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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: December 21, 2011 @ 5:54 pm

    Saab’s sad demise

    Michael McAleer


    An 'Ursaab', the first Saab AB automobile to be built, stands on display at the Saab museum in Trolhattan, Sweden


    On the steps of the courthouse in Sweden, Victor Muller, chief executive officer of Saab Automobile’s parent company Swedish Automobile said the decision to file for bankruptcy was due to General Motors’ decision to reject yet another takeover bid from a potential Chinese investor. He described the move as “the last nail in the coffin of this beautiful company”.

    In reality Saab has been in a tailspin for nearly a decade. Several years ago we had dinner with the then boss of General Motors Europe, Carl Peter Forster. While his main focus was on Opel’s plans to get back in profit – still an aspiration for the firm – the conversation turned to Saab.

    Given that much of the 9-3 and 9-5 models at the time were Opel engineering cloaked in the Saab façade, I asked whether it would make sense to move the Swedish firm’s model production to Opel’s Russelheim plant. He responded with his own query about what actually makes Saab Swedish. Is it the fact the cars are built by Swedes, or that the design is influenced and driven by Swedes? He then wondered aloud whether, if Saab were to close its production in Sweden and merely retained marketing and design functions there, they would be any less Swedish?

    Such a move never came to pass, no doubt influenced by the impact such a move would have on sales in the home market and the undoubted political pressure that would come to bear from a Swedish government eager not to lose so many manufacturing jobs. Similarly Volvo would have baulked at the move, given that its suppliers were equally dependent on both brands to justify their own production facilities in Sweden.

    This week Saab filed for bankruptcy, thereby ending over 60 years of car production. If as expected the Trollhatten plant remains closed, it will put pressure on Volvo suppliers as feared.

    Some blame must fall on General Motors for this situation. Car firms depend on new product to survive. It’s clear that a coherent product plan was never put in place. That meant its new owners were straddled with just two models and little in the pipeline to replace them. Given that a new model can cost anything up to €800 million to get on the road, and at least two years of development, they needed time and working capital to see them through. In the event, they had neither.

    GM’s recurrent rejection of potential new buyers says a lot about its interest in seeing a successful Saab resurrected. It contrasts with Ford’s approach to Volvo. There the US car giant would have had the right to similar reservations about selling to a Chinese investor who might one day become a serious international rival. It carried on with the deal and Volvo has benefitted as a result. Not so with GM and Saab.

    While the endgame played out in a Stockholm court room, in reality the future of Saab was determined in Detroit when GM announced the brand was up for “sale or closure”. The only sale that would garner support would be to a firm who would never be in a position to one day compete with the US firm. That ultimately has consigned Saab to a slow and gradual death.

    Whatever about the dismay this week in Trollhatten, there must be a degree of worry in Russelheim as well, home to Opel. Having been up for sale itself in 2008/2009, a potential deal reportedly fell through for similar reasons: GM was not prepared to let Opel fall into the hands of a potential future rival.

    So in the end GM decided to keep Opel. Yet there is still a regular drip-feed of industry reports from Detroit that GM executives are eager to off-load the loss-making European. If they do, will it only to be someone who will never quite have the ability to turn it around, thereby repeating the sad tale of Saab? It must be a worry at Opel, but also in political circles in Berlin, where the threat to 40,000 jobs and ancillary industries would be horrendous.

    The passing of Saab is a real shame, for the brand had a good pedigree, well respected as an alternative to the rest of the premium players.

    A favourite amongst dentists and architects, it was considered as premium choice, but less brash and arrogant that the German models. It was an image that could have been cultivated into profit, even if the underpinnings were shared with others. Alas, unless a white knight arrives to save the day – and one that’s unlikely to offer any threat to GM in the future – then we’ve seen the last of the Saab griffin on the bonnets.

    • Alan robins says:

      so is it a good time to buy and new or used saab, there is enough specialists and spare parts out there to last for a long time

    • Geoff Baggott says:

      I have been driving these wonderful cars since 1972, my heart sank when GM came along to rescue them in the early 1990′s, cant think of any inspiring GM cars can you ?
      Saabs are looking very inexpensive at the moment, some parts are currently hard to source for the very newest variants, but I am sure the supply chain will recover soon.
      I have three Saabs at present, drove my old 1990 Convertible from the UK to Spain last year, most enjoyable.
      I hope that one day Saab will Live again, but then maybe its too late.
      To our friends at GM, ………………………………………………… yourselves

    • El Leader Maximo says:

      Agree with Geoff. Lovely cars what a f*up from GM.

    • Hannah says:

      I agree with both Geoff & El Leader. I have been driving Saabs for years, I love them, I still have two which I drive daily with pride and comfort, not to mention Safety. A piece of’ ‘ART’ What a compleat F’UP. One very Sad Girl.
      SaaB you Rock.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      GM is not a marque it’s a conglomerate of marques e.g. Buick, Opel, Vauxhall, etc.

