported turbocharged engines, since demand were on for more performance combined with a new level of luxury. Saab added a notchback sedan called the CD by 1987. This model would give Saab a flagship model that was priced aspirationally towards BMW and Mercedes-Benz, even though customers of those brands would snub the Saab for being…well…quirky for their tastes.

There were a lot of advances the 9000 presented for Saab and other manufacturers. While some played with trip computers, Saab's Information Display would be the forerunner of the multi-information screens seen on today's automobiles. Direct Ignition was introduced on the 9000, seen as a more efficient way to distribute spark in return for a more competent ignition system overall.

The success of Saab caught the attention of another automotive collaborator – General Motors. I say "collaborator" considering that the tie-up was originally intended for technology exchange. Instead, GM bought 50 percent of Saab in 1989. That would become full ownership by 2000.

I could discuss the products that resulted from the arrival of GM in Trollhattan. However, one would consider the era from 1989 to 2010 to be a way for GM to exploit a creative car company that bucked trends and crafted a solid history for itself. A legacy of being unique and playing with engineering some people would eventually adopt – or not – for their own products.

2011 Saab 9-4x 2

This is nothing against GM, though some Saab enthusiasts would say otherwise. It was not because of the products built on GM platforms, using GM engines, components and technology. It is because how it all came to an end.

The global financial crisis of 2008 challenged the entire automotive industry. The American economy tanked in the face of bad banking and bad deals. We all suffered. So did GM.

To save the company, GM had to take Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds for it to survive. It also went into Bankruptcy for further survival protection. The court administering the Bankruptcy asked GM to decide on which assets would survive into a "new" company and which ones would be cast aside in an "old" company. GM decided to keep Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac, GMC, Opel, Vauxhall and Holden. In the end they cast aside newer assets, such as Hummer, Saturn, along with Pontiac – an asset that had been with GM for decades. Eventually, Saab would be added to the "old" company – an asset to be cast aside.

One would think Saab would be an easy sale. One thought that a European car company could buy Saab and integrate it with their business. The truth was that the major European automakers were also suffering under the same global economic crisis. This would also affect the Japanese and South Korean automotive industry, so neither of them would be in the market for Saab.

In truth, a Chinese, Indian or Russian company could buy into Saab. That was almost the case. In fact, a Chinese company did buy some assets off Saab and another is in cooperation with National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS), the eventual owner of Saab.

However, GM ended up selling Saab to a small Dutch automotive firm, Spyker N.V. No one would argue the intentions of Victor Muller and his boutique automaker in keeping Saab in business, along with its Trollhattan plant complex. However, being a small boutique automaker that sold highly expensive machinery really did not have the money to keep up production for a hungry enthusiast and ownership base.

2011 Saab 9-5 2

They did bring out the New Generation 9-5. Granted, most of the engineering was done by GM, it was a fine automobile. This would become the only Saab I would ever drive. It remains so.

After a short run of the 9-4x crossover, it was over. This lead to further receiverships, court dates, wasted bids and the transfer to NEVS as part of the carved ham that was Saab.

Why should we care about Saab? Because they bucked convention. When Saab flirted with convention, they remained different than everyone else. It is why their enthusiasts are loyal to the automobiles once produced by the Swedish aerospace concern and its subsequent caretakers.

Because of Saab's indifference to convention, I was truly attracted to their cars. For a short period in the 1980s, I spied this gray 1981 900 Turbo four-door sedan with red cloth interior and automatic transmission. I knew I could not afford it – even with a price that was probably 65 percent of what it sold for new. I never asked why it was discounted or what gremlins would await if I actually bought it. It sat in a small used car lot in Reseda, California waiting for someone who can care of the car to buy it.

A family member on my father's side bought a 900 early in the 1980s. So did the daughter of my mother's best friend. The influence of Saab and my interest in it certainly knocked on my doorstep. I am still intrigued by them, even at this stage in my life. It is one of the vehicles from my past that I still get excited seeing on the road. And, I am not the only one, since I attend some of the functions of the two Saab clubs based here in the Twin Cities.

I wouldn’t mind a turn in a pre-GM Saab. Such a drive would remind me why we miss such automobiles on our landscape. Most of the vehicles today have become so conventional – devoid of uniqueness in engineering and execution. In Saab’s case, everything about the 99 and 900 were simply apart from the crowd. Where do you put the key to turn the ignition? Do I have to put it in reverse when I start it? Why does the hood slide frontward and turn up?

It is all about the wonder of an automobile made so differently that is still sparks imaginations amongst the faithful. Yours truly, included.

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