This past Friday, I was seated in a long-lead briefing for another auto manufacturer when the whispered word was passed down the line of seated journalists: “There’s an emergency conference call regarding Saab in ten minutes.” Not too long after that: “Saab is dead. There’s no deal.” All around me, I saw men with their heads cradled in their hands, though I could not tell whether it was from sympathy, misery, or simple world-weariness. From the seat next to me, a sorrowful, poignant comment: “I don’t want to live in a world where the ES350 is a best-seller and Saab is dead.”
What a perceptive statement! For there were more than fifteen long years where people willingly deluded themselves into believing that this world was one where the Camry-by-Lexus could rule the sales roost and, yet, Saab could live. With evidence to the contrary literally surrounding them, Saab’s incompetent, careless stewards at General Motors continued to push the lie: Saab is premium, Saab is luxury, Saab can compete with the Japanese and Germans on equal ground. By the time Saab’s lifeless body finally thumped against the ground, the story had assumed the mantle of tragedy. And like most tragedies, it began with a misunderstanding.
As noted earlier in this series, the primary reason for the prestige accorded European cars in this country in the post-Vietnam era was simply their outrageous cost and relative rarity. This bizarre situation — that of cars selling well simply because they were priced above their true value — led European manufacturers to focus obsessively on the United States on general and the coastal markets in particular. It also created the myth that virtually all European cars priced above a VW Rabbit were inherently “upscale”. (Eventually, that myth would drag even the humble Rabbit up the marketing ladder, but that is a bunny tale for another time.)
Perhaps the upscale-ness (upscality?) of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class was not open to question, but what about cars which served more or less as the Fords or Chevrolets of their home countries, such as Renault, Peugeot, or… Saab? The Saab 99, which carried the Swedish company’s fortunes at home and abroad during the Seventies, was hardly a luxury car by any objective measure. A low-power, front-wheel-drive hatchback with better-than-average seats and an impressive cargo capacity, it should have occupied approximately the same space in the market as the Honda Accord or yet-to-arrive Chevrolet Citation. True, Saab ownership may have been considered a mild luxury back home, but the ownership of any car has traditionally been a privilege in cramped, tax-trampled Europe.
In the prosperous United States, the 99’s all-weather capability combined with its obvious non-American-ness to make it a favorite among university professors, architects, and all those people who are universally represented in mid-Seventies advertising by a pipe-fondling fellow wearing a turtleneck and tweed jacket. The arrival of the “Turbo” model added some measure of performance cachet to the mix, and suddenly Saab was a rather hip car to own. With the introduction of long-nosed, better-equipped 99 variant, known as the “900”, Saab’s position as a niche product for comparative-literature professors and the occasional Cannonball Run wannabe was more or less assured.
Sure, as a company Saab had a product-development timetable that might best be described as “leisurely”, but what did that matter when the best carmaker in the world, Mercedes-Benz, only replaced their mainline sedans every nine or ten years? And if comparable Japanese or American cars offered far more in the way of comfort, features, and performance for less money… what Saab customer would ever want to be seen behind the wheel of a Caprice or a Cressida? The truth of the matter was that people bought Saabs — and Volvos, and Audis, and other European cars — less for what they were that for what they were not. As the American dollar fell through the floor in the Eighties, Saab pricing soared and the market responded by demanding better-equipped, even more expensive Saabs. This luxury-car game was an unbeatable scam. It let a small Swedish company sell rather prosaic cars to important people for outrageous prices, and it showed absolutely no signs of ever coming to an end.
Of course, the end came rather suddenly with the arrival of the second-generation Lexus ES. Based on the 1992 Toyota Camry, arguably the best family sedan in history, the ES300 was flawlessly assembled, impressively equipped, priced in absolutely predatory fashion, and backed by a monstrous armada of pretentious yet effective marketing aimed directly at the heart of America’s nouveau riche. The tweed-jacket crowd didn’t cotton to the snub-nosed Lexus immediately — darling, it looks cheap and common — but as tales of the super-Toyota’s relentless reliability circulated through the dusty, crowded Saab service-department waiting rooms, surely more than one assistant dean seriously considered the idea of switching loyalties.
Most importantly, the 1992 ES was modern, based as it was on a new-for-1992 car. The 1992 Saab 900 was based on the 1968 Saab 99, and it didn’t take too perceptive of an eye to see it. Of course, by then, Saab had already fallen into the orbit of cash-rich General Motors, and GM had new product coming. Kind of. The 1993 Saab 900 was based on a 1988 Opel, said Opel not being a very good car. In Sweden, where nobody expected Saabs to be world-beating luxury superstars, it wasn’t such a big deal. In America, the press and the public measured it against competition ranging from the aforementioned ES300 to the spectacular new E36 BMW and found it to be well below par.
