Saab 1947-2009: Gavin Green pays tribute to Saab

Published: 02 December 2009

Gavin Green reflects on Saab’s sad demise and concludes that a brand famed for its individuality was never going to succeed under the wings of a ‘bigger is better’ company called General Motors

Enthusiasm is a marvellous thing, partly because it is so bafflingly irrational. Why does someone stand on a perimeter fence at Heathrow, noting and photographing the registration numbers of jets? Why join the Allegro Club International (‘dedicated to the enjoyment and preservation of all models of the Allegro’)? Someone told me yesterday about a group that collects Sussex milk bottle labels.

I don’t personally understand such behaviour. But, like a gladiator paying homage to his emperor, I salute it. Such bright-eyed enthusiasm is one of the hallmarks of humanity.

Saab: number one for ‘psychological involvement’

Saab, which is likely to follow the Allegro’s maker (Austin) to the automotive graveyard, supposedly generates greater ‘psychological involvement’ than any other car brand, or so the FT – citing a survey – said the other day. I don’t really understand this either, because the last really good Saab was probably the 99 Turbo and that was over 30 years ago. However, I can believe it, because whenever I write anything about Saab, people comment with zeal.

Saabs have a following because they were quirky. They were shaped like aircraft when most cars looked like sheds. They used two-stroke motors when popular prejudice ran in favour of four-. They had V4s when others had straight-fours. They were first with turbos. And they had their ignition switch on the floor when everyone else had it on the dash. Why? Who knows. Who cares. To be different was to be Saab.

More than anything, they were cars for individuals, conceived by eccentric engineers for like-minded eccentrics. Eventually, they lost out to bigger, better funded players (notably BMW, Mercedes and latterly Audi) and that’s why they had to sell to GM who (like rival Ford) were busy Hoovering up whatever European premium makers they could get their hands on in the frenzied brand-grab of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Saabs: Now no longer for individualists

Recent Saabs, of course, have been about as individualistic as a flock of sheep in Västergotland. This should not be surprising. They are now based on mainstream Opel/Vauxhalls and, in many ways, are about as Swedish as a downtown diner. As the name implies, General Motors does not do individuality very well.

Sales, predictably, have collapsed.

I expect Saab will now go the way of Rover, MG, Oldsmobile and Hispano-Suiza. Even if GM’s last-ditch efforts to find a buyer succeed, one can have no real confidence in Saab’s long-term prospects. It will die for the same reason that other brands have failed. Recent products have lacked the creative passion that built-up the brand: they lack the emotional appeal (the key quality of any European premium brand).

Those finance men in Detroit never understood the quirky Swedish appeal of Saab. They are mainstream managers, bought up in a culture that celebrates cheapness and quantity, hopelessly floundering in the alien voodoo world of European premium (the latter is a word that all car bosses mouth but few understand). Ford screwed up Jaguar for the same reason, although – unlike Saab – at least some good products were consummated as a result of that unhappy marriage.

Plus – and let’s not put all the blame on those downers in Detroit – tastes change. Maybe people don’t want quirky cars from a Swedish aeroplane maker any more. They want sporty BMWs instead. Better to stop the rot, than perpetuate it. Economics change too. Those tiny Saab volumes – and it’s never been a big selling brand – are no longer viable, without prostituting measures such as part and platform sharing. Cars that sell on their individuality nowadays don’t make much economic sense unless they carry correspondingly big price tags. 

BMW: a classic case of irrational appeal

Enthusiasm is an odd quality, producing odd behaviour. But it is essential to the success of the top European car brands. They can’t be run like a business selling photocopiers or washing machines. Or pick-up trucks. They take heart and soul, love and understanding; they are conceived (and bought) for frequently irrational reasons. Soul-satisfying emotional appeal is not something that big multinational companies understand very well, especially when they’re outsiders ‘buying in’ to the brand.

After all, what’s rational about high-speed firm riding sports saloons in these days of draconian speed limits and crowded roads? Yet that is the key quality of the best BMWs, whose maker is now the world’s most successful premium car company.

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By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience