/The Rise and Fall of Saab

The Rise and Fall of Saab

Saab Main at The Rise and Fall of Saab

For decades, Saab has been one of the Swedish car industry’s symbols and, alongside Volvo, made Scandinavian cars famous all over the world for their build quality and increased safety. And even though Volvo also produced great automobiles, Saab always had that extra something, an exclusive character and an aviation industry legacy that made it stand out.

Throughout its history, Saab alternated good times with rougher patches and it always came through, but it seemed that the 2008 financial crisis marked the end for the Swedish car manufacturer which applied for bankruptcy in 2011. But towards the end of 2013, new life was breathed into Saab, with new owners restarting production.

So let’s see how Saab became one of the world’s best known car manufacturers and how it managed its rougher times.

The beginning

Saab’s history begins in 1937 in the small Swedish city of Linkoping, located 120 miles south east of Stockholm. With the merger of SAAB (“Svenska Aero AB”) and ASJA (“AB SvenskaJärnvägsverkstädernasAeroplanavdelning”, translates to “Swedish Railroad Workshops’ Air Plane Department”), a new company was born, called “SvenskaAeroplan AB”, or Saab AB (where the “AB” stands for ”aktiebolag”, which is Swedish for “corporation” or “limited company”). The “SAAB” styling (with upper case letters)of the name was kept until the 1950s, when it was replaced by the current “Saab” form.

Saab Logo 600x375 at The Rise and Fall of Saab

The company originally produced aircrafts, especially fighter aircrafts for the Swedish Air Force, which were planned to be used by Sweden to defend its neutrality in World War II. After the war ended, demand for military aircrafts dropped and the company decided to diversify its business and so the Saab Automobiledivision was created.

Work on the first Saab automobile was started in 1945, under the X9248 codename. Soon, the project became known as Project 92 (Saab’s previous product was the Saab 91, a single engine aircraft). With the automobile project advancing, the company decided that car production will take place in one of their facilities in Trolhattan, a city on Sweden’s North Sea coast, about 200 miles away from Stockholm. In 1948, work started on converting the existing facility to allow automobile assembly and soon the Saab Automobiles’ headquartered was also moved to Trolhattan, where it remained ever since.

The first automobiles

Four prototypes of the Saab 92 were soon built and were called Ursaab (which means “original Saab” in Swedish) and in 1949 the final production version was ready. The first Saab 92 left the assembly line in December 1949, marking the beginning of one of the most appreciated car brands in history.

Saab 92 600x394 at The Rise and Fall of Saab

The Saab 92 wasn’t the most powerful car on the planet, with just 25 hp produced by the water cooled two-cylinder engine, but it had one of the most aerodynamic designs on the market, which made it quite popular and 20,000 units were sold until 1955. That year, the Saab 92 would go through a major redesign and rebadged as the Saab 93. The engine had one extra cylinder and it was the first Saab to come with the trapezoidal front grille that will become specific to the Swedish brand. The estate version of the 93 called Saab 95 was launched in 1959.

The next model on the line was the Saab 96, which would prove to be extremely popular and was also the first Saab to be exported in high numbers. During its production run, more than 550,000 units were built. However, the most important model of the 1960s was the Saab 99, which was launched in 1968 and was the first entirely new model since the 92 has been introduced. Unlike its predecessors, it had nothing in common with the 92 and featured several important safety innovations, which will make Saab a highly regarded brand.

Scania era

In 1969, Saab merged with Swedish truck and bus manufacturer Scania-Vabis to form a new company called Saab-Scania AB. One of the most important advantages for Saab was that it no longer had to buy engines for its cars (they were using engines produced by British company Triumph) and could now build their own engines using Scania’s production facilities. The Saab 99 lineup was expanded in 1973 with the introduction of what would later become one of Saab’s signature body versions, the combi coupe. Three years later, the company built the one millionth Saab in history.

