Saab moves into a new era

  • 22-Jul-2010 05:09 EDT
Saab (2) 6.10 Muller and Jan Ake Jonsson.jpg

Signed and sealed: Victor Muller (left), the man who saved Saab, and CEO Jan Ake Jonsson. Muller confesses to being "a complete car nut."

Victor Muller so liked Saabs that he bought the company that makes them.

Muller, the CEO of Spyker Cars N.V. and now Chairman of Saab Automobile AB, rescued the Swedish company in November 2009 when the future looked extremely bleak for the automaker. General Motors had decided to divest itself of its Swedish operation, and other potential deals to buy it came to naught. But then Muller, a merchant acquisitions lawyer, entrepreneur, founder of the present Spyker sports car maker, and an automobile engineer manqué, saved it.

He knew all about buying companies that were ailing or abandoned, including a fish-processing plant, a fashion business, and a salvage organization that itself needed salvaging. He also knew about buying cars, particularly Lancias: “I was inspired by their quirky designs, unorthodox engines and gearboxes, and their sliding pillar suspension systems.” He bought his first before he had a driver’s license and went on buying: “I borrowed from my grandmother; she became my bank, and I would go back to her for another car and another.”

In the ensuing years, his collection was to reach 50, although for practical reasons of space and time to drive them, he has reduced it to 15. But he always had a liking for Saabs; like Lancias, the aerodynamic, two-stroke models of the 1950s and 1960s were also quirky, sounded distinctive, and, in the hands of Erik Carlsson, were giant killers on international rally stages.

However, there was no place in Muller’s hectic entrepreneurial business plan to buy the Trollhättan company: “If 10 years ago I’d have been told that if I kept buying companies I’d eventually buy Saab, I would have just laughed.”

But he did buy it. Despite being a hardheaded and astute businessman, Muller confesses to a passion for Saabs because, he says, they were cars of passion—something he intends to see returned to the marque. He has never had a passion for Opels.

Saab had been part of large conglomerates for decades (Scania before GM) and had lost much of its DNA, some critics alleging that its models has become little more than glorified Opels. In fact GM had acknowledged that something needed to be done to improve Saab’s identity and in 2006 the Aero X concept was announced. “I now own the Aero X; it is part of the museum and I’ve bought that!” said Muller.

Although Muller played no part in the creation and development of the new 9-5 sedan (the general styling signature of which is down to GM Europe’s British Design Director, Mark Adams, but with significant Saab design input), he believes the car is a “massive step in the right direction” in terms of overall design and engineering. But it will be the next 9-3 due in 2012 that Muller describes as “my first personal shot at Saab.”

There is also a 92 in prospect. This is not a retro car based on the 1950s model, stresses Muller. “In fact I refer to it as Project 92.” He sees it entering a market sector that embraces the Audi A1 and Mini Cooper. “It will be a car of passion for people of passion. I guarantee no more dull cars!”

What all this means in terms of possible partnerships or alliances with OEMs and suppliers has yet to be revealed. Muller stresses that many lessons had been learned during the global financial crisis: “Manufacturers who hitherto have been unwilling to share anything are now banging on the door in Trollhättan asking why don’t we share this or that—engines, platforms, hybrid technology, EVs—you name it.”

Muller’s criteria for possible partnerships include the need to share more than just hardware. Platform sharing would be necessary. Saab currently has an agreement to continue to use GM’s Epsilon II platform, which it modifies to meet its specific requirements, and the Saab 9-4X, to be built in Mexico from 2011, shares a platform with the Cadillac SRX.

For Project 92, Saab is expected to buy an existing platform that meets its needs in terms of hard points and would not require compromises. “That would be like cursing in church," said Muller. "We want to get back to where Saab was.” In exchange, Saab has a significant R&D capability and was a center of excellence within GME for turbocharger technology.

Money is not an issue, stated Muller: “We are very confident that we can afford what we want to do. We have a fully funded five-year business plan.”

He said that he is assuming “very moderate” sales figures, including 125,000 units per annum by 2012, which should see a return to company profitability. “By the end of that year, the new 9-5 will be the oldest car in the showroom.” Last year, with Saab’s future uncertain, sales fell to about 40,000 units, but in recent years they have averaged around 130,000 with a narrow product range.

Could Saabs be built outside Sweden? “If you want to enter markets in Brazil, India, China, or Russia, you have to consider local production,” said Muller.

But wherever they are built or assembled, the company’s future models must incorporate that essential Muller-approved Saab DNA into its design and technology to ensure survival. Without it, Saab would be just another motor manufacturer—and a very small and potentially vulnerable one at that.

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