Saab Museum: The Production Cars

The Saab Car Museum in Trollhättan, Sweden has a well-presented and thorough collection of production, prototype and concept cars.

1950 Saab 92: niels moesgaard jörgensen
1950 Saab 92: nmj

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.

1959-1978 Saab 95: niels moesgaard jörgensen
1959-1978 Saab 95: nmj

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.

1962 Saab Sport: niels moesgaard jörgensen
1962 Saab Sport: nmj

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.

1977 Saab 99 Turbo: niels moesgaard jörgensen
1977 Saab 99 Turbo: nmj

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.

1988 Saab 96: niels moesgaard jörgensen
1980 Saab 96: nmj

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.

1981 Saab 900 (Geneva show car from 1980): niels moesgaard jörgensen
1981 Saab 900 (Geneva show car from 1980): nmj

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.

Placeholder: Niels Moesgaard Jorgensen
1947 Ur-Saab: nmj

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.

1989 Saab 900 wheel: photo by RH
1989 Saab 900 wheel: photo by RH

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.

1985 Saab 9000: photo by RH
1985 Saab 9000: photo by RH

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.

1993 Saab 900: niels moesgaard jörgensen
1993 Saab 900: nmj

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.

1997 Saab 9-5: niels moesgaard jörgensen
1997 Saab 9-5: nmj

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.

2005 Saab 9-2x and 2005 Saab 9-7x: NMJ
2005 Saab 9-2x and 2005 Saab 9-7x: NMJ

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.

2005 Saab 9-5 headlamp detail: image by RH
2005 Saab 9-5 headlamp detail: image by RH

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.

2011 Saab 94x: source
2011 Saab 94x: source

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?)

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

26 thoughts on “Saab Museum: The Production Cars”

  1. Since I was there, I know what it is that is missing. But in all fairness the guy at the counter, even if he had Saab tattoos, never knew the car that was missing. One of the old volunteers at the museum did though.

  2. Hi:
    The Sonnet was a good guess but it was there, all of them. The Saab-Lancia stumped the museum staff initially and then one older chap remembered it. They do have an example in storage.

    1. funny how Saab had, for short stints, partners (Lancia and Subaru) that were so like-minded in their quirkiness and outside-the-box details. I’d love to put my hands on a 3rd-gen Impreza and make my take (low-pressure turbo, better upholstery, smoked taillights, a Saab-inspired custom front grille, a 5-speed auto gearbox from a Legacy, some suspension upgrades etc) on what the next 9-2X could have been.

      in the end, it could also be rebadged as a new Delta Integrale.

    1. It was the Saab-Lancia. Driventowrite will offer a packet of really good biscuits to anyone who can send an authentic recent photo of one.

  3. Let us remind ourselves. The reason Saab Auto ceased to exist was that GM wouldn’t share the IP of the final products with a new buyer, and – far more importantly – the “defence and security” business which owns the trademark wouldn’t license out the name to NEVS (aka Svenbackwards), nor BAIC.

    In 2005 BMW at least had the decency to give the Phoenix Four the MG name outright, and allowed them use of the Rover trademark. The automotive industry moved on from the chaos of the the last decade; the bonfire of PAG, GM’s failed fire sale, and the irresistible rise of Cardigan Man, and has established a settled order surprisingly quickly,

    Rover never died, but prospers under Tata. Volvo looks confident under Geely. Suzuki, Mazda, and Subaru are doing fine without their American partners. Even Mitsubishi, high on everyone’s ‘ghoul pool’, has had a soft landing as Carlos Ghosn’s new challenge.

    In 2008, global Saab production was 90,281, including badge-engineered imposters. Numbers declined sharply thereafter. At every major European motor show, I would gather with friends on the Saab stand, wondering if this would be the last time. It truly was “walking through an empty house, tears in my eyes”, but there was a recognition that commercial Darwinism had prevailed, mostly down to GM-based products which were simply not good enough. They had become a sort of Swedish Humber or Wolseley, and the same fate awaited them.

    I look at the museum exhibits and the 9-4X looks like the product which could most likely have saved Saab. Not my sort of thing, but it’s not hard to imagine an ambitious Chinese or Indian manufacturer having the wherewithal to develop something comparable and make an offer to the maker of fighting aircraft who hold the trademark. If industry scuttlebutt is to be believed, this nearly happened when Mahindra showed interest in buying into Svenbackwards with a view to obtaining rights to the Saab trademark to leverage their Ssangyong products. It’s not hard to imagine a new 9-4X reverse-engineered from Ssanygyong components, without a single piece of GM IP, but it wasn’t going to happen.

    As long as Saab AB remain obdurate, there will be no more Saab cars. But never say never (or NEVS). Two years ago who would have thought that there’s every possibility that BAIC’s Borgward brand could produce more vehicles in 2017 than Saab did in 2008? 90,000 no longer looks a hard target.

  4. Some of the later (pre-GM) cars were not necessarily so good, perhaps the 9000 excepted.
    I once drove a friend’s 900 2-Door non-turbo with automatic transmission. It was quite new and deeply ghastly. In fairness, a manual would have helped. A bit.
    Either way though, a contemporary BMW was so much better.

    1. Hi Angus:
      It could be that the comparison hinges on better versus nicer. James May (for it was he) ran a Saab 900 cabriolet when he was at Car magazine. He expended quite a bit of effort saying that in daily life all the things that would mark down a Saab 900 didn´t matter and that as ownership experience it turned out to be very likeable. The nice/better dichotomy means that twenty five years later the Saab remains a charming car whereas I don´t feel much for the equivalent BMW (are we talking a 3 or a 5?).
      I have lived out the better/nicer paradox personally. My Citroen XM is a better car than the CX but not half as nice or pleasing or lovely.

    1. I’ve been there twice. There are a few interesting exhibits, but overall I find the museum quite uninspiring. The Volvo Museum in Göteburg is very much worth a visit though.

    2. It was jolly interesting, I thought. Even the tail-end cars had some element of attraction. The 900 estate was a fabulous missed opportunity.
      Trollhattan is not much to write home about, though. I feel very sorry for the locals.

    3. It’s supposed to be a museum, but it looks like a showroom.

  5. I think it looks quite boring, as most dealer showrooms do. Have you been to the Volvo Museum?

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