The next model was the Saab 600, which was the first product of the new partnership between Saab and Fiat that was signed in 1978. The 600 is basically a rebadged Lancia Delta and the two companies also started working on a jointly developed platform (the Type Four chassis) that will be used for four models: the Saab 9000, Fiat Croma, Alfa Romeo 164 and LanciaThema. The same year, Saab released the Saab 900, which was replacing the ageing Saab 99 and which later became one of Saab’s most popular cars, appreciated by car enthusiasts even today.

General Motors era

In 1989, the Saab Automobile division was separated from the group and control was taken by General Motors and Investor AB, each with a 50% stake. Investor AB is a Swedish investment company owned by one of the most important families in Sweden, the Wallenberg family. However, in the following decade, GM acquired the remaining shares as part of its $600 million investment deal.

Saab 9 3 Aero 600x355 at The Rise and Fall of Saab

The Saab 900 was released in 1994, built on a platform shared with the Opel Vectra, proving to be a popular model and one of the main reasons Saab reported profit for the first time in seven years. Three years later, on the company’s 50 year anniversary, Saab launched the 9000’s replacement, the Saab 9-5. It was the first time this naming was used and it continued with the 900’s successor, which was called Saab 9-3.

Like we said, by 2000, General Motors was in complete control of Saab and the first car to be released was the new 9-3, in 2003. It was an entirely new car that was met with some controversy due to General Motors dropping the traditional hatchback silhouette for a more conventional sedan body. Just like its predecessor, the car shared many components with the Opel Vectra.

Unfortunately, it was the beginning of the end for Saab. In an effort to increase sales, especially in the United States, General Motors built the Saab 9-2X (a rebadged second generation Subaru Impreza) and the Saab 9-7X SUV (based on the Chevrolet Trailblazer), which were available exclusively on the North American market. Following some other uninspired decisions, such as delaying the 9-3 estate, not building a 9-3 hatchback and completely cancelling a 9-5 replacement, Saab’s sales started to drop. General Motors took another controversial decision when they moved Saab production from the traditional location in Trolhattan to the Opel factory in Russelsheim. Combined with General Motors’ declining business and the financial crisis that hit in 2008, the Detroit carmaker started making plans to drop Saab. According to reports, more than 20 buyers were interested, including big names like BMW, Fiat, Renault or Hyundai, but, surprisingly, the one that was closest to acquiring Saab was Swedish supercar manufacturer Koenigsegg. However, Koenigsegg withdrew from negotiations in late 2009 and General Motors started looking for other potential buyers.

In the end, the one to acquire Saab was Dutch supercar manufacturer Spyker, which would secure a loan from the European Investment Bank. But the deal was not without controversy, because several delays in the transaction were caused by investigations from the Swedish police into Spyker officials Vladimir Antonov and Victor Muller, which were suspected with connections to organized crime. However, an agreement was signed in February 2010 and it looked like Saab’s future was not so uncertain anymore. According to the agreement, General Motors would continue supplying engines and transmissions and also build the Saab 9-4X at its factory in Mexico. Spyker soon announced a possible Saab buyout by a group of Chinese companies, a move which was strongly opposed by General Motors. Without the $140 million investment from the Chinese, Saab applied for bankruptcy in December 2011.

Saab reborn

During a press conference in June 2012, it was announced that the Saab factory and the main assets of Saab Automobile AB (including Saab Automobile Powertrain AB and Saab Automobile Tools AB) were bought by a Chinese group of firms called National Electric Vehicles Sweden (Nevs). This was possible because Swedish laws allow a company to be bought out of bankruptcy. The company planned on building an electric model based on the 9-3, but production would be restarted for the petrol powered 9-3 in the beginning.

 at The Rise and Fall of Saab

A year later, Saab’s production factory in Trolhattan was reopened and workers began preparing for assembling the new model. Production started in November 2013, after Nevs finished replacing the parts that were sourced by General Motors, which continued to refuse supplying Saab. Also, Nevs has the right to use the Saab name but not the griffin logo, because Scania (the logo’s owner) believes that it might not be used properly in China. Last December, Nevs began selling the Saab 9-3 Aero on their official website, with 15 units being ordered in the first day.

