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The Last Saab Story

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This may be the last Saab Story I ever write, given that the company declared bankruptcy December 19—some Christmas present for Saab owners—and is likely to be broken up and the pieces sold to the highest bidder.

Quirky but exciting. Dig that freewheel feature. (Saab photo)Saab CEO Victor Muller, the scrappy entrepreneur who acquired Saab from General Motors in 2010, would have preferred a more dignified outcome. He certainly fought the good fight trying to keep the company alive. But Saab’s fortunes have been declining since 1986, the firm’s peak year in the U.S. (48,181 sold), and an operating profit was rare indeed. Saab had become so entwined with GM that its vanguard 9-3 and 9-5 models, with many U.S. parts, couldn’t be separated without surgery that would also kill the patient. Several Chinese companies wanted Saab, but no deal was going forward without GM’s approval, and it didn’t come. Muller says he never got an explanation, but GM sells more cars in China than in the U.S., and it simply didn’t want the competition from its own content.

Victor Muller’s last-ditch attempt to keep Saab alive has fallen apart. (Jim Motavalli photo)Steve Rossi, a former publicity head for Saab who first suggested that leftover 900s be converted into convertibles (a wildly popular move), says that the sale of the company was always problematic because, without the GM-based models, “there was no established portfolio of products. There was no viable business case. The culprit here isn’t GM, but the Swedes who walked away from what was supposed to be a 50-50 deal.”

In the end, this happened because one big company didn’t want its technology to get transferred into China,” a supplier told me. Ryan Emge, who led the Save Saab movement when GM appeared ready to close the company in 2009, and founded SaabHistory.com, says, “This result was entirely preventable. I’m speechless. Saab made its mark on the automotive landscape with strong values in safety and design. But if GM thinks that its whole business model in China would be upset by such a little player, it should re-evaluate its product line there.”

Saab had created an electric car, the ePower, based on the 9-3 SportCombi (a wagon), and there were plans to field a fleet of 70 of them. That plan is now off the table, but Saab-based electric cars (with batteries from Boston-Power) are quite likely to have a second life.

Saab’s ePower electric car was just gearing up. (Saab photo)“An extremely sad day,” Saab publicist Michele Tinson told me. And indeed it is. Saab was a quirky company, and it was the quirks (funky aircraft-inspired design, a floor-based ignition key) that people loved. Phil Patton reports in the New York Times that Saab popularized seat heaters (a useful option in frigid Sweden), pioneered the wrap-around windshield and the hatchback body style.

Ray Magliozzi has been under the hood of a lot of Saabs. “I’m sure we’re not alone in saying that Saabs have always been kind of a mystery. I think it started with the 900 series and went downhill from there—no pun intended. When we realized that the engine was in backwards with cylinder #1 closest to the firewall, we knew that even ordinary repairs would be a nightmare. Over the years we learned to appreciate Saab’s great engineering begrudgingly and we were always elated when we actually fixed one correctly.”

Loyal Saab owners rally in 2009 to save the brand from GM liquidation. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Emge)The first U.S. Saab model, in 1956, had a three-cylinder, two-stroke engine. Oblivion might have been expected, but instead a cult began. Len Lonnegren, who I knew when he was Saab’s Connecticut-based U.S. publicity chief, told me, “When GM was about to give up and just close down, Saab owners and fans in cities around the world demonstrated their feelings, from Moscow to Detroit. How many other car fans can you imagine doing any such thing?”

So rather than pick over the bones of this scrappy company and speculate about what happens next, let’s check in on some of those loyal owners, who posted extensive comments on Car Talk’s community page, and on Facebook, too. I’m an ex-Saab owner, too, by the way. I have semi-fond memories of a 1972 96, with the German Ford V-4 under the hood. I say semi-fond because the column-based transmission went blooey after about a year, and that was that. But John Parker owned the exact same car and loved it—he remembers, “This weird freewheel function controlled by a foot pedal…. Even when it was 30 years old, the cigarette lighter still worked.”

Before GM owned Saab I was a fan,” says UncleTurbo, “and owned a couple of great Saab cars. After GM I had a 2000 9-3 as a company car, and it wasn’t a good car anymore.”

JudeBGood acquired his first Saab, a 1975 Turbo, in 1976. “I had five in a row after that, a ’79, an ’81, an ’84 and a ’98. Each one I liked a little bit less than the previous one, until I was pretty much seriously disappointed [with the last car]. It was such a cool car in the beginning. You’d wave at other Saab drivers in the ‘70s, because we were few and far between.”

SManning has fond memories. “I once dated a guy because he was rebuilding an old Saab. That, and he could cook. But…when I found him stalking me I, well, I still liked his car. So I married a guy whose dad had one that ran.”

Llornkcor has a friend who “fixed leaky fuel injectors on a Saab with Super Glue and duct tape! Well, mostly fixed. At least there wasn’t a puddle of fuel anymore.”

Jason Castriota’s cutting-edge designs had promise for Saab’s future. (Jim Motavalli photo)But Saab ownership stories conjure mixed emotions, not simply addressed by an “old ones were good and new ones bad” equation. Dagosa had a 96 like mine, but an even older one with the two-stroke engine (which required mixing the oil with the gas). His car “seized up at 70 mph on the interstate, 30 miles from the nearest exit in northern Maine.”

Brotherratt went through hell with his 1969 99, with big bills for the head gasket, clutch, tranny “and various other letdowns.” For him, the “worst car I ever owned” was definitely a Saab story. “I have NEVER been tempted to spend one cent on another Saab,” he said.

On Car Talk’s Facebook page, Ralph Ellsworth bought a “beautiful” 9000 CSE, which now has more than 250,000 miles on it. “I love my 9-5,” he adds.

Erika Lehmann loved her Saab 900, bought “very used” in 1987 “because James Bond drove one in a then-recent movie.” Of course, the car caught fire, died in awkward places, and cost a fortune to fix. “And yet we remained loyal to it for years,” she said, perhaps questioning her own judgment.

And then there’s Spencer Kinder, who’s happy with his Sportcombi, which reminds him of his first car, a Saab 900. But now he’s worried about getting his car serviced. I’d be worried about that, too, if there was still a Saab in my driveway.

For a quick recap on the drama over the Saab bankruptcy, here’s the story from Cars.com.
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