When I bought my first Saab, a classic 1992 S Sport, in 900, the new 9000 CS was already rolling into the showrooms. With Trionic engines, unique, and probably the most advanced thing you could have for money back then.
What I didn't want to understand at the time was why the drives from Södertälje didn't appear in other models from the GM group. As of 1990, Saab was 50% one of the Americans who had been in charge of Göta Älv ever since. Instead, with a few exceptions, Opel only offered average goods and no gourmet food from Sweden.
In my youthful naivete, I suspected the engines were manufactured exclusively for Saab, but I was wrong. In reality, Opel management was already sabotaging Saab back then wherever it could and would have preferred to close the engine plant in Sweden today rather than tomorrow.
A Saab engine in Holden?
The little known story behind it was the following: In the year 1993, the GM daughter Holden started the search for a smaller engine for the Commodore. For a possible export offensive in various Asian countries, the used 3.8 liter V6 from Buick was not suitable, tax regulations demanded for smaller displacements. At Holden, there was a great deal of hope in opening up new markets; a powerful engine less than 2.4 liters of displacement would have been ideal. The developers identified two possible candidates: The slightly too large Opel 2.6 liter V6 from English production. Or the Saab Turbo with 2.3 or 2.0 liter.
The direct comparison of both machines was clearly based on the engines from Sweden. More modern, more efficient, and with the possibility of installing both the small and the large machine in the Commodore without changes. The costs also spoke in favor of the Saab construction, and so Neil Pogson and his colleague Russ Little made their way to Sweden in May 1993.
They visited the relatively new production facility in Södertälje, which at the time was an impressive high-tech factory. Production was underutilized at the time and Saab Management was very interested in the Holden project. Close cooperation seemed logical on both sides, and the Australians sent weeks later two Commodore for engine installation in Sweden.
In February 1994, Pogson and Little were back at Göta Älv and inspected the progress in prototype construction. The B234 engine had to be installed lengthways and not crosswise as usual, which resulted in some modifications. And then you also needed a suitable automatic transmission for the Commodore. No problem, because the GM shelf was full. From Sweden, the Australians traveled to Frankfurt and on to the transmission plant in Strasbourg.
The GM Hydramatic 350 transmission was to be installed in the Commodore with Saab engine - and was obviously ideal for the 350 Nm of the Turbo from Sweden. But only on paper. The developers had specified their gearbox with 350 Nm, but, as you have to admit, only tested up to 280 Nm. At that time it was used at Opel with a maximum load of 260 Nm.
After much discussion, 300 Nm torque was accepted as clearance, the transmission sent to Sweden, and soon after, the first Holden Commodore with Saab Turbo engine traveled from Trollhättan to Australia.
Opel makes front against the Holden-Saab project
In the meantime, however, there was strong resistance to the project. The GM provincial princes wanted their own factories to run at full capacity. Who was interested in Saab and Holden's plans? In the forefront: Peter Hanenberger - at that time GM Vice President and Head of the Opel Development Center - takes a stand against the project. Hanenberger was on the road as a tough renovator and cost reducer, the entry into the decline of the Opel brand can also be linked to his person.
He would have liked to eliminate the Saab engine and replaced the turbos from Södertälje by Opel machines. Although he did not succeed in the following years, Saab rose to turbo competence center in the GM group. But he successfully torpedoed the Holden-Saab project.
Although the developers in Australia were enthusiastic about the Holden-Saab Commodore, the prototypes had to be scrapped with the arrival of the second vehicle. Instead, the 2.6 liter V6 was used. A very bad decision, because the Opel engine did not meet all tax and customs requirements in the targeted countries. The success was missing, the export offensive from Holden to Asia never took place.
In the end only losers
In the end there were only losers. Saab could not increase the number of units in engine construction, Holden could not open up any future markets. And Opel stayed on the machines. Hanenberger exemplifies the sad fact that Opel harassed Saab from day one wherever possible. Ultimately, he himself failed because of his brutal austerity program and, despite support from Detroit, did not become Opel boss in 1998. The powerful employee representatives on the Opel Supervisory Board had enough of his destructive course and prevented his appointment as CEO. Ironically, Peter Hanenberger was praised to Australia of all places. At Holden he is said to have done a good job.
Saab did not survive GM, nor did Holden. In October 2017 closed, after 69 years, the last Holden factory their doors. And Opel? After selling to the PSA Group, the French drive a consistent course. They realize what GM never did. Opel is fully integrated, the development center in Rüsselsheim filleted. PSA retains only one part in the Group, and transfers the rest to external service providers. The time of provincial princes, intrigues and one-on-one is over. The independence but also.
The complete Holden-Saab story has written down ex-Holden developer Neil Pogson in his memoirs. 10 pages with details, unique pictures and a hitherto little-known piece of Saab history are available here as Download.