Mike Humble’s Column: Nothing on earth came close

Arguably, the 80s were the halcyon era for the motor trade, in fact, just the other day, a good friend of mine with over 25 years selling experience described to me that selling cars back then was ‘like shelling peas’. Of course, I have no reason to doubt him as I knew him from the massive Ford dealer we both worked at in 1988 – Airflow Streamlines PLC in Hopping Hill Northampton. Back then, it seemed that every taste and palette was catered for, and cars as dismal as the FSO or Yugo Sana rubbed shoulders with mainstream volume models like the Escort, Golf or Maestro. Some cars were just plain weird – take the Fiat Tipo for example, a car so bland on the outside yet bonkers on the inside (in DGT) format, but still sold in respectable numbers.

As a youngster, I applauded the idiosyncratic wonders of Citroen’s GSA or the sexy but flawed Lancia Beta HPE along with traditional masters of the road including the Rover 3500 SD1 or Audi 200, but one car manufacturer caught me hook, line and sinker thanks to clever and vivid advertising, superb engineering and exiting technology – SAAB. My first experience of SAAB was by means of walking into Findlay & Wilkes in Darlington some time in the early 80`s, the showroom had a marble floor and expensive looking wall lights giving the place a stunning retro feel from the 30’s. Carefully placed around the floor were huge pots containing rubber plants and outside, the awning was tastefully decorated with flower baskets. I had not come to view this visual treat of marble, glass and foliage however.

Superb engineering and technology made the 900 a hit

Looking resplendent in black (the ultimate 900 shade) stood the all new SAAB 900 16v Turbo and even aged 13, I simply knew I had met my first love and it would be a relationship as volatile as Burton & Taylor, but the love never died. Many who know me would state that I am a Rover man at heart, but if I search my hidden soul, my automotive allegiance is split 50/50 between these two brands. Over the years, I have owned four SAAB cars – every one of them offering comfort, character and that just so quirkiness that comes with the world of SAAB. I use the term ‘world’ simply because they were indeed – in their own world. The 80`s SAAB offered nothing that could remotely conform to the norm. Everything from the wipers right down to little items like the ignition key took on a unique SAAB slant of both form and function.

That glorious wrap around windscreen, the instruments and switches being a lesson in ergonomics and the back and up to open bonnet were symbols of SAAB SCANIA engineering and attention to detail – bonkers to some it may have seemed, but it all worked and above all, made perfect sense. The SAAB 900 became an icon in automotive engineering, and like the model before it – the 99, racked up some serious sales both here in the UK and in the States. Decades of rally success coupled with hard hitting advertising playing on the aviation background of the company without doubt, was one of the most vivid advertising campaigns ever launched by a car manufacturer with ‘Nothing On Earth Comes Close’ being a memorable strap line from some brilliant press & TV commercials.

The SAAB 16-Valve engine was thoroughly tested

Sitting here writing this, the hairs on my arms stand up and salute while I daydream about that transmission whine and urgent whistle from the turbo, both traits being very SAAB. Sadly, what made the cars so great became their ultimate downfall as the techno 80’s gave way to a new generation. SAAB had a massive engineering and research division which drew huge resources from the company coffers, as Europe entered a catastrophic recession, the parent company SCANIA suffered losses which if left to mount, would sink the whole group. The cars were very expensive to produce, and while this proved to be a good thing for image or customer confidence when they were in high demand, it also had a knock on effect of a slim profit margin at point of sale when the going got tough in the showrooms.

Well engineered cars meant a smaller profit margin for SAAB

In more recent times, a great deal has been said about how General Motors diluted and subsequently destroyed the brand, but on a personal level, I am inclined to disagree. After the car division became part of the GM group, some drastic and life saving action was taken into reducing the raw cost of the cars. The biggest problem faced was the time taken to build a car on the shop floor and GM introduced new methods of automated production and the use of common sourced parts such as brakes and suspension. After the launch of the new generation 900 range, it was a commonly known fact that this new model could be produced at a fraction of the time of the previous 900. Owners and SAAB critics panned the car for its cost cutting feel, bemoaning the loss of the spirit and idiosyncrasy so typical of SAAB.

That said, the new 900 was a sales hit thanks to it being affordable and visually SAAB looking, but it was not until the 9-3 launch in 1998 did SAAB return to some true form of solid engineering. Sadly, as more and more makers fell upon hard times, General Motors also found themselves fighting for survival. A niche brand like SAAB had no place in the GM empire, this historical Swedish brand had cost millions of US Dollars to simply keep afloat and GM could no longer afford to bail out a brand with a miniscule market and limited customer base. One can only hope that some form of salvation can be found, even if the Chinese resurrect the brand like our very own MG brand that would be good enough for me!

Tech Spec:

1985cc in line petrol four 99 – 175bhp with 8 or 16 valves

Front wheel drive

3 speed auto or 5 speed manual

All round disc brakes

Double wishbone front and beam axle rear suspension

3 or 5 door hatchbacks – 2 or 4 door saloons & 2 door saloon cabriolet

Timeline:

1st Generation 1978 to 1993

2nd Generation 1993 to 1998

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One response to “Mike Humble’s Column: Nothing on earth came close

  1. I don’t remember that Darlington dealership but the adverts were very memorable-the 900 in the quarry etc. I still hold the quiet ambition to own a Saab before I hang up my car keys and not many brands grip me like that. A good article by the way

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