Last week, just before the 48 hours of madness that was the Paris show, I flew to Gothenburg and was then taxi’d 70km north to Trollhattan.
It was a last-minute press conference that Saab would only describe as a ‘corporate announcement’. It wasn’t hard to guess that it would be about Saab’s future engine supply deal.
It also wasn’t hard to guess that the supplier would be BMW. Rumours had been circulating since early Summer, but it was when I attended the 9-5 launch in June that I was sure that Munich would be in the frame.
A senior Saab source said that although they would do external engine supply deals, the company might design its own double-clutch gearbox (something they had done under contract for GM). The penny dropped. The engine maker that doesn’t also build DSG ‘boxes is…BMW.
It was a very crisp morning as three BMW bosses flew in from Munich, landing at Trollhattan airport, which sits alongside the Saab factory.
Ian Robertson, BMW’s Brit board member for sales and marketing, was on hand to pull the covers off the 1.6-litre, 200bhp, BMW engine that’s currently used in the Mini Countryman. The fact that BMW now makes versions of its own engines for its front-drive brand made the Saab deal possible.
But it’s not the first time Saab has turned to the UK for engine supply.
Aside from the early two-stroke engine (which was probably a post-war copy of a German unit), Saab has never built it own base engines.
For a while the teardrop-shape 95 and 96 used a Ford V4 unit, but for the new 99, Saab licenced an engine from Triumph. The slant-four (which was effectively half a Stag V8) was significantly improved by Saab engineers, who then also turbocharged it.
By the time the second-generation Saab 9000 was launched in 1991, Saab’s mainstay engine was still a slant turbocharged four, but had virtually nothing in common with the Triumph original.
Saab sees it expertise in turbocharging and engine management systems and has set up a joint engineering team to tweak the Countryman engine for installation in the new 9-3. Further engine deals are to come, including a diesel engine, and I’d be very surprised if BMW aren’t again the suppliers.
It’ll be good business for BMW, too. The engine will be built at Hams Hall, a factory originally built to supply Rover and Land Rover, so there’s plenty of space to make the estimated 40,000 1.6-litre engines (in various states of tune) that Saab needs each year for the next 9-3.
Victor Muller, the owner of Spyker and then man who rescued Saab from the scrap heap, said that using BMW engines in future Saabs would ‘increase the premium-ness of the brand’.
Indeed. For a marque that is often dismissed in the UK as selling ‘re-styled Vauxhalls’ BMW under the bonnet can only be a good thing.
But one thing that made me smile at the Trollhattan press conference was that, by a quirk of history, Saab has found itself sourcing engines from the current owners of the Triumph brand.