The greatest Saab models

Like we said, throughout its history, Saab has built a lot of great cars and also brought a lot of innovations to the car industry. So let’s take a look back and see the greatest Saabs ever built:

Saab 92

The first Saab 92, or the Ursaab, came out of the assembly line on December 12, 1949 and featured an aerodynamic design few cars had at the time. The body was made from a single sheet of metal (the openings for doors and windows were cut after) and this allowed the car to have a drag coefficient of 0.30, extremely good for those times. To get an idea of how good that coefficient is, it’s the same as the today’s Koenigsegg CCX supercar. The two-cylinder engine had a displacement of 764 cc and produced 25 hp (19 kW), being available with a three speed transmission. It wasn’t much, but combined with the great aerodynamics, allowed the Saab 92 to reach a top speed of around 65 mph (105 kilometers per hour).

Saab 92 1955 600x408 at The Rise and Fall of Saab

In theory, there were two versions available, the standard one and the De Luxe, but all Saab 92s that were produced were the De Luxe version, because no one was interested in the standard one. Also, all models sold in the early days were only available in a dark green color, apparently because Saab had some paint left over from aircraft production during the war.

Production was slow in the beginning, with just 700 units built in 1950, but that soon changed and the car became extremely popular. In 1953, the Saab 92B was introduced, featuring a larger rear window and increased luggage space, a palette of new colors such as black, green, gray and blue-gray. Another upgrade was made one year later, when power was increased to 28 hp (21 KW), thanks to an added Solex carburetor and new ignition coil. New Hella headlights were also used for the first time. Further upgrades were made in 1955, right before its replacement, the Saab 93, was introduced. These updates included an electric fuel pump and square tail lights, new colors such as maroon. Production of the 92B was continued until 1956, despite the introduction of the 93, and more than 20,000 units were built during the seven year production run.

The Saab 92 was also successful in motorsport. For example, Swedish rally driver Greta Molander won the Coupes de Dames in the Monte Carlo Rally in 1952, driving an upgraded version of the Saab 92 that was producing 35 hp (26 kW).

Saab Sonett I

During the early ‘50s, Ralf Mellde was an engineer working for Saab and also a race enthusiast. In his spare time, helped by a few friends, he developed a lightweight two seat sports car which he called the Sonett (from a common Swedish phrase meaning “how neat it is”). Saab liked the idea and in 1956 they unveiled the race car at the Stockholm Motor Show.

Saab Sonett I 600x362 at The Rise and Fall of Saab

The lightweight roadster was an instant hit and it also promised great performances. The three cylinder 748 cc engine was producing 57 hp (43 kW) and the aluminum chassis designed by SixtenSastonthat weighted only 150 pounds (70 kilograms), bringing the car’s total weight to an impressive 1,300 pounds (around 600 kilograms). Many principles from aircraft design were used and the car had a top speed of 120 mph (around 190 kph) so Saab had big plans for the car in motorsport. Production was scheduled at around 2,000 units, but the same year competition rules were changed and modified cars were allowed to race, so a production race car didn’t make too much financial sense anymore.

So out of the 2,000 units, only 6 were built, between 1955 and 1957. Despite not being a financial success for Saab, the model is important because it was the inspiration for the Sonett series of sports cars that was built in the 1960s and the 1970s. Also, as you can imagine, with so few units built the car is extremely rare and appreciated by collectors all over the world.

Saab 93

Introduced as the Saab 92’s replacement, the 93 was presented for the first time in December 1955. Compared to the 92, the Saab 93 features several important upgrades. First of all, there was the engine. The two cylinder unit from the 92 was replaced by a three cylinder two stroke unit that produced 33 hp (25 kW) and was coupled to a three speed gearbox (the first speed was unsynchronized). Also, afreewheel device was installed to prevent any problems from engine braking and several optional features were also available: two point seat belts (starting with 1957), Saxomat clutch and a large cloth sunroof (called “cabrio coach”).

