Saab have always been – a little different. For example, in the 1960s their main car,
well their only car, had a 2-stroke 850cc engine that meant you had to add oil every
time you filled up, and the interior converted into a bed for those remote Swedish road trips. Oh, and their parent company made fighter jets! But did you know you can still buy a Saab
today, and why isn’t it called a Saab? This is the unconventional Saab story. (music) The story starts, oddly enough, with Germany’s surrender at the end of the first World War. The peace treaty severely limited what aircraft
Germany could produce, so the Swedish company Svenska Aero was set up in 1921 to assemble
German aircraft. At the start they were little more than a
way to get around the trade embargo, and many parts supposedly manufactured in Sweden were
actually made in Germany and smuggled out. But during the 1920s and 30s both Svenska
Aero and rival ASJA started to assemble other aircraft like the British De Haviland Tiger
Moth, and by 1929 they were designing their own aircraft. With the threat of World War 2 hanging over
Europe, the Swedish government charged both companies to produce a steady stream of military
aircraft. They couldn’t rely on aircraft from other
nations, especially as their partner up until now had been Germany. Both Svenska Aero and ASJA merged to form
AFF in 1937, then SAAB Aeroplan in 1939. Although Sweden was neutral during the war,
there were fears that they would be drawn into the conflict, fears that were heightened when
the Soviet Union invaded Finland in the 1939 Winter War. Saab’s first plane was the 1942 Saab 17
bomber and reconnaissance aircraft, followed by the Saab 18 twin-engine bomber in 1944
and Saab 21 fighter in 1945. After the war the governments around the world
had all the military aircraft they needed, so Saab needed to do something with their
spare production capacity. Car production in war torn Europe was almost
non-existent, and the US was concentrating on satisfying local demand. What Saab needed to do was produce a Swedish
car. The car would be named “Ursaab” which
means “original Saab” and would be designed by Sixten Sason and engineered by Gunnar Ljungström
in less than 6 months. Both men would go on to create every Saab
until the late 1960s. You can tell the car was designed by a bunch
of aircraft designers, because it looked like an aeroplane with its wings chopped off! But that sleek design produced 50% less drag
than contemporary cars. With just a 2-stroke 18hp engine it wasn’t
going to win any drag races, but it would get Sweden moving. Saab’s first production car, the 92, was
released in 1949. Saab had an excess of military green aircraft
paint after the war, so the only colour the 92 came in was green! Saab put their car through wind tunnel testing,
quite a rare thing at the time, giving the car a low drag factor of just 0.3, and it
didn’t use standard chassis construction to save weight. These things helped the 2-stroke 25hp engine
allied to a 3-speed manual gearbox get the car to a top speed of 65mph. And that 2-stroke engine required an oil / fuel
mix, so the filler cap had a label to remind drivers to add oil. To help sell the car, and to provide additional
testing, Saab took the 92 rallying just 2 weeks after the car was released. By 1952 they were winning races, starting
with the ‘Coupe des Dames’ in the Monte Carlo rally. By 1953 the car was improved as the 92B, and
Saab purchased paint that wasn’t green to give their customers some variety! And a better car was needed. Foreign car companies had recovered and were
once again targeting Sweden. The 92 had sold 20,000 cars and was replaced
by the Saab 93 in 1955. The car was a little bigger and better appointed,
but the big news was a more powerful 3-cylinder 33hp engine. As Sweden had many remote, unpopulated areas,
the cars could be converted for sleeping. And Saab was growing as a company. The 93 was the first car it would export,
with the USA being its main market. They used their advertising to highlight their
aircraft roots, something they would return to time and time again. They started small, exporting just 300 in
1956. With limited spare parts on hand, Saab initially
restricted sales to only a few areas in America to ensure their customers received good service. By the end of the 1950s the USA was their
main export market. Many were exported to the Pacific Northwest
where Scandinavians loggers had settled. With sales taking off in the USA and Saab
being seen for rallying success, they produced a lightweight sports car for the American
market. Leaning on their aircraft division, the Sonett
used a lightweight aluminium frame, allowing its tiny 748cc engine to get it to 99mph. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a success, and
only 6 were made. With the Sonett a failure, Saab took a different
tack with the GT750 in 1958, a sporty version of the 93 with an uprated engine. It could get to 60mph in 15 seconds, compared
to the standard car’s 27 seconds. You really couldn’t expect
blistering speeds in the 1950s! Saab rally drivers found if they kept the
revs and momentum up, they could win. They won the Great American Mountain Rally
in New England in 1956, and the Monte Carlo rally in 61, 62 and 63. Erik Carlsson was one of their top drivers
and had a long and illustrious career, winning in Saabs from the mid 50’s to the late 60s. He was known as “Carlsson on the roof”
because of his habit of occasionally rolling the car and having to get out and right it again, something that was made slightly easier
with Saab’s round shape! Saab kept improving the 93, and in 1959 produced
an estate or wagon version. To make better use of the small engine it
received a 4-speed gearbox. Despite the hiccup with the Suez crisis in
the mid 50’s that introduced temporary fuel rationing in Sweden, times were good, and
by 1959 Saab was exporting over 6000 cars to the USA. Saab was known for its quirky 2-stroke engined
cars and developed a small but fiercely loyal following. The Saab 96 has a more powerful engine: 42hp.
