Another COTY winner

COTY jurors aren’t voting for Car of the Year. They are voting to look Green. Why else would they have elected the Ampera in 2012? They surely can’t have expected it to sell more than a handful. They’re not that stupid. No, they are spooked, along with governments round the world, by what WS Gilbert called greenery yallery Grosvenor Gallery foot-in-the-grave young men. Or women.

Opel and Vauxhall dealers, who hadn’t a lot of choice perhaps, accounted for the first year’s 5,000 or so Amperas. That sank to 3,184 last year and collapsed to 332 in the first five months of this, of which only 46 were in its German home market. GM Vice Chairman Steve Girsky vented frustration at Geneva: “All the governments in Europe said, ‘We want EVs, we want EVs.’ We show up with one, and where is everybody?” The answer is that they were off buying something else, real cars mostly.

COTY jurors are like governments appeasing Green voters with inglorious wind farms and wasteful subsidies. By any standards the Ampera was a disaster. Production is stopping and although GM will redesign the broadly similar Volt next year it won’t come to Europe.

There wasn’t much wrong with the Ampera. It was sensibly-sized and quite handsome, drove smoothly and quietly and as a hybrid didn’t have the range anxieties of milk-floaty plug-in electric cars, attracting complaints now about how costly they are to top-up. Apparently charging stations take money by the hour, without knowing how much electricity is actually being used. The cost can be just as much for a battery flat or near full.

I have said before that there is a FIFA flavour about Car of the Year. In 50 years COTY has never elected a Jaguar, Range Rover or Land Rover. It can’t be anti-British-ness. Munich doesn’t come off well either. There has been no BMW; a range that goes from Rolls-Royce to Mini has never made the grade except for second last year for the i3. It elected an electric Nissan yet COTY doesn’t do safety. Volvo and Saab never featured. Engineering excellence? Bentley has never made it. Production quality? There have been no Hondas. Value for money? No Skodas, no Seats but 9 Fiats, 6 Renaults and 5 Fords. I can’t understand why manufacturers get so excited by it.

Saab 92 aerodynamics

Talking, as I have been, about manufacturers’ publicity pictures, I always liked cutaways. It’s the engineer in me. Nothing ever conveyed a car’s structure like a good graphic. The Motor road tests used to do it well, showing how the mechanical bits of a car fitted in with rather stiff-looking occupants. The Saab 92 (left), produced from 1950-1955, makes the point. You can see where the tiny engine leans forward ahead of the front wheels, which it drives, and where the radiator is mounted to catch the air-flow. The upholstery looks a bit thin and rear people have to tuck their feet below the front seat.

In 1950 they made 1246 Saab 92s, every one the same shade of green. It was more important to get production started, and eliminate bottlenecks in the paintshop, than offer buyers a range of colours. It’s said the aircraft factory had over-stocked on green paint for its aeroplanes. Modest power propelled the little car at barely 100kph (60mph). There were only three gears and reaching 50mph occupied the best part of half-a-minute. It scarcely mattered; there was no shortage of customers in 1950.

Although slow, the Saab had clear-cut qualities. Encouraged by the success 2-stroke DKWs had in Sweden before the war it went for an engine cheap to make and simple. A parallel twin-cylinder 3-port 2-stroke of 764cc (80 x 76mm) with Schnürle scavenging, producing 24bhp at 3,800rpm, it was narrow enough to be set across the front with an aluminium head and flat-topped pistons. It had three main roller bearings, a built-up crankshaft with a pair of 180-degree-spaced crankpins, and three main bearing journals pressed into disc crankwebs. Only the small-end bearings were plain, not ball or roller. An extension from the crankshaft carried the cam for the dual-coil ignition, and lubrication was by 4 per cent oil added to the petrol.
A single-plate clutch and 3-speed gearbox, with synchromesh on third and top and a steering column gearshift, formed a unit with the engine. Engine mountings were unusual, a single transverse leaf spring supporting the forward part on rubber torque-resisting buffers, and a rubber cushion at the rear. The result was virtually vibrationless, especially at low revs.

Laurence Pomeroy, who had conducted experiments on aerodynamic cars at Brooklands in 1939, tested a 92 in 1950: “… a most interesting example of the type of car which emanates from an aircraft factory, and shows the benefits of clean lines by giving nearly 65mph (105kph) on less than 25bhp. Excellent roadholding and direct steering were also characteristic of this model, but, as is often the case with 2-strokes, the fuel consumption was not the best feature, failing to reach 40mpg (7.06l/100kms).”

