Brethren, we are once again gathered together to mourn the passing of another automobile company. Saab was of that rare breed of car that always had a band of devoted, aye, fanatical followers. In her prime, Saab could not fail to ignite the after-burners of anyone with a predilection to genuine character, speed, innovation, intelligence, and even sexy good looks (at times). Not bad for a company that never once designed a clean-sheet new engine and borrowed more platforms than Heidi Klum. But when you’re small and from Sweden, resourcefulness is essential: Saab finagled an existence in this brutal industry far longer than might have been expected. But now she joins an august group of other fallen automotive heroes in Valhalla: Borgward, Panhard, Tatra, Kaiser, Glas, TVR, Jowett, etc…better that then whoring herself to another rich benefactor. But Saab’s story is worth retelling.
Forget the “Born From Jets” tag line; it was propellers anyway. And in actuality, Saab was born out of necessity, as so much else at the end of the war. We built the factory, now what do we do? Do what everyone else was doing: build a car. And how? Easier said than done. Contrary to endless attempts to prove otherwise, there’s hardly anything in common between the two. So where to start?
How about with this? Saab wouldn’t be the only ones looking to DKW for inspiration. And what a brilliant car DKW’s F9 prototype was, especially in 1939. A highly aerodynamic body and a two stroke engine driving the front wheels. The car of the postwar future. What’s not to like?
Initially, the sixteen Saab aviation engineers (of which only two had a driver’s license) assigned to the task came up with something a bit more radical and avaition-like, as in all the openings in the car being stressed members, like airplane hatches. Not practical. So they scoured junkyards, and bought some new cars, including a DKW. The more functional end result, the 92001, or Ursaab, certainly pays homage to the F9 as well as their relentless pursuit of an even lower coefficient of drag.
The prototype was powered by an actual DKW engine and transmission, a two-stroke twin producing 18 hp. With an (ac)claimed Cd of 0.30, the 92001 undoubtedly made the most of that modest power. Or at least looked like it. And rarely has an automobile company (save VW) had a more iconic birth-mobile.
And like the VW, it was hardly original. But what car is? Originality is largely overvalued anyway. As with any birth, what counts is the harmonious convergence of genes. And although the Ursaab was more fetus than progeny, it embodied the qualities that would hence define (real) Saabs: feminine, creative, intelligent, feline, eccentric, distinctive, progressive.
No wonder Saabs came to be embraced by those attracted to its inherent qualities, to the extent of being stereotyped as a college professor’s car. As limited as any such generalization ever is, that expression did mean something more once than today. Or did it? Is the Prius a college professor’s car?
Maybe it’s easier to define Saab’s intrinsic personality by contrasting it to that other Swedish car company, Volvo. The two are almost perfect complements. Volvo dates back to 1927, and its cars have traditionally been, well, traditional. Firmly embraced by the more conservative set, there is a saying that captures its place in the Swedish mindset perfectly: Volvo, villa, vovve (Volvo, house, dog). No wonder Volvo came to be famous for their wagons, like the legendary Duett.
Volvo’s all-new car for the post war era, the PV444, may have adopted a bit of hump-backed aero-pretense, but it was fundamentally a brick compared to the Saab. And built like one too: tough, masculine, conventional in configuration and execution. A solid and reliable burgher.
Of course, it was a bit different in the States, where Volvo was one of dozens of import brands, and also came to be associated with college professors as well as engineers and parents with kids in Waldorf schools. But that’s all relative; and even in the US, Saabs were always one or two steps to the quirky side of Volvo. And which company is still around, even if owned by the Chinese?
After a few years of refinement and the deft hand of the gifted industrial designer Sixten Sason, the Saab 92 entered production in 1949. The DKW engine gave way to Saab’s own interpretation of it: 746 cc, 25 hp, thermo-syphon cooling, and a three-speed transmission with column shift. Top speed: 64 mph (105 kmh). Time to get there: indeterminate.
The nattering two-stroke spewed a plume of blue smoke on acceleration, and blubbered on over-run. A bit ironic then, that the stinky,smoky Saabs were so favored by the progressive set. But the idea of two stroke was enthralling to certain minds. Only seven moving engine parts! Just the thing to brag about over chianti while listening to a jazz combo. Smugness is born from (ram)jets: No moving parts at all!
But two-strokes are very receptive to tuning. By 1952, a Saab 92 (now with 35 hp) brought home the first of many victories at Monte Carlo, copping the Coupe des Dames there, with Greta Molander at the wheel. A delicate foreshadowing of greater things to come.
The skirts were really lifted for the Sonett I, Saabs first tentative foray into genuine sports cars. Developed in a barn by a few enthusiasts, the Sonett had a 57.5 hp version of Saab’s new three-cylinder two-stroke. Weighing some 1300 lbs, this was a brisk little barchetta good for 100 mph, nothing to sneeze at in 1955. Racing would have been its purpose in life, had the rules not suddenly changed. Although only a handful were built, it was not forgotten. How could it be?
