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The Formation of SAAB
Saab Automobile was most recently known as a subsidiary of General Motors (GM). Much of its greater fame and history, however, are connected to Sweden and its efforts during World War II. The name Saab comes from the Saab Group, formerly known as Svenska Aeroplan Aktie Bologet (Swedish Aeroplane Corporation), which translates to "Swedish Airplane Incorporated" in English. However, SAAB's original name comes from Carl Bücker's 1921 start up in Sweden named Svenska Aero AB. Following the end of World War I and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Germany was forbidden to manufacture any sort of aircraft. The restriction was later limited to military aircraft. While civilian aircraft manufacturing was permitted, there were still plenty of restrictions. In order to get around these types of hindrances, Bücker licensed aircraft from Heinkel Flugzeugwerke and Caspar-Werke, both German manufacturers, to be built in Sweden. With the help of Ernst Heinkel, Svenska Aero manufactured planes both for the Heinkel company and the Swedish Armed Forces. Shortly after, Svenska Aero began to design and develop its own planes. However, Swedish Armed Forces were mainly interested in prototypes, and the lack of demand eventually forced Bücker to sell in 1932 to AB Svenska Järnvägsverkstädernas Aeroplanavdelning (ASJA).
SAAB was initially created in response to the growing fear of German advancement in the beginning of World War II. By 1937, many European countries were wary of Germany's intentions. A major problem Sweden had noticed with its own air force was the lack of updated and modern equipment. While their air force would have been largely effective in WWI, many of their planes had been rendered outdated by the 1930s. In 1937, it was decided by the Swedish government to reestablish SAAB as a crown-corporation to compete with ASJA in manufacturing planes for recon. As the war began, the two companies merged as SAAB, and became the official company for Swedish military aircraft manufacturing.
SAAB in WWII
The Junkers Ju 86 Bomber, which had been a German innovation by the Junkers aircraft manufacturer, was SAAB's first crack at the aeronautic industry. By the time production started, the Junkers Bomber was out of commission in Germany. Although they declared neutrality after the German invasion of Poland in September of 1939, it was still seen as a wise endeavor to be prepared for any possible attack. After all, Finland, Sweden's neighbor, had also declared neutrality, but by November of 1939 was fending off an invasion from the USSR.
With the success of the bomber, SAAB continued to license and manufacture modern aircraft. This included the Saab 17-which was a two-seater plane and was the first Swedish plane made entirely of metal. It could be used as a dive bomber, and was fit to land on ground and water as well. SAAB also built the Saab 18, which first flew in 1942. It featured twin engines and was equipped with ejection seats and air-to-surface missiles. It entered service two years later in 1944.
As the war was coming to an end, the company realized that sustaining their production was going to be next to impossible with the impending decline in demand. Production of commercial airlines would require downsizing, so, in order to keep up stable production, SAAB tinkered with the idea of creating an automotive division. After seeing similar companies, such as ANA, import car kits from Chrysler, SAAB decided they wanted their automotive division to be as Swedish as possible and to offer a car that was capable of traversing the snow-covered north and rainy and foggy south. In 1944, SAAB began to seriously consider manufacturing its own cars by assembling a team of several people lead by chief engineer Gunnar Ljungström and designer Sixten Sason.
The First Automobile
After less than 6 months of planning, the first prototype was built. Known as the Saab 92001 or the Ursaab, it was a front-wheel-drive car with a two-stroke German engine. The prototype was deemed successful outside of its appearance. The hand-built, overly-aerodynamic design, clearly evident of its airplane-designer influence, was considered too radical and tough to market, so the model would succeed it, the Saab 92, was designed with a rounder rear and carved wheel wells to exude a more modern look. Soon the Saab 92 was ready for production. Yet Europe after World War II was still hostile in certain parts, and in response to events like the 1948 Berlin Blockade, aircraft military production dominated civilian production. A scarcity of steel pushed back Saab 92 production back to December of 1949.