Pomeroy’s advocacy of the slippery shape was only partly justified, for far from being worthy of an aircraft manufacturer, the Saab fell short of ideals laid down by German aerodynamics pioneer, Paul Jaray. Despite the classic teardrop shape, it had a thoroughly average air drag coefficient of 0.35. The bulbous front wings gave an unnecessarily large frontal area so the puny power had a lot of air to displace at 60mph (97kph). Had it been slimmer below the waistline, fuel consumption might have been better.

On the steering, however, Pomeroy was characteristically correct. The Saab’s rack and pinion took only 1.75 turns from lock to lock so it was high-geared, light, accurate and by comparison with nearly all its contemporaries (with worm and nut, cam and roller, recirculating balls, and other nightmares) sheer delight. Tactile, direct, strongly self-centring, drivers could feel road shocks but they could also feel what the wheels were doing, adding amply to the control that compensated for the car’s relative sloth.
In 1950 The Motor commented: “The Saab's layout is ingenious both in conception and in detail. Its unorthodoxy sets a reviewer a task which is difficult yet exceptionally interesting: difficult because of lack of standards for comparison, and interesting for revealing the gains and losses resulting from new layouts and construction methods.” The Motor wanted to be convinced. Its authors liked the principles Saab employed, but they were not finding the results entirely bore out their expectations.

It says something for the speed expected of a 1940s small car that they observed: “The surprise comes in experiencing the power. The car is fast, but what distinguishes it is acceleration in top gear in the vital 15-45mph speed range, which would not disgrace a car of twice the engine size.” There were doubts about refinement: “The Saab lacks the smoothness and silence which the average baby car has acquired between 1940 and 1950.”

The problem of stiffness around a boot lid aperture was solved by not having one on the 92. Access to luggage was through the rear seat. The smooth underside had stiffening ribs and box-section sills, its flat profile a great boon on loose, gritty Swedish roads while the designers concentrated the strength of the body in the middle. The burden of suspension loads were fed into the strong central structure by mounting the front torsion bars in the forward scuttle with tubular bolsters. Torsion bars for the trailing arm independent rear suspension were well forward of the rear hubs, so that the length of the frame subject to suspension-induced loads was less than 85 per cent of the wheelbase.

It was a strategy adopted more than a decade later by cars as diverse as the D-Type Jaguar and the Rover 2000, both of which had stiff centre sections carrying the strain of the suspension, so that the outermost extremities of the car could be thin-skinned and light weight. Above: prototype Saab 92s. Below, later Saab 96 with in-line engine.

Back to the Future

Drivers in cars will seem bizarre. Future generations will never understand why we put up with the congestion, danger and inconvenience of cars driven by people. Allister Heath, editor of City AM points out presciently that the £35 billion HS2 will be obsolescent almost as soon as it is built in 2032 or so, as driverless cars develop. Driving as we know it will be relegated to a leisure pursuit rather like riding or carriage driving with horses. Motor racing? It has already become so far removed from the real world of cars that, like the Grand National or the Derby, it will survive in its own anachronistic way. (Above: Fisker had the vision)

Nothing’s new. On 30 April 1989 I wrote in The Sunday Times: An automatic pilot for cars is practical. Prometheus, a pan European research and development programme now in its third year looks like getting into the driving seat by the end of the Century. "Driving along motorways without electronic controls will be seen, in years to come, as savage and dangerous," according to Sir Clive Sinclair in a report on traffic published last week by the Adam Smith Institute. "Fighter aircraft perform in ways which would be inconceivable if a human brain had to regulate them. Cars under electronic control could travel at 100 miles per hour, closer together and in great safety. I envisage motorways where the control of the vehicles is taken over by the road," says the inventive Sir Clive.

One of the pioneers of Prometheus (PROgramme for a European Traffic with Highest Efficiency and Unprecedented Safety, not a catchy title), Dr Ferdinand Panik of Daimler Benz agrees. "Present day traffic with individual elements will evolve into an integral system of co operating partners." He regards the electronic revolution in cars as analogous to typewriters. "Twenty years ago, as a purely mechanical product, the typewriter had reached a very advanced state of development. Everyone was satisfied with it. Yet within a short time, computers and communication systems had brought about a change from independent typewriters to interlinked word processors, and conquered the market."

