Today, Swedish automaker Saab finally called it quits after a months-long struggle to stay solvent and—more importantly—stay relevant. With former parent company General Motors unwilling to part with licenses to its intellectual property to the Chinese firms that promised to inject cash into the ailing brand, it was only be a matter of time before Saab would simply run out of resources to build its cars. Not surprisingly, the company filed for bankruptcy protection today in Swedish court.
Since 1948, Saab automobiles had been finding ways to build a car differently than the mainstream—sometimes better, sometimes worse. But Saab has never shied away from trying something new to see if it can be done better.
That sense of constant tinkering led to mainstays on cars we’re just starting to see today: light-pressure turbocharging that’s helped boost power and fuel economy. Saab began using turbos in the 1970s. Automakers are now using active head restraints. Saab began implementing them in the 1980s. Saab was also the first brand to implement headlight washers. It’s a small brand that kept marching forward for decades despite its many flaws. That is, until the company came to a grinding halt in the last month of 2011.
In part due to mismanagement by former parent company General Motors, Saab lost much of the character that set it apart and thus enough unique parts to justify moving forward despite not having GM’s blessing. But it’s impossible to single GM out for the anchor of Saab’s demise.
Saab has been a niche player for the entirety of its 63-year existence. As cars became more expensive to engineer and produce, a small player like the Trollhatten outfit couldn’t compete on its own. General Motors bought Saab in 1989, more as a reaction to Ford buying Jaguar than a rational business decision.
Potential owners of Saab have shuffled between Dutch Spyker (now Swedish Automobile N.V.), Russian mobster and entrepreneur Vladimir Antonov, and China’s Pang Da Automobiles, and Zhejiang Youngman Lotus Automobile in 2011 alone. We’ve shied away from reporting on it because it’s often sounded as depressing as the plotlines of Lifetime’s made-for-TV movies. We’re not ones to beat a dead horse here at Automotive.com. Really.
Hobbling into bankruptcy protection from its creditors, the brand focused on securing financing and starting back up as if nothing had happened. Idealistic, sure, but not realistic. Without producing a single vehicle since the spring, Saab was left to pick up the pieces of a foundation that would need to be completely rebuilt. It tried doing so with the help of Chinese financing. But it couldn’t be expected that GM would lend its resources to a Chinese-owned rival in an emerging market it competes in heavily.
GM did the right thing.
“The Board of Saab Automobile subsequently decided that the company without further funding will be insolvent and that filing bankruptcy is in the best interests of its creditors,” the automaker said in a statement.
But rather than focus on Saab’s downward spiral, we prefer to remember the brand as something better than its bankruptcy and recent years of and warmed-over, rebadged Chevrolets and Subarus. We’d prefer to remember the hatchbacks, Aeros, SPGs, and Viggens. And we’ll remember the small, turbocharged engines Saab pushed ahead of its time when big-displacement V-6 and V-8 engines were still the norm.
Saab will always have a place in the hearts of car enthusiasts and non-conformists alike. We’ll miss it and what it represented. But its time was up, and it’s time to move on in a market saturated with newer, and ultimately better, cars than what the little outfit from Trollhatten could produce.
Update: Saab has announced that it is suspending all warranty coverage for new vehicles, and that all Saabs will be sold “as-is” until further notice. Caveat emptor, to be sure.