The delayed release of the 92 lead to a surplus in military paint, so, naturally, it was only available in one color: dark green. The styling was considered peculiar and aerodynamic, but the changes were justified as it was still a relatively popular car in Sweden, particularly because it was capable of navigating the perilous landscape. The 92 came with a two-stroke two-cylinder engine with 25 horsepower and was known for its tendency to smoke out of the exhaust. Eventually the need to build an improvement was tantamount to SAAB's future automotive success, so they began to develop a new model, known as the 93. Around this time, SAAB also changed its name from its acronym to the stylization of Saab.
The 93, 95, and 96
In 1955 the Saab 93 was revealed for the 1956 model year. The newer model included a trunk and larger rear window and ran on a two-stroke three-cylinder engine that could kick 33 horsepower. It also entered the world rally circuit to establish a reputation and expand its popularity. Yet a big setback to consumers was the vehicle's requirement for mixed oil and gas. Many cars in this era simply ran on gasoline, but the Saab 93 needed a mixture. There was even a tag on the gas cap that served as a reminder. Regardless, Saab still pushed its luck in the US market in 1956, making the 93 the first Saab vehicle for sale in the US. The car was targeted towards the more upscale buyer. With no establishment in the US, a lack of foreign parts meant it would be long and expensive to get a repair. Yet Saab's constant success in rally racing lead to cult-like following that attracted loyal buyers and fans. This helped Saab boost and retain a presence in the US.
The off-road setting of rally racing also showed how able the car was at navigating rough terrain. Rally racing provided an opportunity for automakers to show off, and Saab excelled at this. The 93 was a huge hit in the circuit, racking up several wins thanks to racers like Erik Carlsson. But apart from racing, Saab looked to offer a more family-orientated car for the masses. This lead to the creation of the Saab 95 in 1959, which was a two-door station wagon with a four-speed transmission. It could seat seven and expanded remarkably in size to offer more passenger and storage room. It was later upgraded with a V4 engine in 1967 and ran until 1978.
A year later, in 1960, the Saab 96 was revealed. As the 93's successor, it featured an 841cc 38 horsepower 3-cylinder engine, three-speed transmission, and an improved rear window and interior. The 96 was so successful that it boosted sales nearly 45 percent. This allowed Saab to increase its production to 30-40,000 cars a year. The 96 was also popular for its sport model. As a growing interest in sports cars developed, especially in the US, the Granturismo 750 (GT, also known as the Montecarlo 850 in the US) came out in 1962. It came with a 55 horsepower engine and significantly upgraded the performance. The Saab 96 itself also improved by offering a four-speed transmission. Also, after listening to many of its customers, Saab placed a four-stroke Ford V4 in the 1967 model. Advances like the four-stroke allowed Saab to develop cars like the 1967 Sonnet coupe, which was based off an early 1956 convertible prototype designed by Sason. Models like the GT and the 96 boosted sales so substantially that Saab had sold nearly 300,000 models to date in 1965. The four-stroke turned out to be a hit, and Saab teamed up with the British automaker Triumph to produce engines for future models. One of these was the Saab 99, which was the first new model since the 96 and was essentially an upgraded version of the 95. With a more fuel efficient engine, it was also known for its innovative heated seats and headlight wipers.
The Scania-Vabis Merger
In 1969, Saab merged with Scania-Vabis, a Swedish company that manufactured trucks and buses, to form Saab-Scania AB. A driving reason for the merger was to give Saab the means to build its own engines. By the early ‘70s the company comprised two divisions: one for passenger cars-the Saab Car Division, and one for trucks-the Scania Division. Saab's distinguished logo of the Griffin-like bird derived from Scania-Vabis, who modeled their logo after the Swedish Scania province coat of arms. The merger was successful, and halfway through the decade Saab went on to build its one millionth truck.