Jerome Rivard, former chief of electronics at Ford, now Vice President of Bendix Electronics in the United States believes we are entering the final phase of handing over control of the car to electronics. "Phase 1 was from the mid 60s to the late 70s, when we saw the solid state radio, electronic ignition, and digital clocks. Phase 2 brought integrated circuits and microprocessors which started to link components together. This included electronic engine controls, instruments, and anti lock brakes, now familiar to many drivers. Phase 3 began in the mid 1980s, in which we will see the total integration of vehicle electrical and electronic systems."
(Jensen and successors will survive)
What this means is that with developments such as anti lock brakes, and its corollary, electronic traction control for preventing loss of grip through wheelspin, coming into use, the stage is set for electronics to take the wheel. "We shall drive on to motorways, but once we are there, control of the vehicle will be taken over by the road," says Sir Clive. Rivard puts it another way, "The skills required in handling an automobile are, in some cases, beyond the capacity of the average driver. The advances in steering, braking, and suspension technology during Phase 3 will allow him to employ the full performance potential of the vehicle even in exceptional situations like avoiding accidents." The immediate safety related task of the new systems will be to create an electronic field round the car with ultrasonic, radar, or infrared beams, to measure the distances and speeds to other vehicles. Approaching a parked lorry at night or in fog, the driver will be alerted to the danger of collision. Before the invention of anti lock brakes (ABS) he would have put the brakes on, or swerved by himself. Now the car can do the job better than the most skilled driver, and on the Sinclair motorway, will apply its own brakes. The same applies to unwise overtaking. The on board computers calculate the speed of the lorry ahead, the speed of the car overtaking, decide there is danger of an accident, and over rules the driver's decision to pull out. Research chiefs such as Professor Dr Ing. Ulrich Seiffert of VW see measures of this sort as a solution to the problem of congestion on motorways. "With electronic controls regulating the cars, you could double or treble the capacity of a motorway," he told me during a meeting at this year's Geneva Motor Show. "And automatic traffic will also be more fuel efficient, and so less polluting."

At the inception of Prometheus in 1986, Professor Werner Breitschwerdt, Chairman of the Daimler Benz board of management defined its target as cutting road traffic casualties by half before the year 2000. At a meeting in Munich earlier this year by the participating companies which include most of Europe's principal car manufacturers (Jaguar, Rolls Royce, Renault, Peugeot Citroën, Fiat, Volvo, Saab Scania, VW, BMW, Volkswagen Audi, and Daimler Benz), the research and development phase of the programme was officially inaugurated. "It was a meeting to provide the project's board of management with a progress report," according to Daimler Benz, the prime mover and still the principal co ordinator of Prometheus. "The first year, 1987, was taken up with defining the programme, in 1988 the participating companies were discussing how to do it, and research proper starts this year."

I rode in road trains of vehicles on test tracks 25 years ago. (Below - Nissan Leafs at a Silverstone demonstration - imagine them driving like this on the motorway at 100mph without drivers) I marvel now at Google’s vehicles that have covered 400,000 miles without an accident. With 360degree sensors, lasers, GPS and learning algorithms everything is in place to make driverless cars practical. Public transport, except in close-packed cities, is doomed. People will travel by night, dozing off and waking up at journey’s end. Commuting, along with everything else, will be transformed.

Saab tilting engine

Saab's talent for innovation was immense. It was always inventing gadgets, like the thermo-accumulator that warmed engines before starting up, and drive-by-wire. When I was researching my 1997 book, it let me in on secret research it was doing on the variable-compression engine. In the event its announcement was delayed until 2000 but it showed the heights to which Saab ingenuity was rising. I had to excise this reference before publication:

Yet the Holy Grail of engine design, a variable compression ratio engine was an elusive goal. The single cylinder research engine Sir Harry Ricardo devised in 1920 to calibrate fuels, had an adjustment to bring on piston knocking and determine octane ratings. The world's first variable compression engine, his E35 had a threaded cylinder barrel which wound in or out of the cylinder block, and a telescopic drive to the overhead valvegear. Generations of engineers tried to reproduce it as a workable multi-cylinder with a low compression for low-speed running and a high compression for lean-burn economical high-speed cruising.

The goals seemed incompatible and the practicalities insurmountable until Per Gillbrand and his engineers at Södertälje revealed the fruits of seven years work on a new generation of engines with pivoting cylinder heads. These tilted to adjust the compression ratio inside the combustion chambers automatically and constantly, according to speed and load. The result brought an improvement of 30 per cent in fuel consumption, and an increase in efficiency, which allowed a 1.4 litre engine to do the work of a 1.8 or even a 2.0 litre.

