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Motor Mouth articles 2009

The sad demise of a famous marque

Saab in its rallying heyday

THIS is a time of the year when a death takes an extra poignancy, even when it’s not wholly unexpected. So it is with the demise of one of Europe’s most famous motoring marques, Saab.

Its owner, the sickly giant General Motors, has announced that its efforts to find a buyer for the Swedish carmaker have failed so it is beginning what it calls ‘an orderly wind-down’ of the business.

In translation that means Saab hasn’t actually gone bust so its debts will be honoured by the parent company, suppliers will be paid, warranties and service agreements will be honoured.

The firm itself will, GM hope, be stripped down and flogged off to interested parties; the technology is going to China and the famous Saab brand name will also be open to offers.

The death knell was sounded when Dutch luxury carmaker Spyker pulled out of negotiations to buy the business. An earlier rescue deal also collapsed when supercar manufacturers Koenigsegg withdrew.

The Swedish government has been critical of GM’s lack of support for Saab over recent years but has refused to bail them out financially. Some 3,400 jobs in Europe are sure to go while another 11,000 at world-wide dealerships are also in jeopardy.

GM was understood to have bought Saab in order to acquire a premium European brand, in the same way that Ford snapped up Jaguar. But critics would say that GM, with its American culture and mass production ethos, never properly supported Saab and the firm never returned to profit.

GM, just out of bankruptcy and still wobbling like a comedy drunk, has been trying to slim itself down, having closed Pontiac, sold Hummer and almost disposed of Opel-Vauxhall. Propping up Saab ceased to be an option.

But if the end was fairly predictable, it is a sad outcome for a proud and individual carmaker with a rich history. Known mainly nowadays for big, safe cars with lively turbo engines, Saab was for a long time a major player in the world of rallying.

The bullnose Saab 96, with its extraordinary three-cylinder, two-stroke engine achieved great things, as did the V4 four-stroke follow-up version, with its column-mounted gear change and glued-to-the-road handling.

And yes, I had one. An ancient two-stroke job that produced an engine note like an over-excited sewing machine, had an interior that took ‘uncluttered’ to new heights, and was enormous fun to drive, completely unlike anything else on the road.

Saabs, as we knew them, probably ceased to exist quite a few years ago. Their eccentricity was washed out of them by their American masters and even the smart recent models seem like Vauxhall Vectras in fancy dress. What a shame that such a famous marque should fall victim to this cruel recession.

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