(james benedict brown) on the road

Ohmigod, they killed Saab…

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 3 March, 2006

saab-9-7x.jpg

A comment of mine has somehow been approved for publishing on the GM Fast Lane blog, where bucolic General Motors vice-president Bob ‘Maximum’ Lutz likes to drone on about what a wonderful company he runs and what wonderful cars they produce. Surprising they should allow my viewpoint, since I’m not exactly the biggest fan of General Motors. After buying up the last truly different auto maker in Europe, GM couldn’t help talking the hind legs off any donkey that would listen about how they were going to nuture and develop the ‘Saab DNA’. Method? They took GM models (see photo for the American-market-only Chevy based 9-7X truck) grafted on a Saab grille and moved the ignition switch to beside the gear stick. Nice of them to allow for some counter-cultural thinking on their blog though… Shame Bob doesn’t quite get the two-way conversation thing of blogging. Here’s the perma-link

RIP Saab :'(

A genuinely different, innovative and counter-cultural auto maker has been lost. I was an optimist to begin with. I even shrugged off that SUV you chucked out for the US market. But now I know for sure. Saab was swallowed into a behemoth that creates the same cars with different badges. Nice concept, Bob. But with a bit of aesthetic switches it could have been a concept of any of your ‘brands’. A concept isn’t going to save Saab. A commitment to allowing a Swedish subsiduary of GM to design and produce vehicles of their own just might. The accountants won’t like it, but the folks aren’t going to buy ’em if they know they’re just badge engineered Opels/Chevrolets/etc.

The twentieth century was the era of the product: more innovation, more availability and more variety. Now we live in the post-globalization era of the brand. Q. How do you devalue a brand? By refering to it as a brand and not a product. People buy products, not brands. Brand association is a worthless measure… I associate with my car because I’ll be driving it for ten years.

The day Saab died was the day it stopping being a car company and started being a brand. We don’t want marketing and branding, we want cars that offer choice and variety. And by choice and variety I mean different cars produced by different people in different countries. Changing the colour of the grille and renaming it the 2007 model is not enough to arouse interest.

I drive a 1993 Saab 900. Arguably the beginning of the end; a Saab based on an Opel platform. I only bought it second hand (for about GBP£600) because I couldn’t afford an older ‘real’ Saab. Yes, it’s practically a Vectra, and yes, it wasn’t 100% Trollhatten. But I look at that car parked next to other 1993 vehicles and just cry… it’s the last cry of a dying company. It doesn’t just look different, it is different. You can’t compare it to any other contemporary cars because no-one sold a sporty, compact luxury fastback.

Less than twenty years ago there was a group of people who designed cars not because they thought people would like them, but because they believed that what they were making was better than anything else. Putting the ignition by the gearstick wasn’t a way of telling people the car was a Saab… it was a way of saving someone from being knee-capped in a heavy front on collision, and a way of deadlocking the transmission when the car was parked.

Is there better proof that bigger isn’t better? Size will be GM’s downfall. Buying up auto companies doesn’t increase revenue, it decreases it. Shaving economies left right and centre by sharing parts and development reduces variety and therefore desirability. Last year you re-launched Chevrolet in the UK. Except everyone here knows they’re new models of older Daewoo products. Chevrolaewoos.

Conclusion of this rant? Downsize. Spin off (and maybe sell) the companies that aren’t working for you. Go into any bar in Sweden and you’ll find another twenty people ready to tell you how to build a Saab.

I’ll drive my Saab until the day it falls apart. And when it does, I’ll buy a car, not a GM ‘brand’.

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