CAR interviews Christian von Koenigsegg on his potential takeover of Saab (2009)

Published: 27 October 2009

We meet Christian von Koenigsegg in Ängelholm in the old flying squadron offices of Koenigsegg Automotive's offices. A new supercar rolls out of the old Jas hangar every fortnight on average, each built by hand. The rolls of carbonfibre lying around serve as a reminder that life is about to become very different. Koenigsegg is leading the masterplan to buy Saab from GM, a deal which is dragging on as funding and legal loops are jumped through. A perfect time then, for CAR to interview Christian von Koenigsegg on his plans. He talks candidly about future product, the chances of reviving the Sonnet sports car brand, launching a sub-9-3 Mini rival and returning to rallying.

CAR: How did you get the idea to buy Saab from GM?

Christian von Koenigsegg: ‘It’s perhaps a slightly different picture than what the media has portrayed so far. The idea came early last spring. It was not my idea. It was Mark Bishop’s, he has family connections to Trollhättan [he’s an American investor who held a 22% stake in Koenigsegg until he sold in August 2009]. He thought it was a pity that Saab was about to go to the wall, so he visited Detroit. The process started with the bidding and Bishop asked if I would help, so I said: “Well, I’ll see what I can do.” It started off all a bit haphazard and Mark Bishop soon quit the bidding process because of personal reasons. But it was really all his idea.’

So what exactly are your ambitions for Saab?

‘I want to create a viable Swedish car company. Most commentators in the media say that there is little chance, because Saab has never made money. It is a fairly simple analysis. If you based all business decisions on what has happened before and expected that it would be exactly the same in the future, then there would be no way to change anything. Ever. We see it in a slightly different way.’

Will you still build Saabs in Sweden?

‘The cost base is about 30% lower in Sweden than in Germany, and Saab’s production facility is the best in Europe. GM has spent more than $2 billion improving the plant since 2002. It is state-of-the-art and we said it was a basic condition of the sale that is should be included for us to be interested.’

 >> Click 'Next' to read more of CAR's interview with Christian von Koenigsegg

Tell us a bit about Koenigsegg’s consortium to buy Saab. Who is Augie K Fabel?

‘A very nice American entrepreneur. He has a black CCXR and is a bit of a Koenigsegg ambassador for us in the United States. We asked if he wanted to be involved in our Saab bid and he thought it was exciting. In 1992 he started with 12 employees in Russia and set up a mobile phone business. Now he has 55,000 employees and a market value of $10 billion. His company was the first Russian company registered in the New York Stock Exchange.’

And who is Bard Eker?

‘A positive, enthusiastic and highly creative Norwegian entrepreneur. He loves a good challenge.’

And how are your relations with existing Saab CEO Jan-Ake Jonsson?

‘He is a rock that manages to stand up no matter how strong the wind is blowing. He stands up for Saab’s tradition and creates a good balance in our future management plans. Over the summer we had about 40 consultants who looked at Saab: how its production works, its product development processes, the cost base, the small print of the contracts with GM. It is incredibly complex. It has taken a long time and cost a lot of money.’

Christian van Koenigsegg pours some coffee as his wife Halldóra comes in to the room. The Koenigsegg HQ feels small and cosy: just a few offices, a canteen, and a handful of young guys who sit and work on Koenigsegg projects on their computers. In total there are just 45 staff. Koenigsegg’s own office is tucked in a small room with an open door.

Will you merge the Saab and Koenigsegg businesses operationally?

‘No. We are entrepreneurs and will do our thing. Jan-Ake Jonsson will remain as president of Saab. There is no reason to change everything overnight.’

But you must want to change things at Saab? They’ve been losing money for years…

‘I may well help with customer-oriented feedback, how the cars should be, help decide what is good and bad about Saab. Koenigsegg Group has excellence in performance, handling and driving pleasure. We can help Saab to build cars that are fun to drive, and technically optimised in terms of weight, design and technology.’

It’s taken you 15 years from scratch to realise the dream of building some of the world’s best sports cars. Won’t associating yourselves with humdrum Saabs dilute your brand? And how will the supecar connection affect Saabs?

‘Saab has large grass-roots support from enthusiasts. Don’t underestimate that. The brand is uniquely Swedish, technically innovative, different. Did you know that Sweden has the most inventions per capita of any nation in the world? We want to build on these building blocks. Saab should be all about Swedish design, Swedish technology, safety, environmentally friendliness yet sporty too. Perhaps not as sporting as a BMW, it should be a more relaxed performance. A little more low-key.’

 >> Click 'Next' to read more of CAR's interview with Christian von Koenigsegg

A question we’ve been dying to ask you: will there be Koenigsegg-tuned Saabs?

‘It is possible that we will have a special range-topping Saabs with the Koenigsegg logo. Perhaps “By Koenigsegg” or similar. But it is important that we are deeply involved in these projects to make sure we know what will work and not damage either brand.’

Why will you succeed with Saab where one of the world’s biggest car makers with a century of experience failed?