Saab 93 600x344 at The Rise and Fall of Saab

The Swedish car manufacturer was extremely careful with the development of the 93, because it was the first Saab that was exported in massive numbers, especially in the United States. The 93 was upgraded in 1957, when the 93B was introduced, with one of the most important upgrades being the new one piece windshield that replaced the two piece one on the original 93. The Saab 93F was introduced in 1959(an important upgrade was the front hinged doors), just one year before the model was replaced by the Saab 96. The final production number for the Saab 93 was 52,731 units.

One special version of the 93 was the Saab GT750. Introduced at the 1958 New York International Auto Show, the car was a sportier 93 (GT stands for “Gran Turismo”) that was mainly sold in the United States. Built between 1958 and 1960 it was powered by an improved version of the 93 engine that featured twin carburetors and whose power output had been increased to 50 hp (37 kW). An even more powerful version was available, the Saab GT750R, which produced 55 hp (41 kW). The GT750 accelerated from 0 to 60 mph in 15.2 seconds, while the GT750R did it in 12 seconds (the regular 93’s time was around 27 seconds).

Like its predecessor, the 93 also did great in motorsport, where Swedish rally driver Erik Carlsson won the Finland Rally in 1957 and the Swedish Rally in 1959.

Saab 96

While previous Saab models were successful, the 96 is widely regarded as the car that made the brand known worldwide and established its status as a big car manufacturer.

The model debuted in 1960 and even though it was based on the same chassis from the Saab 92 and looked quite similar to the 93, the Saab 96 was significantly better than both. It offered more luggage space, the boot opening was larger and rear visibility was significantly increased by using a larger rear window.

Saab 96 600x320 at The Rise and Fall of Saab

Under the bonnet, it had a three cylinder 750 cc engine that produced 38 hp (28 kW), that was later upgraded several times. First time in 1963, when engine displacement was increased to 841 cc, giving a new power output of 40 hp (30 kW) and a second time in 1964, when it produced 42 hp (31 kW).

An important evolution in the life of the Saab 96 (and all Saabs, actually), was the introduction of the four stroke engine in 1967. Even though the project was originally dismissed in 1964 by Saab’s CEO, Tryggve Holm, a team of engineers, including Rolf Mellde (the one behind the original Sonett) went behind his back and convinced Saab’s owners that the new four stroke engines were better from every point of view. Ford V4 engines were chosen and secret testing began, first in Italy and then in Sweden. In 1967, Saab produced the first 96 powered by a four stroke Ford engine that was available in two different power output versions: 55 hp (41 kW) and 65 hp (48 kW).

In 1962, the Saab Sport was introduced. The car is based on the Saab 96 and replaced the Saab GT750. The two stroke three cylinder engine was upgraded and produced 52 hp (39 kW) and was mated to a four speed transmission. It was later upgraded to 55 hp (41 kW) in 1965 and was renamed to Monte Carlo 850 in 1966. The four stroke engine was introduced on the model in 1967, on the Monte Carlo V4 version, producing 65 hp (48 kW) and replacing the two stroke engines. The Saab Sport also featured front brake discs, a feature that was quite unusual at the time. It was built until 1968.

The Saab 96 was quite successful in racing, the same Erik Carlsson having the best results in international rallies: he won the Walles Rally three consecutive times (between 1960 and 1962) and the 1962 and 1963 editions of the Monte Carlo Rally. Other important rally drivers such as StigBlomqvist, SimoLampinen or Per Eklund have also raced for Saab.

Saab Sonett V4

Despite the original Sonett not making it into production, there were some people that didn’t let go of the idea of a Saab true sports car and two prototypes were built, the Saab Catherina by SixtenSason and the Saab MFI13 by Malmo Flygindustri. The latter was chosen and 28 units were built in 1966, called the Saab Sonett II, with 230 more units following in 1967.

