Put this one in the “no good deed goes unpunished” file. Today, Spyker (the former owner of Saab, before Saab went belly-up last year) announced that it is suing GM for $3 billion for its role in Saab’s bankruptcy. Spyker had a sale lined up to China’s Youngman, but the sale required GM’s approval, which GM declined to give. You see, GM didn’t want to empower its competitors in the critically important Chinese market with its intellectual property just for the sake of nostalgia for Saab. As much as I liked Saabs, GM made the right big-picture decision for its own reasons. When Saab’s/Spyker’s interests are aligned with GM’s (as they were when GM sold Saab to Spyker initially), then all is rosy. But when those are in conflict, guess which one GM is going to pick? Guess which one any company, or any person, is going to pick?
When it was busy shutting down Saturn, Hummer, and Pontiac and intended to shut down its troubled Swedish subsidiary Saab, GM instead sold the company to high-end Dutch sports car maker Spyker. Spyker, despite never selling more than 50 cars per year and never making money, never mind also never running a 75,000-plus unit company or developing and selling much more mainstream cars, expected to bring Saab back from its near-death experience and insert it into a spot in the auto market crowded by mainstream brands like Ford and Honda on the low end and by BMW and Audi on the high end. In other words, Saab was destined to fail. And now, GM probably wishes it had just not bothered to sell Saab to Spyker in the first place.
We can argue until we’re blue in the face as to whether GM’s 20-year ownership of Saab was good for the Swedish automaker or not. The fact is, Saab would not have survived from 1990 through 2010/2011 as an independent automaker, yet its loss of independence also meant a loss of its unique appeal. (You know, to the tweed-jacketed college professors who stereotypically bought Saabs in the 1980s and 1990s). As Saabs improved, they also lost their “Saabness.” It meant that Saab could take advantage of GM’s purchasing power, but also that they shared parts with Opels. And Chevrolets.
Spyker certainly had some high hopes for the Saab brand when it closed the deal. But they were seriously unrealistic. You’ll recall that at the time the Spyker sale had closed, Saab was already in liquidation. There had been no new cars produced for several weeks. When Spyker took over, they were faced with nearly re-launching Saab on a shoestring budget. They had to develop a replacement for the nearly decade-old 9-3 and pay GM for its intellectual property on the 9-5, and pay GM to build the 9-4x in Mexico. Oh, and its break-even sales were in the six-figure range, a number not reached in years, and certainly not very likely to occur after production had ended for weeks and had to be re-started, and with the company’s entry-level model nearing the end of its life cycle, and being frighteningly short of cash.
So, when Saab finally succumbed to the inevitable, and couldn’t seem to scrape together enough cash to pay its employees, or its creditors (among them: GM) and had to halt production, it was hardly GM’s fault. Without making any new cars for something like seven months in 2011 before finally calling it quits, how exactly did Saab management think it would (if you’ll forgive the “Born from Jets” metaphor) pull out of a terminal nosedive?
Well, Victor Muller (Spyker’s CEO and Saab’s former one) is nothing if not an optimist. Back in October 2011, he flopped between calling the Youngman deal “…very good news for Trollhättan, very good news for Saab,” only to later become an I-told-you-so realist a few days later: “I warned about this all the time. It required no great knowledge to predict this. I warned the Chinese all along that they wanted something that would not go down well at GM.” (Thanks to TTAC for the extensive archive of Saab-related articles, including this one.)
If Muller knew that it would be tough to get GM to agree to Saab licensing GM’s technology to a Chinese firm that would be its competitor, why would he even try? And what makes him think that his lawsuit would be successful? After the Saab adventure (though not necessarily because of it), Spyker is no more flush with cash than it was before it. In fact, an anonymous third party is funding the lawsuit, since Saab itself is in receivership, and Spyker can’t afford the millions of dollars in legal bills that this lawsuit has cost and/or will cost.
If Saab was so sure that GM’s approval was not required for its sale, including its allegedly internally-developed “Phoenix” architecture, why wouldn’t it have pressed on with the sale anyway? Did its potential Chinese partner, Youngman, see something that Saab didn’t? It’s hard to see this ending well for Saab or Spyker, but we’ll have to see what the court has to say. At any rate, don’t expect a resurrection of the Saab brand regardless of the outcome of the trial. The $3 billion would pad Spyker’s pockets and those of some of Saab’s creditors (plus the anonymous third-party investors in the lawsuit’s), but most of Saab’s assets (excluding the Saab name and GM intellectual property, natually) have already been sold by court administrators to the China/Japan-based Electric Vehicle Consortium.