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