SAAB’s history

Svenska Aeroplan AB (1937–1969)

SAAB B17 (1941)SAAB B17 (1941)SAAB’s history dates back to 1930 when the Swedish National Railway company (AB Svenska Järnvägsverkstäderna – ASJA) founded a division in Linköping where they started to manufacture aircraft. In 1937 it was already obvious that Europe was drifting into war so Sweden, which had been neutral and peaceful for more than a century, and Sweden's industry started to prepare for war. Following a government decision of the 2nd of April 1937 the Swedish state founded Svenska Aeroplan AB in Trollhättan in order to provide for the manufacturing of airplanes for the preservation of the state’s security and sovereignty.

SAAB first produced Ju86K Junkers based on a German license and then others; for example, Finnish and American Military airplanes. Using their experience from manufacturing airplanes, in 1941 SAAB introduced its first self-developed aircraft - the B-17, which was followed by several other successful models.

SAAB 92 prototípusa, az Ursaab (1947)After the war the demand for military aircraft declined. The market for civilian aircraft became much reduced so in order to exploit the production capacity of SAAB it had to expand its product range. Among the opportunities was the production of motorcycles, cars,SAAB Ursaab (C=0.32) trucks and other useful vehicles and even the production of flat-pack kitchen furniture. Other Swedish companies had already saturated the motorcycle market, Volvo was by then producing cars while Scania had started to produce trucks. SAAB had found finally found its market niche with the production of small cars. The company group, besides launching car manufacturing, also naturally continued to operate in the military sector and in the information sector, areas which continue to define the company's life even to this day.

Within the SAAB company group, SAAB Automobile AB, which was set up to produce small cars, created its first model - the so-called ‘Ursaab’, which was the prototype of the SAAB 92. The small four-seater car with a monocoque body boasted a 0.32 drag coefficient which is remarkable even from a modern perspective and was 50% less than the average of the time.

The transverse-mounted 2 cylinder water-cooled 2 stroke DKW engine powered the front wheels and moved the 800 kilogram car using only 18 horsepower. The production of the SAAB 92 3 speed manual gearbox lasted from 1949-1956.

SAAB 92 (1949) SAAB 92 (1955)
SAAB 92 (1949)

SAAB 92 (1955)

Conquering the USA – Rally successes– SAAB 93 / 94 / 95 / 96

In order to benefit from an opportunity to promote its models and to test new technical developments, SAAB had already entered the 92 model at the beginning of mass production to the rally World Championships. The fact that it had great successes at rallying and also the fact that the SAAB 29 jet aircraft (the so-called Flying Barrel) was the first to break SAAB 93 Rally the 1000 kilometre per hour speed limit in 1955 drew international attention to the brand and attracted new investors which made it possible to develop new models.

At the end of 1955 they launched the SAAB 93 model. This 3 cylinder, 2 stroke engine car was not very popular among the American public but its continuous successes at rallying, the car’s low fuel consumption and the unique ideas integrated into the model - for example, comfortable SAAB 93 queen size bed reclining seats - attracted a large fan base. In 1956 SAAB sold almost 300 cars in America whereas 3 years later it sold more than 6000.

Later they introduced the first generation of Sonett models (94), the 95 and 96. The 96 was equipped with a two-stroke engine for a long time but SAAB managed to increase its performance to 58 horsepower. With the 96 Erik Carlsson won the British RAC Rally Championship Series in 1961, 1962 and 1963, and in 1962 and 63 the Monte Carlo rally as well.

SAAB 99Monte Carlo rally as well. The SAAB 99, which was launched in 1969, profited from the brand's successes at rallying with regard to its technical content and popularity. The oil crisis of the seventies significantly affected development processes. Buyers looked for cars with low fuel consumption but didn't want to sacrifice high performance. Based on these new demands SAAB’s engineers were among the first to develop a turbo-charged engine. In 1978 they launched the 99 Turbo which was SAAB 99 Turbo a huge success both on the track and among customers.

Due to changes in rules during the eighties, SAAB could not come up with the increased costs for the rallying championships, so it entered the world championship races in 1983 for the last time.