Saab Sonett V4 600x371 at The Rise and Fall of Saab

However, the most important moment for the Sonett was the introduction of the Ford V4 four stroke engine on the 95, 96 and Monte Carlo models. A sports car was now more financially attractive for Saab’s management and the Sonett V4 was put into production in the summer of 1967. It was powered by a 1.5-liter version of the V4 engine that produced 65 hp (48 kW) and accelerated from 0 to 62 mph in 12.5 seconds, reaching a top speed of 100 mph (160 kph). In order to accommodate the larger engine, several design upgrades were required, one of them being the bulge hood designed by Gunnar Sjogren. The hood also had an interesting feature, the bulge having a right offset to improve driver visibility, but it was heavily criticized by the media and was removed on its successor, the Sonett III (introduced in 1970).

Other notable features included new safety elements such as the roll bar, three point seat belts and bucket seats to prevent whiplash injuries (all these features were considered advanced for those times). It also featured a fiberglass body and a column mounted shifter.

Between 1967 and 1969, more than 1,600 Saab Sonett V4s were built in Sweden, most of them being exported to the United States, where they were priced between $3,200 and $3,800.

Saab 99 / 99 Turbo

The Saab 96 was introduced in 1960 and it proved to be quite successful, but what the Swedish car manufacturer wanted was a bigger and more powerful car that would allow them to “attack” new market segments. So they created Project Gudmund (called like this because it was started on April 2, which is Gudmund’s name day in Sweden) whose final result was the Saab 99 which was presented in Stockholm in 1967. Saab was extremely careful with the development and kept the car a secret until its introduction; testing prototypes were using wider bodies and were badged “Daihatsu” (because those letters were available from other Saab models) so they won’t reveal the project’s true nature.

Saab 99 600x361 at The Rise and Fall of Saab

The production version was designed by the same SixtenSason and when it was launched it was available with a 1.7-liter four stroke engine that produced 86 hp (64 kW) at 5,550 rpm. The engines were supplied by Triumph and were equipped with a Zenith-Stromberg CD carburetor. However, due to some problems with the Triumph engines, Saab started using the Saab B engine in 1972, after the merger with Scania allowed them to develop their own engines (though the Saab B was basically an upgraded version of the Triumph engine).

Saab upgraded the engine in 1971, increasing the displacement to 1.85 liters which translated into a higher power output, 85 hp (63 kW) on the models equipped with carburetors and 94 hp (70 kW) on those with direct fuel injection. An interesting new feature that was introduced at the same time with the engine upgrade was the new headlight wipers. A more powerful Saab 99 EMS was introduced in 1972. Its name comes from “Electronic Manual Special” and it was powered by a 2.0-liter engine with electronic fuel injection that produced 108 hp (81 kW) and was able to reach a top speed of 106 mph. Other new features included an upgraded suspension system and a new bronze metallic paint.

Another important moment came in 1974, when the new combi coupe body was introduced. Something between a station wagon and a coupe, this body will later become iconic for the Swedish brand, making it unique among other car manufacturers. Future Saab models will also be offered in this version and other carmakers will attempt releasing similar models, such as the Chevrolet Chevette, which was the most popular small car in the United States in 1979 and 1980.

The Saab 99 received several other upgrades in the following years, but the most important moment for the model was in 1978, when the Saab 99 Turbo was introduced. The turbocharged engine produced 143 hp (107 kW) and was able to accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 9.2 seconds, from 0 to 100 mph in 26.2 seconds and reached a top speed of 122 mph. Even though turbochargers have been used before by different carmaker for their sports cars, the Saab 99 Turbo was the first “family” model that had this type of engine. The car was incredible and is widely regarded as one of the most important innovations in the car industry from the last century.

The Saab 99 was also the first Saab that wasn’t built exclusively at the Trolhattan factory, but also at the Finnish Valmet Automotive facility in Uusikaupunki, Finland, starting with 1969. Almost 590,000 Saab 99s were built between 1968 and 1984, when the model was replaced by the Saab 90 and the Saab 900.

Saab 900 Turbo

Following the success of the Saab 99 Turbo, the Swedish car manufacturer continued the development of other high performance models and the next one was the Saab 900 Turbo. The turbocharged version was available the same time the regular model was introduced.

