Money is tight with Saab's automotive division. In the late 80s the coffers are empty and investments are being postponed. You have to get by with what you have and, if in doubt, redesign it. For engines and gearboxes, for example.
Saab relies on 9000 on a transversely mounted unit of engine and transmission. Why? In the event of a head-on accident, the engine and transmission unit form an insurmountable barrier in front of the passenger compartment. An advantage over longitudinally installed engines that move in the crash in the direction of the passengers. And that's one of the reasons why Folksam Versicherung still rated the 9000 2017 as an average safe car.
Per Gunnar Björck takes the stage at Projekt 102
The new 900 will also get a transversely mounted engine, and that brings Per Gunnar Björck on the scene. He still lives in Trollhättan, near the Saab Museum, and he will play an important role in the Saab 900 saga.
New engines would actually have been necessary for the new Saab 900. The unit from the 9000 was 7 millimeters too long, but management refused to invest in engine development. Björck is instructed - in strictest secrecy - to find a way to shorten the engine. In the early summer of 1989 he went to work, partly in his private rooms, but also “undercover” on the company premises. He finds what he is looking for and saves almost 40 millimeters by relocating the oil pump.
Meanwhile, talks between Saab AB and GM are entering a critical phase, with GM making completion conditional on Project 102 fitting onto an Opel platform. In addition, Saab must be able to present the 1993 successor by 900 at the latest. No new Saab, no deal. Hard bandages! The Project 102 as a dowry on which the fate of the brand would depend.
November 30 and December 1, 1989 – Ruesselsheim
The fact that GM didn't want to invest on a large scale back then should have given everyone involved something to think about. But what was the alternative? The pressure was probably too great, and so Per Gunnar Björck was sent on a journey in November 1989. In the utmost secrecy. Off to Germany, off to Rüsselsheim!
At the Opel headquarters it should be clarified whether project 102 will fit on the Vectra platform. The future of Trollhättan depends on it. The Saab drive unit is 96 millimeters too wide, but Björck can save around 40 millimeters on the engine. The gearbox should contribute an additional 58 millimeters, which corresponds to the difference plus a few millimeters for the production team. The "feasibility study" carried out in an urgent procedure gives the green light. Two weeks later, Saab Automobile AB is founded and GM takes a 50% stake in Trollhättan. You can read about the exciting days of Per Gunnar Björck in the book "Saab 900, a Swedish story" by Anders Tunberg.
Saab project 102 becomes 104
The Project 102 saved Saab. With the entry of GM, the project code changes from 102 to 104 and the real drama begins. Optimistic estimates suggest that 50% of development effort could be transferred from 102 to Code 104. Engine and transmission, safety, design and rigidity and the Saab organization scheme of the development teams are to be adopted.
On the other hand there is a platform that only seems appropriate. But it does not meet the Saab requirements. At that time, Opel produced vehicles beyond the safety thinking of the Swedes, the Vectra is not in the price segment of a Saab 900. Today you would not use an economy platform for a premium vehicle. But in 1990 you just don't know any better.
Saab modifies the Vectra A base to achieve the desired results. Anyone who has ever looked at both vehicles from below will see no relationship. The Saab has struts where the Vectra has maximum thin sheet metal. Safety first.
Many parameters that are considered fixed must be redesigned and tested. The design suddenly doesn't fit anymore either. The rear of the 900 II is being redesigned by designer Einar Hareide, who gave up his summer vacation. In hindsight it was pure madness to adapt an almost finished concept to another platform. But for Saab it was the only chance.
Meanwhile, beyond Sweden
In the 90 years, the car industry is changing drastically. Where previously technicians had the shots, take over more and more merchants and marketing the command. This has implications, even with Saab. Market surveys suggest that Saab would have more chances with a sedan than with a hatchback.
Uncertainty arises, and Car Clinics are organized. Also in Germany. One of my business partners at the time is invited. Saab shows a hatchback and a notchback. The notchback fails. His comment: “I could buy a BMW right away”. He has no idea that GM wants to go exactly there with Saab. And nobody else suspects that. He won't buy a BMW later either. But also no other Saab, but remain true to its red Saab 900 Cabriolet for many years to come.
GM cleans up at Saab
While in Trollhättan the development of the project 104 is running at full speed, GM returns with an iron broom. The plant in Malmö is closed and the infinite vertical integration at Saab is eliminated. What you can do yourself, has been done by yourself up to now. Trusting in quality and because that's how the structures have grown. GM sells, spins off, and before long the workforce has shrunk by a good 50%.
This is relatively silent, but has an impact on the 104 project. While problems have so far been solved by going across the yard to the next department and discussing changes on the small service route, one suddenly finds oneself within a worldwide organization. A culture shock for the Swedes. The colleagues across the yard are still there. Only works on the factory site, but not for Saab. But for a supplier, which must be requested via the GM structure.
Finding one's way around in this structure becomes a problem - especially later at the start of production, during quality assurance and series production. Yet it is not so far. The schedule is tight. The first prototypes should be ready in May 1991, and the second generation in November. In March 92 the third generation of prototypes had to be on the road, and at the turn of the year 92/93 the pre-series rolled off the assembly line.
The 31st week of 1993 is planned as the start of production.
Saab keeps the schedule, but is perhaps a little too fast on the way. Then problems arise that were not included. And the press scatters alternative facts. More in the last part of the Saab 900 II trilogy.