Saab Through the Years: A Look Back (And Ahead) At a Cult Favorite

For decades, Saab was a brand known in America for its performance and innovation.

“Nothing on earth comes close,” gushed a 1980s-era ad combining images of Saab’s latest car with aircraft in flight.

In those days, Saab was known as a popular choice for “architects, accountants and engineers” – a “car man’s car” that appealed to the need for precision and high-tech wizardry.

Now, Saab is mostly known to Americans as an esoteric invocation of gearhead lore from times past.

However, rumors of new life in a very different form are leading many people to take a look back at the history of Saab in America.

Auspicious Beginnings

The first Saab for the American market was presented in 1956 at the New York Auto Show.

The 1956 Saab 9-3 featured 33 hp with a 3-cylinder, 2-stroke engine.

By the next year, Saab was selling over 1,000 of these models in the U.S. to a range of professional customers like doctors, professors, lawyers and race car drivers.

To understand the appeal, check out models like the Granturismo 750, with its Sonnett engine or the Sonnett Super Sport convertible, a prime example of Swedish beauty in motion.

The addition of luxury features and other factors propelled Saab sales upward, and various models sold like gangbusters in the U.S., but around the turn of the millennium, Saab Automobile became a wholly-owned subsidiary of General Motors. The rest of the story is there online for fans of the Swedish automaker to shed a tear over – after 11 years of sales under the GM banner, the parent company itself started to have what industry observers called financial difficulties, and in 2011 a bankruptcy procedure ended Saab’s proud lineage in the U.S. Controversy over alleged GM involvement in scuttling a deal between Saab and Spyker was a further nail in the coffin.

“Quirky” Quality

Throughout its long dynasty, Saab made some headlines.

Take the Saab 99, a car that won the Swedish Rally in 1979. This now-classic car was first rolled out in 1968 and made until 1984; a turbocharged version came on the scene in ’77 when the addition of forced induction brought the 2.0 liter engine up to 145 hp, not bad for that time. Later, models like the 9-3 Viggen traded quite a bit on harkening back to the ’99’s age-old appeal.

Other notable landmarks include 1197 when Saab first brought out the upmarket 9-5 to replace the Saab 9000 model.

In addition to the maker’s reputation for performance and pizzazz, it also gathered a reputation as a top choice for a specific “type” of driver.

L.A. Times staffer Meghan Daum good-humoredly characterized Saab drivers as “liberal elites” and noted humanist saint and author Kurt Vonnegut once tried his hand at operating a Saab dealership. “They’re college professors and journalists and people who work in public radio (many drive the same Saabs they had in college),” she wrote. “Though book smart and knowledgeable about cheeses, the lives of Saab drivers are often a mess. They either drink too much (only wine) or are on the verge of divorce because their spouses have run off with partners who are either less depressed or less critical of the world, or both.”

All of that uniqueness leads car fans to follow the brand through hell and high water, and even past its demise.

Today’s Saab

Unfortunately, Saab no longer makes cars in the United States, so import-minded nostalgics are out of luck. However, there’s been a new wrinkle in the Saab saga that’s just being written.

Recent reports show a Swedish company with Chinese investment called National Electric Vehicle Sweden or “NEVS” is proposing to create a range of electric cars based on traditional Saab design. The Saab brand name will not be used, and the cars will only be made for the Chinese market. Still, that’s kind of exciting for some Americans who had been loyal to the Saab brand and it’s also a very prescient tale of our times.

Cars are changing, and they’re changing quickly.

The conventional gasoline engine is giving way to electric plug-ins at an incredible rate. This is partially your basic industry innovation, but it’s also driven by fears about climate change and efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions. One major part of trying to control emissions is making vehicles greener, and it doesn’t get greener then an electric vehicle with an engine that acquires electricity from a solar or hydropower grid. Nor are these efforts just driven by consumers; initiatives from the federal government over the past decade are also aimed at decreasing the carbon footprint of the American vehicle (not to mention any other vehicle made anywhere else) through fuel efficiency standards and more.

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