Posted on: Dec 24, 2011
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Who Killed Saab?


The Swedish car manufacturer might still be saved, but from the aura of the Saab Hockey Stick, only the nostalgia remains.
In Chris Paine's documentary 'Who Killed the Electric Car?', General Motors is found to be among the culprits. Now it might be the time to start another sequel titled 'Who Killed Saab?'. If you ask Saab CEO Victor Muller, the answer will be very familiar. "In the end, the complete lack of cooperation from GM was a big problem," Mr. Muller told reporters this week, after announcing Saab had filed for bankruptcy. At Trollhattan, Saab's hometown on the Swedish west coast, the weather was mild this week, just bordering on freezing.
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But four days before Christmas, the mood has been gloomy. "It's hard to sum up [the mood]," said Anna-Karin Nils Gustafsson, a correspondent for the local website ttela.se. "People are kind of annoyed, disappointed and in waiting for what will happen next." In Saab's history there was always dissonance between the marque's fame, its huge fan base, and its relatively modest production figures. Its success in the North American market during the 1960s and '70s was remarkable and that might have been one of GM's motives when deciding to buy it in 1990, saving it then from going under.

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Now many Saab fans are rushing to GM's Facebook page to utter their frustrations and grievances at what they see as GM's responsibility for Saab's fate - imminent closure and liquidation. "GM is Dead", claims Jonas Hesselgren; "Never ever drive GM, Lets go after their vital organs, their wallets," suggests Lennart Wallander; "Funny how GM needed one of the biggest bailouts in US company history from the Gvmnt 'to save jobs' (save bonuses) but won't even let another car manuf. survive in fear of the Chinese," writes Johan Ryman. Saab's claim to fame was established 50 years ago with its most iconic model, the 96 and its unique 3-cylinder engine.
It was designed by Sixten Sason, who also styled all Saab cars up to and including the 99. The 96's exterior design was dramatically different from its predecessor and it was an evolution that started with the 92, which was much bulkier than the elegant, streamlined 96. By retaining the unique shape and evolution with more modern lines, this contributed to what in latter generations became known as "brand awareness." The icing on the cake, however, was the "Saab Hockey Stick" design theme; the curve at the base of the rear passenger window.
Just like the original Beetle with its bulbous shape and air cooled rear engine/rear-wheel drive configuration that helped to define the Volkswagen brand for many years, the front wedged shaped 96, with its rounded rear end and air-cooled front engine/front wheel drive, defined Saab's character for eternity. Unlike Volkswagen, Saab couldn't shake this image off and develop themselves into an automotive giant, like Volkswagen did. The 99 was another important milestone for Saab, as it was a totally new car, two doors more than its predecessor; it had a rectangular grille and squared headlights, as opposed to the rounded ones of the 96.
Throughout the years, Saab produced a few idiosyncratic cars like the Sonnet, which started off as a two-seater, two-door sports car with the air-cooled engine and front wheel drive, an oddity among sports cars. Only six first generation Sonnets were built made of an aluminum chassis and hand crafted glass reinforced plastics for body panels. The model, conceived in the mid-50s, lived on for four generations, changing shapes and engines. A few hundred units were produced, but it couldn't influence Saab's fortunes. So bankruptcy, not for the first time, was looming.
"It [bankruptcy] was an option for the company for a while," says Ms. Gustafsson. "But on the other side it did look good for quite a long time. It's been up and down, up and down for a long time." But who is to blame for the current situation? Only a few days before Christmas, Saab employees are being fired and four Swedish ministers actually arrived with the aid of a few hundred million dollars to make the payroll. So the employees are receiving their paychecks from the Swedish government and not from Saab?
"A lot of people are blaming GM for this," says Ms. Gustafsson, "and a lot of people have been saying that GM didn't want to solve (this positively) for at least two years. But a lot of people also say that it was coming because Saab wasn't selling enough cars. So it's both." And because Saab simply wasn't selling enough cars, GM found the excuse to partner up with Subaru for the Saab-badged Impreza, the 9-2x, back in 2004. For brand loyalists, this was blasphemy and in ethical terms even immoral. Shortly afterwards, the economic crisis that brought GM down broke out. For Saab, it's been mostly downhill from there.
At the peak of the current crisis this past week, just after Saab's official bankruptcy announcement, Rachel Pang, the CEO of Youngman, the latest potential Chinese buyer, landed in Sweden for talks with the receivers. She still hopes to save Saab from a fatal end. Using the example of when Ford sold Volvo to Chinese automaker Geely, she believes it's possible to make a deal happen. Mr. Paine's sequel to 'Who Killed the Electric Car?' was recently released, called 'The Revenge of the Electric Car'. We might also witness the 'Revenge of Saab', if GM decides to release their grip.
So can Saab be saved after all and will eulogies be deferred? "This couldn't be the end of Saab," says Ms. Gustafsson. "There are still people who are interested in buying this company." The potential sequel, however, is still on hold.

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