New rear seats – there’s room for three. Bigger boot. New wraparound rear window.
New instrument layout with safety padding. New and ingenious ventilation system. All new features making the Saab 96
stronger, roomier, more beautiful. Drive the Saab 96, you’ll be spellbound!
Saab, the Swedish car with aircraft quality. The 93 was replaced by the Saab 96 in 1960,
a more refined and powerful car, but it still had the 2-stroke engine that was by now in the
1960s getting really rather out of date. They were unrefined, and with vehicle adoption
moving to the mass market, new car owners found it confusing and fiddly to add the correct
amount of oil every time they filled up. There was a power struggle within Saab over
moving to 4-stroke engines. Three engines were tried – the Boxer 900cc
engine from the Lloyd Arabella, BMC’s A-series from the Mini and the 1.1L Lancia Appia engine. But Saab had just spent a lot of money expanding. It was still a small company with just one
vehicle and didn’t have money to develop a new engine. Buying one from outside would cut into Saab’s
tight profit margin, so its introduction was blocked by Saab’s CEO. Saab’s engineers staged a coup by going
around the CEO to Saab’s biggest shareholder to plead their case. It succeeded, and further testing resulted
in Ford’s V4 Taunus engine being chosen. The engineers were vindicated when the 2-stroke
engine failed US emissions tests in 1967, meaning Saab dodged a bullet in their largest
export market. Saab tried another US sports car with the
Sonett II in 1966. To save weight it had a fibre glass body. The tiny 850cc 2-stroke engine got the car
to 60 in 12.5 seconds, and managed 109mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. In 1967 the car received the Taunus 1500cc
4-cylinder engine which made the car more refined, but surprisingly not any quicker. Saab released the redesigned Sonett III in
1970 with cool pop-up headlights. But sales of the Sonett were low throughout
its life and Saab ended production in 1974 to focus on its mainstream cars. And by now Saab was selling more and more
of them. By 1965 it had sold 250,000, and it sold another
50,000 the following year. In 1968 they created the larger Saab 99 to
join the 96. The company instantly went from a maker of
quirky cars, to a semi-luxury car maker, spoken in the same breath as BMW’s 2002 and Alfa
Romeo’s Giulia, and the car sold well in the USA. It got the first ever headlight wipers in
1971 and heated seats in 1972. Volvo is known as a company obsessed with
safety, but Saab pioneered many safety features and made it a top priority. To save money, they used Triumph’s new 4-cylinder
engine, on an exclusive 4-year contract. By 1972 they’d bought the rights to produce
the engine and continued to improve it, and it would be used in one form or another until
2009. But the 99’s party piece came in 1978. Saab had merged with Scania trucks in 1969,
and one thing Scania knew about was turbochargers. With fuel prices sky high, and Saab wanting
their 4-cylinders to compete with V8’s, they created the 99 Turbo, one of the first
production turbo cars. The public loved its increased power; 143hp
with a 124mph top speed. The Saab 900, introduced in 1978, would go
on to be Saab’s best-selling car. Like many Saab’s up to this point, the front
glass was highly curved to provide exceptional visibility on the sides. Many put this down to Saab’s military aircraft
heritage, as they were still producing civilian and fighter aircraft after all these years. And Saab continued to use its jet aircraft
heritage to sell cars. The old Saab 99 continued production and would
be sold until 1987 in its revised design as the Saab 90. To round out Saab’s range, in 1978 they
struck a deal with Fiat to sell the Lancia Delta as the Saab-Lancia 600 in Sweden. This agreement led to a broader agreement
to create the Saab 9000, released in 1984. A close relative to The Fiat Chroma, Lancia
Thema and Alfa Romeo 164, it pushed Saab further into the luxury car category, which help US
sales. The seats were apparently inspired by the
classic Muppet Show sketch “Pigs in Space”, but I’m guessing not much was inspired by
the Swedish chef! Saab sold just one model in the 1960s, but by
the mid-1980s, at least in Sweden, it was selling four different cars. But despite the fact that two of these were
modified Fiat’s, the company was in dire financial straits. Rising costs were shrinking profits. The company looked around for potential suitors
and found it in General Motors. GM had been trying to produce high margin