Saab 900 600x257 at The Rise and Fall of Saab

Available as three or five door hatchback, it was powered by a 2.0-liter engine with Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection that produced 143 hp (107 kW) at 5,000 rpm. What set the Saab 900 Turbo apart from other turbocharged models was its new Automatic Performance Control system what was introduced in 1982. This engine knock and boost control system allowed a higher compression ratio which increased performance, improved fuel economy and allowed the use of low octane petrol. An intercooled version of the 900 Turbo was available between 1986 and 1989, producing 155 hp and 173 lb-ft of torque.

And while the 900 Turbo was extremely popular, Saab went further and, in 1984, released the Saab 900 Aero (later rebadged as SPG in the United States, due to some trademark claims by General Motors). The car was powered by 16-valve turbocharged engine that produced 160 hp (119 kW). However, there were some special versions that featured an upgraded version of the Automatic Performance Control system that further increased power output, up to 175 hp and even 185 hp. These models, called Saab 900 Turbo 16 S were able to accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 8.5 seconds and reach a top speed of 135 mph.

Saab Viggen

The Saab 9-3 was introduced in 1998, replacing the Saab 900 NG (“New Generation”) which was the successor of the original 900. The new 9-3was based on General Motors’ GM2900 platform (later upgraded to the Epsilon platform) and the Swedish carmaker announced that no less than 1,110 changes were made compared to the 900 NG. Significant upgrades were made to handling, suspension and, most important, safety (it was one of the first models to get maximum points for side impact augmented by a pole safety test at the famous EuroNCAP safety testing program).

Saab Viggen 600x450 at The Rise and Fall of Saab

During its four year production run, more than 325,000 units were built, including the extremely interesting Saab Viggen. The name is Swedish for “Thunderbolt” and it was inspired by the Saab 37 Viggen fighter aircraft. The car is the successor of the 900 Turbo and it was powered by a 2.3-liter turbocharged engine that produced 225 hp (168 kW), later upgraded to 230 hp (172 kW). Among the most important upgrades the Saab Viggen featured were the Mitsubishi turbocharger, the upgraded ECU (it was the first time the advanced Trionic 7 engine management system was used on a 9-3), the higher capacity intercooler and the larger exhaust system. The car accelerated from 0 to 62 mph in 6.4 seconds and top speed was electronically limited to 160 mph. A total number of 4,600 units were built until 2002, with around 500 going to the United Kingdom and a little over 400 to the United States.

Saab Turbo X

The last high performance Saab was unveiled at the 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show and it celebrated 30 years since the model that wrote history (the original Saab 900 Turbo) was introduced. The Turbo X was based on the 9-3 and it was powered by an all-aluminum 2.8-liter V6 engine that produced 280 hp (210 kW) and 295 lb-ft of torque. The car sprints from 0 to 62 mph in 5.7 seconds and reaches a top speed of 155 mph. It was the first Saab to feature the XWD all-wheel drive system from Haldex and was available with a six speed manual or automatic transmission.

Saab Turbo X 600x373 at The Rise and Fall of Saab

As homage to previous Turbo models, the car only came in a black metallic paint and also featured a boost gauge similar to the ones used on the 900 Turbo. Other special features included upgraded suspension and brake system, carbon fiber inserts and black leather seats on the interior. While not as mind blowing as its predecessors, Saab enthusiasts were happy to see the limited edition Turbo X.

So what’s in the future?

Like we said, Saab’s current owner (Nevs) has already restarted producing the old 9-3, but plans are for an electric version of the 9-3 to be released this year. Even though initial reports indicated the car will be based on the Saab Phoenix platform that was previously announced, it looks like the electric Saab (called 9-3 ePower) might actually be based on the second 9-3 generation and not built on an entirely new platform.

But so far all we can do is wait and hope for Saab’s new owners to do their best and revive the Swedish brand, because it would be a shame for a brand with such tradition to disappear or lose the characteristics that made it famous. Good luck, Saab!

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(Journalist) – Vlad Balan is an automotive journalist from Eastern Europe and he has been blogging about cars, reporting from auto shows, taking interviews or test driving cars since 2007.