NORCROSS, Ga. -- The name Saab, an acronym for Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, or "Swedish Airplane Company," conjures up an image unlike any other in the automotive world.
Created in 1937, the company was founded as war clouds loomed on Sweden's horizon. In response to growing military threat from nearby neighbors, and a strong Swedish sentiment to maintain neutrality, the need for a domestic aircraft industry was quickly determined. Thus, on a site in Trollhattan, Sweden, adjacent to a then-new Nohab aircraft engine production facility, a factory was established to manufacture airplanes under license.
These truly challenging and demanding circumstances--which would, of course, go on to change the course of world history--shaped Saab's vision of a unique future, firmly rooted in high engineering standards and the ability to rapidly develop advanced and innovative technologies.
Saab's aircraft production program began with a Junkers-derived B3 bomber and the Northrup-inspired B5, along with an Sk14 trainer. After these initial projects, Saab soon was working on its own designs and in 1939, the plant size in Trollhattan was doubled.
By 1940, Saab Project L1 O--designated B17 and S17 by the Swedish Air Force-- was literally "off the ground," and at about the same time, the infamous Saab J21 was conceived.
This new J21 airplane was radically different, and would set the stage for what would become Saab tradition--defying current fad and fashion, and instead concentrating on true engineering innovation.
The Saab J21 featured an aft-mounted, "pusher" propeller engine, in the interest of providing superior forward vision for the pilot. Due to this unique placement, weapon systems could also be concentrated in the nose of the single-engine aircraft.
But, what about the poor pilot in the event of a wartime mishap? With a propeller rotating just behind the cockpit, the thought of bailing out from a forward flying airplane was certainly not a pleasant one.
A typical Saab solution was therefore found which ultimately revolutionized the aircraft industry. The Swedish airplane manufacturer developed the innovative ejector seat and the Saab J21 was the first production aircraft in the world to be so equipped.
Toward the end of the war, great technical skill and manufacturing capability had been amassed in Trollhattan, and Saab management responsibly recognized that such potential needed to be redirected. The large demand for military aircraft would soon wane. Consequently, Saab undertook several commercial projects, including the twin- engine 24-32 seat Saab Scandia passenger plane, and the Saab Safir trainer. Such metal-working expertise even produced thoughts of manufacturing household appliances. The idea of what a Saab toaster would have possibly looked like is certainly intriguing.
Instead, it was recognized that Sweden--like most of the world--would quickly need to get back on its feet when peace arrived. To help achieve this goal, a small Saab car project was approved in 1945.
With no automotive experience to speak of, the first Saab passenger car naturally relied on the Swedish company's aircraft engineering expertise. Dubbed "92", following Saab's in-house aircraft project designation scheme, it's no coincidence that the new car's side profile very much resembled that of an airplane wing--in the best interest of aerodynamic efficiency. It was also of monocoque, or uni-body, construction.
On June 10, 1947, the 92 prototype was unveiled before the press, and the first 92001 was soon put through its paces for test and development.
Actual Saab 92 production commenced in late 1949, and like every Saab passenger car that would follow, the 92s were powered by a compact and lightweight engine and featured front wheel drive. In the interest of simplicity, the Saab 92 engine was a 764 cc, transverse-mounted, twin cylinder two-stroke.
Even before series production officially began, a Saab 92 won its first rally, and established yet another Saab tradition--that of a successful motorsports competitor, with legends like Erik Carlsson behind the wheel.
Swedish Saab Emigrates to America
In 1955, the Saab 92 made way for Saab's next automobile--the Saab 93. Powered by a more robust three-cylinder, two-stroke engine, this much improved model would be the bridge to a Saab export enterprise. At the time, a young MIT graduate by the name of Ralph T. Millet was in the business of procuring U.S.-sourced hardware and systems for Saab aircraft. It was only natural, therefore, that the Swedes approached him with the prospect of selling Saab automobiles on these shores.
