Ghosts Of Saabs Unborn

Bouquet of lilies in hand, Driven to Write ponders what might have been.

The Future Of Saab (that was not to be), Photo (c)

The demise and desecration of the idiosyncratic Swedish brand may be the source of an endless stream of stories. Yet more interesting is a less well-publicised aspect of the period when Saab was already taking its last breath: the cars that were not to be.

The very fact that Saab was a deeply mismanaged business would appear to be indisputable. And yet, at the very end of its existence, that other Swedish brand seemed to have developed a hitherto dormant will to survive.

After having suffered the indignity of being bestowed with badge-engineered Subarus and Chevrolets, Saab appeared to be coming to its senses in terms of product development. The resultant 9-5 saloon and estate, as well as – to a lesser degree – the 9-4x SUV were the result of this push.

2010 Saab 9-5, Photo (c)

That was too little, far too late, as we all know. But also a bit of a shame, as the 9-5 was not an unattractive machine at all. Despite this, Victor Muller, after having taken charge of Saab in the wake of Spyker’s takeover, chose to replace his styling department, handing reigns over Saab’s aesthetics over to renowned former Pininfarina designer, Jason Castriota, instead. The fruit of the American designer’s labour on behalf of Saab have since entered the public domain, in the shape of his Saab PhoeniX concept car, which was actually unveiled to the public, as well as leaked renderings of his proposal for a 9-3 replacement.

The Saab PhoeniX concept, Photo (c)

Neither design could be described as being particularly sleek, due to both suffering from a strangely puffed-up appearance that’s perplexingly highlighted by the surfacing, which seems to have been intended to give off the impression of a layer of liquid covering solid innards.

The Castriota proposal, Photo (c)
The Castriota proposal in profile, Photo (c)

However, his second-generation 9-3 was not the only vision of a future Saab that’s been visualised. There actually are some sketches floating around the internet depicting an alternative-alternative 9-3 Mk2. These concepts are supposed to be courtesy of Simon Padian, Anthony Lo et al – or, on short: the designers in charge before Jason Castriota was ushered in.

The pre-Spyker proposal, Photo (c)

This pre-Spyker 9-3, visualised in fairly production-feasibly form, is more in keeping with the last 9-5, albeit (obviously) more compact and actually rather daring in its basic proportions. Despite the rather showy creases above the wheel arches, it appears to be significantly more restrained than the Castriota version, which suits the image of Saabs as cars defined by extraordinary proportions, coupled with sober detailing. It would certainly have made for one of the most convincing Saabs in decades.

Pondering all those “what ifs” in relation to Saab remains an entertaining pastime. And these proposals, no matter what one’s personal preference may be, give some rather excellent food for thought in this regard.

Regrettably, the quality of each concept doesn’t reflect the career paths of the talents involved, what with Jason Castriota having just been poached by Ford to re-establish an advanced design studio for the Dearborn giant. Meanwhile, Simon Padian is a member of staff at Einar Hareide Design, the design consultancy business established by one of his less gifted predecessors at Saab, and hence tasked with the unenviable job of trying to justify the comeback of Borgward.

Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

14 thoughts on “Ghosts Of Saabs Unborn”

  1. As I have written before, I rather like the 9-5 discussed here, and find it a rare pleasure whenever I come across one on the roads of the UK. The 9-3 renderings show promise, and would have given SAAB a cohesive look to its range. Many people miss SAAB and I feel that some of that good-will has passed on to Volvo – we all want a credible alternative to the German hegemony.

    1. I also quite liked the 9-5 until they surrounded the front headlamps with chrome. It always looked to me like a DIY modification. Just shows how something small can totally change the look of a previously nice car.

    2. What I personally find particularly regrettably is the fact that 9-5 Mk II promised quite a bit of the of flair that had been sorely missing in Saab’s products for quite some time – which includes the Mk I 9-5 (the one Hareide had been in charge of), a car I always considered bafflingly bland, especially in saloon guise. Its facelift was obviously a gross misjudgement and only added insult to injury.

      It may have been watered-down by Saab standards of the day, but to me, the 9000 was a far more convincing large Saab than the original 9-5, with our without Dame Edna specs.

  2. Mick: the chrome frame on the lamps was desperate in the literal sense. If you look closely it seems like they stopped design work arbitrarily and sent whatever they had off for production.
    That said, the 9-5 was a really nice car. I can’t see why even 5% of BMW customers didn’t switch. It seems car sales is more winner-takes-all than PR. If the 9-5 was somehow 3% inferior to the market leader it turned into 98% rejection, out of all proportion to its comparative advantages and disadvantages.

    1. It certainly didn’t sell as well as it deserved to but due to Saab’s financial woes it certainly was well past it’s best before date when it got those horrible chrome specs. With increasing blandness from the Germans and nothing but weird shapes and angles emanating from Lexus Saab is sorely missed. Some of those putative models (especially the 9-3 concept) looked very promising.

  3. I really like the Castriota 9-3, in spite of its giant rear overhang. Padian’s design is also great, but I’m not a fan of such a rising beltline (waistline?).

  4. It was an error for Saab to have departed from the fastback silhouette of the 99/900. Even people who don’t know cars can instantly identify my 20-year old 900 as a ‘Saab’. That decision was probably driven by GM’s sales ambitions for the marque in the US – there certainly didn’t appear to be demand for it from Europe.

    Looking at the pre-Spyker car, it appears (to me) to have the stamp of Anthony Lo upon it – there are elements in the crisp surfaces and especially in the shutline treatment for the bootlid/hatch that suggest the Insignia – a car Lo had involvement with at Opel. It would have made for a handsome car. The supposed Castriota 9-3 suffers from being a bit blubbery, but there was clearly an intention to return to a ‘quirky’ style with this design. I’m not convinced about how well it would have sat next to the pre-existing 9-5 and 9-4X, or indeed who well it would have dated in the marketplace. It was a step in the right direction, but I never really felt Castriota ‘got’ Saab. Nor, apparently did Chris Bangle for that matter…

    1. He got people talking about design – especially BMW design. He got a lot of imitators along the way too. He got notoriety, perhaps immortality. And perhaps most importantly (for him), he got paid – probably quite well.

    2. I too like the Padian/Lo 9-3 a lot. The concept cars created during the last years of GM ownership showed great promise, too – much more so than Castriota’s PhoeniX. It’s a shame this obviously talented team of designers never got to devise an entire product range.

    1. Ah, well there wasn’t one really Mick. Perhaps I didn’t make that distinction very well. I was referring to a well-known clip of the pair of them discussing one of Castriota’s Saab concepts at the 2011 Geneva motor show. From this I got the distinct impression Bangle wasn’t really buying into the Castriota ‘look’. You can watch on that internet I keep hearing about…

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