The Saab was thoroughly re-engineered for 1955, now called 93. The new three-cylinder yielded 33 hp, still feeding through a three-speed, with over-run. The first Saab to be exported, it arrived in the US just as the great fifties import boom was really getting under way. Yes, these are what I used to see as a kid blowing smoke around the University of Iowa campus, confirming their stereotype.
And one of the kids in my grade school class rode in one of these. His Mom was at least as good looking as this one. Although the Type 95 had a perfectly functional rear-facing third seat despite its compact dimensions, I preferred to sit in the second seat, directly behind her. The back of her neck smelled much better than the exhaust sucked in from the open rear window.
The definitive first-generation Saab was the 96, built for some twenty years, until 1980. A more in-depth write-up can be found here, but let’s just say Saab was doing a VW during all those years, with the biggest change coming in 1967, when impending emission regs killed the two-stroke once and for all. Ironic too, that an American-designed engine would be the only thing to fit under the hood in front of the axle line.
The little 60 degree V4 was originally intended for Ford’s VW fighter in the late fifties, the aborted Cardinal. The car and engine were shipped off to Cologne, Germany, where the V4 and its six cylinder offshoot powered millions of Euro-Fords, before finding its way back home into millions of Explorers and such. And of course Saab 96s, where it was embraced with welcome engine mounts. A number of other engines had been tried, but the Ford was right-sized and right-priced. Just not right-sounding, as it’s nigh-near impossible to make a V4 sound like its not missing a cylinder or two. But for the 96, it just was just another continuation of its eccentricities: from engine blubbering to engine stuttering.
Saab carved out an impressive corner in the world of racing by sticking mostly to rallying, if not all four wheels. The high-performance GT 850 Monte Carlo two-stroke, and the later V4s racked up repeat wins at Monte Carlo and elsewhere, especially in the hands of the legendary Erik Carlsson.
The Sonett re-emerged in 1966, this time as a coupe and production-ready, with the US as the prime intended market. Making room for the V4 only challenged its intrinsically compromised lines further. It was one of the most eccentric sports cars ever, at least from a mass-producer of automobiles. There were plenty of British limited-production plastic-bodied weirdos then, but who ever actually saw a Fairthorpe or Berkeley Sport? Sonetts, yes. Better to be inside it than the other way around.
The attempt to smooth out its bulbous nose on the Sonett III was somewhat successful. But with arrivals like the cheaper and infinitely more powerful and handsome Datsun 240Z, the Sonett’s few buyers were serious Saabistas, especially since it had all of 65 hp. A Karman Ghia without the Italian styling. But this was no damensportwagen; it was a gnarly little troll, and its buyers were certainly not needing for public expressions of their virility.
By the mid sixties, Saab was now twenty years old, and ready to make its mark in the automotive world. It was an ambitious act, and the most defining one. As well as the last truly all-new all-Saab. The 99 arrived in 1967, ready to take up battle with the likes of the small BMW, Alfa Romeo Giulia, and of course Volvo’s also-new 140 Series.
Despite reflecting a more rectilinear world-view of the times, the 99 still cut through the air with a very respectable Cd of 0.37. It was roomy, handled well, had fine brakes, was comfortable, offered excellent traction, and was powered by…well, nobody’s perfect (except BMW, of course).
The engineering firm Ricardo had assisted Saab in developing its own four stroke engine, but it was going to be too expensive to finalize and put into production. So Ricardo put Saab in touch with another client, Triumph, that was just about to put its own new SOHC “Slant Four” engine in production. Saab once again did the (seemingly) expedient thing, and had engines shipped from England. It won’t come as a surprise to hear that this didn’t work out so well. By 1972, Saab started building its own improved version of the engine, now known as the B engine.
As is fairly obvious, Saab 99 and 900 engines were mounted “backwards”, with the output and clutch at the front, then feeding power to the transaxle mounted underneath the engine, although with its own oil supply. Mustn’t be too conventional.
In 1974, Saab added a sloping rear hatchback to both its two and four door 99s, creating the combi coupé, or Wagon Back, in Americanese. This became a defining aspect to most Saabs hence, or it least it seems that way. And it was remarkably roomy back there, thanks to the low floor height. It was the closest Saab got to building an actual wagon in a long time. Meanwhile,Volvo was churning out wagons by the boatload.
During the seventies, when American cars lost their mojo, Saab’s was very well intact, and growing. The 99 started out reasonably powered by European standards of the time, but that was just a starting point. Increases in displacement, fuel injection, and the sporty EMS model countered the trend convincingly. But the real kicker was the 99 Turbo, which blew a fresh and stiff new breeze upon the automotive landscape. And made indelible impressions on those who ever got behind its wheel.
At a time when Detroit V8s were making as little as 110 hp, the two-liter turbo four packed all of 145 hp. Sounds ridiculous now, but in 1978, it was a revelation. Especially compared to the BMW 320i, which had all of 105 hp. It’s all relative, and the Saab Turbo helped spark the whole turbo revolution. Soon Dodge Caravans would be proudly sporting turbo badges. The Saab 99 Turbo was a prophet of the eighties, as malaise gave way to yuppiedom.