SAAB 94 – The Sonett Prototype (1956) SAAB Sonett Super Sport SAAB 95 (1959-1966) SAAB 95 (1959-1966) SAAB 96 (1960-1966) SAAB 96 (1960-1966)
SAAB 94 – The Sonett Prototype (1956)) SAAB Sonett Super Sport SAAB 95 (1959-1966) SAAB 96 (1960-1966)

Saab-Scania (1969–1989) - SAAB 95 V4 / 96 V4 / 900 Classic

In 1969 SAAB merged with Scania-Vabis, a producer of trucks, thus between 1969 and 1995 the official name of the company became SAAB Scania AB.

SAAB 95 V4 (1967-1978) SAAB 95 V4 (1967-1978) SAAB 96 V4 (1967-1980)
SAAB 95 V4 (1967-1978) SAAB 96 V4 (1967-1980)

SAAB 900 Classic, the icon (1978 -1993)

There was something in the air in 1978...customers had a burning desire to see something new and SAAB had a burning desire to make a bigger and better car, while America was eager to see its latest crash safety requirements fulfilled.

In 1978 the pioneering model the SAAB 900 was born out of all these expectations.

The legendary type had very strong ties to its predecessors. You could see in it the main characteristics of the concept laid down back in 1946: front wheel drive, the large wheel diameter and the serious active and passive safety features.

SAAB 900 (1978-1993)The new model featured the patents that had been developed by the company over many years. Even the first units were equipped (which was a first appearance internationally in such a product range) with torsion bumpers – bumpers that could withstand smaller hits without permanent deformation -, electrically-heated seats, front headlight wipers, pollen filters and turbocharged engines that could be operated using normal petrol. The SAAB 900 was an original car in many ways and due to the great design it was unmistakably unique. Thanks to progressive techniques and ongoing modernization, this type, which has become a classic, never lost value during its 15 years of production and even when it was succeeded by another model, remained one of the safest cars in the world.

SAAB 900 (1978-1993)The technical basis of the 900 series built on the 99 series. The SAAB 99 existed only as a coupe version for many years. They introduced the ground-breaking 99 Combi coupé only in 1974 which was a sportily-styled Hatchback. At this time it could only be bought with the 2 liter 100 horsepower engine but the turbocharged version that was presented in 1977 was a model with an impeccable sports coupe pedigree. SAAB 900 (1978-1993) The 900 which was introduced in May 1978 for the first time was in this way not a brand new concept but an enhanced version of the SAAB 99 turbo coupe. It only carried over from the older model those features that represented the cutting-edge technology of the time - for example, the re-designed front section, the chassis with a larger wheel base, the engine, the transmission and the re-designed suspension and braking system. Everything else was replaced by something new and revolutionary - and this was still a long way from 1993.

It is interesting that although the 900 was born only as a successor of the coupe version of the 99 series (not the whole 99 series) later on, when the ‘notchback‘ versions were released it still took over their role completely. In any case, it fulfilled all the US crash safety test requirements at the end of the 70s without fail, and who can even enumerate what else took place after this date... Even in the 80’s the SAAB featured everything which represented the cutting edge technology of the time: power control electronics (1981), asbestos-free brake pads and a galvanized chassis (1982), a 16 valve DOHC-controlled turbo engine, (1984) water-cooled supercharger (1987), airbags and ABS (1988).

SAAB 9000, the other icon (1985-1998)

