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.
By Gunnar Björck
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.
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 the critical phase, and GM is making the deal contingent on Project 102 being able to fit on 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! Project 102 as a dowry on which the brand's fate would depend.
30. November and 1. December 1989. Rüsselsheim.
The fact that GM did not want to invest in a big way even then should have made everyone involved think. But where was the alternative? The pressure was probably too great, and so Per Gunnar Björck in November 1989 sent on the trip. Under the greatest secrecy. Off to Germany, 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 transmission is supposed to 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. Saab Automobile AB is founded two weeks later, 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.
Project 102 becomes 104.
The project 102 has saved Saab. With the entry of GM, the project code of 102 changed into 104 and the actual drama takes its course. Optimistic estimates suggest that 50% of development performance 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 side is a platform that only seems appropriate. But that does not meet the Saab requirements. At the time, Opel was building vehicles beyond the safety mindset 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 1990 just does not know it better.
Saab is modifying the Vectra A base to achieve the desired results. Anyone who has ever looked at both vehicles from below, does not recognize a relationship. The Saab has braces where the Vectra is a maximum of thin sheet metal. Safety first.
Many parameters that are considered to be fixed have to be redesigned and tested. The design suddenly doesn't fit either. The rear of the 900 II is being redesigned by designer Einar Hareide, who gave up his summer vacation. In retrospect, it was sheer 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
While development on Project 104 is in full swing in Trollhättan, GM is returning with an iron broom. The factory in Malmö will be closed and the infinite vertical range of manufacture at Saab will be eliminated. So far, what you can do yourself has been done by yourself. With confidence in quality and because the structures have grown in that way. GM sells, outsources, and after a short time 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 your way around in this structure becomes a problem - especially later when starting production, quality assurance and series production. Yet it is not so far. The schedule is tight. The first prototypes are scheduled for completion in May 1991 and the second generation in November. In March 92, the third generation of prototypes had to hit the streets, and at the turn of the year 92/93 the pre-series rolled off the assembly line. Week 31 of 1993 is scheduled to start 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.