My story begins at a different time of year and in a place much less cozy than Hilversum. A gentle night in July is replaced with a snowy March morning and a postcard Dutch town is replaced with a freezing Siberian city of Omsk, where Stalin used to send German POWs during WWII. It was Sunday, March 5, 1995, it was –25o C outside, and I was 7 years old. It was in that cold Siberian city on that very day when my fascination with cars began.
Back then, I lived in a very different world. It had been just 3 years since the Soviet Union had collapsed. The Iron Curtain fell almost immediately, and a sea of Western imports flooded the country. Among these, one particular import stood out for 7-year olds like me. Like millions of other Russian children, I would get up every Sunday at 9 AM — which was quite a feat considering we had a 6-day school week — to sit in front of a recently acquired Western-made TV to watch Western cartoons. As fate would have it, on that day my weekly fix of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe happened to be followed by a car show. I never knew its name, but this was a car show that would change everything.
Since then, I have never stopped following Saab. And the more I followed them, the more I discovered one thing: it was a company that really liked to do things their own way, no matter how difficult or expensive the endeavor. In many ways, Saab was ahead of its time. It pioneered the use of turbocharging in mass-produced cars, a technology that everyone is using these days. It had crumple zones and belt pre-tensioners on its cars years before the rest of the industry. And it was committed to protecting the environment decades before it became fashionable. Asbestos-free brake lining, advanced exhaust cleaning, recyclable plastics, CFC-free air conditioning — many of these were world’s first when they debuted on Saabs in the 1980s and 1990s.
Saab was also obsessive about safety. It was first to offer ABS in a front-wheel drive car, first to offer active head restraints, first to offer headlight washers, and one of the first to introduce collapsible steering columns — all things we take for granted in our cars today. And their cars had incredible structural integrity. In fact, when Top Gear dropped a 1980s Saab 900 from 8 feet on its roof, it barely crumbled. A contemporary BMW E30 did not fare so well.
BMW E30 dropped.
But none of that would have been enough to inspire the cult following that Saab had over the years. No, what really set Saab apart from other automakers is how stubbornly they insisted on staying true to their roots and doing things their own way. With a few badge-engineered exceptions (Saab 9-2 and 9-7 are best examples), Saabs always remained wonderfully unique. It was a myriad of those little details — each of them subtly hinting at the brand’s aviation heritage — that made you feel that you owned something truly out of the ordinary. Something that wasn’t designed by a committee. Something that wasn’t tested on focus groups. Something that went against the grain. From the ignition slot on the central tunnel, to an illuminated “FASTEN BELTS” sign fitted right next to an overhead light that looks like like it was taken straight from an aircraft cabin, to a speedometer that looks like an altimeter — every little detail served to remind you that you didn’t just own a car. You owned a road-going aircraft.
Aircraft-inspired overhead light on a 1st generation Saab 9-5.
Saab never followed automotive fads. It established its own. When every other car manufacturer moved to touch screens and iDrives, Saab had its 9-3 fitted with a myriad of buttons, just like you’d see on a real aircraft. When others moved to full symmetry, Saab continued to design its instrument panels as cockpits enveloping the driver. Altezza lights? Saab would only install those when they could design them to look like ice blocks reflecting the brand’s subarctic origin. LED daytime running lights? No dotted patterns, only continuous strips — which wouldn’t make it onto Audis, the cars that started the LED craze, until some 5 years later. And instrument lighting? When everyone was busy aping Lexus’ “moonlight” colour scheme, Saab stayed true to its aircraft-like pale green palette.
Saab was derided by unimaginative journalists for these “quirks.” And to some the various aircraft references may look tacky, outdated, or plain annoying. But to those of us who never lost our inner child, who never stopped dreaming of the sky, there’s nothing more exhilarating than turning the key between the seats and seeing our car respond with a happy “Ready for Take-off.” Even if it never actually does.
Saab‘s “button dash” in a 2006 Saab 9-3.
Ultimately, this desire to do things differently paved way towards Saab’s demise. Saab never learned to badge-engineer effectively. It was a deadly mistake in the world of increasing regulation and rising development costs.
