Beverly Hills Lingual Institute
Beverly Hills Lingual Institute
Beverly Hills Lingual Institute
Beverly Hills Lingual Institute

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Time for a Saab Story

From its earliest days, Swedish Saab has been associated - rightly or wrongly - with oddballs, freethinkers, tweedy pipe-smoking educators, and radical liberals who wear chambray, corduroy, and sensible shoes and are friends of trees, whales, and workers everywhere.

You'll have heard a "Saab story" or two.

Perhaps you've owned a Saab. The stereotype would suggest that you're an architect with a black polo neck and thin-rimmed glasses. The research would indicate that you were among the most educated group of drivers on the road - 85% likely to have graduated college, according to a 1998 New York Times report, and 50% likely to have a post-graduate degree. These numbers are the highest of any contemporary automotive brand in the U.S. market.

Designer Aamer Mahmud with 2003 Saab 9-3

"You could have a dinner party for Saab drivers, and it would be brilliant," BBC Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson once wrote.

"They'd be opinionated, interesting, and well-read."

If in the past you drove and loved a Saab, you might be a freethinker, a pipe-smoking educator, a corduroy-wearing liberal and friend to trees, whales and workers everywhere - or simply a car enthusiast with a penchant for left-field speed.

Saab 9-5 with vintage Saab

The ability to please two entirely different archetypes - Greenpeace dogmatists and rallying devotees - gave the marque a magic that few have shared.

Design head Michael Mauer once defined it as a strong heritage of "solving the contradiction between the pure joy of motoring and practicality."

UrSaab (1947)

Emerging after World War II, in 1947, Saab's first car gave little indication of the curiously compelling duality. The UrSaab had unusually superlative aerodynamics which reflected its maker's fighter-plane beginnings. Its teardrop shape and enclosed front wheels were and are quite unique.

But it spawned a series of cars that were an acquired taste. Through the '50s and '60s, Saabs exhibited intelligent design in some respects - seat belts (1962) among them - but suffered quaint flaws that most were not willing to overlook - including a smoky two-stroke engine.

Vintage Saabs

Saabs had caught the fancy of an esoteric European racer or two, thanks to Nordic ruggedness and the company's early adoption of front-wheel drive, which ensured good grip in rallying and ice racing. But Saab enthusiasts weren't necessarily car enthusiasts.

Saab was a cottage industry whose products had little mainstream appeal.

That began to change when German Ford and British Triumph lent the company more modern engines.

Then, in 1978, the Swedes leapfrogged everyone. When Saab added a turbocharger to a two-liter version of Triumph's powerplant, it created a barnstormer.

Saab 99 Turbo

Others had used the technology before, but Saab was first to offer a turbo in a practical, mainstream car.

So fast and iconoclastically appealing was the 99 Turbo that no one minded the console-mounted ignition and the fact that the car needed to be locked in reverse gear before the key could be pulled out.

Saab's idiosyncrasies became distinctive assets which confounded novices and charmed the faithful.

The 99 Turbo's competence and left-field nature brought Saab, as BBC Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson put it, "the attention of a very specific type of customer; a customer who's remained loyal ever since."

That customer liked the Saab's fifth-door practicality, its wraparound windshield, and its rear-hinged and sliding hood. They thought turbocharging an intelligent solution to the problem of producing more power while retaining good fuel economy. They found Saab's traditional green instrument illumination easier to read at night. They appreciated headlamp washers, side-impact door beams, seats whose forms had been approved by doctors in the hope of preventing whiplash injury, and cabin air filters (all these were Saab firsts). They liked heated seats, a Saab first (1972). They warmed to their cars' logical, Swedish ergonomics, which included a console-mounted ignition that made starting the engine, releasing the handbrake and selecting a gear one single motion; and purportedly prevented keys from being embedded in the driver's knee in extreme crashes.

Not that Saab was entirely averse to fashion. If the 99 Turbo of 1978 had made Saab grudgingly fashionable, the cabriolet version of its 900 successor became an '80s icon - positively the car to be seen in.

