Editor At Large Jay Traugott examines how and why Saab is in the tank, despite its extreme and seemingly neverending efforts to survive.
I've been observing the rapid collapse of Saab lately and it's not at all pretty. In fact, it's both sad and painful as a brand with a lot of history in both innovation and quirky styling falls apart more and more with each passing week. Although it's never been a big success story like many other European automakers, Saab has had some high notes such as their 1944 92, which had the lowest drag coefficient of any production car of the time.
They were also the unofficial yuppie brand of the 1980s and early 90s, Jerry Seinfeld drove one on his show and even JFK Jr. had a 900 at the time of his death. And that's, sadly, about as far as Saab ever got. Besides there being a devout following, Saab never really caught on as a mainstream brand. When they were bought by General Motors back in 1989, there was fresh hope that the world's largest automaker could turn Saab into a luxury brand with mass appeal. In the 15 year-long GM era, Saab still couldn't find itself even with cash available. Those years were the best chance they ever had for long-term success.
And it didn't happen. So as Saab's future is rapidly crumbling (not even a Chinese cash infusion has been able to do the job), I realized that in today's automotive industry, it's impossible for any mainstream automaker to be both healthy and have a positive long-term survival outlook without being a part of a major parent company. Welcome to the 21st century global auto industry. Take another small automaker, Suzuki, for example. Last year they sold the Volkswagen Group 20 percent of their outstanding shares in an effort to benefit from the latter's experience with efficient and environmentally friendly drivetrain and vehicle technologies.
VW needed them in order to gain a foothold in the compact car segment in emerging Asian markets. At the official press conference announcing the deal, Suzuki CEO Osamu Suzuki declared that his company "is not becoming a 12th brand for Volkswagen...I don't want other folks telling me how to do things." But now, unsurprisingly, Suzuki is reportedly unhappy with the arrangement thus far and doesn't feel it's being treated as an equal partner. While it may not be perfect for Suzuki, they at least have an extremely wealthy partner that can help sustain them if tough times ever happen.
Perhaps Saab should have gone to VW before allowing Spyker to buy them. Speaking of which...Spyker!? The chances that a small boutique supercar maker could successfully sustain and manage a larger brand like Saab are about as good as Tom Cruise finding Xenu, ruler of the galactic confederacy Teegeeack. Small boutique brands such as Pagani and Koenigsegg don't need a parent company because neither has any intention of becoming mainstream. Ferrari and Lamborghini, however, are owned by Fiat and Volkswagen (them again!), respectively.
When Hummer was put up for sale by GM in 2008, even the Chinese government didn't approve the sale to the Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company because they realized the brand was a lost cause in terms of finding a consistent mainstream audience. And as GM's bankruptcy and Ford's ditching of Mercury so well proved, brands with lackluster sales and/or vision are finished. So poor Saab is dying a slow death and as of now, not much can be done. In the wake of the global economic recession, automakers have trimmed themselves down to their core money-making brands.
Spyker couldn't even afford itself - literally-as they've sold their sports car business to CPP Global Holdings. The idea was to focus on resurrecting Saab, but now, not even Xenu has the financial strength to save them.