Features: Cameron Gibson’s – Saab: you moved my mind

This is a sad day for Saab. The worst.’ This is how Saab explained the feeling expressed at Trollhattan following the Saab’s bankruptcy and subsequent closure. That feeling which the workers felt was also felt around the world by many a Saab enthusiast, myself included.  That day signaled the end of sixty years of car manufacturing and innovation at Trollhattan, and the end of one of the most characterful brands around.

Saab 92: Where it all started

Saab was one car manufacture which was very hard to categorise. It was more like a family than a huge international company. But if anything, this different approach to cars, the small family-like way they when around their business made them even more likable. Saab drivers are very loyal to Saab, and it’s not hard to see why; once you like one Saab, you’ll struggle not to grow attached to their cars -but why?

Erik Carlsson drove the 96 to many a rally win. Here, the 96 is pictured during the rare event of it not been on its roof.

For one thing Saabs design language is one which is functional, dynamic and very stylish. All Saabs, in some way, are beautiful.  It’s not immediately obvious, but spend some time and you’ll see the beauty. Take the 9-5, for example. Arguably it is very difficult, nearly impossible, to make a large, practical car beautiful. But Saab did it. The clamshell bonnet, that imposing grille which shouts ‘SAAB’ to all that it surveys, the headlights which curve round to the front wings, the blacked out pillars, the low roofline, the almost ice-like LED rear lights then two sporty exhausts –all these elements have been employed to hide the vast bulk of the 9-5, and does so very well. They also add interest to the design, and ultimately make the 9-5 a pleasant car to look at. I digress, but the point is, Saab made beautiful cars. From the 96, 99, 900 and 9000 to the latter day 9-3 and current 9-5, all are beautiful and are like nothing else on the road. But do not think that Saab were all ‘show and no go’ or ‘function following form’ –Saab’s beauty was more than skin deep.

Saab Sonnet: One of the most usual of all Saabs. It was a fibreglass sports car powered by the V4 engine found in the 96.

They prided themselves on making excellent turbocharged engines. They tamed the seemingly untamable, to the point that turbochargers were seamless in their delivery. Their love affair with the turbo started in the 1970’s when they launched the 99 Turbo. The 99 Turbo was a huge sales success matching safety, style, build quality to performance which monstered that of seemingly faster machinery. It could hit 0-60mph in 8.9 seconds, and then go on to a top speed of 122mph. This model was one which became something of a blueprint for future Saabs –fast, turbocharged, built almost to the point of being ‘over-engineered’, safe, stylish and affordable.

The car that ‘tamed the untamable’.

These aspects which made the 99 Turbo so successful continued to be passed down from generation to generation of Saabs. I remember my first Saab experience, which was being a passenger in a 9-3 Aero coupe. The power on offer and the sheer acceleration was mind-boggling, and the looks of it was outstanding too; Svelte, yet menacing. The experience was one which has stuck with me, and fired my passion for Saab.

Saab 9000: A very successful car for Saab. Penned by Giugiaro. Seen by many as one of the last ‘proper Saabs.’

The eye of detail in all Saabs is extraordinary. For example, it took 100 hours to make one Saab 900. This shows that Trollhattan made what could be considered handmade cars for a mass-produced market price. In 2011, Volkswagen managed to sell 5.1 million cars worldwide; Saab in contrast sold 19,659 cars worldwide. Not that this is a bad thing though, Saab was always a small volume manufacture. That volume is almost on par with a bespoke manufacturer, and to a degree, Saab was. Saabs really were the Engineers and Designers car. You could sense that the people who designed and made these cars loved them, and this love is clearly displayed throughout the design of them.

What could have been:The Aero X showcased Saabs new design for the 9-5. It’s 2.8 litre turbocharged engine ran on ethanol and produced 400bhp.

Saab always defied convention. They stuck with 2 strokes while everyone moved to multi cylinder units, they stuck with V4’s while everyone perfected cylinders in a straight formation.  If you’ve ever been a Saab, you’ll notice that most Saabs have the ignition near the handbrake on the centre console, why? Because an ignition barrel situated at the conventional location would, in a crash, smash your kneecaps. The location of the ignition is example of the logic Saab distilled in to every car. Things that Saab achieved were indeed different, but they were logical. Saab did things differently, and all the better for it.

They may have been leftfield, and may according to some have had some faults, but if anything this was why so many people loved them. I loved Saab’s individuality; very few people bought them compared to other cars. This meant that you were not following the crowd as it were. You were being an individual, much like your car. As for the ‘faults’ what faults? I see very few faults. True, Saabs may not be the sharpest drive, or the cheapest, or the most conventional of cars but this gave the cars something that is very rare now. Something I looked out for in any machine –soul. Saabs had character, an almost human quality, but now no longer.

The sad thing about Saab was that the bankruptcy was all too preventable. Of course, in hindsight, everything can be a matter of ‘things that could have been different’ but Saab really was. Just look at what Saab was going to produce, the 9-5 Sportcombi, the replacement for the 9-3 (which sounded excellent, apparently the most advanced Saab ever), the Mini rivalling 9-2, plus an executive express called the 9-6. With a portfolio like this, Saab would have been even more successful, and would have recaptured the innovation it once had. Who knew, maybe with the 9-2, Saab could have returned to the rally stages.

Saab 9-3s offered character over rivals

Their bankruptcy was indeed, very upsetting. The thought of the cars which rolled off the production line being some of the last Saabs ever, and then finally Trollhattan itself shutting down was just depressing. I remember the first time I saw the new 9-5. It was an Aero model, in Fjord Blue. I have wanted once ever since, however, now with Trollhattan closed that dream of owning one seems very unlikely.

As I write this, three parties are interested in buying the remainder of Saab. It is not hard to see why, Saab is valuable; it has the phoenix platform, one of the most modern and efficient factories available in the shape of the Trollhattan plant, a loyal customer base, and of course the Saab brand itself. I would love to see my beloved Saab alive again, so there is hope for a revival even in these dark, Saabless days.

Victor Muller and Jan Ake Jonsson photographed following Spyker’s purchase of Saab.

Saabs bankruptcy was not just a sad day for Saab, but the wider Saab family as well. Saab was a part of our lives, and now it is gone. However, Trollhattan many have fallen silent, but our love for Saab has anything but.

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One response to “Features: Cameron Gibson’s – Saab: you moved my mind

  1. They were always a bit quirky but owners loved them.
    Wasn’t there some connection with the engine in the Dolomite Sprint and one of the Saabs of that era?
    John

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