Saab, the Swedish automaker “born from jets” to build quirky teardrop-shaped cars Kurt Vonnegut once labeled “yuppie uniforms,” has hit the end of the road after 64 years.
Swedish Automobile, the company’s parent, played its last hand today when it filed for bankruptcy in Vanersborg, Sweden. It said it “does not expect to realize any value from its shares in Saab Automobile” and “will write off its interest in Saab Automobile completely.”
Saab CEO Viktor Muller said the company’s fate was sealed when previous owner General Motors rejected a last-ditch bid for the company from Zhejiang Youngman Lotus Automobile Co. Muller, the Dutch entrepreneur who once led supercar manufacturer Spyker, bought Saab from GM almost two years ago. He paid $74 million in cash and $326 million in preferred shares, but couldn’t line up the financing he needed to revamp Saab’s aging lineup and spur sales.
“This is the darkest day in my career, probably in the history of Saab. But we had no other alternatives,” Muller said Monday, according to Swedish media quoted by the Detroit News.
It was an ignominious end to a company that built cool cars known for understated exceptionalism.
Saab’s story started after World War II with a handful of aircraft engineers who wanted to create what they believed were the best cars available. The first model, the Saab 92, featured a two-stroke engine driving the front wheels. It was remarkably aerodynamic, a trait shared by the models to follow.
From those roots grew a company adored by a small but passionate band of enthusiasts who relished Saab’s early adoption of technology like turbochargers in the Saab 99 and overlooked anomalies like putting the ignition switch between the seats.
Though they were, um, unusual, Saabs had a reputation for being dependable and innovative. The company developed dual brake circuits to ensure drivers could stop even if the brakes were damaged. It mounted the ignition between the seats to prevent knee injuries in a crash. And it was the first to offer heated front seats and headlamp washers.
Perhaps the marque’s most notable model was the Saab 900, which appeared in 1978. It drew a cult-like following of owners with a reputation for smoking pipes, teaching English and wearing tweed. The 900 begat the 900 Turbo and then the 900 SPG, sort of a Swedish BMW M3.
General Motors took the reins in 1989 and tried to give Saab broader appeal. It updated the 900 in 1994, which helped, and offered interesting models like the 9-3 Viggen for the gearheads. But Saab was never more than an automotive footnote beyond Sweden, and sales peaked at 133,000 in 2006. Saab sold just 27,000 cars in all of 2009, by which point GM was frantically trying to stay alive.
Muller stepped in the following year with a promise to turn things around. The company teased us with a lineup that included the stylish 9-5, 9-4 and a new 9-3 penned by whiz-kid designer Jason Castriota, who promised to bring sleek, sexy styling to Saab. Castriota, who cut his teeth at Pininfarina, wowed us earlier this year with the wild Saab Phoenix hybrid concept.
It was all for naught, though, as Muller and Saab ran out of time, out of money and out of luck. It was perhaps an inevitable end for a company that had been all but dead since March. But Muller isn’t quite ready to pull the plug.
“Even if this may look like the end, it doesn’t necessarily have to be,” he said, according to the Detroit News. “It could be a new beginning and Saab could rise from the ashes like a phoenix.”
Photo: A Saab 92 leaves the factory back in the day. / Saab