What's Next for the Swedes

Jamie Kitman
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Volvo S60 and Saab 9-5

So these two Swedes, Volvo and Saab, walk into a bar. Long story short: Plenty of crazy stuff happens before they depart, worse for wear and unable to walk out under their own steam. But, praise Thor and the other Norse gods, they're still with us now.

Originally an aircraft manufacturer, Saab got into the car business in 1946. An early adopter of front-wheel drive and turbocharging, it has always been known for its uniquely freewheeling ways. For example, in vehicles equipped with its earliest two-stroke engines, the driveshafts were disengaged at speed to save fuel and, more important, to spare the engines from gre-nading. Volvo, for its part, was grounded in more stolid engineering from the time it started building cars back in 1927 (Volvos were rear-wheel drive until the early 1990s, for instance).

By the time they bellied up to the American market during the foreign-car explosion of the 1950s, both Saab and Volvo were focused on safety and efficiency -- the purest form of idiosyncrasy for midcentury America. Despite their cars' homely virtues, each automaker, in its own way, traded on an offbeat sportiness borne of Sweden's rally mind-set rather than America's drag-strip mentality. By the 1960s, both had established firm toeholds with this country's left-of-center enthusiasts, making the United States their biggest export market.

That's where the Kitman family came in. My parents scored a Volvo 122S (identical to the one I own now) in 1966, and we held on to it until the late 1970s, when I wrecked it. A Saab 99LE, which seemed to better embody the iconoclast spirit than did early-'70s Volvo 140s, was up next, followed by a 99EMS, a 900, and, finally, a 9000.

But as time went on, Saab and Volvo had come in so far from the cold, we Kitmans were less interested. While their cars grew in size and speed and their market penetration expanded, comparatively modest sales volumes limited resources and product development. Ultimately, their resolve -- and their reserves -- wavered. By the late 1980s, growing consolidation in the auto industry saw both plucky Swedes fearing for their corporate lives, a panic that eventually sent them running into the arms of strong American suitors. Or so the Yanks seemed then.

General Motors swallowed Saab in 1990 amid great hoopla and then cut it off at the knees. It sucked the life out of the boutique operation, which perpetually lost money, before eventually sucking out its brains entirely by laying off engineers wholesale.

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