I spent yesterday in Saab’s home town of Trollhattan, which is about an hour's drive north of Gothenburg. It turned out to be an unexpectedly odd trip because, while we were shooting the Phoenix concept car, news whizzed through that Saab’s production line had just been halted because of a payment dispute with at least one supplier.
Any production line grinding to a halt is alarming. When it’s Saab, a company that has stayed afloat in the face of incredible odds, the situation is exceptionally tense. Ironically, we were in Trollhattan to shoot the Phoenix concept and talk to Saab’s design boss, Jason Castriota and talk about the future of Saab, which does rather pivot around the new 9-3 range. But there’ll be no future without a secure present.
Indeed, The Times reported at the end of last week that Spyker Cars, the Dutch owner of Saab, said Saab lost £190m on sales of £573m. Sales in the final quarter of 2010 were just 10,000, an annualised rate of just 40,000 units, well below the minimum break-even point of 85,000 annual sales.
OK, if we’re making a thumbnail sales projection for 2011, we can add in extra sales of 9-5 saloon as well as the cool 9-5 estate and the 9-4X SUV, which should do pretty well in the US. That should take Saab north of 70,000 units, but it’s still touch and go. The difference, according to Saab insiders, is the decision to properly launch the Saab brand into China, Russia and Brazil, all of which are booming.
My day in Trollhattan had a weird sense of being on the cutting edge of events. While the production line was slowing to a halt up the road, Castriota told me he was currently engaged in the ‘heavy engineering’ phase of the new 9-3 project, debating the fine details of radius and panel fit as the car’s skin is committed to mass production. The interior design of the 9-3 is also, apparently, finished and will be given the final green light next week. By the end of this odd day, news came through that Saab had just applied to the Swedish authorities to allow Russian banker Vladimir Antonov to become a significant shareholder in the carmaker. If I was a betting man, I’d say that we’ll see the return of the five-door hatchback when the new 9-3 is unveiled at the Frankfurt show in autumn 2012. I think there’ll also be a new, more distinctive and aggressive, 9-3 cabrio on the show stand.
Yesterday saw the first car that Saab ever made (the 1946 Ur-Saab) and the latest concept in the same building. I really, really, hope these two cars don’t end up measuring the beginning and end of the company.