The production obstacles were formidable, and Gillbrand and his team had to evolve an engine in which the head was integral with the cylinder block, to make it work. New techniques of engine construction were developed, enabling valve seats to be machined before the cylinder liners were in place. The hinged block, which tilted through some seven degrees to vary the pistons' penetration of the combustion chambers, was moved by a hydraulic ram actuated from the electronic engine management system. Precision was everything, and to gain the benefits of the most profound breakthrough in engine technology since the advent of the turbocharger, Saab introduced its first ever engine-driven supercharger.

PICS Saab 92 and J21 aircraft. I have the artwork for the tilting engine somewhere in the archives; the engine is a 1.9TiD.

Saab - 1989

Vultures, apparently, are hovering round Trollhättan. Saab liquidators are selling cars from the Saab museum, 131 of them plus one caravan. The museum has lots of archives where I spent happy hours researching for Dove Publishing’s Saab Half a Century of achievement 1947-1997. They haven’t found somebody to buy the lot so Peter Bäckström is allowing serious vultures to bid for individual cars. They range from 1946 prototypes to the last ones built and include a 1981 Turbo 900 got up as the James Bond car featured in three post-Fleming novels.

Sad end. Yet Saab had been in trouble for years. Regular bloggists know I am researching 1989 Sunday Times columns. This one of 22 October pre-dates the GM takeover of Saab.

A MANUFACTURER strapped for cash has to find cheap ways to bring out a new model, and Saab, with a car division balance sheet that tells its own story, has done so with characteristic vigour. The Carlsson 9000CD has a spectacular appearance, vivid performance, and might have been regarded as a good special edition of a successful model. But given Saab’s embattled stance, it has the sound and the feel of a swansong.
New cars are the lifeblood of the industry. Henry Ford’s only mistake was to carry on making the Model T too long. By the time Ford introduced the Model A, General Motors was overtaking it and never looked back.
Saab is under siege, which means a completely new car is forbidden new body pressings or major mechanical changes that are costly, but may have new cosmetics and small mechanical changes that are not. Raise the quality, raise the price, and the Carlsson CD is not cheap at £25,995 (without the estimable Scottish Bridge of Weir leather upholstery at £945, or the curiously titled “comfort pack” that includes the leather, air conditioning, and electric seats for an all-in £2,195).
Proscribing new body metalwork, however, does not mean it has to look plain, and the Carlsson CD has appliqué panels in plastic that make it every inch a high-quality high-performance car. It is named after one of Sweden’s best-ever rally drivers, the gentlemanly Saab promoter, Eric Carlsson.

Young Carlsson in happier times
He is not the sort of individual likely to give it his name for a consideration; happily he has not only the integrity, but also the clout to apply his standards, as well as his autograph, to a car.
Firm springing, a great deal of power and robust strength are traditional Saab ingredients, and the CD has them in generous measure. This is a roomy car, long-legged and high-geared, with rather a sombre interior, the customary well laid-out fascia enhanced with burr walnut.
Unfortunately, its rivals have come a long way since l984, when Saab announced the 9000 as a co-production with Lancia, with front-wheel drive without the option of four-wheel drive. A 16-valve, two-litre turbocharged engine putting the best part of 200 horsepower through the front wheels alone, demands some circumspection in the wet to avoid wheelspin.

The Saab Carlsson was based on the great 9000 - a booted version to make it stiffer.
Nor is it altogether quiet It has a lusty four-cylinder engine with a steady surge of speed, and a good gearbox, but although splendidly engineered, it is less smooth than, say, a BMW, and there is not enough cash-flow now at Saab to make it better. Nobody can write a requiem for Saab yet, but time and money are clearly running short.

Well, they can write a requiem now. Above: Last Saab, the 9-5.

Saab: The Last Hurrah

Bye Bye SAAB … this was NEVER going to fly. Perceptive comment by RX8 in Automotive News following intimation that Saab was finally bankrupt. When Victor Muller, Dutch owner of Spyker, bravely faced the Fleet Street group of motoring correspondents nearly two years ago, following his $400million rescue plan, I’m afraid old hacks looked at one another saying, “We have been down this road before.” We may have wanted him to succeed. Not many makes of car have created such affection. Everybody admired its pluck, the quirky nature of its cars especially in the 1960s when Erik Carlsson won the RAC and Monte Carlo Rallies.

