What Saab Needs Now – a Modern-Day 96 (and a Miracle)
By Andy Bannister
Now that GM is in dire straits, naturally its small Swedish subsidiary could be an early victim of a wider cull promising very bad news for jobs and the industrial base of Sweden. The Scandinavian state’s other long-standing marque, Volvo, is also looking for a new owner after less than a decade in the stewardship of Ford.
With the turmoil in the world auto industry putting off many potential rival companies, who until recently might have snapped up the two marques, one possible (if unlikely-sounding) solution being touted is the nationalisation of both Saab and Volvo by the Swedish state.
The long-standing rivalry between the two companies made one previous attempt at a merger, way back in the 1970s, fall flat. Now, however, Saab looks very much the junior partner compared to the more modern and diversified Volvo line-up, with four times more Volvos sold than Saabs each year.
If Volvo and Saab were forced together, Saab would seem to offer very little in its current line-up to justify its continued existence except the powerful sentimental attachment to a badge which still proudly stands as a Swedish symbol.
Quite why GM has failed so badly to make Saab into anything approaching a global success story is mystifying. Although very much a niche player, the marque has always punched far above its weight, with a fanatically loyal following and an excellent image in many markets.
One crying shame that can’t be laid at GM’s door is the fact that the car that built Saab’s reputation, the little 96 (known as 95 in its even more quirky-looking station wagon version) died at the end of the 1970s without an effective replacement.
A sort of Swedish VW Beetle (though not anything like such a sales success), the teardrop-shaped 96 evolved from the earlier aircraft-inspired 92 and 93, starting off with a tiny two-stroke engine before inheriting a lusty German Ford V4 which saw it right through the 1970s.
In its later years the 96 was a car of great contradictions – slow but with an impeccable rally pedigree, expensive for its size but a great long-term investment, gloriously old-fashioned and not at all high-tech or ostentatious, but peerlessly dependable and appealing to buyers wanting a car with a real touch of class.
At the time of the little car’s demise, Saab’s management thought the way to go was to shift its market position upwards from the larger 99 model, which had already developed into the 900 and has gradually evolved into the current GM-derived 9-3. At a stroke, though, Saab surrendered a large part of its former customer base in Europe.
A remarkably half-hearted and ultimately disastrous attempt was made to replace the 96 and 95 with a five-door hatchback called the Saab-Lancia 600, a thinly-disguised Lancia Delta, at a time when Saab and Lancia’s parent company, Fiat, were sharing technology.
The flimsy and trouble-prone 600 was patently absurd as a successor to the 96, however, and was sold in Scandinavia only in tiny numbers before vanishing forever. It does, however, serve as a timely reminder of the folly of badge engineering (of which GM is also guilty with the more recent 9-2X and 9-7X).
Of course, the decision by Saab management at the time was based on commercial realities – the company was just too small to be able to develop its own new car without help, and was already committed to developing the larger 9000 with its Italian partner (which would market its versions as the Fiat Croma, Lancia Thema and Alfa Romeo 164).
When GM took 50% of Saab in 1990, prior to a full takeover, high hopes were raised of the company expanding into new market niches, and an obvious one was to produce a premium small car. Much later, with the Mini, BMW has shown such a route can be highly successful, and Audi, Mercedes and Volvo have also successfully gone down this road.
A car true to the size and the spirit of the 96 could have helped insulate Saab against the downturn in sales of larger models. Instead, while GM have produced some interesting concepts of future Saabs, precious little new product has been forthcoming.
Meanwhile, to confuse buyers still further, GM has squandered millions in a misguided attempt to introduce its Cadillac brand to European buyers, even designing a bespoke European small Cadillac, the BLS, based on Saab underpinnings and made in Sweden. Despite this, Cadillac sales have been universally dire.
Sadly, based on its current model portfolio, Saab does not look a very attractive proposition for a future buyer. At the same time, even if it wants to, GM may not be able to afford to keep a company which it has seemingly never understood and has never made it money.
With much bigger companies tottering on the precipice, Saab enthusiasts must be crossing every finger just now.
Writer’s note: For you Saab historians, the logo featured at the top of this article is the one used by Saab from 1967 – 1974.
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