O SAAB, where art thou?

The Saab 900 Viggen ©gm.com

In the animal kingdom, filial cannibalism is not something unheard of. House finches, wolf spiders as well as many species of fish are known to practice it. One of the theories is the parent wants to kill off offspring that take too long to mature so that he or she can conserve energy to raise future fast growing progeny.

I suppose the same should holds true in the corporate world. Since yours truly is bonkers about cars, he also knows more than a few examples in auto-dom. Plymouth, Mercury, Datsun and Maybach are a few examples that come to mind. Yet, there is one company that has no peers when it comes to filial cannibalism. Yep, you have guessed it right … it is none other than General Motors. The list of brands it has killed off is longer than Elizabeth Taylor’s list of husbands. Olds, Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer, Daewoo and SAAB. Some were the victim of a reduced market share leaving no space for a brand or some (Buick?) escaped by the skin of its teeth because the brand was worth something on another continent. Literally.

But no brand gives me as much grief as Saab. Saab’s roots reach back to Svenska Aero Aktiebolaget, an aircraft manufacturer. So before I shed any more tears, here’s a little bit of History 101 for you. Saab’s habit of innovation started with the 92, a front wheel drive, two stroke engined car with astonishingly low wind drag. The 92 was followed by the 99, the 900 and the 9000. The 99 was SAAB’s first foray into turbocharging which it continued till its demise. While the 3-series and the C-class got six pot engines, Saab stuck with blown four pots. BMW is now on the turbocharging bandwagon. This essentially tells me that Saab was way ahead of its time. My favorite Saab, the 9000 signalled Saab’s arrival in the entry-level luxury segment.

The Saab 92, the 1st and 2nd generation 900s. ©gm.com

Audi followed a similar strategy with turbocharging and added the quattro all-wheel drive to boot. Audi, with the help of parent Volkswagen’s deep pockets and leverage of its technology successfully repositioned itself from being the German ‘Buick’ to being a credible BMW wannabe.
The eighties brought a wave of mergers and acquisitions. Alfa-Fiat, Lambo-Chrysler and Lotus-GM are a few examples. I see GM’s acquisition of Saab more as a blind reaction to Ford’s marriage with Volvo.
The Saab that almost made it – the 2010 9-5 ©gm.com
The first 900 after the GM merger suffered from post-partum depression. The donor Opel Vectra was not well received and so the reputation spread to the 900 as well. If VW gets an A or a B for badge engineering, GM got a D or worse an F. For most of its life, Saab had Porsche level volumes with Audi level prices – an untenable situation. GM never managed to leverage economies of scale to enable Saab to scale up. Through the nineties and two thousands, Audi, Volvo and BMW steadily expanded their range while Saab ran a two horse race with the 900/9000 and later the 9-3/9-5. GM belatedly tried to badge engineer its way with the 9-2 Saabaru and the Trailblazer based 9-7x. But GM could fool no one and the customers saw through the hoax.
And you know what was the final insult? When Saab finally produced the distinctively styled 9-5 and 9-7x, GM was forced to pull the rug from under its feet.
SAAB, you might be gone but not forgotten. May your soul rest in peace.


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