The bold Erik Carlsson won the 1963 Monte Carlo Rally.
Saab Automobile AB filed for bankruptcy with the district court in Vaenersborg, Sweden, according to Dutch owner, Swedish Automobile NV. General Motors refused to support the investment and loan proposals from Zhejiang Youngman Lotus Automobile. "After having received the recent position of GM on the contemplated transaction with Saab Automobile, Youngman informed Saab Automobile that the funding to continue and complete the reorganization of Saab Automobile could not be concluded." This meant that the millions Zhejiang Youngman Lotus Automobile was proposing to invest were withdrawn, and the Board of Saab Automobile decided that without it the company was insolvent.

Saab never really had a chance. In the end General Motors torpedoed the deal because it had too much property, intellectual and tangible, at stake to let it be appropriated by the Chinese. See an earlier blog on how China is scouting for complete factories and redundant designs to set up a car industry of its own, rather than rely on incomers to reap profit from the biggest potential market in the world.

Sound GM car but no Saab charisma. The 2011 9-3.
Saab was also failed by what Automotive News once called General Motors’ musical chairmen. GM’s policy of rotating senior executives round its subsidiaries resulted in short-term solutions that didn’t work. BMW and Audi prosper because single-minded leaders stick to their task; Saab had no strong-minded Piëch looking beyond the next model, keeping accountants happy by dipping into the common parts bin. There had been vision for Saab in the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1990s Saab had no idea where it was going; it tried to be big on safety like Volvo, it tried to be green with bio-fuel, it was big on turbocharging thanks to Scania and it had clever engineers taking ingenious initiatives like the variable-compression engine that rocked the cylinder block on a kind of hinge. It tried to be trendy to no avail.

Historic relic from Saab museum. Saab heritage.
Researching the Saab 50-year book in 1997 I met some of the Americans tasked with turning Saab into a premium brand. They had sound plans but they all knew they were not there for long. GM careerists were pulled back into the global hierarchy, leaving bean-counters in control, which doomed Trollhättan in the end.

Saab Phoenix not rising from the ashes.

Beware Greeks - or Chinese

If the Greeks had been smart they would have built their Trojan Horse inside Troy. No need to get the Trojans to wheel it in. They could have taken over a workshop and the siege would have been over in minutes. The Chinese are cleverer. They are getting cars into Europe using old factories and Trojan soldiers. An Italian car dealer, Massimo di Risio, plans to make cars from China's Chery Automobile at a Sicilian factory Fiat abandoned. In Britain China's SAIC Motor Corporation is building MGs at Longbridge in the old Austin plant bought from MG Rover. The Chinese are desperately negotiating a takeover of Saab, with a splendid factory in Sweden, which is being resisted by its former proprietor General Motors. In Bulgaria, according to Automotive News Europe, Great Wall Motor will have three locally made models ready next year. In China, Chery Quantum, a joint venture of Chery and Israel Corporation, is going to ship compact cars and a Sports Utility to Europe under a new brand called Qoros.

This aims at 300,000 a year, about three times what Saab was making. The Chinese have found it difficult to meet Western standards for quality, safety and fuel economy, so Chery Quantum has got respected Magna Steyr in Austria to develop prototypes. AVL, also Austrian, is creating engines.

The Chery Quantum Trojan Horse will be manned by Volker Steinwascher, former head of Volkswagen North America. He has already recruited German executives, notably a former designer of BMW Minis, Gert Hildebrand. Steinwascher says Chery Quantum won't match Western driving dynamics and technology, but will use more basic technology to make cars between €11,000 and €15,000. The company will be exporting by 2013, by which time Great Wall in Bulgaria will have come on stream and di Risio's factory in Sicily could be sending rebadged Chery models outside Italy.

In the 1980s the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (JAMA) came to a gentleman’s agreement with the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), which limited Japanese imports to roughly one car in ten sold in Britain. The Japanese set up joint deals, for example between Honda and British Leyland, but in due course it was easier to establish manufacturing. Britain and Europe is now replete with Japanese car factories. One of China’s fastest growing manufacturers, Geely, will be selling in Britain by the end of the year. It will operate from an office shared with The London Taxi Company through its distribution arrangement with Manganese Bronze Holdings plc (MBH). Geely already owns Volvo, but with MBH it will sell £10,000 Emgrand EC7s through a dealer network Geely Auto UK. MGH and Geely are partners, building London black cabs in Coventry. The Chinese have been quick to notice that there are no longer any frontiers. Troy should, once again, brace itself.
(Below) Saab Phoenix waits to rise from the ashes.

