Saab Re-birth

By Guy Bird for Blueprint, Sep 2010

Dead in the water last Christmas, Saab is now re-born with new product, a new vision and a new Dutch Supercar owner. Guy Bird examines the future plans of every architect’s favourite car brand

When the news of Saab’s demise broke on December 18 2009 after parent company General Motors failed to find a suitable buyer, a bit of every thoughtful leftfield car fan died.

This was the non-mainstream design-savvy brand for customers who wanted to appear stylish without being flashy, sporty but not irresponsibly go-faster and practical without being dull.

But by the late 90s its acclaimed cars were all old ones. Under GM’s control since 1990 Saab had become conservative, derivative and mainstream. The iconic hatchback shape of its mainstay 9-3 was turned into a saloon to court customers driving premium German saloons and it shared too many parts with other GM products, including the mundane Vauxhall Vectra. Critically acclaimed concepts like the 9X and Aero X never made production and sales crashed from a 2006 peak of 133,000 to 40,000 by 2009 as its two basic model lines aged while their replacements were delayed. Meanwhile GM was in dire financial straits – it lost nearly $31 billion in 2008 – and in a bid to become leaner and more focused on its US brands put Saab up for sale in January 2009, before filing for US-style ‘Chapter 11’ bankruptcy itself half a year later.

When news of Saab’s demise broke on December 18 2009 after parent company General Motors failed to find a suitable buyer, a bit of every thoughtful leftfield car fan died

But now a new chapter of Saab’s history is being written. Two months after the wind-down of Saab was announced, a previously rejected bidder – ultra rare Dutch supercar brand Spyker and its financial backers – made a revised pitch that was accepted in February 2010. By June the sale was complete and now almost all global dealers have a new Saab product to sell – the 2010 9-5 flagship saloon. Far from a revolution in product, it has nonetheless been fairly well received and more is to come. GM was already well advanced in refreshing and expanding the Saab model range so also in 2010 comes the production 9-4X crossover (a bit like the chunky Audi Allroad estate) plus the 9-5 estate to follow in 2011.

That timeline gives new owner Spyker – that counts rapper Busta Rhymes among its elite customers – a suite of ready-to-go products while it develops a bolder future look for Saab.

To help that transition Spyker’s CEO Victor Muller persuaded New York-based ex-Bertone and Pininfarina designer Jason Castriota to become Saab’s head of design. His pitch for the job was to design the next 9-3 due in 2012 and although development was already under way by Saab and GM’s existing designers, Castriota says that once he was on board in April 2010, “what started out as a re-skin became a new car.”

With such boldness Castriota believes newly independent Saab can once again become truly alternative and says fans can expect more “jet on the road” aesthetics that reference Saab’s aeroplane roots. Beyond the BMW 3-series-sized new 9-3 range (which could include a hatch, saloon, estate and convertible) Castriota says there are serious plans for a small Saab to take on the modern-day Mini and even a sportscar – like a 21st century Sonett – to steal sales from the Audi TT.

Spyker’s mid-term sales plan is 100,000 Saab sales a year – a point at which Muller says it can breakeven – and if suitable partners are found to share platform and parts costs (without devaluing the brand) he says profits could arrive with lower volumes. However, with the extra models planned Muller says up to 150,000 units could be realistic within five years.

There’s no doubt it’s one hell of a task within a depressed global car market and German rivals galore, but Muller is a car enthusiast with an independent spirit who really understands the brand (perhaps in contrast to the large Chinese carmaker Geely that has just completed the purchase of fellow Swedish carmaker Volvo from Ford). Muller is also a qualified lawyer and a successful businessman beyond the car industry good at brokering deals and raising capital and his hiring of Castriota – know for his provocative designs for Maserati including the production Gran Turismo and Birdcage concept – could be a masterstroke.

If nothing else it should certainly ensure future designs are dynamic and appropriately Saab-like again – think aero-inspired teardrop swooping rooflines from the 92, plus the big windows, horizontal front lights and the distinctive upward ‘hockey stick’ window graphic from the 99 and 900 for starters. As Castriota says, “This is a new chapter so I want to put out a bold new vision. You can’t go into a knife fight with a wooden spoon”.

For the sake of those architects, designers and thoughtful types who still harbour the occasional fantasy of being a fighter pilot when driving certain Saabs, let’s hope ‘new Saab’ can be as sharp as Castriota and Muller are promising.

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