Saab always wanted to make a better car, a car that would meet their own exacting standards. When General Motors gave Saab a first-generation Opel Vectra with instructions to rebadge it as a Saab, they went ahead and overhauled the entire platform. When General Motors asked them to do it again a few years later, they did the exact same thing, turning a front-wheel drive second-generation Vectra platform into an all-wheel drive one with room for advanced torque distribution that we’d later see on the Saab 9-3 TurboX. They have even changed the wheelbase. Even as they were running out of money, they kept tweaking the GM Epsilon II platform to make the second generation Saab 9-5 just a tiny bit better. This renders the snide remarks calling the 9-5 a Buick LaCrosse largely misdirected. The resulting 9-5 was as different from the LaCrosse as the second-gen Audi TT was from the original, rear-engined Volkswagen Beetle.
Not surprisingly, as the costs of platform development skyrocketed, Saab’s approach to building cars simply became unfeasible. Having invested so much into safety, handling, and uniqueness, they lost money on every car they made. In a world where even Porsche and Lamborghini have to jump into a me-too crossover game to fund the development of their more exciting cars, there was no longer room for a small Swedish company that wanted to do things its own way.
Yet, that is exactly what makes Saab so quintessentially Swedish. To the outside world, Swedes are famous for their minimalistic and practical designs. But the first impression is deceptive. Having spent a year living in Sweden, I’ve discovered that Swedes have a peculiar trait that’s not readily apparent to an outside observer: they’re willing to spend enormous amounts of time and resources just to make the world around them better. And that trait is seen everywhere, from small villages to large enterprises.
I mean, in what other country do people put individual metal nameplates on street garbage bins?
In what other country do people knit little scarves for streetlight poles?
If you opened a café in North America, you would purchase regular chairs from a furniture store. A Swedish café orders handmade chairs with legs made from axe handles and backrests made from pitchforks.
This philosophy is seen everywhere. A few years ago, a Swedish Internet Service Provider Bahnhof became the center of international attention when it opened a data center called “Pionen” inside a Cold War era nuclear bunker carved into the side a 50-metre tall rock in the middle of Stockholm. With steam creeping across its floors and staff walking on suspended bridges made from glass, it looked straight out of a James Bond movie. To this day, the data centre rests under 30 metres of solid granite and can survive a nuclear explosion. And with fountains, greenhouses, simulated daylight, and a massive salt water fish tank, it looks downright stunning (as you can see below). Sure, Bahnhof could’ve opened up a data center in the basement of an office tower. But that wouldn’t be cool enough for a truly Swedish company.
The daring design worked for Bahnhof. Riding the wave of international attention, it was able to attract wealthy customers who were willing to pay a premium for enhanced security and reputation that came with hosting at Pionen. It worked the same way for Hasselblad, Koenigsegg, Volvo, and other Swedish brands that were able to monetize the effort they put into doing things differently, doing things better. It’s truly a shame that Saab’s never managed to pull off the same thing.
Apple Computer’s commercials from the early 1990s famously said: “Here’s to the Crazy Ones. The misfits. The rebels. The round pegs in the square holes.” — and then went on to urge their viewers to “think different.” That’s what Saab was all about. It built its cars in a refreshingly unorthodox way in an attempt to make them better, even as it stood on the eve of bankruptcy. In a world of bland appliances designed to appeal to the largest number of average car buyers, Saab continued to build cars that you could never confuse with anything else on the market, right until the day it died. In many ways, it was the Nordic version of Alfa Romeo.
And that’s what Saab drivers were all about. Saabs never appealed to those who wanted to show how much money they could spend. They appealed to those who valued originality and fresh ideas and who wanted to stand out from the crowd. This explains why Saabs have always been so popular among engineers, architects, and members of the academia. Originality is what puts food on their tables.
Today, driving a Saab is an act of courage. It took General Motors over a year to permit Saab owners to access its dealerships after Saab’s bankruptcy. The parts supply remains uncertain(ish), and every fender-bender has the potential to result in months of downtime until the right body panel arrives.
You have to drive it because you love it. Because it makes your world a tiny bit better. Because you think outside the box. Just like a real Swede.
So, when you see someone driving a Saab on your way to work in the morning, smile and give them a thumbs up. They had the courage to sweep aside reason and to drive the car they love. They’re the rebels. The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who aren’t afraid to think different.
[Photo credits: Wikipedia, BBC, Saaby, Saab, Artemy Lebedev, Bahnhof]