His first reaction was cynical--would Americans ever accept a small, import auto that required pouring a can of oil into the fuel tank at every fill-up? To find out, Millet displayed the then-new Saab models in the 1956 New York Auto Show, where they were met with a positive reception.
A fledgling U.S. operation based in New York was soon up and running. Designed to weather the harsh realities of the Swedish climate, and a road network made up of more gravel paths than paved surfaces, the rugged and reliable Saab 93 quickly proved itself on the highways and byways of America.
Millet's early marketing efforts, like the Swedes' in their homeland, centered around motorsports to demonstrate Saab integrity and durability--a strategy that proved very successful. The United States ultimately became the largest single market for Saab cars in the world, now outpacing Sweden.
Continuous Improvement--A Saab Commitment For More than Four Decades
Saab has built a unique presence in the automotive industry, based on advanced and innovative engineering skills, enthusiasm, and progressive management and manufacturing techniques. The special Saab spirit grew out of a unique combination of important automotive attributes such as performance, safety, concern for the environment, sheer driving pleasure, value and versatility, and reliability. Saab styling has also always been quite distinctive, to say the least.
The Swedish aircraft-turned-automaker developed vehicle platforms and car concepts based on sound engineering principle, all of which remained viable and in demand through careful refinement and continued improvement. Like its very first J21 airplane, Saab was not influenced by fad or fancy, or instituted changes simply for the sake of change.
A good example of this philosophy was the further development of the Saab 93, which fostered the Saab 95 station wagon in 1959, the Saab 96 sedan in 1960 and the Saab Sonett ll sports car in 1966.
By 1966, Saab's first car family was also updated with a four-cylinder, four-stroke engine--a V4, supplied by Ford of Germany.
Continued success lead to the expansion of the Saab model line and the larger Saab 99 premiered in 1967. It bristled with technical innovation from stem to stern, and contributed heavily to what was becoming a rather unique Saab brand identity. One innovation that will forever be associated with Saab was its console-mounted ignition key, located between the front seats. This ergonomically-efficient Saab solution offered the added advantage of improved safety, by reducing the possibility of the driver's knee coming into contact with the key in the event of a frontal collision.
The Saab 99 made way for the Saab 900 in 1978, which was introduced as a 1979 model. It was an extension of the new car concept created by the 99--literally, the Saab 900 was 8.4 inches longer and boasted a complete redesign from the front seats forward. With more than 900,000 produced and 340,000 sold in America, the 900 model designation is truly synonymous with the name Saab.
The 900 proved to be the quintessential Saab, and over the next 15 years the three- and five-door hatchbacks were joined by two- and four-door sedans. In the winter of 1982, the all-important U.S. market initiated a new design proposal that would ultimately take the automotive world by storm.
Under the direction of Robert J. Sinclair, who at the time was President of Saab's U.S. sales subsidiary, a proposal was submitted to the parent company for the creation of a full, four-passenger Saab 900 Convertible. With Sweden's backing, a prototype was constructed as a concept study, and was shown at the 1983 Frankfurt Motor Show.
The public response was overwhelming, and the green light was given to proceed with production, which commenced in Finland for 1986. The rest, as they say, is history. The 900 Convertible now represents over 20 percent of total Saab sales in America.
While the 900 Convertible sparked new excitement for the Swedish automaker, the real dynamo at the time was the resounding success of the turbocharged engine concept.
The momentum began back in 1977 with the premier of the 99 Turbo, and by the mid-80's the Saab Turbo was a roaring sales success. Sales in the U.S. peaked at over 47,000 cars, due in part to the introduction of an all-new, up-market Saab--the 9000.
Appearing in America in 1985 as a 1986 model, the arrival of the Saab 9000 was timed perfectly to coincide with the burgeoning, executive-class car market.
