We begin our journey of Swedish car makers with SAAB, even though they are now defunct, because to the American mind, SAAB is one of the two big car makers in Sweden (alongside Volvo which we already covered in Part 9A.) As you will soon see, the whole saga is quite the soap opera.
A defunct car manufacturer that was founded in Sweden in 1945. The first production model, the Saab 92, was launched in 1949. In 1968 the parent company merged with Scania-Vabis, and ten years later the Saab 900 was launched, in time becoming Saab’s best-selling model. In the mid-1980s the new Saab 9000 model also appeared.
In 1989, the automotive part of SAAB Scania was spun off into a company called Saab Automobile AB, which GM soon bought half of. This era gave birth to two landmark models the Saab 9-3 and the Saab 9-5. In year 2,000, GM bought the rest of SAAB Auto AB. In 2010 they flipped it to Dutch automobile manufacturer Spyker Cars N.V.
A year later the company struggled to remain solvent. They attempted to sell to a Chinese manufacturer, but GM blocked the deal, as they objected to the possibility of their technology going to China.
SAAB The Beginning
To understand a little of what happens next we must go back to the very beginning. SAAB started it’s life “Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget” (Swedish for “Swedish aeroplane corporation”), a Swedish Airplane Maker that would eventually become an aerospace and defence company. In 1937 however, the company formed expressly for the purpose of building aircraft for the Swedish Air Force to protect the country’s neutrality as Europe moved closer to World War II. (History buffs will tell you how that turned out.)
As the market for fighters began to peter out, the company began looking to diversify. Cars were a natural choice and part of the Trollhättan factory was converted to build Project 92. BTW SAAB 91 was a single engine trainer aircraft. They pragmatically moved right to the next project.
Side note: While the aircraft headquarters remained in Linköping the car division would eventually be run entirely out of Trollhättan.
The company made four prototypes named “Ursaab” or “original Saab”, numbered 92001 through to 92004, before designing the production model, the Saab 92, in 1949. 20,000 cars were sold through the mid-1950s. In 1955 the thoroughly redesigned and re-engineered SAAB 93 gained a third cylinder and what would become a trademark grill shape.
1960 brought another big makeover, the SAAB 96, which would be the first car widely exported. The car was both odd and popular, selling nearly 550,000. All these early models of SAAB featured the 3-cylinder 2-cycle engine, which required adding oil to the gas tank, and all were front-wheel drive. They also featured “freewheeling” a clutchless column shifter.
Finally in 1968, SAAB designed their SAAB 99 which was not only a complete break from their early models, it introduced most of the hallmark features which would be included in all subsequent models. Features like wraparound windscreen, self-repairing bumpers, headlamp washers and side-impact door beams.
SAAB did have a stint with Scania which will be detailed in the Scania Section below.
The End of SAAB
After many years establishing a sound engineering reputation and ultimately a luxury price tag, Saab failed to build its customer base beyond its niche following. June 2012, a newly formed company called National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS) had bought Saab Automobile’s bankrupt estate. NEVS’ plan was to build only purely electric vehicles with an electric version of the current 9-3 model available in 2013/2014, as well as to continue development of the replacement to the 9–3, the PhoeniX. GM continued to refuse licensing of the technology in the Saab 9-5 and 9-4X, so these models would not be produced.
Full production restarted on December 2013. These were gas-powered 9-3 Aero sedans just like before the bankruptcy. The goal was to restart supply chain re-establish distribution while attempting to develop new, all Electric, NEVS-Saab products. NEVS lost its license to manufacture automobiles under the Saab name in the summer of 2014 (SAAB aerospace retained that authority). NEVS was able to create an EV version of the Saab 9-3, which will go into furthur below, but the name SAAB on cars appears to be gone forever.
It won’t surprise you that the company headquarters is in Trollhättan, Sweden as the company formed to buy SAAB and create a line of EV’s on the 9-3 design. They were set to start manufacturing in 2017. To do that they formed a few strategic partnerships starting in 2015 with a collaboration agreement between them and the Chinese company Panda New Energy. They also signed a battery contract with Contemporary Amperex Technology in 2017.
There were some bumps along the way as in early 2019, NEVS acquired a 20% stake in Koenigsegg for €150 million, which Koenigsegg has since bought back. Also in 2019, Chinese Real Estate Conglomerate, Evergrande Group bought 51% of NEVs. (Technically through one of their subsidiaries which was no more connected to the auto industry either.) Evergrande expanded to full ownership in 2020 and decided to privatize, however, by 2021 Evergrande, the parent company, was in deep financial trouble. They began looking to sell off their car investment. When they do, the marque will likely change.
Maskinfabriks-aktiebolaget Scania (I know, gesundheit), was a Swedish bicycle manufacturer established in Malmö in 1900. The company rapidly expanded to manufacture other products like precision gears, vacuum cleaners, cars and trucks (and engines). They officially went defunct in 1911 when they merged with Vabis, to form Scania-Vabis.
We’d could just jump to Scania-Vabis except that the story of how Scania Manufacturing got into cars is interesting and really where our story begins.
British bicycle manufacturer Humber & Co started a Swedish subsidiary in Malmö in 1896, but moved their operations to Stockholm in 1900. Local entrepreneurs taking over the Malmö workshop and continued making bikes under the new name Scania, which was the term the romans gave to Skåne.
