Monday, April 24, 2017

THE SADNESS OF SAAB

Dredging up old memories of SAAB is bound to end in tears. Here was a small, innovative and well-managed Swedish company, which grew too big for its own good, then when it was forced to compete on the world stage to lift its status and success rate, it fell afoul of every principle to be avoided when growing a company.

The first SAAB prototype car was shown in 1945, but the SAAB 92 did not go into production until 1949. The original platform got a facelift in 1960, and from that time the SAAB 96 became its most famous car.

Powered by a transversley-mounted, water-cooled, three cylinder, two-stroke 764 cc, 25 hp (19 kW) thermosiphon engine based on a DKW design, the pioneering Swedish car had torsion bar suspension, a three-speed gearbox, and to avoid oil starvation on overrun, it had a freewheel device.

The SAAB 96 became a popular car, especially in cold climates and its quirky design became a positive and a negative. As a positive it attracted an offbeat clientele; but the negative was that those buyers were not numerous enough to guarantee the tiny company made sufficient profits.

Production SAAB 96 (L) and a replica of Eric Carlsson's rallycar, with his competition number, 178.

SAAB enhanced its image with a very successful rally program, its most famous driver being Erik Carlsson.

Its next ‘classic’ SAAB was the 900, launched in 1979.

Then, in 1985 came the 9000, a car which despite some odd quirks, moved SAAB’s vehicle design and specs closer to mainstream thinking.

However, from roughly 1983 onwards SAAB began to feel the full effects of growing beyond its ability to generate sufficient funds, engineering resources and marketing skill which would guarantee its future.

The company now sold cars worldwide, and they became more popular outside its early enthusiast market sector. As it became more successful in the mainstream market, money became harder to find, and planning for new products slowed dramatically.

Then in 1989, when GM acquired 50% of the company, the death knell sounded, the rot set in, and things went from bad to worse.



Although, in 2010, as a parting gesture to new owner, Spyker Cars, GM did leave behind a fully engineered, fully developed, all-new 9-5, based on GM's Epsilon II platform (Opel Insignia & Buick Regal) - albeit with a lot of high integrity input from Trollhätten.

Sadly, just 11,280 were built before SAAB AUTOMOBILE'S flame was finally extinguished.

The reasons why GM bought SAAB are not generally well known. In 1989 GM missed out on getting Jaguar, which it desperately wanted, and the consolation prize for its failure was SAAB.

Although, with its existing GM Europe operations (Opel and Vauxhall) producing mainstream cars, and, losing vast amounts of money along the way, only God knows why GM felt the need to acquire SAAB.

Whatever. It was a disaster for both companies, which makes me very sad, because I always had huge respect for SAAB – for its innovative thinking, clever solutions, and not least the terrific experience of driving the cars. They were great – from the SAAB 96, right up until the 9000.


In fact the 9000 showed SAAB to be carefully pragmatic. That car was developed on a platform known as the TYPE 4; which was jointly designed and developed by SAAB, FIAT (for the Croma and the Lancia Thema); Alfa Romeo (164) and the Renault 30.

I never got to drive the 2010 9-5 Aero, but everyone who did was full of praise for a car that finally exhibited 'Saabness'.

However, that spirit of innovation and independence was not enough to guarantee its survival – especially from the minute when GM took over.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

BADGE ENGINEERING AT ITS BEST

It’s easy to be cynical about badge-engineered cars - where one company adopts a model from a rival, and plants its badge on the car, and then calls it its own. There’s been literally thousands of examples over the last 40 years, and most are greeted cynically by media, consumers, and corporate suits.

However, there’s one that I think made a lot of sense, both at the time, and in hindsight – although not too many people would probably agree with me.

That was the transformation of the humble Subaru Impreza, into the compact SAAB 9-2X.

The mere fact that it happened was a surprise, but also it began as a very pragmatic solution to a difficult problem.

The ‘problem’ was entirely created by General Motors, which in 1989 had acquired a 50% share in SAAB, then converted that into full ownership in 2000.
From Day One SAAB’s somewhat ‘maverick’ management style, and its oddball engineering and design was at odds with the GM hierarchical management approach. The stiff suits in Detroit could never understand the Swedes, and the feelings were mutual.

It was the culture clash of the century I think, and it started off going downhill, and never looked up. GM made poor product decisions; it misread the market; it misunderstood SAAB’s diehard enthusiast owners, and generally it was a giant corporate cockup of mammoth proportions. Poor old SAAB never stood a chance.

Because GM would never invest decent resources into product planning, SAAB was lumbered with a plethora of badly-designed GM models, adorned with SAAB badges. The quality was poor, the sales performance even more dismal.

However, in 2004, whilst my friend Bob Lutz was President of GM Europe, one of his many brainwaves was to create a new compact car for SAAB, utilizing GM’s 25% share in Subaru manufacturer, Fuji Heavy Industries.

He thought that the offbeat appearance of the Subaru Impreza wagon would be great as a new SAAB, due to its unique, curving C-pillar, and also because of its all-wheel-drive capability that should find willing buyers in the snowbound parts of USA and Canada.

Unsold SAABs - Winter 2006
The car was launched in 2005, and remained in production through 2006. Eventually (after a lot of subsidies and marketing discounts) just over 10,300 cars were sold, after that the 9-2X disappeared.

