Saab’s Evolution Through the Years

Saab is a storied automaker. Having been formed as an airplane company to defend Sweden’s neutrality in the Second World War, the company became a carmaker when the war ended and ultimately found itself in receivership after years of misappropriated badge engineering, mostly at the hands of General Motors. Here’s a look back through some of the more interesting designs created by the company, skipping over through its history.

Saab’s roots date back to 1937, when Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget was established as a Swedish aerospace and defense company to built aircraft for the Swedish Air Force to protect the country’s neutrality as Europe moved closer to World War II. After the war, Saab began experimenting with ways of providing transportation to the people in the form of a car, and the company began working on an internal project codenamed X9248.

The initial X9248 project eventually morphed into the UrSaab, a series of four prototype vehicles that would become Saab’s first production car. The UrSaab was an avant-garde design, with many references to the aircraft the company had already successfully created.

The production car adopted the name 92 when it went on sale in December 1949, continuing Saab’s existing nomenclature — the company’s previous vehicle was the 91, a single-engine trainer aircraft. The 92 design was revolutionary for its time. With an aerodynamic 0.30 Cd figure and a body stamped out of one piece of sheet metal and then cut to accommodate doors and windows, it was cutting edge.

In the mid-1950s, a two-seat sports car called the Sonett was designed as a purpose-built racecar in a barn near the company’s headquarters in Trollhattan. The lightweight (600kg) car had a fiberglass body based on aircraft design concepts and an aluminum box-style chassis created by Swedish designer Sixen Sason. The company planned to build 2000 models before race competition rules changed and the project ultimately failed. Only six were built.

The Sonett name was revived for a production-ready coupe a decade later, in 1966. Like the Sonett prototype, the Sonett II had a fiberglass body bolted to a box-type chassis with an added roll bar to support its roof. The entire front hood section hinged forward to allow easy access to the engine, transmission and front suspension. The Sonnet II three-cylinder two-stroke was later replaced by a Ford V4 engine, which produced 65 horses. Whoa nelly!

Sonett III was an evolution of Björn Karlström’s Sonett II design. Designed to appeal to the growing US market – where its predecessor has sold relatively well against its British competitors – the car featured retractable headlamps and hinged glass replacing the II’s beautifully curved backlight. It was arguably less aesthetically appealing than its predecessor, but then again it was the 70s and cars were set to get a whole lot uglier thanks to the US government’s safety mandates. By 1972, the Sonett III had gained hideous snout thanks to the government’s 5mph bumper requirement.

Saab's evolution through the years
Saab’s design evolution: UrSaab (1947); 92 (1949); Sonett I (1956); Sonett II (1966); Sonett III (1970); 99 (1974); 99 Turbo (1977); 900 Turbo (1984); 9-X Concept (2001); Aero X Concept (2006); 9-X BioHybrid Concept (2008); PhoeniX Concept (2011)

In 1967, Saab received a much-needed cash injection that enabled designer Sixten Sason to develop the company’s first all-new product in 19 years. The 99 pushed forward the company’s aviation roots with clever solutions such as a curved windshield that enhanced visibility, unique door design that wrapped under the car to keep out debris and ease ingress and egress, and an aero-inspired sloping rear. Subtle revisions kept the design looking fresh for over a decade and 588,643 models were sold.

The 99 evolved into the 900 in 1978, becoming the first Saab with a three-digit model name. Though the exterior design wasn’t noticeably different from its predecessor, the 900 demonstrated Saab’s aircraft lineage in its interior. Its curved IP was designed to enable easy reach of all controls, which were placed according to their frequency of use. In 1987 the 900 was refreshed with a new front end and new sloping bumpers. Turbo and Aero/SPG models were extremely popular, and quick!

By the mid-1980s Saab was moving up in the ranks. Though it still wasn’t a competitor to the esteemed German premium brands — i.e. BMW and Mercedes-Benz — the brand was increasingly seen as the thinking man’s performance car alternative. With this newfound image boost, the Swedish company unveiled the next phase in its history: the Saab 9000.

The 9000 was created in partnership with Fiat, which shared the development costs of the new platform, and the car’s design was developed by Giorgetto Giugiaro at Italdesign, who worked in conjunction with Saab design director Björn Envall. Many of the 9000’s elements were improved over its Italian cousins to better the Swede’s crashworthiness and, later, its aerodynamic attributes. 

General Motors and Swedish investment company Investor AB each acquired a 50 percent stake in Saab in 1989. The first product launched under GM was the new 900, which was built on the Opel Vectra platform. It wasn’t a bad car, but it wasn’t as unique or special as the original. GM later launched the Saab 9-5 and 9-3 model as a replacement for the 900, but Saab – by now wholly owned by GM – had lost the wind in its sails.

The 2001 9-X Concept — designed by Michael Mauer (then Saab’s executive design director), Anthony Lo (then head of advanced design) and a team of ten designers — was an effort to put Saab back in the game. As a nod to Saab’s adventurous and innovative past, the team created a vehicle that fused different typologies; combining the qualities of a coupe, wagon and pickup truck all in one vehicle. The design seemed to bring Saab back to its roots with a modern aesthetic, but GM wasn’t buying.

Mauer left Sweden in 2004 to join Porsche and was replaced by Saab veteran Simon Padian. Padian had led many design programs since starting at Saab as a designer in 1989, but his crowning achievement were the one concept and two production vehicles brought forth under his tenure as design director: namely the 2006 Aero X Concept and the 9-3 (2008) and 9-5 (2010) production cars.

Though constrained by having to source from the GM parts bin, both the 9-3 and 9-5 models managed to retain an inherent Scandinavian design identity. The latter was actually designed at GM Europe in Rüsselsheim, Germany (alongside the Opel Insignia), by GME design director Mark Adams’ team. In creating these new vehicles, the design team had sourced inspiration from an entirely different proposal: the 2006 Aero X Concept.

Developed under the leadership of Anthony Lo, then director of advanced design for GM Europe, the Aero X Concept was a supercar to rival any from the Italian brands with innovation to boot. Long, low and with sinuous proportions, it had a canopy roof that tilted forward to access the cabin, no A-pillars, and its body was made of carbon fiber.

The Aero X Concept was a masterful interpretation of a brand with aviation history and the darling of the Geneva motor show that year. Perhaps understandably, GM didn’t see the potential for a supercar in Saab’s lineup nor did they want to take the gamble.

Meanwhile, back in production land and with a plan to curb losses, GM devised a plan. As much of Saab’s unseen componentry was already being shared across GM products, the company decided to go a step further and simply badge engineer future cars. The result was the ill-fated Subaru Impreza-based 9-2 and the Chevrolet Trailblazer-based 9-7X. GM sold Saab to Spyker in 2010.

By the time Jason Castriota was assigned to design the 2011 PhoeniX concept the Saab brand was too far gone. Spyker had hit the skids and, after struggling to avoid insolvency throughout 2011 and GM putting the brakes on their deal to sell Saab to a Chinese consortium, the final nail was hammered into Saab’s coffin.

Though Chinese backed company National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS) was thought to be Saab’s savior, proposing an all-electric vehicle range under the Saab nameplate, NEVS filed for bankruptcy protection in 2014 and had its rights to use the Saab name revoked. Unlike the Phoenix, it seems Saab isn’t destined to rise from the ashes.


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