‘The world is a smaller place now. We have email and the internet, better product development tools. We are already fielding inquiries from competitors and suppliers, asking if we want to use their technology. It doesn’t feel like a major problem to be able to pick and choose components for future products.’

So what sort of cars will Saab build in future?

‘We’re interested in new environmental technology and believe passionately in green cars. Over the next 10-15 years we believe Saab can become pioneers again and find its own niche in the environmental battle.’

Ok, so let’s fast forward through the next six to seven years. What sort of model line-up would you like Saab to have?

‘A specific electric car, a 9-3, the 9-5 and at least one car smaller than the 9-3. Perhaps something like a Mini Cooper with a premium. We could even launch a Sonnet sports car, but we really need everything else fixed before we can indulge ourselves in that sort of opportunity.’ [Interestingly, Koenigsegg doesn’t mention the imminent badge-engineered 9-4X in his long-term plans]

What is the volume of production you must build for Saab to be profitable?

‘In spring 2009 Saab’s business plan achieved break-even at 125,000 cars. In the current economic situation where we’ve been digging Saab out of a hole, we have had to reduce that volume and have a solution where we believe we can make money building around 100,000 cars. The future Saab will be a streamlined organisation, with some unique products that people will want to pay for – without big discounts, because we will have more attractive products.’

 >> Click 'Next' to read more of CAR's interview with Christian von Koenigsegg

So how will you price Saabs in future?

‘We will start around Audi’s pricing, but Saab is Saab and we will have our own pricing points for what we think is good value for our distinctive products.’

When will we start to see Koenigsegg’s genes on Saab cars?

‘There’s not really anything on the new 9-5, but on the new 9-3 we will have a major influence. The project has already started, but there will be a lot of input from us there.’

Who in the automotive industry do you most admire?

‘BMW was not much larger than Saab and Volvo when they were bought by GM and Ford, respectively. But BMW chose to stand on its own feet and you have to admit it was not necessarily the best solution to be bought by a large company. The engineers at BMW builds cars that they themselves want to buy. I admire that.’

Where will the market for electric cars end up?

‘We think there will be a small but interesting niche for electric cars in the next five years. In about 15 years’ time, perhaps half the cars on sale will be electric in some shape or form. Hybrid cars are a necessary evil – and Saab has been weak in this area. But there will be hybrids from Saab in future.’

Design is important for Saab. So what are the prospects for the Aero X concept car?

‘Saab’s concept cars have shown a good Scandinavian design that highlights the Saab character. Because of the focus on CO2 emissions, it will be necessary to make the cars even more slippery. So future Saabs will look very different, without compromising on space. The Aero X gives some clues to that.’

Who will design future Saab cars?

‘We’d love to have some input from our own Koenigsegg design team and Bard Eker, which has a design firm that looks at unconventional design things. But Saab has its own very talented design team with Simon Padian and the people who have previously worked there.’

So how many people will the new Saab employ?

‘I think we will remain at current levels. Don’t forget, there is a lot of interest from other companies to use Saab’s excellence in gearboxes, turbo technology, control systems and so on.’

>> Click 'Next' to read more of CAR's interview with Christian von Koenigsegg

So how will you price Saabs in future?

‘We will start around Audi’s pricing, but Saab is Saab and we will have our own pricing points for what we think is good value for our distinctive products.’

When will we start to see Koenigsegg’s genes on Saab cars?

‘There’s not really anything on the new 9-5, but on the new 9-3 we will have a major influence. The project has already started, but there will be a lot of input from us there.’

Who in the automotive industry do you most admire?

‘BMW was not much larger than Saab and Volvo when they were bought by GM and Ford, respectively. But BMW chose to stand on its own feet and you have to admit it was not necessarily the best solution to be bought by a large company. The engineers at BMW builds cars that they themselves want to buy. I admire that.’

Where will the market for electric cars end up?

‘We think there will be a small but interesting niche for electric cars in the next five years. In about 15 years’ time, perhaps half the cars on sale will be electric in some shape or form. Hybrid cars are a necessary evil – and Saab has been weak in this area. But there will be hybrids from Saab in future.’

Design is important for Saab. So what are the prospects for the Aero X concept car?

‘Saab’s concept cars have shown a good Scandinavian design that highlights the Saab character. Because of the focus on CO2 emissions, it will be necessary to make the cars even more slippery. So future Saabs will look very different, without compromising on space. The Aero X gives some clues to that.’

Who will design future Saab cars?

‘We’d love to have some input from our own Koenigsegg design team and Bard Eker, which has a design firm that looks at unconventional design things. But Saab has its own very talented design team with Simon Padian and the people who have previously worked there.’

So how many people will the new Saab employ?

‘I think we will remain at current levels. Don’t forget, there is a lot of interest from other companies to use Saab’s excellence in gearboxes, turbo technology, control systems and so on.’

>> Click 'Next' to read more of CAR's interview with Christian von Koenigsegg

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