By Calvin Palmer
I have never owned a Saab car and now I never will. Today, General Motors announced it will shut down Saab after talks with a prospective buyer, the Dutch company Spyker Cars, broke down.
GM vice president John Smith said talks with the Swedish government and Spyker fell apart this morning. He declined to give the reasons.
Saab employs about 3,400 people worldwide, most of them work at its main plant in Trollhatten, Sweden. It also has a parts distribution center and a design center in separate locations in Sweden and an engine plant in Finland.
Saab has always been regarded as a car enthusiast’s car. In the early 1960s, it was the premier rally sport car, with Erik Carlsson chalking up a hat-trick of wins in the Monte Carlo Rally until the emergence of the Mini-Cooper S in 1964.
If you bought into a Saab, you bought into the brand for life. The editor on the first newspaper I workewd for swore by Saabs and drove nothing else until the newspaper’s parent company granted him a company car and told him he had to drive it. Ironically, it was a Vauxhall, GM’s British marque.
Saab was always a company that thought outside the box and introduced quirky design features such as the ignition being placed next to the handbrake between the front seats. The Saab 99, introduced in 1969, was the first production car to feature a turbo-charged engine.
GM bought a 50 percent stake and management control of Saab for $600 million after Saab split from Swedish truck maker Scania in 1989. It bought full ownership in 2000 for $125 million. But even after the GM takeover, Saab remained closely associated with Sweden and its history of making safe, reliable cars.
But under GM control, Saab cars lost a lot of the character that made them stand out from the crowd and from GM’s perspective never brought an adequate return on its investment.
GM has been trying to sell Saab since January. It was involved in talks with a consortium led by the Swedish sports car maker Koenigsegg Group AB, but Koenigsegg withdrew from the talks in November and GM turned to Spyker.
Smith said other buyers could possibly emerge, adding that the brand still has vehicles in development “that might be attractive to some folks”. But no such buyers have stepped forward and liquidation of the Saab brand will begin in early January.
Earlier this week, China’s Beijing Automotive Industry Holdings — originally part of the Koenigsegg consortium — announced it had agreed to buy some powertrain technology from Saab but has expressed no interest in buying the brand.
The Swedish government called GM’s decision “surprising and regretful”.
“It’s GM who took this decision, on their own grounds, and they have to answer to that by themselves,” Enterprise Minister Maud Olofsson said at a news conference in Trollhattan.
Representatives of the Swedish industrial workers’ union, IF Metall, declined to comment on the announcement.
Hakan Johansson, a Saab worker at the Trollhattan plant, told Swedish Radio that he was devastated by the news.
“It’s not a good Christmas gift,” he said.
Rebecca Lindland, auto industry analyst for the consulting firm IHS Global Insight, said, “This is a bad time to sell your house and it is a bad time to sell car companies.
“This market is incredibly challenging right now because these are capital intensive purchases.”
Sales of Saab cars reached an all-time high in 2006, when GM sold 133,000 cars globally. Sales slipped to 125,000 in 2007 and fell to 93,000 in 2008.
Saab sold 7,812 cars in the U.S. through November this year, down 61 percent from the same period last year. Most of those sales came from two models, the 9-7X SUV and the 9-3 sports sedan.
In an age of conformity, Saab brought something different to the mix and a viable option to those who did not wish to follow the BMW herd.
Today is a sad day for all those who love a touch of individuality in their cars.
As a final tribute to the Saab brand, here is a TV advert from the 1980s that trades on Saab’s jet aircraft heritage. The voice-over is by Anthony Quayle.