The first exclusive sports car from SAAB: the 9000

SAAB 9000In order to reduce production costs and to achieve their desired commercial goals SAAB and FIAT agreed at the end of 1978 to develop a common basis for their new family of large cars. Accordingly, the 9000 had 3 other brothers- the hatchback FIAT Croma, the Lancia Thema that could be ordered as a sedan or a station wagon, and the Alfa Romeo 164 which was the least similar to these. SAAB’s version was the first to be launched. It was introduced in May 1984 in the form of a 5-door 99 notchback 9000 which was different from its Italian siblings in that it had a longer wheelbase. The most modest form of these 4 different types – the Croma – was most similar to the SAAB perhaps, while the Thema was more elegant than this model and could even be ordered with a V8 Ferrari engine. The alpha 164, designed by Pininfarina, was a distant relative – usually it is compared to the Peugeot 605. SAAB 9000 Aero 4 seater series with Recaro seats! Contemporary fans of SAAB were not too impressed by the Italian relationship - the shape of the car was not the kind of curved type that they were familiar with that you see on the 900 and its predecessors. The rectangular shape which was fashionable at that time had some advantages. Compared to the meagre 900, the 9000 was in fact a truly regal large-sized premium car. What was also disliked by buyers was that another well-loved characteristic of previous SAABs had disappeared –the ignition key originally located behind the gearstick had been moved to behind the steering wheel on the right-hand side, similar to cars of all other types. Similarly, another feature that reminds us of the designs of the 60s – the panoramic windscreen, which offered an excellent view, had also disappeared. Apart from this, a lot of interesting features were contained in this model which managed to win over the hearts of buyers, not only on the domestic market but also in Europe and North America.

Side protection was for the first time featured in the 9000 series from 1986 onwards. The basic characteristics of the body were designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro but the unadulterated SAAB form was ensured by Björn Envall who was a designer from the home team.

The start turned out to be quite successful –the 9000 was introduced with a 2 litre, 175 horse power, double overhead camshaft 4 cylinder engine (with no catalyser). In 1988 another form was introduced – the 4 door limousine with a longer rear section which was called the 9000 CD. This was followed in 1989 by a 145 horsepower, 2.3 litre injection version.

Following the spectacular facelift of 1994, the Opel V6 engine was put into the nose of the 9000 and made typical of all 9000s. While the 3000 was located into an Opel Omega lengthwise, in this model it was placed crosswise, according to the demands of a front-wheel drive car.

SAAB 9000

General Motors period (1989–2000)

SAAB 900NG 1994-1998The SAAB 900 and 9000 models represented the forefront of safety and manufacturing technology. In 1986 the 9000 set a world record by doing 100 000 km at an average speed of 213 km/h in an endurance test at the Talladega track (Alabama, USA), equivalent to travelling around the globe 2.5 times. But the small manufacturer had difficulties in keeping up with those companies that had larger development and manufacturing capacity such as General Motors, which were trying to break into the growing European market at this time. Opel, which it owned, represented the medium-range category but the brand’s premium models were not a success. The European public did not take enthusiastically to cars produced by Cadillac or Chevrolet.

The interests of these 2 companies met in 1993, an occurrence which the fans of the SAAB myth were afraid of. In order to increase revenue and keep the company alive, 50% of SAAB’s shares were sold to GENERAL MOTORS which had formerly been a minority owner.

Not long after that, the new 900 was introduced which reminded people of the SAAB 900’s typical form in only a few ways -the public called this model the NG or ’New Generation’. The key factor for the rapid development of this model was due to the use of the floor plates of the Opel Calibra and many other parts that originated from Opel. As for engines in the 9000 product range, some were completely new, including a 2.3 aspirated engine which was developed in Sweden, but there was also a model with a 2.5 V6 Opel engine as well.

The new SAAB 900 Turbo setting a world record in TelledegaThe new ownership structure caused a noticeable change in attitude in the life of SAAB which placed the emphasis on more profitable business policy instead of an extensive focus on quality design. In spite of the many changes, until 1988 SAAB was still the safest car according to the Swedish Folksam insurance company which surveyed real accidents..

In 1996, after 10 years, SAAB returned to Talladega and the completely freshly manufactured 900 Turbo set a new world record this time with an average speed of 226 km/h - and it also broke 40 other speed records.

AThe new SAAB 900 Turbo setting a world record in Telledega.

The 9-5 was introduced in 1997 and one year later the first generation 9-3 model was also introduced which was in fact an updated version of the 900. The two were not too different from each other but the new model featured 1100 further technical innovations.