luxury models in Europe for decades through Vauxhall / Opel, but by the late 80s customers
wanted prestige German brands, and GM realised they needed a company like Saab to compete. For Saab’s part, they eyed GM’s vast US
dealer network, hoping to expand its main export market. But the two companies were like chalk and
cheese. GM was like your strait-laced dad, with freshly
starched shirts and shiny shoes. Saab was the unruly teenager who was always
out late, driving fast and thinking big. Almost immediately GM was asking its unruly
teen to do the sensible thing and rebadge its Opel Vectra with minor modifications. Saab rebelled. The first fruits of their collaboration was
the updated Saab 900 in 1994. It was supposed to be a lightly restyled Opel
Vectra, but only 1/3 of the car was an Opel, and the other 2/3 reworked with Saab’s “magic”. That in itself was OK, but Saab focused on
reworking the wrong parts, making an unremarkable car that would need to sell big to recoup
the inflated development costs. By 1995 Saab had made its first profit in
years, and by 1997 had produced 3M cars. They introduced the 9-5 to replace the 9000
they’d created with Fiat. This would be GM’s first big push into the
luxury car market, and it was the first car to offer ventilated seats. Like the 900 it used the Opel Vectra platform
also used by the Saturn L-series. But rather than relying on that reworked Triumph
V4 from the late 60s, Saab had access to GMs large range of engines. To compliment the new 9-5, the 900 would be
updated and renamed the 9-3. But Saab had lost some of the quirkiness existing
customers loved, and new customers saw BMWs, Audis and Mercedes as more compelling luxury
cars. To round out the range, GM launched two new
cars in 2005. The 9-2X, a rebadged Subaru Impreza, and the
9-7X, a lightly reworked Chevy Trailblazer. But no one was fooled that the 9-7X was a
high-end luxury SUV that could compete with a BMW X5. And if you want a Subaru Impreza, why not
just go and buy a Subaru Impreza? It all came to a head in 2008 when GM filed
for bankruptcy. With a Government bailout they were forced
into making difficult decisions and cut several brands. Hummer, Saturn, Pontiac, and yes, Saab got
the axe. GM was rumoured to be in conversation with
several car companies, but in the end, it came down to Swedish Koenigsegg, who would
be backed by Chinese car maker BAIC. But due to delays and problems ironing out
financing, Koenigsegg backed out. GM announced that if Saab wasn’t purchased
by January 2010, it would wind down the company. At the 11th hour GM accepted an offer from
Dutch sports car maker Spyker. Part of the deal was for GM to supply the
upcoming Saab 9-4x from GM’s Mexico plant, although given the last two rebadgings had
failed, it was hard to see how this new car – a rebadged GM Theta – would do any better. But Spyker showed off a new Saab grand touring
concept at the Geneva Motor Show in March 2011, called the PhoeniX, hoping it would
help Saab rise from the ashes. The goal was to re-enter the Chinese market,
but Spyker failed to hit its sales targets and by April 2011 suppliers had stopped delivering
parts due to unpaid bills. By June, Saab workers weren’t getting paid. By August production ended and by the end
of the year the company had filed for bankruptcy. The Saab assets were sold yet again, this
time to “National Electric Vehicle Sweden” or NEVS, a consortium of Chinese companies. Their plan was to produce electric 9-3’s,
and the PhoeniX would be the 9-3’s replacement down the line. But if you remember, there was still a company
called Saab who built aircraft, and they owned the name “Saab”. They blocked the use of the griffin logo, as they
felt NEVS would misuse it in the Chinese market. NEVS removed all GM parts from the 9-3, and
restarted production in September 2013. But production quickly ended again and NEVS
themselves filed for bankruptcy in 2014. With all this financial uncertainty, Saab
denied them future use of the Saab name. NEVS restructured and by 2019 it was producing
and selling electric 9-3’s in China. Saab was born out of a passion to get their
country moving again after World War 2, producing a car that played to Saab’s strength as
an aircraft company. They carved out a loyal fanbase who loved
their quirky cars with a passion. If you want to learn more about the Winter
War or learn about the history of Out Run, check out my new second channel, Little Car
in the link here, and if you want to help either channel please subscribe or think about
becoming a Patron. Thanks for watching and see you in the next