Unknown - the unfortunate Holden-Saab story

When I bought my first Saab, a classic 1992S Sport, in 900, the new 9000 CS were already rolling into dealer showrooms. With Trionic motors, unique and probably the most advanced thing you could have for money at the time.

What I didn't understand at the time was why the Södertälje drives didn't appear in other GM Group models. From 1990, Saab belonged to 50% of the Americans, who have 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 the Holden Commodore
A Saab engine in the Holden Commodore. Photo Credit: Neil Pogson

A Saab engine in Holden?

The little-known story behind it was as follows: In 1993, the GM subsidiary Holden started the search for a smaller engine for the Commodore. The 3,8 liter V6 used by Buick was not suitable for a possible export offensive to various Asian countries, as tax regulations required smaller displacements. At Holden, great hopes were attached to opening up new markets; a powerful engine with less than 2,4 liters displacement would have been ideal for this.

The developers identified two possible candidates: The somewhat oversized Opel 2,6 liter V6 from English production. Or the Saab Turbo with 2.3 or 2,0 liters.

The direct comparison of both machines was clearly for 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 any modifications. The costs also spoke for the Saab construction, and so Neil Pogson and his colleague Russ Little made their way to Sweden in May 1993.

Holden Saab Project - visit to Södertälje

They visited the relatively new production facility in Södertälje, which must have been an impressive high-tech factory at the time. Production was not fully utilized at the time and Saab management was extremely interested in the Holden project. Close cooperation seemed logical to both sides, and weeks later the Australians sent two Holden Commodores to Sweden for engine installation.

In February 1994, Pogson and Little were back at Göta Älv, surveying the progress of the prototype construction. The B234 engine had to be installed lengthwise and not across as usual, which necessitated some modifications. And then you also needed a suitable automatic transmission for the Commodore. No problem, because the GM shelf was well stocked. From Sweden, the Australians traveled to Frankfurt and on to the gearbox factory 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.

Holden Saab project - Opel makes front

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 preferred to eliminate Saab engine construction and replace the turbos from Södertälje with Opel machines from Kaiserslautern. Although he did not succeed in the following years, Saab rose to become the turbo competence center in the GM group.

But Hanenberger 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 didn't survive GM, neither did Holden. In October 2017, after 69 years, the last Holden factory closed its doors. And Opel? After the sale to the PSA Group, the French are following a consistent course. They realize what GM never did. Opel is completely integrated, the development center in Rüsselsheim filleted. PSA only keeps part of it within the group and passes the rest on to external service providers. The time of provincial princes, intrigues and going it alone is over.

However, that of independence too.

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.

17 thoughts on "Unknown - the unfortunate Holden-Saab story"

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    My car history from 1985, was | I bought my 1st Saab 9000 in 1985, a 9000i, oh I did not think it was a good car, far to slow (No turbo) …………

    I had seen a super looking car in the Sunday paper supplements in full color, and I loved the look of this 1986 OPEL Monza GSE…. but did not have money to buy new…. I found a 1 yr- 2 month old one for £ 8000.

    I owned this Opel for another year, and have to say, we have a saying in the UK it is “it was a Friday afternoon car”, and everything went wrong on that car, but that is another story …… ..

    Then on 1987 I saw this big Gold thing, pass me one day and I thought that looks nice, it was a SAAB 9000 SE (a special UK version, which had the original wood veneer door caps / Dash & gear select etc, installed especially in / for the UK.
    I had a Saab body kit on the car, which made it into a Carlsson lookalike.

    That B202 2L turbo engine was like a fire in your bum, boy put your foot down @ 50mph, and the nose went up, the ass sat squat, and it took off… .. outrunning anything else around ……

    Memories, eh !!

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    Very interesting, thanks

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    For me it is - as far as I know or have read - rather “the other way around” ...
    ... here is a “Holden” in the Saab and brings me wherever I want every day ... .. 😉

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      Conversely, it worked. And it is a good engine!

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      Yes, conversely, it worked. In my last Saab, an 9-3 SC with 2,8 liter, 6 cylinder was the engine of Holden. The car was pure driving pleasure. I still mourn for the car, but in the end it was not economical anymore. Well and you know the story, for lack of supplies since 2011, I'm now sitting in the Volvo. And the bad thing is I've gotten used to it and find it actually pleasant. But just this, my last Saab, was just a car that could arouse emotions.

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        After all, you still drive as Swedish as it is on the new car market today.

        On large parking lots, I let my eyes wander over and try to discover Sweden. Even if the parking lot is well filled, it often only succeed because one of my two is there.

        I don't know the registration numbers, but it feels like there are fewer and fewer Volvos on the road. I see more Volvo and Scania trucks than Swedish cars. Sad …

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          The current Volvos (V90, XC90, XC60) are selling well. Especially with the 90er models Volvo was able to woo some customers of German manufacturers.

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            Thanks for the information. Reassuring ...
            With the S90 I had two and the V90 only one encounter in the wild. In the same period, I saw more SAAB 9-5 NG than the V & S90 put together. That makes you pensive ...

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            According to my - not numerically verified - impression, I always see very, very many Volvo cars here in HH on the few kilometers to the office, at least significantly more than Opel, for example. 🙂 Even on my route to HRO and back today, there were a lot of them, but unfortunately not a single Saab 🙁 (apart from the few that you can still see in HH, luckily). Although I personally don't think the Volvo density is that great: You practically only see these new ugly, totally clunky and somehow completely inconsistent in design huge SUVs. Besides, they're Chinese anyway….

            I HATE SUVs (absolutely unaesthetic would-be tractors and “off-road” -cuts that are totally insane in the city and always block your view, especially since their drivers always choose the models with Mafia window tint and without indicators) and LOVE them Blog! Oh, that was good! 😉

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    Typical Opel stop. Have never had a look for the essentials.

  • blank

    Interesting article.
    GM has broken Saab but also Opel GM would put at the door this Peter Hanenberger never knew. If he is still alive he will behave, if he has already left he may turn around to the grave.

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    Great interesting story! First the picture puzzle, now the background information about it. The arc of tension has now closed. Many Thanks!
    I love the Saabblog!

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      Who does not love him?

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        Well, what's going on today? Thanks for that!

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    Pure excitement!
    Great article, thanks for the until now unknown information and details.
    Incredible that such destructive interests of a “provincial prince” were possible within a corporation ...
    SAAB certainly offers more such “background” information ..., for example, about the various SUV attempts.
    Sunny day!

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    Abyssal backgrounds

    I never understood that the SAAB engines could not prevail within the (GM) group. Even less, however, that the SAAB brand was also watered down and condemned to build and offer 1993-cylinders from GM in the 1994 and 6 from 900/9000, which were inferior to their own four-cylinder in all aspects - ecologically anyway, despite more cylinders and displacement even in terms of performance ...

    Allegedly, the group wanted to underline the premium claim of the SAAB brand with higher numbers of cylinders and “better” engines. A Trojan horse. The fact that GM, Opel and Holden ultimately put this Trojan on their own farm is only a weak, but also a certain consolation.

    Either the decision-making level in the (GM) group actually lacked technical expertise, algebra at primary school level and the required foresight, or it was simply too much influenced by personal influence and driven by internal power issues to even think clearly and to be able to do the right thing?

    The bottom line is a very sad post. But also well researched and enlightening. Many Thanks!

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    That is the problem that badly managed corporations die of - internal perspectives are always placed above what could be of use to the customer.

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