Who killed Saab?: A brief look at the life and death of a very unique car company

Although I tend to have an affinity for American cars, there are a few foreign marquees that hold a special place in my heart, and the weird little cars made by Saab are without a doubt some of my all-time favorites. The hatchbacks, sports coupes and sedans built by this tiny car company based in Trollhattan, Sweden, have always had a bit of rebellion to them. It’s true that some of their designs may look less than mean, if not downright dorky, but the whole “born from jets” concept has almost always been a true sentiment, as these little beasts could move and handle with the agility of a bomber.

Saab effectively closed up shop in 2011 when GM officially gave up trying to make the company profitable and several deals to salvage the name fell through. It wasn’t that the designers at Saab couldn’t make an attractive car with the potential for mass appeal, but they simply refused to get along with others.

It all started back in 1978 when the company entered in a deal with Fiat to offer a rebadged version of the Lancia Delta as the Saab 600. It seemed like a good idea at first, although the engineers at Lancia greatly underestimated the perfectionist ways of the Saab designers. These guys misunderstood the idea behind a “rebadge” – a habit they would ultimately never shake – and instead ended up making so many changes to their version of the Delta that it was hardly even the same wheelbase.

When Lancia tested their Delta sedan-hatchback for quality and safety, the engineers deemed the car a complete success. Saab’s engineers, however, thought quite the opposite, and would spend years making tweaks to the platform before they would ultimately produce a car they were satisfied with through the collaboration. It wasn’t until 1985 that any real fruit came out of the deal when they introduced the Saab 9000. Although the shape of the car wasn’t that dissimilar from the Lancia, it came with safety features – like a massive bumper and much more solid cage – that would put the Delta to shame.

In 1989, when GM bought a 50 percent stake in the company, they foolishly offered up a scenario where Saab could replace the aging 9000 at little to no cost – rebadge the popular economy car, the Opel Vectra. Opel, essentially GM Europe’s German-bred Chevy equivalent, handed the car over to the guys in Trollhattan and expected a few cosmetic differences. When the GM designers showed up to see what Saab had been working on, they were shocked to see the 900, a hatch that not only looked nothing like the Vectra, but was superior in almost every way.

With the help of the 900, Saab actually was able to turn a profit by 1995 for the first time in seven years. However, by the end of the decade, GM had decided to exercise its right to purchase the stubborn little Swedish car maker and was planning to reel in the imaginations of the engineers markedly.

Although the new 9-3 sedan, which was introduced in 2003, was a cooperative effort between GM Europe and Saab, the company was given little freedom to develop original models. Instead, the badge engineered 9-2x (aka the Subaru WRX) and the 9-7x (aka the Chevrolet Trailblazer) were introduced stateside, both ultimately being commercial and critical failures.

When it came time to replace the 9-5, GM wouldn’t even offer Saab a new platform to replace the 15-year-old wheelbase underpinning the current model. Before the model was released, Detroit sent out one of their engineers to evaluate why the company was losing money over in Sweden and to test drive the “new” sedan that the engineers had been working on. When this designer got behind the wheel, he realized that almost all of the parts in the cabin were original to the car and not shared with other vehicles as GM had expected – a costly venture for a cult brand. This was when GM decided to scrap the brand and sought other investors to take the struggling but beloved Saab brand under their wings.

What resulted were a series of failed starts and stops, with offers coming and going that never seemed to satisfy both parties. In most instances, GM wasn’t willing to part with the technology they had acquired through the collaboration with the Swedes, or the price wasn’t worth the hefty investment they had made to foster the Saab name.

Saab will allegedly return as an all-electric company later this year after the name was purchased by Chinese-Japanese consortium National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS) in June 2013, but there are still a number of hurdles facing the companies return. For starters, the insignia have still not been cleared, and GM refuses to give NEVS the mechanical specs of the 9-5 and 9-4x models. However, an all-electric version of the 9-3 is expected to return to the streets in 2013, according to NEVS, and a replacement called “Phoenix” is apparently in the design phase.

Are you a fan of the turbocharged cars that have been pumped out under the Saab badge over the past 65 years? Leave your thoughts below:

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