This morning I was pulling up my “write a new article” window and really didn’t feel like finishing my manifesto on why Outlook Express was evil, because something was on my mind. That something was the current plight of Saab Automobile, AB. How does that relate to computers? Well, it’s my blog and I can talk about anything I want! Really, though, there’s a lot of business model and product design to discuss.
Founded in 1947 and purchased by General Motors incrementally in the 1990s, Saab Automobile is known for its uniqueness (the ignition is near the shifter instead of the steering wheel, get this, to protect your kneecaps during a collision) and reliability (my uncle is a mechanic and thinks I’ll get 400,000 miles out of mine – that’s only 220k to go!). Like Subarus, Saabs are good multi-taskers. Although they appear to be entry-luxury sports cars, they’re actually quite good in the winter thanks to their Swedish origin. Their turbocharged models are both quick and fuel-efficient. Unlike a Chevy or a Honda though, not everyone drives them. They are favored by young professionals, creative-types, and half the city of Boston. (Owners are sometimes referred to as “Snaabs!”)
The GM Era
- I Sense Failure
Immediately following the GM takeover, Saabs began to share platforms with other GM models, such as Opels and Saturns. Sharing parts with GM usually spells disaster. The only (and last) GM vehicle I ever owned was a new 2000 Oldsmobile, and 6 years into owning it, I got fed up with it and sold it. Tiny, useless computer sensors all over the car were failing, causing the ABS, traction control, headlights, and finally transmission to malfunction. It’s just poor design.
- Badge Engineering
Saab’s most recent slogan was, “Now more born from jets than ever!” alluding to its origins as part of an aircraft conglomerate. First of all, you can’t be more or less born from anything than you always were. Second, if for the sake of argument that was possible, the Saab brand is significantly less born from jets at the moment due to the fact that it’s basically a pile of rebadged Chevys, Saturns, and Subarus.
- Saaby Blazer
In response to Ford’s best-selling Volvo XC90, Saab decided it was time to build a large SUV. Did they start on a fresh new platform, and call on Yamaha for a high-performance engine like Ford did? Nope. Did they stretch one of their current platforms or borrow a pickup truck frame from someone? Not exactly. They took a Chevy TrailBlazer and put Saab logos all over it. Worse yet, that is the same exact vehicle (minus the logos and front grille) as FIVE other vehicles (Chevy TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy, Oldsmobile Bravada, Buick Ranier, and Isuzu Ascender)! It’s a handsome truck in and of itself, but the TWO THINGS Saab was known for, quality and originality, are NOT present.
It all started on Super Bowl weekend this year. My buddy and I went to Boston harbor, 500 miles away from home, to purchase a 1998 Saab convertible with 175k miles on it, just so I could teach myself to drive stick.
I entered the car and started it up about 100 feet from the harbor water itself, having driven stick only 4 times before. I was terrified that I’d stall out as usual, rolling my new ride into 25 feet of freezing water… Instead, I didn’t. I took off down the street and the car was as patient, forgiving and kind as a parent. It spoke to me: Go ahead man, you’re fine, go ahead. It was that moment that I became a Saab fanatic.
I have a soft spot in my heart for, and will fervently defend, any product I deem unique, above the fray, and endangered (hence my Apple fan-dom). I love everything about it: The value for the money (especially one this old!), the sensual interior, the svelte design, the 400,000 mile predicted lifespan, and the tank-like safety. Interestingly, I’ve never purchased a tank of gas for it. My uncle bought me my first tank of gas the first week of February, and after driving it every other day, it’s March 15th and it says I have 55 miles left on that tank!
The Current Pickle
Amidst all the financial turmoil in Q1 2009, General Motors basically left Saab in a wicker basket on the front steps of the Swedish government. “Sorry guys, we don’t have any more money to give you, and we can’t sell you, so you’re… on your own.” Now, this wouldn’t be a big issue if the company were more independent, as with Jaguar/Land Rover, but over the past decade Saab has been reduced to a category on a balance sheet and a pretty logo. They have a factory or two left, but no unique platforms, no exclusive cars, etc.
One commenter on the 37Signals website puts it best:
Niall 24 Jan 06
There are no more Saabs, only GM cars with Saab stickers. Don’t get me wrong, I love my 9-3, but with each model year it becomes more and more like every other GM vehicle and less like a Saab. sniffle.
So, why try and save it?
The Manchester Evening News interviewed Richard Elliott, chairman of the Saab Owners Club of Great Britain. He labels himself and others as “having more affection for the brand that Saab was rather than what it has become.” It’s a good way to put it. There are two things besides the threat of job loss keeping people interested in Saab. First is the insane customer loyalty, and second is that extremely unique car design philosophy still present in shards in their newer cars. Things like no-compromise winter/summer driveability, good handling on the Aero models, the nicest convertibles I’ve ever seen, and of course even large Saabs can drive on their side two wheels! Prepare to be amazed:
What needs to happen
After watching that video, hopefully you see where I’m coming from. However, instead of “calling for” government aid, as many people love to do, nationalizing something never helps it become motivated. (The US Postal Service is the only branch of the government that’s completely self-sufficient. Why? Because they don’t receive government funding!) Instead, I’m “calling for” people to recognize this as a maker of superior automobiles and thus a good business.
Saab Automobile is currently being eyed by several parties, including a private group of swedish investors. Fantastic! best news in a while. I always say, great adversity can bring you to where you were supposed to be all along.
Here’s what needs to happen now to get them on an ideal track:
1: Good riddance to GM. No more “badge engineering”/brand dillution and financial failure. Take on a private investor who will leverage Saab’s inherent qualities to make money.
2: New models that bring back that uniqueness and diehard reliability. There are a heck of a lot more Saabs in America than Porsches, so its relatively small volume isn’t a threat in and of itself. Once profit margins are cleared up (currently 9000% of the sale price of each car goes to pay for GM’s woes… it’s not that much but you get the point) and sales go up again (requires that people see a real car, not someone else’s car with a price hike tacked on), they’ll be just fine.
“Mother We Just Can’t Get Enough”
Once the dust settles and a new owner is found, and assuming I have 25k to throw away, I might trade up to a ~ 3 year old Saab convertible. Sure it’d still be a GM-built plasticmobile, but 1: It’d be a lot newer than mine, and 2: It’d still be one of the most gorgeous and capable cars you can find. There’s something about driving a Saab that takes you to a whole new place. It’s funny, because for a 20th-century invention, it’s such a primal experience.
Maybe a white one with a blue ragtop… Maybe a blue one with a white top… What can I say, I’m a sucker for beautiful things.
To find out how you can become a Saab enthusiast or help “rescue” them, talk to these guys. They’ve got a lot of good ideas and are actually in talks with the company and its potential investors.
Manchester Evening News
Signal Vs Noise