The GM period at Saab has finally ended on Friday. It is uncertain whether we will see a new owner for Saab, or whether cars will ever come off the assembly line in Trollhättan. The only certainty is that GM is outside. The Americans threw the door themselves after more than twenty years. Time to look back and time to clear up some prejudices. But be careful, it's a very long article and a good read for a rainy weekend!
The entry of a partner at Saab was unavoidable, but probably the marriage with GM was the worst of all possible solutions. Not for GM, because GM has benefited from Saab. Bad was the solution for the cult brand with the griffin.
A look back. The end of the 80s in Sweden. After negotiations with the Fiat Group were broken off, only GM remained as a partner. Even for the Detroit-based company, it wasn't love at first sight. For General Motors, Jaguar would have been the preferred partner, but then went to Ford.
Saab was doing really badly before the Americans joined, and without a new partner, the lights in Trollhättan would probably have gone out at the beginning of the 90s. The introduction of the Saab 900 successor, the first Saab based on GM, then happened too hastily, and - it was a disaster. Saab had already tested 900 II prototypes based on the Saab 9000, but this 900 would have been too big and therefore too close to the 9000.
Start with stationary bands
With David Hermann, 1990, the first Saab boss from the GM Group, moved into Trollhättan. Actually in Nyköping, because there was the then Saab headquarters. Hermann dismantled 2000 workplaces, relocated the headquarters from Nyköping to Trollhättan and closed the assembly plant in Malmö, which was only opened at 1989. Just two years later, Keith Butler-Wheelhouse replaced Hermann, reduced 16.000's workforce to 11.500, and prepared the launch of the new Saab 900.
Keith Butler-Wheelhouse came in a very difficult time for Saab, because from February to September 1993 the tapes at Saab practically stood still. He seems to have made a good impression in Trollhättan, however, because the “Butlers”, a trendy location, is named after him, and last year he gave an interview to the local newspaper about Saab.
The new 900, developed under time pressure, was a disaster, as already mentioned. Bad crash tests, bad quality, bad press! Millions for rework and warranty. Even famous Saab insiders didn't like the driving behavior of the first series. It got better with the Saab 9-3 I, which is a significantly improved and lifted Saab 900. Just more valuable, reliable, saabiger in many details.
Losses, Losses, Losses ...
Saab always made losses, except for a year. This is the common opinion, which we can read in every badly researched article. However, it is not the whole truth. GM is an association of accountants with an attached car department, so I've written that much before.
Saab had to make losses so that General Motors could offset the profits made in the Scandinavian countries in a tax-saving manner. It's easy, at least at GM.
1 example: Saab builds cars, ships them to the USA. The dealers sell the Saabs, the profit is added to the North American activities, the costs remain in Sweden.
2 example: Saab builds prototypes and show cars for the GM Group. For example, the Opel IAA studies were also built in Trollhättan for many years. The costs will be charged at Saab's expense.
Example 3: Cadillac BLS. GM provided the money for the development of this megaflops, booked on Saab. Saab develops and produces. At the same time, the 9-3 II benefits from it, which with the quality improvement measures becomes the reliable car that we value. However, the costs for both models contribute to 100% the Swedes.
The list would last forever. Costs to Sweden. Profits to Detroit. Wanted and for the Americans tax wise and legitimate. Just do not tell anyone, Saab could not have been profitable.
Who benefited from Saab?
First and foremost, it was the European subsidiaries, Opel and Vauxhall, who benefited greatly from the Saab knowledge. Example vehicle safety. The safety architecture of Opel vehicles in the early 90s was a disaster. What you could see on the first Saab 900 of the GM era. The bad marks in the Crah tests were at the expense of Opel architecture.
Swedish knowledge of safety technology has turned Opel and Vauxhall products into good and safe cars. Or the example of active headrests. An innovation from Sweden that benefited Rüsselsheim.
Or the Saab Turbo technology. With Saab, GM finally has stable turbos in its range. Whenever I see a new Opel Astra or Insignia with bold “Turbo” lettering in front of me, I have to smile. Stolen technology.
But, it wasn't all bad ...
Saab has also benefited from Opel, GM and Co., no question. GM has brought reliability to our Swedish vehicles, even if we don't like to hear it and some have suppressed it. The Saabs of the 90s required a high goodwill and guarantee budget. Even if we love our 900 series from the first series with passion. First customer expenses were in the thousands, and the old Saab dealers will surely remember it.
The grip on the corporate shelf, components from mass production, which can also have advantages.
Unloved & misunderstood
GM never understood what a unique rough diamond is in Sweden. The Saab story, the legacy from aviation, the glowing passion for turbo engines, the potential of Scandinavian design language, all undetected. For the managers from the American group, a transfer to the Swedish province was as attractive as a banishment to Siberia.
After the development of the Saab 9-5, interest leveled off noticeably, and with the appearance of the Saab 9-3 II, it became clear that Saab was not a priority in the Detroit realm.
Body versions were never built on the 9-3 II, even though they were fully developed. So for example the 9-3 II Coupe. The station wagon came late, the quality of the first 9-3 II was lousy. A result of the cost dictates from headquarters.
The Saab 9-3x finally came much too late, the successor to the Saab 9-5 was developed, stamped, newly developed. The Saab 9-7x was a quick shot, the Saab 9-6x was almost ready to go into series production and then was canceled.
It became more and more clear that GM didn't know what to do with its beautiful Swedish daughter. That was also the fault of the other, the jealous German daughter. Opel wanted to be premium right from the start of the new millennium. The mere fact of gluing a new radiator grille to an Opel, however, does not make it a premium. In Rüsselsheim, then as now, this was not understood.
The low point was reached when one wanted to build the new Saab 9-5 in Germany. At the pressure of a works council that only had Opel interests in mind, the flagship of a unique, Swedish design and luxury brand should really come from Opel City. The first body-in-white of the new 9-5 was actually pressed in Rüsselsheim, shipped to Trollhättan after the Saab sale, assembled there.
Misunderstood until the last day, that's the conclusion of the GM era.
We survived GM ...
Not all of the former GM daughters survived the care of the Detroit mother. Saturn, once an innovative US brand with a very interesting concept (thanks to Michael Helfer for the presentation ...), did not survive. Traditional brands like Pontiac are not, and neither are brands like Hummer that no one actually needed.
Saab survived GM.
If we say goodbye to the Americans, it will be without resentment! It is legitimate and accepted that you want to keep your licenses. The fact that our carmaker would probably not have existed in the 90s without GM's investment is due to the Americans. For that we say thank you, because we would all have had a lot less turbo-charged fun in our lives.
Saab also survived SWAN. After Americans and Dutch, the story continues.
Because the Saab Spirit is still alive! Sometimes more passionate than ever. Because Saab is unique, and Saab is more cult than ever. Saab is alive. In Trollhättan, Nyköping and also in Frankfurt, where there is activity and work is being done on the future. The spirit also lives on in many German dealers who live Saab every day. In the last few days, many Saab partners have sealed new agreements with Saab Parts AB, which secure the supply of spare parts and guarantee our mobility.
I've been closer than ever in the past few days and weeks. Live Saab, suffer and hope with Saab and with the employees! It's going to be tough in the future, it's not easy. No more castles in the air are built. There are no big promises either. It's good. Because the future is here and it has already started with many small steps.
The Saab story continues, to be continued ...