I have to declare a soft spot for Saab. It’s not that I could say its cars are better than rival motors (most are not), more that I’ve been applauding their independence of thought and willing them on for 15 years, hopeful that they were on the verge of a sales breakthrough.
But today is the day Saab fans feared.
The Saab board met this morning at 10.00am (and is said to be meeting the unions this afternoon) and it looks like the company has decided to break the stalemate between owners GM and the Swedish government, by going for independence.
That means entering the Swedish equivalent of ‘Chapter 11’ bankruptcy protection which, I understand, gives Saab just three months to re-order its business before the axe falls.
If the Saab board gives the drastic plan the green light, it should not be a surprise. On Tuesday night, GM made it clear that Saab would be independent by 1 Jan 2010 (ten years to the day since GM took full control, as it happens). And the Swedish government said it would not rescue Saab if it goes belly up.
The scale of re-establishing its independence is not to be underestimated. Saab would have to find the funds to move the new 9-5 (due this August) from Opel’s Russelsheim factory, and the 9-3 cabrio back from Graz, Austria, back to its Trollhattan HQ. It also needs funding to tide itself over until the new cars arrive.
Saab’s position is uncannily like that of Rover in March 2000, when BMW pulled the plug. Had BMW waited a year, the new Mini and new Range Rover would have been launched and Rover’s outlook transformed. But BMW was exasperated by the scale of Rover losses and decided there was no real future for the business.
Now Saab, just 12 months from launching an all-new 9-5, 9-4X SUV and 9-5 estate after a drought of cutting-edge new products, has been effectively cut adrift in the middle of a raging recession.
Many people think Saab has had its day. I would argue that it has performed miracles considering GM’s drip-feed of money for new model investment.
Moreover, losing a company that is not only quietly responsible for a huge number of engineering innovations but is also at the leading edge of future engine design, would be a great blow to the automotive world.