For the first post of the new year, why not begin with an ending? Kim Jon Il was not the only newsworthy death to occur in the last couple of weeks of 2011, because the automotive world lost one of its most enigmatic names: Saab.
In reality, the death of Saab wasn’t really news: Sweden’s other volume carmaker had always had a troubled existence. It started out as the automotive division of an established aircraft manufacturer, designing small cars powered by two stroke engines (the type found in dirt bikes). These early cars, including the 92 and Sonnett series, were beautifully designed, but not very practical. Kurt Vonnegut opened a Saab dealer on Cape Cod and later wrote angrily about the company’s products.
Saab finally achieved success in the 1980s with the 900. This was a small, pseudo-luxury hatchback with front wheel drive and a turbocharged engine. Everything about it, from the styling, to the turbo, to the floor-mounted ignition, was quirky. As with its earlier cars, Saab let engineering take precedence over convention, but this time it actually worked.
Sadly, it would not last. Saab was bought by General Motors in 1989, and GM decided that Saab should not design its own cars. From the Opel Vectra-based second-gen 900 to the 9-7x SUV, every Saab since the GM takeover has been a rebadged version of someone else’s car. In 2009, GM unloaded Saab onto Dutch boutique carmaker Spyker and the company struggled through various financial crises until it went bankrupt in December.
Reading it all back, it doesn’t seem like Saab was a very good car company. It was badly managed and made few genuinely good cars. Saab’s last two cars were a large sedan, the 9-5, and a rebadged Cadillac SRX, the 9-4; the world isn’t being deprived of anything amazing. Yet car fanatics everywhere, myself included, had to stand up and take notice when Saab went bankrupt.
Why? Everybody loves a good story. Saab was an underdog, an independent car company breaking away from the corporate establishment. It tried to be different and, at the very least, kept people entertained with the possibility of quirky Swedish cars that did away with convention.
That promise didn’t always come to fruition, but it was fun to dream. By objective standards, Saab probably deserved to die. But the automotive landscape will be a lot less interesting without it.