1978 proved to be a big year for the company. They formed a partnership with the Italian automaker Fiat where they developed the Type Four chassis. Saab also introduced its first turbo model with the 99. It was a smash hit, and as the decade turned Saab was credited as one of the early pioneers of the turbo-charged front-wheel-drive car. Unfortunately, Saab left the rally circuit in 1980, but it's fun to imagine that they might have been a dominant force.
The ‘80s brought many more advances, and the Saab 900 was the first Saab made with computerized robot technology. It was built on the 99 platform and came equipped with independent suspension and coil springs, but it was the turbocharged engines of the 900 that grabbed most hearts. It was seen as the successor to Saab's previous models after the 96 was discontinued in 1980 and the 99 ended in 1984. But apart from its great performance, it was also lauded as one of the safest cars in the world.
By the ‘90s Saab teamed up with General Motors. Half of the Saab Car Division was split to GM in 1990 for $600 million. As it was seen as a near luxury vehicle, the main issue was that its prices failed to match production. GM saw use for Saab since they were struggling to market their own Opel brand in Europe, and Saab saw the effort as an opportunity to boost its presence in the US.
The situation would not be so simple. A large portion of the company had been owned by the Wallenberg family. The Wallenbergs, known as one of Sweden's most prominent families and whose financial success stretches across several Swedish industries, had been involved in the reformation of SAAB since the beginning. Dr. Marcus Wallenberg had been on the board of Saab since its merger with ASJA in 1939, and eventually became chairman after the Saab-Scania merger. After his death in 1982, his son Marcus Wallenberg took over his position. So, through their holding company known as Investor AB, Wallenberg purchased the remaining shares, splitting the company into 50-50 ownership.
However, despite the ingenious and quirky innovations, Saab was still losing money. They were the first company to offer chlorofluorocarbon-free air conditioning, and also the first to create a car controlled by a joystick. In 1992 a prototype for the 9000, codenamed the Prometheus, dropped the steering wheel in favor of a central joystick. The steering, however, was far from ideal. The easily maneuverable electronic steering was far too sensitive to be considered a serious and viable alternative to the old -fashioned steering wheel, but the idea was far ahead of its time. The concept of steering electronically is something a few cars have adopted today, and has been recently researched by several automotive giants.
In dire need of a new direction, Saab abandoned the 9000 and 900 series in preparation for two new models: the 9-3 and 9-5 series. The early versions of these models are considered the last true Saabs since GM bought the remaining shares for a 100% ownership in Saab in 2000 for $125 million.
The 9-3 and 9-5: Saab's Last Attempt at the Auto Industry
The 9-5 was released for the 1998 model year in Europe, and the 1999 model year for the US. It came as a front-wheel drive four-door sedan with 2.3L four-cylinder turbo engine with 185 horsepower. In 2002 an optional V6 was added for higher trims, as well as a five-speed automatic. Later models came with a six-speed automatic or manual transmission.
Along with the 9-5 came the 9-3. It was the more flexible version of the two, offering coupe, convertible, or hatchback models. It came with a 2.0L four-cylinder turbo engine with 175 horsepower. Compared to the 9-5, it came with several more trim options as well, and followed the same kind of upgrades, such as an eventual six-speed automatic or manual transmission.
Unfortunately Saab was headed for extinction after 2009. In 2010, GM agreed to sell the company to the Dutch sports car maker Spyker Cars NV for $74 million. GM agreed to supply the engines and transmissions, but much of the production failed due to a lack of funds. In 2011, after failing to find sufficient investments, Spyker intended to sell Saab to the Chinese automobile company Youngman, but the deal was blocked by GM-who still had sufficient shares to steer the direction of the company-to prevent the sale of Saab to a competitor in China, where GM was fairly successful. The National Electric Vehicle Sweden AB (NEVS) bought Saab out of bankruptcy in 2012 to build an electric version of the Saab 9-3, but there have been no signs of profitable success. Saab is currently owned by NEVS, but its future is still unclear. Hopefully this isn't the end for Saab. The constant attempts at resurrection attest to the original and unique passion instilled in the vehicles that over the years its loyal enthusiasts have grown to love.