The Scania A1, their first car, was prototyped a year later and went into production in 1903. It was soon followed by their first line of trucks. By importing engines, gearboxes and other parts imported from France and Germany, the company made and sold their first 70 automobiles by 1908. At that point they began making their own engines.
The first export sale of a Scania truck was in 1910, to Saint Petersburg, Russia to be used as a cable repair truck for its tramway. A group of six factory reps drove 1.8 tonnes of cargo, 520-kilometres in three days (Malmö to Stockholm) which was the first long distance motorized cargo trip in Sweden. It’s considered a huge achievement.
The engines were the most successful part of the business for Scania, so they stopped making anything else, including bikes, and started looking for a coach builder to partner with. Enter Vabis.
Steel manufacturer Surahammars Bruk, opened Vabis (Vagnfabriks Aktiebolaget i Södertelge) in 1891, but his coachworks business was in bad shape by 1910. The companies merged to form Scania-Vabis (later Scania AB) Vabis was based in Södertälje and the Scania part of the business eventually migrated there (ironically out of Skåne.)
Today Scania AB is a major Swedish manufacturer of commercial vehicles—specifically heavy lorries, trucks and buses as well as large diesel engines for marine and industrial use. They are a worldwide operation with production facilities in Sweden, France, the Netherlands, Thailand, China, India, Argentina, Brazil, Poland, Russia and Finland.
Scania has modern Scania is a subsidiary of Traton, part of the Volkswagen Group. But the early years were interesting.
Sweden had plenty of cheap import cars in the early 1910’s so Scania_Vabis decided to focus on luxury cars and sports cars. Their limos were pretty successful but profits were stagnating when WWI broke out and the company shifted to war vehicle production to supply the Swedish Army.
After the war, Scania decided to continue building trucks. Sadly, it put them in competition with all the surplus trucks from the war. By 1921 they were broke. An infusion of cash from by the Wallenberg family by way of one of their banks.
Scania-Vabis manufactured briefly in Denmark and Norway as well as Sweden, but WWII shifted them to military vehicles.
They expanded their target market in the 1950’s becoming agents for the Willys Jeep and the Volkswagen Beetle, even rivaling Volvo with their 1954 L71 Regent truck. By the end of the 1950s, their market-share in Sweden was between 40 and 50%, (70% in the heaviest truck sector). Exports accounted for around 10% of sales in 1950’s but they expanded that to 50% by 1960.
Part of their success was a Norway based company called Beers. After becoming the official importer of trucks for Scania-Vabis, Beers offered things like training programmed for both mechanics and drivers, free twice-yearly overhauls of their customers vehicles, and mobile service throughout the Netherlands with their custom-equipped service trucks. After Beers took this concept to 20% market share in Norway, Scania began rolling out similar programs at home and in other countries where they had dealerships.
The 60’s brought massive growth to the company beginning with a plant in Brazil. Aside from their early attempts to build in nearby Denmark and Norway, all vehicles were made at the original plant in Södertälje. The new plant in Brazil took two years, but was so successful at growing their sales, they built another in Zwolle, Netherlands, from which they could deal trucks more effectively into France and Germany. Expansion continued from there, not just new factories, but also by buying up companies that had once made parts for them and their competitors.
After a lawsuit from Mercedes forces a logo change in 1968, Scania rebranded and dropped Vabis from their name. They also gave new model designations to all vehicles produced afterward.
The 99 range was expanded in 1973 with the addition of a combi-coupe model, a body style which became synonymous with Saab. The millionth Saab automobile was produced in 1976.
Saab entered into an agreement with Fiat in 1978 to sell a rebadged Lancia Delta as the Saab 600 and jointly develop a new platform. The agreement yielded 1985’s Saab 9000, sister to the Alfa Romeo 164, Fiat Croma and Lancia Thema; all rode atop a common Type Four chassis. The 9000 was Saab’s first proper luxury car but failed to achieve the planned sales volume.
1978 also was the first year for the 99’s replacement: the Saab 900. Nearly one million 900s would be produced, making it Saab’s best-selling and most iconic model. A popular convertible version followed in 1986, all of which were made at the Saab-Valmet factory in Finland, making up nearly 20% of 900 sales. Even today, the “classic 900” retains a cult following.
Scania Post SAAB
After the SAAB era, Scania survived two takeover attempts. One by Volvo in 1999, which would have created the second largest Heavy Truck manufacturer in the world. The second in 2006 when German truckmaker MAN AG launched a hostile offer. MAN AG later dropped its hostile offer, but managed to increase voting rights to 17% in 2008.
Volkswagen gained ownership of Scania by first buying Volvo’s stake in 2000. then bought out Investor AB in March 2008, raising its share to 70.94%. Apparently this time the EU didn’t step in to block the VW from a monopoly like they had Volvo, and by January 2015, Volkswagen controlled 100% of the shares in Scania AB.
Footnote: Shockingly this VW monopoly would be accused of price-fixing by 2017 and fined 880 million euros. One wonders if the fine was paid to the same entity that allowed the monopoly. To be fair the scandal also hit cartel partners Daimler, DAF, MAN, Iveco and Volvo/Renault.