SAAB 9-5 1997 SAAB 9-5 1997 SAAB 9-3 Viggen 2002 SAAB 9-3 Viggen 2002
SAAB 9-5 1997 SAAB 9-3 Viggen 2002

The history of the design of the SAAB 9-3II

Michael Mauer with the study of the 9X, exhibited next to the 'UrSAAB' The SAAB 9-X in a Frankfurt motor show The SAAB 9-X in a Frankfurt motor show

9X – 2001

At the 2001 Frankfurt motor show SAAB offered a taste of the future world of form with a study based on the 9X model. The study designed by Michael Mauer combined the features of 4 categories: the coupe, the roadster, the sedan and the pickup. “The SAAB 9X shows that the traditional classification of cars is out of date. It is no longer enough if a car fulfils only one role. Today’s customers want more. In this case an exciting sporty car which is also very functional, the SAAB 9X is the solution. SAAB is considering introducing, besides the successor of the 9-3, the introduction of a crossover as well” (Michael Mauer)

SAAB 9-3X concept car SAAB 9-3X concept car
SAAB 9-3X concept car

9-3X – 2002

The SAAB 9-3X study is a unique fusion of a sports coupé with an SUV function. It follows the philosophy of the 9X study of the previous year with multi-dynamic features. The 9-3X could be best described as a crossover coupé with all-wheel drive and off road capability, while maintaining the features of a street sports car as well. It was manufactured using the floor element of General Motors’ Epsilon which is typical of the mid-category range, and its formal language and classical content will likely be reflected in future models. According to Michael Mauer ”this car is a cross between a coupé and an SUV, which brings together a sporty image and functionality. It will be a joy to drive wherever you go with it”.

9-3II – 2002

The 9-3II (when it was first mentioned was called the 9-3 SportSaloon, or during its marketing the 9-3 SportSedan, or, in short 9-3 SS). The first photos and details of this car were only revealed on May 17th, 2002.


“The 9-3 SS is the first step in the largest development programme in SAAB’s history. It is the first model from the 9-3 family. In the future, additional models that can be expected are a Cabrio, a Station Wagon, 3 and 5-door compact coupe-like versions and another 3-door sports coupe in the style of the 9X study. The 9-3 was made in order to provide a unique driving experience, to create new standards in its category”. (Michael Mauer).

SAAB Sport Hatch conception SAAB Sport Hatch conception
SAAB Sport Hatch conception

SAAB 9-3X and the 9-3 Sport Hatch study SAAB 9-3 SportCombi
SAAB 9-3X and the 9-3 Sport Hatch study SAAB 9-3 SportCombi

SAAB 9-3 ConvertibleThe station wagon version had a 0.33 drag coefficient, which was truly respectable. This was the first SAAB in which neither in the first nor rear axles generated any lift.

The convertible version was introduced in 2004 as the 9-3 convertible.

After the introduction of the 9-3II in 2003 at a New York motor show, the brand said that the model range would be expandable with the introduction of the 9-2X model. From the first sketches it was foreseeable that it would be the sister model of the 2nd generation Subaru Impreza. The ‘X’ in the name of the model launched on the market in 2004 did not refer back to its study state any longer, but hinted at the existence of its all-wheel drive.

The SAAB 9-2X, or 'SAABaru' The SAAB 9-2X, or 'SAABaru'
The SAAB 9-2X, or 'SAABaru'

At the Geneva international motor show in 2006 SAAB introduced a new study: the Aero-X. This had a huge impact on the design of future models and mode updates.

SAAB Aero-X concept

SAAB Aero-X concept

The Aero-X front design elements appear on the facelift of the 9-5 model in 2006.

SAAB 9-5 facelift: Before SAAB 9-5 facelift: After
SAAB 9-5 facelift: Before and After

9-3 Model updates

The new 9-3 was introduced in 2008 with more than 2000 technical modifications and a redesigned body, which could now be ordered with all-wheel drive.

SAAB 9-3 Family of Models: After the update

SAAB 9-3 Family of Models: After the update

In 2009 the TurboX (station wagon and sedan) was introduced in a limited edition.

SAAB 9-3 TurboX SAAB 9-3 TurboX
SAAB 9-3 TurboX

In the same year the station wagon version of the 9-3X was also introduced, with raised ground clearance.


