The Saab story begins with a question: What dates mark the beginning and end of the company? If you look at the digital equivalent of Saab’s headstone, it would display the dates, 1947-2011. But that marker would not represent the whole story, not by a long shot. Svenska Aeroplan AB, later shortened to SAAB AB, SAAB, and finally restyled Saab, was founded in 1937, beginning life as an airplane manufacturer. Already, complication enters the story.
Innovation Takes Flight
To many people, Saab is known as an innovative company. But that innovation does not exclusively have to do with automobiles. Saab was in the business of war. They were all about aerospace technology. When Saab did start making cars, they wanted the car to feel like a plane. You can decide for yourself whether or not that was a good thing or a bad thing. Either way, that is what Saab understood best. Much of what they learned from aerospace made its way into their autos in the late 40s.
A New Day, A New Saab
If your business is war machines, what do you do when the war is over? This was a question with which Saab struggled. Automobiles was not the immediately obvious answer. Despite their success as an airplane maker, they were a relatively small company. They were considering everything from cars to kitchen appliances. Fortunately, cars won out, even if it wasn’t by much.
Saab had no experience with automobile design. Saab’s first car was designed by 16 aircraft engineers, 15 of which did not even have a driver’s license. That said, this lack of familiarity may have helped them exceed the limitations of someone who was more familiar with what wasn’t practical or possible.
In 1949, the first Saab car was produced. It was called the 92. Right out of the gate, Saab’s aerospace know how was paying off. The 92 had low coefficient drag making it very aerodynamic. The success of the vehicle led to the 93 in the mid-50s. The 1950s also saw the introduction of a fastback profile, a 33 hp 2 stroke engine, the Grand Turismo 750, and a 7 seat wagon.
Decades of Success
Saab established themselves as an important part of the international market with the introduction of the 96. Made in the 60s, it had a 20 year production run. Saab had finally arrived. Not content with mere arrival, Saab became a leader of innovation.
The brand defining hatchback with fold down seat can be traced back to the 99 Combi Coupe of 73. The 99 Turbo led the way to harnessing turbo in production cars. Those turbo cars would prove to be quite popular in the U.S. among the affluent and upwardly mobile of the day.
Adding safety to its pedigree, Saab brought us the cabin air filter, the rear three point safety belt, and rear side impact protection. New technologies like heated seats and active head restraints also came along for the ride. Although Saab is no longer in business, those cars from the early 70s and 80s enjoy strong popularity to this day. In the Saab loving community, it is no secret that those DI coils were somewhat unreliable. Fortunately, the SAAB direct ignition coil can still be purchased at reasonable prices. Forty years later, that is a testimony to the success enjoyed by the company.
It is not clear why the company sold out to GM. In 1990, GM bought half of the company. By the early 2000s they bought the rest. Compared to decades of its meteoric rise, the fall was hard and fast. The products had become stale and derivative.
GM went bankrupt, Saab was dumped, developing the reputation as damaged goods. After a failed deal or two, Spyker Cars acquired them. But even that fell apart soon after. In 2011, Saab filed its own bankruptcy, ending an era of success and innovation.
No one would call a 77 year marriage a failure regardless of how it ends. The same should be true for a 77 year company. Saab’s one really bad decision was to sell out to GM. Dying sooner and with dignity would have been better in hindsight. But the world is a better place because Saab was in it. And because of enthusiasts, it still lives on.