Killing me slowly: Saab bankruptcy

It's finally over for Saab, as it files for bankruptcy. Where did it all go wrong?

By Tim Kendall | 19th December 2011

It’s been doggedly bailing for a couple of years, but today Saab finally let the life raft sink. In a statement, Dutch parent company Swedish Automobile NV said: ‘Saab Automobile AB (Saab Automobile), Saab Automobile Tools AB and Saab Powertrain AB filed for bankruptcy with the District Court in Vänersborg, Sweden this morning.’ So finally, it looks to be all over for Saab.

Is it right to get all dewy-eyed about a company succumbing to commercial reality though? The peaks and troughs of the business cycle serve as natural selection in the commercial world, and Saab hasn’t been able to make the numbers work for a long time. Viewed dispassionately, it’s just an under-performing car company that’s going to the wall. But from another angle, you could argue Saab’s death wasn’t entirely natural, and General Motors has blood on its hands. What on earth will provincial solicitors and architects drive now?

Saab 900 Turbo

A Saab 900 Turbo, in happier times

When GM took it on in 1989, chronic under-investment was never going to satiate a company with such strong and individual brand identity. Re-working aged Vauxhalls undermined Saab’s engineering integrity and alienated the brand faithful. Trad-Saab cues like the ignition barrel by the gearstick, and the superbly comfy seats remained, but the cars were an unhappy pastiche. And when it revamped the 900 in 1993, the Saab-Calibra cocktail didn’t fool anyone, least of all the black polo-neck and frameless specs brigade.

It was the same story with 1997’s 9000 replacement – the 9-5 – which was cursed from birth by being based on the lumpen mk1 Vectra. Squaring up to the Germans with the 9-5 was never going to be pretty, even though loyal Saab-ists could be relied upon to plump for Trollhattan’s under-achiever simply because it wasn’t a BMW or Merc. And the 9-3 of the noughties seemed to sell in good numbers, but felt like a watered-down Saab, despite having more Trollhattan in it than the 1993 mongrel.

1993 Saab 900

Calibra in disguise: the 1993 Saab 900

The long and short is that GM was seemingly content to let Saab stagnate, starving it of the investment needed to create vital new products that weren’t based on Vauxhall cast-offs. Recession may bite car companies hard, but that wasn’t what killed Saab. The cancer set in when Detroit leviathan and small European niche manufacturer were joined in unholy matrimony. It had a fighting chance when Spyker stepped in to rescue it from an ailing GM in February 2010, but the Dutch company never had the financial clout to keep a volume maker like Saab alive.

You’d have hoped in Saab’s hour of need, that the attitude of GM might be more collaborative in light of its shoddy custodianship of the brand. But its contempt for one of Sweden’s best exports really shone through this week, when they blocked the Youngman lifeline, citing worries about IP falling into Chinese hands.  It’s been in a persistent vegitative state for the past two decades, but ultimately, GM killed Saab 22 years ago.

By Tim Kendall
19th December 2011

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