Saab 9000

Saab is in a bit of trouble again. Can’t seem to pay its way. Yet it is one make of car for which drivers feel affection. It forged relationships with journalists through events that involved lots of driving. In 1985 Ray Hutton, then editor of Autocar and I did more than 1000 miles in a few days. Best of luck Saab. It deserves better. Saabscene was Saab GB’s magazine in 1985

One of the few disadvantages attached being a relatively small manufacturer is that new car launches are few and far A between. As is common knowledge, the, Saab 9000 is the company’s first all new model for 17 years.
The larger manufacturers have not only infinitely greater financial resources but also the ability to draw together a larger demonstration fleet. For this reason, Saab has to make the most of every opportunity to present its developments to the press in the most attractive and imaginative manner possible. It has done this to remarkably good effect.
Leningrad, Baja California, Prague and most recently, the North Cape are four of the fascinating destinations chosen by Saab Scania to demonstrate Saab’s durability, roadholding or innovative design to the world’s press. But it’s not just a question of choosing an exciting location for a launch; a comprehensive itinerary to provide the journalists with a thorough examination of the car is essential.
We reproduce here, by courtesy of Fast Lane, Eric Dymock’s impressions of the 9000 Turbo 16 en route to the North Cape. [Saabscene]
Saab’s 9000, due in the UK in October, proved to be the ideal transport for Eric Dymock’s foray north of the Arctic Circle. Fast Lane
Spain or the Seychelles are all very well, but you can’t expect people to be surprised any more. These days everybody’s been to Spain or the Seychelles, but say you’ve been fishing in the Arctic and see what happens. No need to waitfor a gap in the conversation. Just say, “Look here, I’ve just been fishing in the Arctic.”
You can’t beat it. Spain and the Seychelles become boring. You don’t even need to brandish holiday snaps. In fact better forget about holiday snaps because the place is about as photogenic as the Falkland Islands unless you actually like brown (earth), white (snow) and grey (sea and sky).
It is also not much use holding up a picture and saying you shot this at lam. Everybody knows about the midnight sun. Much better to tell about having dinner with Erik Carlsson one night and finding it broad daylight outside. “Ah well,” says Erik, “we’ll just have to keep drinking till it gets dark.”
Which is about September.
Erik Carlsson of course can mean only one car — Saab. And it was to show how good the Saab 9000 is for long, fast, tough drives that they hit on going to the ends of the earth. It is about the latitude of Alaska and Siberia, and well north of the Arctic Circle, making Iceland look almost tropical. It is fortunately milder than Alaska and Siberia on account of the Gulf Stream which one would have thought had lost most of its warmth by there but apparently not.
Further north you cannot go, in Europe at any rate, without falling over the edge. North Cape is a sheer 307 metres into if not quite the abyss that used to so worry ancient man, at least into the Arctic Ocean which must be about as inhospitable, Gulf Stream or no Gulf Stream.
We flew on a scheduled airline to Helsinki then by private charter to Rovaniemi, smack on the Arctic Circle. From there we set off in Saab 9000s across into the northern part of Norway and up to North Cape, some 350 miles further towards the Pole as a very frostbitten crow would fly, or about 550 miles the pretty way.
I must say I expected dirt roads, I suppose something like a gigantic Kielder Special stage, but for the most part the surf aces were quite splendid. They were tarmac, except where the ravages of winter were being repaired, and virtually free of traffic. You had to watch out for the occasional elk; one traffic injury in six in Scandinavia is caused by wandering animals and when they are elk-sized you have to take them seriously.
As we forged north through drenching rain, mild summer sunshine, high snow banks, and chill Arctic night, the forests thinned out. It was like going beyond the snow-line part-way up Everest. (This is a bit of artistic licence: I’ve never been part-way up Everest). Actually the trees get smaller before they disappear altogether, more like scraggy stunted broomsticks about two feet tall.
Up on North Cape itself it is scaly bare rock and except for the snow looks rather like the surface of the moon. I haven’t been on the moon either; it is what I imagine it would look like. Neil Armstrong driving the lunar rover would hardly have come as a surprise.
There are some cars that exactly fit the job in hand. I remember years ago Joe Lowrey, a distinguished Technical Editor of Motor, said of the Panhard 24CT that if he lived at one end of the Ml and had to commute to the other he could think of no better car. It had good aerodynamics, high gearing, and a very economical 848cc flat twin engine. He also said he could think of no other circumstances whatsoever in which he would like to drive or own one.