GM went into bankruptcy in 2009, and in 2010 GM sold SAAB to Dutch niche sportscar company Spyker, which ran out of cash and sold it on in 2014. In the intervening years SAAB has ceased to exist as a consumer car company.

However, my own connection with the SAAB 9-2X convinced me that it could have been a good product initiative for both SAAB and GM, if both companies had ever been able to find some common ground to develop and market the concept with a bit more energy and initiative than they were able to muster in 2005.

During lunch in Bob Lutz’s office one day, he and I discussed the whole idea and I completely agreed with him that it did indeed have merit. The model was smaller than the 9-3 and 9-5, so it filled a gap. It was cheap to re-engineer, and quick to get to market; it was technically-sound, and fun to drive. 

Subaru had done its usual excellent job of design, mechanical and production engineering, and the styling did boast a certain quirkiness, which could appeal to SAAB buyers.

What I didn’t realize was that I had unwittingly driven a SAAB 9-2X (well, sort of) completely ignorant of what it was. Back in 1995 on a personal visit to see friends in New Jersey I needed the use of a car, so I called my old friend Alex Fedorak, who ran Subaru’s PR team, and he provided an Impreza wagon.

I borrowed the car you see here, and drove it to visit friends in northern New Jersey on a very snowy weekend just after Thanksgiving.


It later transpired that this car was the first ‘development and calibration mule’ supplied to GM in Warren, MI, from the Subaru press fleet later in mid 2004.


GM made very few substantial changes to the Impreza. The SAAB designers created a new tailgate, rear bumper and grille, but the rest of the car came from the Subaru parts bin. 

SAAB did produce some lightweight aluminium components for the rear suspension; its own seats and active head restraints; revised instrument panel, and the WRX STi steering system, which made the 9-2X very responsive.

Call me crazy; and I’m sure the wrath of SAAB enthusiasts worldwide will be visited upon my head; but I thought it was a neat fit – both in product and image terms. Nothing wrong with Subaru’s engineering integrity, and as a stop gap measure to give GM-SAAB some breathing space to refresh the SAAB product portfolio, the 9-2X looked ideal to me.

Also giving me some comfort was the opinion of solid gold SAAB rallying legend, Erik Carlsson. Because of my close friendship with Stirling Moss, I often dined with the Mosses in Mayfair - one time with Stirling’s sister Pat (a legendary and formidable female rally competitor), and her husband Erik.

Erik (far left), Stirling & Susie Moss, Pat Moss (Carlsson)

One night after dinner at Shepherd Street I raised the concept of the 9-2X, to which the always practical Erik replied: “I think it was a good plan. It was basically a good car, for free! You can’t get better than that, but you know, typically, GM screwed it up. In fact they screwed SAAB, completely.”

Well said, that man!


Another bomb in GM’s turgid and muddle-headed management history.

Friday, April 21, 2017

SHANGHAI'S GERMAN SHOWCASE

It could be another example of Deutschland Über Alle, but the German marques staged big reveals of some interesting new concepts and production cars at this month's Shanghai Auto Show, dominating the expo.

Mercedes-Benz invested in its Concept A; and the much facelifted S-Class. Volkswagen showed another electric crossover concept, albeit with a weird name, surely not intended for the final version.

The Chinese market is not only vital for all the Germans, but Volkswagen is the biggest seller of Joint Venture cars there, and the reveal of the CROZZ Crossover Concept shows just how much it depends on success in China.


The Concept A is a very slick reworking of the original compact sedan launched in 2012. Mercedes-Benz says it has sold more than two million compacts, including the CLA-Class, CLA Shooting Brake, GLA-Class, A-Class, and B-Class.

Design Chief Gorden Waggoner says Concept A is the realisation of the company's new design language called 'Aesthetics A'.

After you sift through the design hyperbole, this new concept will also be the basis for the JV car to come from the Renault-Nissan Alliance and Mercedes-Benz factory in Aguascalientes, in Central Mexico.

The Nissan version will carry the Infiniti brand name.

The 'A' is just a concept, at the moment, but it does feature the 'Panamericana' grille seen on both the AMG GT-R and the AMG GT3 - and we know that design is destined for production.


Then there was the 'new' S-Class, which is really, essentially a facelift - but in similar manner to other Mercedes-Benz mid-life updates, there's a lot of fancy new tech on-board including a new design headlight system which the Stuttgarters say reaches way beyond the conventional headlight spread.




With every carmaker in the world rushing to create JVs in China, and devolving huge production volume expectations to the JV factories, I still can't quite believe that there won't be tears before bedtime if the Chinese market falters, or wages soar to make production there less profitable.

Then the car industry titans will be looking for 'another Thailand or India' to build cars at sub-basic wage levels.

KIDS IN CARS

I am always moaning about the fact that young people getting into their first cars today are not like us ‘old farts’ who tinkered with cars, modifying them, racing them and servicing them.

However, the organizers of the 2017 New York Auto Show went all out to make sure kids featured big at this year’s expo. I applaud this initiative and the photos of pure fun tell the story better than words.



But, by the time these little tykes are old enough to have a licence, they won’t be doing the driving – they’ll be enslaved by autonomous cars.

However, it's great to see such unbridled enthusiasm and joy on the show floor.

Well done!

One media forum at the NY auto show was devoted to the subject of ‘why’ younger drivers are more likely to accept autonomous, self-driving cars. 

Another forum even posited that autonomous driving will kill cars like the MX-5.

Bah, humbug!