      I’m sorry about Saab. Really sorry. That company took pride in making good cars. As for GM, it all went pear-shaped when they replaced a real car-man, Jack Smith, guy with oil in his veins and pistons in his heart etc. with a plastic puppet named Waggonner who completely ran the company off the road, focusing on churning models and turning it into a bank that made cars rather than a car company that did a bit of financiing. ANyway enough. I don’t know if Jaguar is any less ”English” than it was before Tata took over. Don’t know if MG is any less ”English” since SAIC took over. I do know they’re both still alive and making good cars, which seems to me to be the most important thing. I do know that MG CKDs are produced in China and contain less than 10% European origin parts. They’re shipped into EU (I wonder do their Chinese owners pay the EU customs duty rate applicable to completely built up cars, which is 10% ad valorem, and not car parts, which is mostly about 4.5%? In China, if a vehicle is made from imported parts comprising more than 25% of the total value of the car and /or if one or more of I think several defined ”systems” e.g. engine, drivetrain, suspension, body, of a Chinese produced car is imported to China, the Customs there charge 25% duty on the imported parts as if they were a whole car, rather than the 10% rate applicable in China to car parts.) and assembled in Birmingham. The sort of thing Jeremy Clarkson weeps over when he goes on about the death of British car manufacturing while failing to see that Britain’s been manufacturing Her own karma in that regard for several centuries. Anyway digression. Perhaps Saab will get taken over by the Chinese or Indians or Brazilians or some such now powerhouse economy that once laboured beneath the Union Flag and was plundered by the West.

    • John says:

      Pitty, to see Saab come to this, have a new 93, for my wife,and it the car i look forward to driviing on the weekend,and it my third one, and what a great car, and was all ready to buy a new 9 5, in the new year, as there are the only company that builds a car around the drive with great seating and dash that shape towards the driver and most important a foot rest it the car you want if you like driving, build better thay any rubbish out of germany and I know as I have had BMW and Audi and they just can’t get the mix right, or get there cars To stay working right.

    • eamon says:

      Saab made its money in airplane engines,etc. How long has the Irish automobile industry been in tailspin?
      “A favourite amongst dentists and architects,——” No further comment needed!

    • Peter Palmer says:

      I am on my fifth Saab, having worked my way through Mercedes, BMW and Volvo. They are excellent cars but only older Mercedes approach Saabs for character. Saabs are Not the most reliable (solely from an electronics viewpoint) but undoubtedly the most beautiful of cars. If we lose Saab, it will be a sad, sad day in automotive history.

    • Anto says:

      What about the trucking division? And the fighter jets? Or are they seperate?

    • Brendan says:

      Sorry to see Saab go – the 9-3 convertible has to be one of the prettiest soft tops ever produced and the old 900 turbo was the car of my boyhood dreams with looks way ahead of its time. I suppose it was inevitable that once GM got their hands on it no value would be placed on design or flair – you only have to look at their current offerings to see that. Saab retained one fo the qualities I admire most in premium cars – the way they traditionally didnt face lift a model every 12-24 months. This is a practice that is disappearing. For example how many facelifts has the Audi A4 had since 2004 – about 4 or five I reckon. You didnt comment on that in your glowing review recently. In the same period the BMW 3 series had only one and I think the Mercedes is similar. Personally, on that basis I would not buy a new A4 because at the rate they are going the current model will be out of date by 2013, good and all as they are.

    • All separate operations since 2000

    • Mark says:

      I bought four new Saabs in the past, but unfortunately nobody in their right mind will choose a new one in 2012 over a better engineered German rival. It’s the blindingly obvious things that kill it. And deep down, Saab and their useless owners, know this.

      Firstly, Saabs no longer look like the niche car it once was and now looks as bland as anything regurgitated from Japan. Then there’s the interior. Everything inside is horribly cheap with nasty plastics without any of the quality feel you get from the competition. Especially, as the 9-3 looks and feels exactly like it did in 2002 – that unfortunately, was a decade ago. Add an enthusiastic, but patchy dealer network into the mix and the only standing out from the crowd you’ll be doing, is advertising how bad you are with money.

      The only way back (if there is one) it to build cars that drove passion – like the original Turbo or the EMS. Otherwise, it’s a sad farewell. And tragic for the people of Trolhattan.

    • Mike says:

      Mark you do sound bitter. Was it owning Saabs that produced such a mindset? I suspect not. People have a myriad of motives for buying particular items and products and value for money need not necessarily be to the fore in determining the amount of utility a particular person derives from a particular purchase. Look at Apple computers; cool, neat, lovely to look at, yet with patchy functionality and very expensive when compared to PCs. When one tries to divine the motives of others in making choices, one’s own experience and outlook will often colour ones thinking. Perhaps this is so in your case.

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