Recent events raise these questions: What if there were no Swedish cars? Would automotive enthusiasts, as we know them in the 21st Century, suffer the cultural equivalent of permanent brain damage, or would the sun go on rising and the appearance of mindless X-Men sequels continue unabated?
Little would change for most of us, but for dedicated Saab cultists, whose number grows ever smaller through chronological attrition, the potential loss of the Saab nameplate ranks with such emotional automotive disasters as the appearance of the automatic transmission. Saab loyalists, many of whom remain in therapy because of the company’s sale to and subsequent destruction by General Motors, just don’t want to admit that the Saab brand has holed out on 18 and is headed for the clubhouse.
Saab fans are not alone in their questionable enthusiasm. They are joined by an even smaller tribe of true believers, who belong to what I call the St. Jude Society. As you perhaps know, St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes and is heaven-sent for such groups and individuals as Saab lovers, cargo cults, Manhattan Republicans, Esperanto speakers, and persons who want to be automobile manufacturers. Sometimes, these disparate hopefuls find their paths crossing: Saabists and Spyker Cars, for example.
The sordid tale of how the expert “niche marketers” at GM threw acid into the face of the Saab brand has been told and retold. Suffice it to say that the men and women at what is now America’s Car Company Whether You Wanted It or Not boiled every ounce of Swedish character out of Saab cars. Except for that horrid ignition key of course.
“If we hadn’t left the thing on the floor, Saab nuts would have thrown a running hissy fit,” one executive told me.
I suppose we can be thankful that GM shed Saab before our government intervened, mandating that a percentage of all cars built must have their ignition switches down on the floor beside potentially lethal floor mats in order to preserve self-esteem among Saab fanciers.
But I digress. Just as Saab’s Humpty Dumpty egg was tumbling off the wall, up rushed Spyker Cars in the person of its owner and CEO, 51-year-old Victor Muller. He bought Saab from GM at a bargain price, a term that in this instance has oxymoronic qualities.
What is Spyker Cars, you ask? It is a small company in the Netherlands that builds handsome high-horsepower super cars such as the C-8 Laviolette L85 coupe and the C-8 Aileron, which comes as a coupe or a convertible. You could put Spyker’s total annual production (43 cars in 2008, 31 in 2009) between the goal posts at the Superdome. Now it’s set a goal of soon building and selling 100,000 Saabs per year.
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Victor Muller, a lawyer by education, made his money legitimately in the fashion and shipping businesses and is a man with a dream. But his audacity recalls the marvelous story about the industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, who also went into the car business after making his money elsewhere.
Shortly after World War II, while addressing a business group in Detroit, Kaiser announced that he was prepared to spend $100 million to launch his career as an automaker. From a voice in the back of the room came, “Give that man one white chip.” Kaiser lost that chip and several others, and one worries that Muller may suffer the same fate. Automaking is not for novices, but to quote an old Swedish proverb, “Those who wish to sing will always find a song.”
Meanwhile, hope fairly leaps from the breasts of Saab lovers as they gaze upon their Dutch savior. They display the same religious fervor that characterized those who invested in tulips during the Tulip Boom of 1637 before that fragrant commodity became the centerpiece of the Great Tulip Bubble of 1637. How many of the faithful have purchased Spyker shares at the *2.35 they’re selling for as I write this, I do not know. Fewer, one hopes, than those who bought it five years ago at *20.
Just as we westerners hope there will always be an England, we can hope that some form of Saab provides a refuge for quirkophiles, to say nothing of saving the manufacturing jobs and foreign exchange that the generally likeable nation of Sweden could use. Can Spyker, as Saab Spyker Automobiles, do this?
Spyker, in its first iteration (1898-1925) sold the Swedish royal family its first automobile, constructed a car that finished second in the Peking-to-Paris race, and even built 100 aircraft during World War I (explaining the propeller on the Spyker logo). The royal coach it built in 1898 is still in use. Spyker can therefore be said to have a can-do tradition if we overlook the 80-odd years it was out of business. Even its motto, nulla tenaci invia est via (“For the tenacious, no road is impassable”), exudes confidence.
By becoming a Dutch manufacturer, Spyker even follows in the national tire tracks of the belt-driven DAF Daffodil automobile, assuring for the time being a level of strangeness sufficient to please even hard-core Saab owners.
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Saab’s new roots in the land of the tulip stand in stark contrast to its Swedish colleagues over at Volvo. In most circles, no disinterested observer ever considered Volvos quirky. Rather, the brand achieved remarkable status on the durability and safety fronts back in the years when only Mercedes-Benz seemed to really care whether our heads went through the windshield every now and again, and when some American cars even lasted all year.
Perhaps because of the occupant-safety component, Volvos, especially the station wagon, became sought-after among affluent suburbanites. So sought-after that they spawned the Yuppie joke: How do the wealthy bury their dead? They roll them off the yacht club pier in their Volvos.
Ford bought Volvo in 1999 and made it a part of the elegantly named but now defunct Premier Automotive Group. There, an enormously talented designer named Peter Horbury created Volvo exteriors that actually contained curves. That accomplished, Ford concluded that it really didn’t need the baggage of an upscale Swedish car company and sold Volvo to Zhejiang Geely Holding Group of China.
Unlike Spyker, Geely has a history of mass-producing automobiles. If it uses its corporate head, it will retain the name Volvo. I do not mean to disparage emerging markets, but I cannot imagine members at the Greenwich Country Club standing around in their Brooks Brothers blazers and brick-red Orvis trousers sipping Old Fashioneds while discussing their Geelys. And like it or not, Volvo needs club members.The larger world, save for the aforementioned Swedish workforce, will not care greatly whether future newspaper editors can write, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Saab (or Volvo),” but for now, if significant numbers of Saab and Volvo lovers want to raise a glass of aquavit and take a morsel of gravlax for their nameplates’ sake, I say “Sk?.”