As I write, Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget AB, or li’l ol’ Saab, appears to have been saved by Spyker, the obscure Dutch maker of obscure supercars, rapid machines whose desirability is nevertheless itself so obscure that only twenty-three people bought one in the first six months of last year. The Swedish automaker appears to have been spared the indignity of having its life support removed and being left to die. But that is not to say all is well in Trollhättan, a fact reflected in the reported $74 million sale price, hundreds of millions less than GM paid for the once-great Swedish firm.
You can go around pointing fingers (and I do), but one of the reasons that worldwide depressions are so depressing is that they claim innocent victims. The individuals and institutions left standing aren’t always the best or the brightest. Often they’re just the richest. The simple truth is that the longer you can hold on – largely a function of how much money you have to begin with – the more likely you are to survive downturns. When the great bubble of 2008 burst, it was Saab’s cruel misfortune to be a ward of General Motors, which planned as badly for itself as it had for Saab.
It didn’t have to be this way. But for the global financial meltdown, someone might have stepped up to buy Saab. But to say that GM didn’t do right by Saab would be a gross understatement. Among the hundreds of proofs, none resonates more vividly than the 9-7X, one alphanumeric word that’s worth 1000 pictures. This first-ever Saab SUV, a barely disguised Chevy Trailblazer (in which iteration it also failed miserably), was an egregious violation of brand values. It was, in terms of misunderstanding one’s target audience, on par with showing up at a meeting of the College of Cardinals with a bag of weed and a transvestite musical revue.
Ironically, just when GM got Saab’s bread-and-butter 9-3 right, the plug was being pulled. The 9-2X, based on the Subaru Impreza, wasn’t a hit for Saab, which marketed it with zero enthusiasm, but it came closer to being the sort of car Saab should have been building than anything else the company had come up with. So, natch, it was killed first. A new, upscale smallster, the 9-1, looked like a brilliant Saab cast in just the right mold, but it never got out of the blocks and will now surely be too expensive for the new Saab Spyker to deliver.
Ah, woulda, coulda, shoulda. Knowing a thing or two about the Saab brand and what it meant back when has made its descent incredibly painful. My parents chose Saabs serially from the mid-1970s through the early ’90s, beginning with a couple of 99s (my personal favorites), then a 900, and finally a 9000 Turbo.
I have particularly vivid memories of my father Marvin’s silver 99EMS. I liked it so much that I secretly had a spare key made. Sometimes, after my parents went to bed, I’d borrow the “Extra Marvinish Saab” to go cruising with my pals. But then I got busted – unbeknownst to me, Dad had zeroed out the trip odometer in preparation for a business trip, awaking to proof that I’d driven his car 87.4 miles while he slept. The good news was that he wasn’t mechanically inclined, otherwise he might have realized that I’d also clipped a curb with the left-front wheel, busted a shock mount in a pothole, and over-revved the engine while generally overtaxing his gearbox practicing my left-foot braking and clutchless shifting.
When GM bought Saab, the rot quickly set in, and my parents were out. A string of Subarus followed before they became Mini people, giving some insight into the psyche of the original Saab loyalists, whom GM sent screaming from its showrooms.
It’s easy to forget that GM bought Saab in a fit of pique after it failed to acquire Jaguar, having been beaten to that prize-winning cash inferno by Ford. As if Jaguar and the Swedish firm were equivalent, as if the maker of Chevy Berettas and Pontiac Sunbirds was going to take Saab upscale in its spare time. It’s hard to remember when American car companies were so wealthy, so fickle, and so cocky. They’d pile into new businesses like aircraft, or exotic European brands they didn’t understand, or markets like China, and wind up staring at their purchases like compulsive power shoppers crashing after a binge.
But in the car world, all sales are final. We wish Spyker all the best, but for GM, guilty now only of attempted brandicide, the charges could get more serious.
By Jamie Kitman
Illustration: Tim Marrs