The Saab Car Museum in Trollhättan, Sweden has a well-presented and thorough collection of production, prototype and concept cars.
In this installment I will take a gander around the production cars. DTW is very pleased to present the work of photographer NMJ who accompanied me on the visit. A few of my own images are scattered in the collection. A while back a Buick Electra 225 caused me to think about the links between Sweden, American and American cars in Sweden. Now a visit to the Saab Museum took me back down that path.
Today, visitors will find the Saab museum in the space where once Nohab made trains for the Russian state, for Turkey, Denmark, Germany and for the United States. So, the remains of Saab can be found in the remains of the train-building industry that, at its height, employed 6000 people. The same kind of reasons led to Saab’s existence in Trollhattan. Train building required three major inputs: people, steel and energy. Today, the importance of geography – the plain facts of where people and resources happen to be – is underestimated.
Cheap and abundant energy has reduced the effect of transport as a factor determining the location of factories. In the 1860s the location of a factory was very much driven by energy supply. Trollhattan might not have been very close to major markets but it did have the potential to generate hydro-electric power. That formed the basis of a state-led drive to industrialise. In the 1800s millions of Swedes emigrated to the US. As a response the Swedish government decided to systematically improve the conditions for Swedes by investing in industry. Engineers harnessed the power of the rivers that cut deeply into the granite at Trollhattan. The power could be used to melt and handle iron to make steel: trains need both.
Outside the Saab Automobil Museum is a train engine, built in 1904. It’s twenty metres long and weighs about twenty tonnes. As tall and as long as a decent house yet had barely enough room for the driver. He was squashed in box between a container full of boiling water and a huge reserves of coal behind. Inside the museum, in the huge halls where Nohab constructed the train, you find the cars whose existence is related to the fact of that train.
The Ur-Saab stands in marked contrast to the train. About the only thing they have in common is that they are both black. The little car is pretty much a wingless aeroplane on four wheels. Both the train engine and the car must have looked fantastic when they were new. “Fantastic” is a word now applied to nice cups of tea and quite good holidays in Lanzarote. I want to yank it back to its original
meaning of being as in a fantasy, something wild and strange. The train’s size and noise and power would have been staggering in the world of 1904 when the urban world consisted of bits of town separated by huge expanses of nature. The Ur-Saab didn’t have scale but it still had a speed and a form honed by aerodynamics. When it was being tested it would still have been possible to see Ford C’s or Adlers (maybe) on the road plus the odd horse. It is possibly this sense of singularity that the display is trying to get at.
The Ur-Saab is positioned on its own in a large white space; it is not a rectangle but a tapering oblong, widest at the front. The corners of the room seem further away than they are due to the exaggerated converging perspective. In the photos it is
apparent the Ur-Saab (below) is positioned so one can see all its descendants behind it. In reality one doesn’t notice this. What you do
notice is the badly placed propeller mounted on a large stem, looking like a model wind turbine. The idea is to make one reflect on Saab’s aeronautical heritage (propellers). I think this is gilding the lily. The
Ur-Saab screams aeronautical heritage. One particularly lovely detail is that the roof and windscreen form a continuous arc. Normally a car from 1950 would feature a pronounced break where the flat windscreen meets the curved roof. What the designers did was to match the curvature of the steel to that of the glass by means of long lead-in so that the silhouette seems continuous.
The aerospace business sprang from the rail and other heavy industries that grew up in the Trollhattan area (Volvo cars also had roots in heavy engineering). Saab had its roots in a companies making planes that migrated from Germany after the 1st war. The American connection starts with the social-industrial policy of the late 1800s and it resumes more
directly when General Motors took a stake in Saab in 1989, interested as they were in having a high-quality brand. That motivation inspired Ford to take over Jaguar which was of a comparable size and comparable lack of profitability. The first product of the GM involvement,
the derided NG 900, avoided many of the mistakes of the 9000 project developed with Fiat Group. The 900 looked like a Saab while the 9000 didn’t. It had a lot of commonality with the Opel Vectra while the eventual commonality of the 9000 with the other T4 cars amounted to six or
seven parts. Despite that customers viewed it as not a proper Saab. The same critique applied to the 9-5 and later 9-3. Things worsened as GM rolled out thinly Saabised vehicles (now shown in the worst illuminated area of the space) like the 9-4x and the Saabaru. To be fair to Saab, the last cars actually did look like Saabs (nice ones) and Michael Mauer was working on a new look for Saab with a selection of rather interesting concept cars. To those we turn in the next instalment.
Just as an American-influence created the conditions for Saab to be born, the American influence brought Saab to collapse. After sustaining heavy losses, GM ended its wavering commitment to Saab just as two new vehicles were being prepared, of which a few hundred were made. Visitors to the
museum are confronted by the 9-5 and 9-4X (just 814 made), not far from the ur-Saab. As well as reflecting on the staggering difference between the sleek, light and small Ur-Saab and the complex, tall and heavy CUVs, they can also recall that as Swedish as Saab looks, there is a cross-connection to the US that is at its roots and there at the moment of its demise.
(There is one production Saab missing from the collection I viewed: does anyone care to remind readers what it was?)