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The Ode: Saab (1949-2011)

Born from an aircraft manufacturer’s postwar diversification, the one-time national icon is now sputtering into oblivion.

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(Photo: Niklas Larsson/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom)

The Saab automobile was born in 1949 as a necessary diversification. Conceived as a military aircraft manufacturer a dozen years earlier, Sweden’s Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget suffered a cataclysmic but unsurprising postwar plunge in product demand. So Saab CEO Ragnar Wahrgren opened a new plant in Trollhättan with 300 employees to build small, affordable cars.

Its first product, the Saab 92, flaunted aviation roots: its impressively aerodynamic body defined Saab’s distinctive styling for decades. Sold exclusively in Sweden, its two-cylinder engine cranked out an insipid 25 horsepower, and it came in a single colour. (Saab had plenty of green paint left over from the war.) But Saab quickly outgrew its tiny national market. The 93, introduced in 1955, was exported, and over time the company’s curvy models became somewhat frequent sights in the U.S. and Europe.

Evidencing the Swedish obsession with safety, Saabs were among the first to feature side-impact door beams and anti-lock brakes, and the company pioneered heated seats and headlamp washers. Its models were seldom conventional, and gradually acquired a small but fanatical fan base. Introduced in 1960, the 96 became something of a Swedish national icon, akin to the Beetle in Germany.

In 1969, Saab merged with Scania, a Swedish commercial vehicle manufacturer, to form Saab-Scania. During the 1980s, Saab shed its asthmatic image with turbocharged luxury models. But, by decade’s end the car division was losing money.

Saab nearly died then. But the 1980s witnessed a remarkable shift in consumer preferences, away from spongysuspensioned American behemoths toward more agile models with better fuel economy. Upstart Japanese luxury brands (such as Lexus and Infiniti) were making inroads into the European marketplace, causing headaches for stodgy U.S.-based giants operating on the continent. This prompted a fit of Euromimicry. After briefly kicking Saab’s tires, Ford bought Britain’s Jaguar as its luxury champion, and GM picked up half of Saab in a US$600-million deal. Backed by GM’s considerable R&D and marketing muscle, Saab hoped to produce as many cars as BMW and Mercedes. (GM bought the rest of Saab in 2000.)

On the downside, Saab’s saviour was in secular decline. Having never challenged the Germans, Saab was jettisoned along with other brands during GM’s radical reorganization, and filed for protection from its creditors in Sweden.

Unlike counterparts in North America and elsewhere, the Swedish government declined to intervene. This time, Saab’s would-be rescuers were a bedraggled lot, including several obscure supercar makers. GM finally managed to sell Saab in 2010, to Netherlands- based Spyker Cars, a tiny sportscar maker headed by the mercurial Victor Muller. Determined to restore Saab to its former glory, Muller planned a new tear-shaped model inspired by the 92. But again Saab’s appealing contours crumpled against the cruel guardrail of financial reality, with production plummeting by three-quarters in just a few short years. Muller idled the Trollhättan plant in April and fell into arrears with both suppliers and workers, prompting unions to agitate for bankruptcy. Muller cannot entirely be written off—he’s negotiating yet another rescue from several Chinese companies— but by mid-September he’d seemingly run out of road.