Global Economic Crisis

SAAB 9-5IIThe effects of the global economic crisis between 2008-2010 which hit the car industry did not spare SAAB. The company had not recorded a profit since 2001, and General Motors, the owner of the company, was quite hard hit by the decrease in the sale of SAABs by 25% in 2008. Volvo, owned by Ford at the time and SAAB, because of the financing problems of the American owners turned to the Swedish state for help. SAAB 9-5II At the end of the year the 2 companies received a bail out of 28 billion Swedish korona. Out of this sum, 20 billion Korona was a state guarantee, 5 billion was an instantly usable rescue loan and 4 billion was a source that could be used for further development. Swedish car manufacturing at the time represented 15% of national exports and gave work to 140 000 people.

The rescue package did not turn out to be sufficient so a few months after this disbursement, on 18th February 2009, SAAB issued a warning to its shareholders of the expected closure of SAAB if the Swedish government refused to offer further financial support. Two days later SAAB announced that it would continue even without GM and by no means would it stop manufacturing. ”Although we didn’t seek new partners, a lot of people knocked on our doors showing interest in SAAB” (Jan Ake Jonsson, SAAB CEO).

General Motors Europe made a promise to SAAB’s suppliers that they would be paid in time in spite of the losses and they also asked them to help SAAB to fulfil its aspirations for independence.

SAAB 9-4XSAAB 9-4XIn the meantime, Opel was also threatened with bankruptcy or sale because of the problems with GM. The German company, which had its own development center and capacity, managed to escape this future, and developed new cars, among then the Insignia, a Vectra-Omega successor, and the new generation of Astra. Finally, GM withdrew from the sale of Opel, and trusting in the future success of SAAB, it gave a green light to the development of the second generation of the 9-5. The sister model of the Insignia was introduced at the Frankfurt motor show and started to be produced in 2010.

On 26th January 2010 GM announced that it had agreed with the Dutch Spyker about the sale of SAAB which then took place shortly after – within a month. The agreement contained an important criterion – that GM would continue to supply spare parts to SAAB.

In 2010 at the Los Angeles motor show, the first leisure SUV of SAAB was unveiled – the 9-4X, whose serial production started in 2011 but which ceased the same year. The car, a sister model of Cadillac’s SRX, was made at General Motors’ Mexican plant.

The phoenix turns to ash

SAAB PhoeniX tanulmányIn February 2011, Spyker provided information that it was focusing on SAAB’s development. In March they introduced a 9-5 SportsCombi and a newly-developed PhoeniX study, the floor components of which were to become parts of the future 9-3, planned for 2013. This platform is already a 100%-owned SAAB property although not quite 10% of spare parts still come from GM. The study won the Auto Express design award in 2011.

SAAB 9-3 NEVSDespite the promising plans, Spyker announced on 28th October 2011 that it had agreed with the Chinese Pang Da automobile enterprise and the Zhejiang Youngman Lotus automobile company about the sale of SAAB.

General Motors, on the other hand, announced a few days later on the 6th December that no more technology and patents would be licensed to SAAB if it entered Chinese hands. They were presumably afraid that if the SAAB 9-5 also appeared on the Chinese Market due to this relationship it would jeopardise the sales of the Buick Regal, a sister model of the Insignia which has been very popular in China. SAAB developed a temporary solution to this problem which was ultimately rejected by GM. Because of this, and in the absence of external capital, SAAB filed for bankruptcy on the 19th December.

On the 31st August 2012, the National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS) Chinese-owned consortium purchased SAAB with the aim of developing and starting production of the electric version of the 9-3. In order to re-start production lines as quickly as possible, the very last 9-3 Aero model was revived, its General Motors’ parts were changed for new ones and the first NEVS 9-3 rolled out of the factory gates on the 29th November 2013.

SAAB 9-3 ElectricSAAB 9-3 ElectricHowever, due to new financial difficulties the production lines were stopped again on the 20th May 2014. Exasperated by the struggles of the brand and the more frequent appearance of SAAB in a negative light in the media, the owner of the brand, SAAB AB, announced on the 29th August that it would not allow NEVS to use the brand name SAAB any more.

Because of the bleak situation, on the 24th Sept 2014 NEVS dismissed workers from its production lines, only keeping on employees who belonged to the development department and the management.

On the 23rd September 2015 NEVS unveiled to the press the electric 9-3 prototype.

February 2015

The story continues...

Richard Revesz, “New bodykit design of SAAB 9-3II” BME - Budapest University of Technology and Economics 24 September 2014
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