The short-nosed Turbo 99 had a brief life, and is hard to find in the wild anymore. Replaced in 1979 by the 900 series, which featured a longer sloping hood to help meet US front impact standards. The (original) 900 probably defines the “Classic” Saab better than any other. Certainly more so than the Vectra-based neo-900.
Convertibles, and higher performance models, along with an ever-greater refinement in technology, 16 valve heads, electronic engine controls, and minor body tweaks kept the 900 going all the way to 1993. A remarkable 25 year run for the definitive Saab.
Well before the 900’s protracted demise, Saab knew it had to be replaced. But the complexities and costs of developing a brand new car was too much, so Saab joined hands with Fiat on the Type Four platform, that would constitute the Saab 9000 of 1984, as well as the very similar Fiat Croma, Lancia Thema, and the better disguised Alfa 164. A competent and roomy car, it was a bit more challenged in taking on the deeply entrenched and successful mid-sized premium cars like the Mercedes E-Series and BMW 5-Series. Buyers in this class were not so readily moved by the inherent advantages of fwd and a hatchback. A sedan version soon followed, but obviously the fwd was here to stay.
The usual progression of styling tweaks and performance updates tried to keep the 9000 relevant and attractive. The reality was that the 9000 was not a hit, and Saab was in a pickle. The 900 was aging quickly, and the 9000 was not producing the profits necessary to even contemplate successor cars for either of them. Saab’s ambitious push into the premium sector was stalled, and the nose was pointing earthward, precariously so. Time to bail out, or be bailed out. Where are the parachutes?
That GM would be the one to buy Saab was not a good omen. It was obviously a case of Jaguar envy, after Ford snapped up that equally desperate automaker. Undoubtedly, GM would have preferred BMW, but it kept saying nein danke! Everyone was getting into the Euro premium car game, and never being one to be left out, GM bit where it could. Who would have thought?
Thinking didn’t appear to be the primary factor; more like fear of getting left behind. That’s one of the most powerful decision drivers ever, usually for the worse. And how exactly was GM going to successfully manage another weak brand? At the end of the worst decade of its existence, when its own market share was imploding? In the usual way, by platform sharing.
Ok, but execution is the key, and Saab’s (unfortunately named) neo 900, riding on an Opel Vectra platform, was quickly seen for what it was: the future of Saab, for better and for worse. Saab now had access to capital, technology, and GM’s euro-V6 engine, but quality and genuine Saab-ness were sorely missing.
After five years of GM’s involvement and sanitizing, Saab finally showed an operating profit for 1995. It was not to be a regularly recurring feature. Not that it kept GM from buying the rest of the company in 2000; they were too committed by then not to. Welcome to the growing GM orphanage!
GM’s versatile 2900 platform was duly enlarged a bit to accommodate the long-overdue 9000 replacement, the awkwardly named 9-5. Like the 900, soon to be called 9-3, these cars had their virtues and vices, lovers and haters. You can duke that out yourselves, but what can’t be argued is that they failed to save the brand, in more ways than one. GM had the answer to that problem too: brand extension, the formula that also worked so well at Saturn.
Have we almost forgotten (or repressed) the Saaburu? Graft a Saab nose on the Subaru WRX, and it’s…just about the best Saab made in ages! Here was the true successor to the spirit of the real old Saab. Too bad Subaru had co-opted that decades earlier. Subaru probably mopped up more ex-Saab and Volvo drivers than any other brand.
And as appealing as the 9-2x might have been with GM’s crazy discount prices at the time, the ruse was seen for what it was: another pathetic joke in GM badge-engineering’s comedy club. Also known as the Improv.
That was just the warm-up act. The headliner was the 9-7. An Saab born from truck frames and V8s. Probably the best SUV of its kind GM ever built; what more can be said? Poor Saab, now a sex change operation in its old age. What next?
Nothing. Our Eulogy ends here, because if the true Saab was still alive to some extent then, the 9-7 was the final straw. Everything that happened since are the twitches and jerks of a zombie. And we’ve been well inundated with the antics surrounding it.
Many may well have enjoyed a genuinely positive experience with their 9-5s and 9-3s and such, but the level of Saab fanaticism in these recent months is remarkable. It seems to be a reflection of the times: I’m entitled to have Saab, because I’ve pinned my self-identification to it. I’m owed Saab.
I’d have been much happier to see Saab go to its inevitable grave twenty years ago, without the GM years and recent histrionics. Death is never a pretty thing, car companies included. We might have spent the past twenty years arm-chairing endless “what -ifs” and “could-have” scenarios. But its hard to imagine anyone coming up with a more bizarre outcome.
So will we spend the next twenty years debating alternative outcomes? Not me. Saab was an iffy proposition from the get-go, and there’s really no room left in the market for what Saab once embodied. Others have long plucked its remaining useful attributes and made them their own.
If there really was to be a true Saab born from airplanes today, it might look something more like this. And we all know how that turned out. Everything has a season, and Saab’s is well over.
Thanks to Ingvar Hallstrom for the insights
Paul Niedermeyer is the Editor of Curbside Classic, where every car has a story