Saab 900 convertible

That Saab had considered a cabriolet at all was a surprise. Open-topped cars can be dangerous in accidents (particularly roll overs) - and Saab's engineers were pathological about safety.

BBC Top Gear once quoted the design head of crosstown competitor Volvo - presumably Peter Horbury - as saying that nobody could ever work out why a Saab cost so much, until they crashed it. The show famously dropped an '80s BMW 3 series and the contemporary Saab 900 upside down to show how strong the Saab was. Its roof hardly caved, and its doors could be opened.

Saab/ Scania

Saab ads touted a "beautiful" collection of "thick steel beams, pillars, cross members, floor plates, side panels, and so forth." Legend has it that the Saab was so well-built that it met rallying standards even without a roll cage.

When Saab in the '80s partnered with Fiat to develop a new large car - the Saab 9000 - alongside the Alfa Romeo 164, Fiat Croma and Lancia Thema, its engineers, horrified by crash-test results which their Italian counterparts considered acceptable, reworked half their car and ordered up thicker steel with which to build it.

"Sticking to principles like that is expensive," recalls James May for BBC Top Gear, adding that Saab was "losing money hand over fist on every car it made."

The Swedes were led into the arms of General Motors in 1989. They were fed Opel/ Vauxhall platforms to replace the 900 and 9000.

Saab logo

Again, Saab was fiercely independent in its approach. The new 900, in particular, shared only a third of its components with the Opel/ Vauxhall Cavalier which theoretically underpinned it.

Even Saab enthusiasts could hardly appreciate all the little ways in which the new 900/ 9-3 and 9-5 were different from the cars on which they were purportedly based. Some of these could seem frivolous, such as when Saab engineered its own navigation system though there wasn't much wrong with GM's.

Saab (2008)
Saab 9-4X

In the Millennium, GM attempted to force compromise from Saab with Subaru, Cadillac, and even Chevrolet TrailBlazer hardware. Though the 9-2X, 9-7X, and 9-4X were not bad cars, and though Saab even managed to throw in a few dollops of character, they were perceived as having been watered down, while not winning over enough people from outside the circle of Saab traditionalists.

Saab 9-7X with vintage Saab

The "Born from Jets" marketing seemed more out of touch than ever, although the Aero X concept of 2006 briefly lent credence to it.

2006 Saab Aero X Concept
2006 Saab Aero X Concept

Designer Anthony Lo talked of having been inspired by the brand, citing it as "rich with elements that a designer can grab-on to.

"The aircraft heritage is pretty unique to Saab. Jets are so different looking than cars... (yet) this could just as easily have been a fighter jet as a car!"

But with Saab selling just 133,000 cars in 2006, the Aero X would remain a dream. GM itself was teetering on the brink. In 2010, it sold Saab to a Dutch sports-car company.

Spyker managed to get the second-generation Saab 9-5 into production. It had the makings of a good car, a credible alternative to the usual suspects in the executive class.

2010 Saab 9-5

But, ultimately, Saab filed for bankruptcy shortly thereafter.

Jeremy Clarkson drove many a Saab while presenting on BBC Top Gear. He was never entirely convinced of the merits of a console-mounted ignition switch, nor of the "Night Panel" feature which switched all but the main instruments off to relax the driver's eyes. To him, as he wrote in 1999, it was "Not better, just Saaby."

In the end, "Saaby" was not what the majority was looking for, in a class where Mercedes tends to be defined as an "investment;" BMW, as "sporty;" Lexus, as "refined," and Volvo, as "safe."

But Clarkson and fellow presenter James May put together among the most poignant odes to a brand when Saab folded. "I like the way they did things," Clarkson said, simply.

The brand remains fondly remembered, and the fervor with which Saab enthusiasts speak of their cars can surprise.

It even used to amaze Saab executives.

In the late '70s, Bob Sinclair switched from Volvo to head Saab Scania of America. He was no stranger to cultism. His taste for Norton motorcycles persisted in the face of all Japanese superbike superiority. But the Saab faithful, in his estimation, beat all. "We get stacks of mail, and they all say pretty much the same thing," he told Motor Trend.

"That there's absolutely no other car in the world they can live with."
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