Saab Story: How New Ownership Might Restore the "Saabness" That GM Killed

Last Updated Feb 25, 2011 8:43 PM EST

One of the things its 2009 bankruptcy forced General Motors (GM) to do was sell Saab, the Swedish near-luxury brand that GM tried to turn into a BMW competitor. The buyer was the very obscure Spyker, a Dutch manufacturer of exotic supercars. Now Spyker is selling that business, essentially chucking its heritage so it can go all in with Saab.

Spyker's commitment to become the Neo-Saab is admirable -- and more than a tad quixotic, given Saab's overall market position and the status of Swedish cars generally. The Swedes, with Volvo and Saab, used to be a big part of the import mix in U.S. If you didn't care for sloshy American luxe of the Caddy/Lincoln type, or the Teutonic flavors of BMW and Mercedes, or the Japanese wannabes, such as Lexus and Acura, then Volvo and Saab were your babies.

How Americans killed Saab for America
It was once easy to peg a Volvo or Saab owner. The former was a preppy from the Northeast who respected value, safety and a boxy lack of pretense. The latter was a scruffy academic type, also from the Northeast, who liked a bohemian vibe in all things. Ford (F) and GM tried to get past this narrow demo when they respectively took over Volvo and Saab. The result in both cases: total FAIL.

GM gradually forced all the Saabness out of Saab. By the time it sold the brand, sales were miserable and the cars were little more than rebadged Opels. Ford inserted Volvo at the bottom of its premium group and also saw sales flag, but did a halfway decent job of perpetuating the brand's reputation for quality before finally selling Volvo to Geely, a Chinese manufacturer.

Back to Russia with love
So who will Spyker sell its, um... Spyker part to? Why none other than Vladimir Antonov, a Russian banker who has been accused at times of sketchy business dealings. It's a comeback for Antonov, who was forced to divest his Spyker interest in 2010 when it got in the way of GM selling Saab to Spyker. (GM has shown a strange Cold War-esque paranoia about Russia -- in addition to the Saab-Spyker anxiety, it derailed the sale of its Opel division in Europe for fear that technology might fall into Russian hands.)

Antonov can now buy the Spyker side of Spyker, which a cynic might say is just a backdoor way of investing in Saab, as Spyker has built barely more than 200 cars in ten years. The deal will pump $44 million into Saab, and to my eye, that seems like a pretty rich price when you consider that GM only got $150 million when it sold Hummer to the Chinese in 2009.

Spyker actually has a good plan for Saab
Financial intrigue aside, Spyker does have cool things in mind for Saab. A big part of what Spyker wants to restore to Saab is that special Saabness that GM hammered out. To do that, Spyker last year announced that it would be introducing a new model based on the famous Saab 92, produced from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s.

This would be the latest in a run of retro design cars, including the MINI Cooper and the Fiat 500. For Spyker, this is the best possible way to create a halo car for Saab on the cheap, something to suck customers into dealerships and generate some media buzz.

Spyker's CEO, Victor Muller, is a serial entrepreneur, so it's no shock that he's getting out of Spyker in order to oversee the the much larger potential of Saab. Thus far, he's making all the right moves.

Related Photo: Saab 92/Wikimedia Commons
  • Matthew DeBord

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