For decades, Swedish company SAAB has been known as a quality-oriented brand with unique design, avant-garde technology and a strong rally heritage. Its conservative appeal found great success among intellectuals, the middle class, architects and engineers who formed a kind of cult following around the brand. When the company closed its doors in 2013 however, the news left the automotive world unsurprised. The demise of Sweden’s most loved niche brand was sadly expected and was a result of decades of making the wrong moves. What really happened to SAAB?
The glory days of SAAB
The period between the sixties and the early eighties was the golden era for SAAB. During these decades, the company unveiled many unique looking models and concentrated on technological development, safety and comfort. The production volumes could easily match the modest demand, so the costs of developing new cars were not an issue. In the seventies, SAAB introduced the revolutionary 99 Turbo, a pioneer among turbocharged cars and a go-fast toy for turtleneck wearing customers who wanted a sporty drive.
When the eighties came around, production volumes of the competition started to increase and SAAB couldn’t keep up. A solution was seen in partnership with FIAT so the 1984 SAAB 9000 was based on the Fiat Croma/Lancia Thema with SAAB’s final touches. SAAB and Lancia didn’t share the same standards, meaning that crash test results were completely different based on who you asked. While the Lancia Thema supposedly had excellent results, Swedish engineers thought that the 9000 was not good enough. Safety was always one of the main aspects of SAAB’s image so this joint venture was untenable. This meant SAAB was forced to explore other partnership options.
General Motors Acquisition
In 1989 the company was partly acquired by General Motors, an industry giant which helped it grow and gain financial stability. But this period wasn’t fruitful either for the company. The newly developed 1994 SAAB 900 was largely based on the Opel Vectra, so die hard SAAB fans and core buyers weren’t impressed with it.
Besides that, the quality wasn’t up to SAAB’s high standards, which was another major setback. The company did finally manage to become profitable though, although it was never extremely lucrative. During General Motors ownership, SAAB had its ups and downs but its relationship with GM was mostly difficult. In 2000, General Motors fully acquired SAAB but that ultimately wasn’t enough to save the brand.
General Motors Mismanagement
The GM strategy was largely based on cost cutting based on part sharing but SAAB begged to differ, spending absurd amounts of money on developing complicated new technologies. For example, the Opel-based SAAB 900 shared one third of parts with the Vectra because SAAB engineers thought that the base wasn’t up to their standards. A move like this drastically increased the costs of development and production, thus cutting much needed profits for GM.
SAAB did the same with the 9-3, a car that was supposed to be a badge-engineered Vectra. Everything down to the Sat Nav was redeveloped away from the GM parts bin which lost SAAB loads of money and ultimately failed to attract hordes of customers to the showrooms.
For decades, SAAB was a company with possibly the worst position in the market. It was too big to be called a boutique brand, yet not large enough to be an industry leader. As such, it was very hard to develop new models on par with the fast changing car industry which resulted in many missed opportunities. SAAB’s unique notchback shape had to be dropped at one point, the return of the coupés trend was missed too.
On top of that, the GM-era SAAB saw some completely unnecessary cars like the Chevy Traiblazer-based 9-7X, or the 9-2X, basically a badge-engineered Impreza. Cars like these two were a result of sloppy market research as they were nowhere near anything a prospective SAAB owner would want in their driveway.
General Motors Restructuring and lack of demand
The 2008 economic recession was another big hit for SAAB which was already on a losing streak, struggling to make profits, attract new customers and reestablish trust with the parent company. During that period, GM killed off numerous brands, and SAAB was put up for sale.
At first, numerous worldwide companies were interested in acquiring the Swedish brand, but in the end, none were able to reach an agreement. BMW, Renault and Tata Motors were among the interested companies which could’ve revived SAAB without it losing appeal, but as none of them worked out, the brand faced another tough period.
Financial problems under new owners
SAAB was finally bailed out in 2010 by Dutch car manufacturer Spyker. The boutique supercar maker had the impossible task of reviving SAAB via their 9-5 executive sedan. This car was developed under GM and based on the Opel Insignia, but as expected, it was re-engineered by SAAB and never fully finished. As expected, a company with limited resources couldn’t market the car adequately, and SAAB was once again dead in 2011.
China and SAAB/NEVS
The final chapter in SAAB’s downfall was its acquisition by National Electric Vehicle Sweden. Despite its name, it was actually a Chinese consortium which planned to build electric cars based on SAAB’s design, technology and brand. The plan faced opposition from both GM, SAAB AB and Scania AB which refused to license the technology, the use of the SAAB trademark and the iconic Griffin logo. Finally, an agreement was made and SAAB continued production in 2013. The cars weren’t electric though – it was a petrol powered 9-3.
Sadly, NEVS struggled with debts and filed for bankruptcy in 2014. Although NEVS got out of financial problems, SAAB didn’t. On June 21st 2016, NEVS announced that they will not be using the SAAB trademark on their cars, which meant that SAAB was sadly no more. After decades of glory, the turbulent market finally swallowed the company which begged to differ, sometimes at a cost too high.