The new-generation Saab lineup of 900 and 9-5 (also, sadly, based on an old Opel) didn’t make the cut from the beginning. A more active corporate custodian would have noticed this and taken swift action. GM, however, apparently felt itself to be in the position of a new boyfriend demanding to be serviced in identical fashion to the old. The 99/900 had lasted twenty-four years and sold well from start to end, therefore the new-gen cars would also have an extended model run regardless of the consequences. The 900 was facelifted into the 9-3 and rotted in the dealerships for a decade before being replaced by another Opel-platform mediocrity. Just for the sake of perspective, it should be noted that the 900/9-3 was sold against three generations of Lexus ES, any and all of which were more reliable, comfortable, and practical than the aging Swede. Even staid old Mercedes-Benz managed to field two new C-Class models during the 900/9-3’s extended run. The addition of a rebadged Oldsmobile Bravada as a third model line did nothing to help matters.
Give Saab’s tweed-clad customer base some credit: many of them remained loyal through years of underwhelming product and unmet promises. By last year, however, Saab buyers were nearly as extinct as the passenger pigeon. Just 21,368 Saabs found American homes in 2008. Lexus sales for 2008 were 23,362. By “2008”, I mean December of 2008. And that’s how the story ends: with a whimper. It’s worth noting that the success of Lexus and Infiniti did not really come at the expense of BMW and Mercedes-Benz, both of which have set US sales records in recent years. It came at the expense of American luxury makers and it came at the expense of the second-tier players like Saab.
It would be deeply satisfying at this point to rant about how American consumer-sheep are morons who would buy a rebadged Camry over a sleek, Euro-speedy Saab, but let’s keep it real. American consumer-sheep aren’t so stupid that they don’t prefer a rebadged modern Camry over a rebadged old Opel. The current 9-3 is a relative to the Chevrolet Malibu and — whisper it — probably isn’t as good of a car, overall, as the Malibu. The current 9-5 is a relative to the dismal old Saturn L-Series. In order to continue as a rational human being on this planet, I simply must believe that at some point, the veneer of psuedo-prestige wears thin enough to expose the rotting structure beneath, and Saab reached that point a long time ago.
The Saab story includes airplanes, rally drivers, turbochargers, iconoclastic personalities, and more than half a century of fabulous designs. The Lexus story is this: it’s a Toyota for people too snobbish or fearful to be seen in a Toyota. Saabs have been wonderful, frisky, characterful companions for a very long time. People cry when their Saabs are towed away for the last time. Nobody’s ever cried over a Lexus, except possibly when they received a repair bill for their out-of-warranty second-gen LS400. Saab was real. Lexus is fake. Simple as that.
Or is it that simple? Saab has been a fraud and a fake for nearly twenty years, selling second-rate cars on dimly remembered glories. Meanwhile, Lexus has been continually building the cars their customers want, always fresh, nearly always reliable, always sold and serviced with a smile. Saab’s better future was perpetually around the corner; meanwhile, the next Lexus was completed on time and plopped, Harvest-Gold-colored, on a calmly rotating showroom turntable. Ask any Saab enthusiast about the brand and they will tell you about the 900 SPG, but ask a Lexus owner about his car and he will tell you he likes it. What is real, and what is no longer relevant?
I have a bit of a fantasy, as a former Saab owner and unrepentant fan of the old cars. I dream that Saab comes roaring back under some daring little ownership umbrella, freed to somehow create world-class product on a shoestring and humiliate the Japanese juggernauts on the open road. I close my eyes and hope for a stunning new car that has the spirit of that old 99 Turbo and brings the old virtues to a generation not even alive when the only two turbo cars on the market were the Saab and the Porsche 930. I think of the Saab workers, earning a decent wage and building cars they love, a bulwark against the vomitous tide of look-alike crap from the Pacific Rim, the Asian Tigers, and eventually the open maw of China. I can think about this, and I can smile.
And then I open my eyes to see a Hyundai Genesis gliding by, more Lexus than Lexus, more fake than the original fakers, yet honest and real in the same way the Lexus ES is honest and real. That’s the future. Luxury was always an illusion. Now it is deliberately so. To imagine that future, if I may paraphrase Orwell, imagine a Chinese-made faux-Ferragamo boot stomping on a human face. Plastic chrome, meaningless names, flowery symbols. This is the future, and in that future, Saab is, inexorably and completely, dead.
Ron Carter Saab Gallery by Adam Barrera @ highmileage.org