June 23rd, 2011
01:29 PM GMT
On a recent visit to a London showroom my mother – a Saab driver since the mid-90s – traded in her SE900 Turbo for a new Mercedes CLK 250.
At first glance the two cars seemed to offer the same attributes: Both were black, both convertible, with leather seats and walnut dash, and both appealed to the luxury market.
Had her car not been a bit on the ‘mature’ side, half of me would have wondered why she was keen to swap.
But a turn of the ignition key was all that was needed to understand how Saab had veered so spectacularly off track, while its rivals remained in pole position.
My mother confesses that her Saab "looked like an exciting car" but it didn’t feel sporty at all.
"It felt more like a tank," she said.
The false promises of my mother’s Saab became something of a family joke, leading my sister and I to dub her trusty 4-wheeler the "Banana boat."
I must confess that with or without the roof down its visibility was incredibly poor and though comfortable when cruising at the speed limit it took the car ages to actually reach it.
As a result, when we walked past a row of competitively priced Saabs on display I couldn’t even get my mother to stop and look at them.
"No, I don’t think I’ll have one of those again even if they are cheap," I heard her mutter.
Three years after the near death and sudden recovery of the U.S. automotive industry Saab is still in intensive care, selling only 30,000 vehicles last year.
Today it seems Saab took a turn for the worse: Admitting it didn’t have the funds to pay its staff.
Some analysts have speculated this could be the final hour for a firm that has traded hands twice since the late 80s, as each time its owners realised the business needed more money spent on it than originally thought.
That’s a feeling many a Saab owner will be familiar with as they try and get their Saab past its annual check-up at the garage.
If this is indeed the end of the road for Saab, it will undoubtedly mean bigger maintenance bills for the owners of its cars.
This is because spare parts will become harder to get hold of and more expensive. The honouring of warranties is also a point that is unclear.
Yet I am unconvinced as to whether we really have heard the death knell for a maker of cars that were once seen as the acme of both style and substance.
Saabs from the 60s are still collectable classic cars.
There are some encouraging precedents in the automotive industry too – albeit thanks to a hefty amount of government money.
General Motors, which owned Saab between 1989 and 2010, rode back to rude health recently after driving investors hopping mad two years ago when it said it didn’t have the cash to pay its bills.
Saab’s immediate problem, just like GM two years ago, is a cash crunch.
For the moment it has two options:
1) It can realise the value of its sizeable real estate portfolio by selling off its factories and leasing the sites back. That would buy Saab some time though it wouldn’t address its underlying issues with car design and branding.
2) The company also confirmed last month that it was in talks with two Chinese automotive companies ready to buy more than half of the firm in exchange for $350 million. This deal would provide the investment required to spruce up Saab’s image though its viability hinges on gaining EU and Chinese regulatory approval.
Saab’s current Dutch owners bought the business with an already flat battery 18 months ago presumably because it was cheap.
Mind you, you don’t need to be a financial wizard to spot a false economy when it is staring you in the rear view mirror, as thankfully my wily mum well knows.
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