SAAB museum a time capsule of coolness
MICHAEL LAMB VISITS THE SAAB MUSEUM, KEEPING A TIME CAPSULE OF COOLNESS ON ICE
The woman with the feather duster moves slowly around the car.
It’s a super-rare 1956 Saab Sonnett Super Sport in old white, one of just a handful ever produced. She diligently, methodically attends to any dust motes that dare rest on its streamlined guards.
Besides the chap on the front desk, feather duster lady and I and are the only two people here today in the Saab Museum in Trollhattan, western Sweden.
The 1956 Saab Sonnett Super
Which is understandable — Trollhattan is a good eight-hour return train ride from Stockholm via Gothenburg, so only a daft Saab fanboy like me would attempt such a mission. I’ve come to see the first Saab, the prototype 92001 made in 1946, which stands proudly and timelessly in its own art gallery-like space.
And the futuristic Saab Aero-X; the Saab Monster (an experiment to fit two engines in one Saab 93); the little-known Saab GT750 late 50s “grand tourer”; a bevy of the lordly Saab 9000s; the iconic 900 convertible and examples of just about every Saab ever made in a collection that numbers around 120 vehicles — all spotless thanks to the constant swish swish swish of that feather duster.
Sweden is famous for a lot of things — meatballs, moose, Wallander and, of course, Abba — but on the motoring front, Volvo is now last man standing after Saab hit the wall a few years back, ceasing production in 2011.
The Saab Aero X.
Or did it?
In a story with more twists and turns than a back country Swedish road, Saab continues to exist on various forms of life support.
The latest chapter has the intellectual property owned by National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS), with a plan to produce electric vehicles in partnership with the Chinese, although now NEVS too appears to have hit some speed bumps and some Saab intellectual property is being sold to Turkey, where they want to use it to develop their own “national car”.
The Saab 92001 prototype.
Just to add to the tortuous unravelling, the ownership of the actual Saab brand itself is still claimed by the Saab Aviation and Defense Company.
This meatballs to chow mein to hummus tale of woe is an inelegant and poignant decline for this once mighty, independent European brand.
The Saab story is one of real innovation, an aviation-inspired manufacturer producing cars with stealth turbocharged power hidden beneath timeless body shapes, ice-cool design features and rally-ready handling.
This formula was tweaked and refined so everyday sedans like the Saab 9-5 had a purity of thinking that offered an intelligent Nordic alternative to the BMWs and Audis of this world.
Above all, Saab engineering had a robustness of genuine quality.
The Saab 92001
Take the legendary Saab 9000. To demonstrate the durability of the engine and transmission, in 1986 Saab engineers drove three standard production line models for 20 days and 20 nights at an average track speed of 220 km/h.
Each car covered 5000km a day — the equivalent of Stockholm to Rome and back — for a total of 100,000km.
The decline began when General Motors entered the picture in 1989 and started diluting the Saab product with cross-platform cost-savings. Component quality dropped along with sales, as Saab fell into a no man’s land between the high volume premium carmakers like Audi and the niche luxury brands like Porsche.
After a short-lived promise of salvation through Dutch supercar company Spyker, we come back to today.
The year 2014 saw a glimmer of hope as the production line was rebooted for a short run of the 9-3 Aero Sedans for the local market. Those quickly sold out, the money dried up and silence descended on Saab’s factory in Trollhattan once more.
The one-off gullwing Saab
Arriving in Sweden it’s easy to see why any car brand would struggle, let alone a domestic one. From the window of my suburban Airbnb.com room in Stockholm I can see several Saabs parked up on the street outside.
After three days, autumn leaves are still clinging to windscreen wipers — I realise that here cars sit without being used because the Swedish instinct is to opt for public transport (and it is stunning: the national rail system is brilliant, the urban metro systems peerless).
For Saab, stumbling into bed with fast-talking Americans back in the 80s has led to a long and drawn out malaise, possibly fatal.
Even the museum itself came close to extinction, listed to be firesaled off in 2012 to help cover Saab’s bankruptcy debts. Fortunately the town of Trollhattan, Saab aerospace and a private benefactor clubbed together and came up with over US$4 million to save the day.
Now, besides the many Saabs still circulating on the world’s roads, the Saab Museum stands as the brand’s sole legacy, a time capsule of Saabness that will hopefully one day receive more future classics from this most individual and idiosyncratic of marques.