The Lunar Rover must be a bit like that: fine on the moon but not much use anywhere else. Now the Saab, for this journey was sensationally good. It is one of these cars which, when the going gets a bit rough and tumble, or the surfaces deteriorate, or the weather
closes in, or the going gets slippery you feel, “Never mind. This thing won’t let you down. It’s not going to stop out here miles from anywhere. It’ll cope with anything and it won’t need any special skill to get out of trouble. And my goodness, isn’t it FAST.”
Driving very quickly indeed over these empty roads in Europe’s last great wilderness the turbo never got much of a chance to slow down, so the huge reservoir of power at the top end of the rev range was always in use; great long surges of speed in fourth and fifth taking you up to the maximum of over 22Okph (137mph) with great swiftness. How very satisfactory to find a car so ideally suited to the grand tour; I can think of almost nothing that could do this sort of job better, a true road car with 61 per cent of the weight in the front. It is beautifully stable, with little body roll and that wheel-at-each-corner feel that suggests a car developed by a driver such as Erik Carlsson, rather than one churned out by the cost accountants. You lope along and come to an. unmade stretch, slackening speed only a little, confident in the knowledge that the good ground clearance and the clean underside together with the big wheels and supple springing will all cope. Saab must have learned a lot about making strong cars when Erik was rallying them.
So like Joe Lowrey’s Panhard, the Saab does have one wholly ideal role. And conversely while there is hardly anything about it which is dislikeable, there are some aspects at which the market will look askance. Like most of its forebears for example, it is not a car designed with much of an eye to haute couture. The Swedes are far too practical for that. It has been designed, as you might expect like an aircraft, strictly for practicality, giving aerodynamics their place in the scheme of things but rejecting extreme solutions that get in the way of really important considerations such as seeing out. The 9000 does away with the feeling you get in the 90 or 900 of looking out through a letter- box slot.
However the result is a rather anonymous shape, which lacks the striking dignity of the new Mercedes-Benz 200-300 or the feline grace of the Jaguar. How often one has to compare any car in this class with these two bench-marks of automotive excellence. The Saab does look good from some angles, but by and large it does not appear distinguished.
Saab is fond of pointing out that it is a large car by the American Environmental Protection Agency’s standards of measurement. Subjectively it feels spacious enough in the front although the back seat cushion falls a bit short of a size suitable for lounging. Perhaps it helps the measurement from back cushion to front seat-back to have it like that.
The sweep of the broad, flat facia panel, curving into the central console is less successful aesthetically than the superb arrangement of the 900 with its splendid aircraft-style instruments grouped carefully according to function. That surely was one of the best-designed layouts ever. The 9000 has rather a lot of black with nothing to fill the space; if they didn’t surrender to the stylists outside it is surprising to find they have done
so inside. They have also given in to idiot American owners who became tired of instructing parking attendants in the mysteries of the Saab ignition key which locked the car in reverse. This highly effective thief deterrent has now been abandoned in favour of a conventional steering column lock which can be unpicked by any competent thief in about thirty seconds.
It is hardly relevant to discuss how close or how distant a relative of the Lancia Thema and the Fiat and Alfa Romeo Type Fours the Saab 9000 is. It is distinctively hallmarked as a Saab which is what was intended even though the differences of opinion between the engineers on what constituted a Saab and what Lancia turned out wider than anyone thought when the co-operative venture was conceived in the mid-Seventies.
Long-haul fast driving with the turbo boost well up much of the time is thirsty work for a 16-valve 2-litre. Just as well that the intercooler is reducing the temperature of the ingoing charge, really. Besides getting more oxygen in you can’t help feeling it must help prevent the whole lot melting down into one glowing incandescent mass.
Fuel consumption for nine cars over 550 miles averaged out at 22.3mpg, one pussyfooter getting 31.0 and a couple of hooligans around 17 and I refuse to be drawn on their identity. [This was Ray Hutton and me]
Taking fish from the Arctic can hardly be described as exciting sport, most of the cod etc seeming only too pleased to come up into the comparative warmth even if their eyes bulged a bit when you took the hooks out. Fighting denizens of the deep kept clear of the small group of hacks dangling their lines from the twin-hulled diesel Saab had thoughtfully arranged to take us to the northernmost tip of the Continent.
You can’t help thinking that what with no frozen lakes in June, real trees that grow real leaves, no elks and hardly a trace of snow, Britain is, as any meteorologist worth his isobars will tell you, comparatively mild.

