The origins of the SAAB automobile company go back to a surreptitious plan by a couple of German aircraft entrepreneurs to continue producing airplanes after Germany was banned from doing so after the First World War. The Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolag (which is Swedish for "Swedish Aeroplane Company Limited") was founded in 1937, in Trollhättan,with the merger of Svenska Aero AB (SAAB) and the Linköping-based AB Svenska Järnvägsverkstädernas Aeroplanavdelning (Swedish Railroad Workshops' Air Plane Department) or ASJA.
Svenska Aero was the company founded after World War I to circumvent the German aircraft manufacturing restrictions. Two partners, Carl Clemens Bücker and Ernst Heinkel got a contract to assemble a reconnaissance aircraft developed by the German firm of Caspar-Werke for the Swedish military in Sweden rather than in Germany to get around the treaty restrictions. The company eventually evolved into Saab AB.
When it was recognized the world was heading toward war in 1937, the Swedish government cut off the German relationship in order to maintain neutrality. Saab AB was then tasked with building aircraft for the Swedish Air Force. This served the company well during the war, but once wartime demand cooled, the company needed additional revenue streams to remain solvent.
In 1945, development started on the first Saab automobile. To build the model, one of the company’s aircraft production facilities at Trollhättan, in the Västra Götaland County of Sweden was switched over to automobile production. The first Saab automobile (called the Saab 92) rolled off the line in 1949. Some 20,000 copies of it were eventually sold before the automobile was discontinued in 1956.
Perhaps as was to be expected from an aircraft manufacturing concern, that first Saab model had much in common with airplanes. Its body was extremely aerodynamic, its windshield was split like that of an airplane’s, and it was very light weight. The entire body was stamped from a single piece of sheetmetal. Openings were then cut into it for the doors and windows. A safety cage was integrated into the body to protect occupants in the event of a crash. Power came from a 25-horsepower two-stroke, two-cylinder engine displacing 764 cc. A three-speed manual transmission conducted power to the front wheels. The Saab 92 boasted a top speed of 65 miles per hour.
For 1955, the car was reworked and its nomenclature was changed to Saab 93. By the way, the model designations extended from Saab’s aircraft production. The airplane Saab made just before it started producing cars was the Saab 91, a single-seat training aircraft.
The Saab 93 ran a three-cylinder two-stroke engine producing 33 horsepower. The rest of the driveline was pretty much the same as the Saab 92’s. The look of the car was updated, marking the first use of Saab’s upright grille. The rear windows were enlarged and the cargo compartment was too. The Saab 93 became the first Saab automobile to be offered in the United States when it was exported to this country in 1956. It also became the first Saab vehicle to offer seatbelts—included as an option on the 1957 models.
For 1959, a wagon version of the 93 was added to the lineup—christened the Saab 95. Capable of seating seven, the two-door station wagon was fitted with an 841cc three-cylinder two-stroke engine. A four-speed manual transmission handled power delivery to the front wheels. For increased cargo capacity, the rear seats could be folded. With periodic updates, the Saab 95 wagon was in production until 1978.
The Saab 96 was introduced in 1960 and remained in production until 1980. And, while the Saab 93 was the first Saab to be offered in the United States, the first one to really catch on here was the Saab 96 automobile. An evolution of the original Saab 92, the 96 became the first four-cylinder powered Saab when the Ford Taunus V4 was fitted to it for the 1967 model year.
Interestingly, the CEO of Saab at the time, Tryggve Holm was originally against this development. However, convinced it was the right move for the company, engineer Rolf Mellde went to Marc Wallenberg, the son of Saab’s lead investor Marcus Wallenberg, who in turn convinced his father it was the right thing to do. The four-cylinder four-stroke Saabs went on to significantly outsell the models equipped with the two-stroke three-cylinder engines.
The first all-new Saab design since the original 92 was the 1969 Saab 99. Introduced at the New York Auto Show in April of that year, That model introduced Saab’s now trademark wraparound windshield, as well as disc brakes, heated seats, turbocharging, and the hatchback Also that year, Saab merged with the Swedish commercial vehicle manufacturer Scania-Vabis AB, to become Saab-Scania AB—one of the Wallenberg family’s holdings. The Saab 99 ran until 1978, when the Saab 900 replaced it.
By 1980, Saab was at the peak of its popularity in the United States. The Saab Turbo models had remarkable cachet as young urban professionals heavily favored the cars. Owing to this popularity, the 900 ushered in the first convertible Saab model, as well as the world’s first 16-valve turbocharged engine.
When Saab was restructured into an independent company in 1989, General Motors purchased a 50 percent stake in the company. In 2000, GM bought the other half and Saab officially became a General Motors company. Which, unfortunately for Saab, meant badge engineering, parts sharing, and a paucity of new development—ultimately resulting in the near demise of the brand.
After a long slow decline, GM announced Saab was “under review” in 2008. A number of companies stepped up to try to save the storied marque, but the problems were just too great for all of them—except one. Victor Muller, founder and CEO of Spyker Cars worked out a deal with Russian investor Vladimir Antonov to finance a deal with GM to take over Saab.
Ultimately though, Saab proved to be too deep in trouble for them to revive.
As of this writing (July 2013), the future of the company is still uncertain.