Like so many Saabs before it, the 9000 also proved its worth on the track. In October, 1986, three absolutely stock Saab 9000s established 21 World and International speed and endurance records at Talladega Motor Speedway in Alabama. A feat unmatched to this day by any other manufacturer, three Saab 9000 Turbos circled the high-banked tri-oval continuously for 20 days and nights, at speeds in excess of 140 mph. When the dust finally settled, Saab had established a new 100,000 kilometer (62,000 mile) speed record at over 132 mph, among many other "first" achievements.
The Saab 9000 hatchback range was joined by the 9000 CD sedan, which was unveiled in 1988, and the 9000 CS series bowed in America for the 1993 model year. By that time, the Saab 9000 was recognized as an industry innovator, with a host of accolades to its name--Car and Driver named it one of the ten best in the business, while the Folksam Insurance Company dubbed it the safest car in Sweden twice in succession. AAA (American Automobile Association) also named the 1993 9000 CS the l'top car'l in its price class.
A History Of Creative Cooperative Ventures
In January, 1990, Saab car operations were separated from Saab-Scania AB to form a new joint venture company--Saab Automobile AB--in which General Motors (Europe) AG enjoys a ,0 percent stake. It was from this date that the all-new 900 model was identified as the top priority in a newly formulated ten-year business plan. Prior to the joint venture, several alternative projects had been considered, code-named X67 and X68 (starting in 1985). In 1988, Project 102 replaced X68, before Project 104--the 1994 Saab 900--was approved at the end of 1989.
With less than four years to finalize the design, develop all components and re-tool the production facilities in Trollhattan, Saab was faced with an extreme challenge that required considerable engineering effort and a high degree of innovation. It was the same kind of pressure under which the original Saab company was founded more than four decades earlier.
Working from the basic parameters established for Project 102, an advanced matrix management structure launched Project 104. A new system of simultaneous engineering was adopted which would bring the 104 to production as quickly as possible, and with the highest quality levels ever. All parts and vehicle systems were developed in parallel, so that no component would be held up while other elements were being completed. Every discipline, including engineering, purchasing, manufacturing, service, marketing, administration and even recycling specialists, worked together from project start-up.
Saab was able to utilize much of GM's extensive expertise for the development of new production processes, thereby reducing manufacturing times considerably.
The Saab/GM relationship is but the latest example of Saab's ambitious approach to creative cooperative ventures. When Saab first planned to diversify into car manufacturing in 1945, it naturally followed its aircraft tradition of installing a proven lightweight powertrain in the best orientation possible. At that time, the engine with the most efficient power-to-weight ratio was the DKW two-stroke, which was subsequently adapted and manufactured by Saab in two-cylinder form to drive the front wheels of the first production model--the Saab 92.
When more power was required in 1966, Saab again looked for an effective form of cooperation and after extensively testing several alternatives, the German Ford V4 was chosen for the 96. For the larger Saab 99, a different approach was employed. After commissioning its own engine from Ricardo Consulting Engineers in Great Britain, Saab joined forces with Standard-Triumph, which at the time required a similar engine specification. Consequently, three companies could share technical expertise and development costs.
In 1968, Saab merged its operations with another Swedish manufacturing entity-- Scania-Vabis AB--to create Saab-Scania AB. Scania had started building cars half a century before Saab (in 1897), but almost immediately turned to commercial vehicles, establishing an enviable worldwide reputation for its buses and trucks. The new Swedish transportation conglomerate would share resources and produce cars, trucks, buses and, of course, airplanes. A good example of the benefits gained was the Saab 99 engine, which was now produced by the Scania Division in Sodertalje, Sweden.
In the late 1 970s, Saab again sought a cooperative venture to bring the dramatically modern 9000 to market faster, and at a lower cost than could ever have been achieved on its own. As marketing links had already been forged with Lancia in Sweden, Saab turned to the Fiat group, who at that time, was well along with a new front-wheel-drive family car project of its own--in the same sector as the upcoming 9000.
During the planning stages of the all-new 900, Saab decided to draw on the positive experience gained during the 9000 development. Several possible alternative proposals involving other manufacturers were evaluated before the successful joint venture with General Motors (Europe) AG was established in 1990.