Saab GB 50 Years

Saab GB 50 years
GM’s musical chairmen failed Saab. A perceptive review in Automotive News Europe by Richard Johnson argues that GM’s policy of rotating senior executives didn’t work. European premium companies like BMW and Audi prospered because single-minded leaders stuck to their task. Johnson hypothesises that what he calls the “great man theory” of automotive history, installing a Ferdinand Piëch say, did not provide strong, independent leadership at Saab.

Quite right. When I was doing the Saab fifty-year book in 1997 I met some of the bright Americans given the job of turning Saab into a high-earning brand. They had great ideas but as Johnson says, they were pulled back into the GM hierarchy too quickly. None of them lasted, leaving the bean-counters to force Saab into component-sharing with Opel. Ford didn’t coerce Jaguar into badge engineering and although in the end that didn’t work either, it was for different reasons. Audi shares plenty of bits with others in the VW Group but Piëch ensures it is so subtly done nobody, apparently notices. Or if they do they don’t care. Remember the fuss when the Aston Martin DB7 was spied with Granada switchgear.

Classic Saab. The RAC Rally winning 96
Saab loyalists, like 1990s PR director Peter Salzer, whose support for our book was crucial, praises two Americans who ran Trollhättan in the 1990s, Dave Herman and Bob Hendry. Herman was American, but he had not worked in the United States since 1975, and never in Detroit. He had been in London, East Europe, Russia, Belgium, Chile and Colombia. In 1989 he was in charge of GM’s European parts operation in Rüsselsheim when Europe president Bob Eaton sent him to Saab. Herman fumbled a press conference over Saab’s image but he proved a strong advocate.

Walsall-born Keith Butler-Wheelhouse, who had attained stardom by leading a management buy-out of GM South Africa, followed Herman in 1992 until handing over to Bob Hendry in 1996. Determined to get a feel for Saab, Hendry spent his opening weeks driving all the cars in the Trollhättan museum. He decided Saab needed to improve its image. “The brand had the same kind of potential as BMW,” Hendry says. “There was no reason Saab could not have the same level of profit and brand loyalty.” But the quirky image had to go: “No customer likes to think of himself as quirky.” Not sure about that.

The preserved 96 ready for the Roger Albert Clark Rally
Another head of Saab PR, Olle Axelson who went to a similar job at Volvo in 2000, called Hendry “…the best CEO of a car company I've ever met. He got the team together; he got sales up.” When Hendry arrived, Saab sold under 90,000 worldwide, down from 134,000 in 1987. By the time he left, global sales were back to 133,000. Hendry lasted until 2000, replaced by Swedish Peter Augustsson until 1 April 2005 and the arrival of Jan-Åke Jonsson (born Valdemarsvik, 1951), who remains.

Most memorable press launch, the 9000 to North Cape. I ran one in the 1990s.
There really is only one Piëch – engineering genius, motivator, executive, shrewd perhaps ruthless entrepreneur – yet had any of the above been left to get on with rebuilding Saab, they might have attained Piëchian distinction. They were never allowed. Engineers tried to make Opels drive like Saabs without quite managing it. Stylists could make cars that looked like Saabs but the robust Swedish life force, quirkiness even, wasn’t there and now Saab is in the hands of Spyker and Victor Muller.

There is hope. One of his first moves was to secure a supply of some of the world’s best engines. From BMW.

National Treasures in a National Treasury. Stuart Turner and Eric Carlsson, Saab 96, in the RAC Pall Mall.
Automotive News Europe is good. It agrees with this blog on the premature election of the Nissan Leaf as Car of the Year. Richard Johnson is astute. Reach him at

SAAB Gadgets

Saab had some good tricks. The heat battery that I described in in The Sunday Times of 9 February 1992 really worked but seems to have atrophied. It was a niche product I suppose that was not going to be big outside Sweden. Traction control was demonstrated convincingly on a frozen lake and now everybody’s got it. Driving on ice under Erik Carlsson’s tutelage was memorable. Saab arranged occasions like this well, removing for ever the wrong-headed conviction that skill would always outwit electronics. True it is sometimes better to have switchable traction control, and the newest cruise controls that hit the brakes if a car veers into your path can be unnerving, but they work. How many lives have been saved by anti-lock brakes? Real lives really saved, not guessed at by self-appointed safety campaigners. Incalculable. Leave improvements to engineers and ban lobbyists.