(from Saab Press Release) AFTER 50 YEARS IN THE U.S., SAAB REMAINS A STATEMENT OF INDIVIDUALITY
Only six years after selling its first car and becoming established in Scandinavia, new Swedish automaker Saab was ready to test the deep waters of a brand-new market: the United States. Saab made its American debut at the 1956 New York Auto show – with an admittedly small display of cars – and there was much anticipation in Sweden, as the U.S. was potentially the largest export market for the fledgling automaker.
As a successful aircraft manufacturer, Saab already had an international network of parts distributors. In the U.S., Saab’s parts-buying agent was Ralph Millet, ex-pilot, aeronautical engineer and graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Millet’s company, Independent Aeronautical, was based in New York and had close communications with Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget or Swedish Aircraft Company, known as Saab, based in Trollhättan, Sweden.
From Trollhättan to Manhattan
In late 1955, Saab’s chairman, Tryggve Holm, came to the U.S. to meet with Millet about purchasing aircraft parts. Between the business discussions, Holm asked Millet his opinion of importing the new Saab 93. Millet was pessimistic about the idea and skeptical of American consumers’ acceptance of a two-stroke-powered car, as it was necessary to mix oil into the gas tank, like a motorcycle or lawn mower. And Millet confessed that, frankly, he knew nothing about the car business.
But, two days later, as Millet was driving Holm to the airport, Holm insisted that he wanted to send a few cars to be shown at the next major auto show, and see how the public reacted. Without delay, five Saab cars were shipped, and Millet dutifully booked an exhibit space at the 1956 New York Auto Show. Three cars were shown: two Saab 93 models and a Sonett Super Sport.
Saab’s first major model evolution of the original two-cylinder 92 was the 1956 Saab 93, equipped with a 33-hp, three-cylinder, two-stroke engine. A partially cut-away model – revealing the unusual engine, front-wheel-drive and hearty steel construction – was exhibited along with a road-ready car. The Sonett Super Sport was a limited-production roadster originally intended for competition; only six examples were built. As an original Saab “concept car,” the Sonett Super Sport was a sensation on the auto show circuit.
The public’s enthusiastic response to the cars helped dissolve Millet’s original skepticism. Millet said, “On the first day of the New York Auto Show, I was an expert on spare parts for aircraft. By the final day, I was in the car business with Saab.”
He formed a new company, Saab Motors Inc., first as a subsidiary of Independent Aeronautical, and then taken over by the Swedish Saab parent company. Before the end of the year, Millet was president. The new company established its very modest “headquarters” at a small office on West 57 th Street, in Manhattan.
The first sizable shipload of 200 Saab cars arrived several months after the New York show, and Millet focused his marketing efforts almost entirely on the Northeast. Fifteen dealerships signed up the first year, and Saab established a warehouse and vehicle preparation facility at the port of Hingham, Mass., near Boston.
One of Millet’s first promotional activities was to enter three Saab 93s in the Great American Mountain Rally, during Thanksgiving weekend, 1956. With Saab’s enthusiastic support, chief engineer Rolf Mellde came from Sweden to drive one of the cars and American rally driver Bob Wehman was recruited to drive another of the entrants.
Fresh snow made the grueling 1,500-mile, three-day winter race even more challenging for the 63 competitors, which included many American brands, as well as Austin-Healey, Renault, Triumph, Volkswagen, MG, Jaguar, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz. After three days of sliding around slick roads with snow up to 16 inches deep, most cars did not finish. Only one American car finished among the top 20 – and to everyone’s surprise, first place went to one of the new Saab cars. Wehman piloted a Saab 93 to victory, followed by Mellde in sixth place, while the third Saab finished seventh. Saab took the team award and finished first, third and fourth in its class.
Great publicity accompanied Saab’s outstanding performance in the rally, with much credit attributed to Saab’s remarkable front-wheel handling, Sweden-bred heater and robust construction. Locally and nationwide, word spread among car enthusiasts about the new import from Sweden. Road & Track was impressed enough to note, “The performance has done more to win respect than a million dollars’ worth of advertising.”
Saab had landed
In 1957, the first full year of U.S. sales, 1,410 Saab 93s were sold, approximately 14-percent of Trollhättan’s total output. By the end of 1959, some 12,000 Saab 93s had been shipped to the U.S., making it Saab’s biggest export market.
The two-stroke engine was well suited for winter operation, and owners reveled in the fact that it always seemed to start, even on very cold days. Salespeople would promote the fact that there were only seven moving parts to this simple engine: the crankshaft, three pistons and three connecting rods. But it was not without its flaws. Lubrication problems due to long stretches of consistent-speed highway driving or an incorrect fuel-oil mixture could lead to engine seizure, a catastrophic problem that required the motor to be rebuilt. Rather than ship the broken engines back to the factory in Sweden, Millet set up an engine rebuilding workship at the Connecticut warehouse facility.
“We had an assembly line – two or three people – working to rebuild engines,” recalled Len Lonnegren, Saab’s public relations chief from 1963 until 1989. “Regardless of the problem, it was often best to simply replace the engine – a relatively quick and easy process in an early Saab. We kept many customers quite happy and loyal by doing this without charge, as Ralph Millet had initiated a lifetime engine warranty to boost confidence in the two-stroke motor.”
While Saab executives in Sweden were not enthusiastic about this America-only policy, Saab dealers were quick to promote the lifetime warranty, which covered the engine as long as the car belonged to the original owner.
Individualistic and enthusiastic owners
Who were the brave Saab buyers in the early days?
“The customer was generally a detail-oriented, technical person who appreciated the machinery of the car,” said Lonnegren. “Many were in an engineering field, or small business owners, or professionals. They were people who read Popular Mechanics. And they were all very enthusiastic.”
A survey conducted by Saab in early 1957 revealed that doctors were the largest single group of customers, followed by sales executives and aircraft industry employees. In fourth place was a significantly large group of amateur racing drivers. Another survey, taken almost two years later, classified the largest group as highly educated members of various liberal professions, such as doctors, lawyers, engineers and college professors.
“There was a study made by the University of Connecticut correlating the political leanings of college professors and the cars they own,” Lonnegren noted. “They concluded that the only faculty that were more liberal than Saab owners were professors who didn’t own cars at all.”
Saab’s international rally heritage was the inspiration for the Granturismo 750, a special model created primarily for the American market after much persistence from Millet. Introduced at the 1958 New York Auto Show, the GT750 had additional sport-luxury features such as a wood-rim steering wheel, sport seats, driving lights, tachometer and a rally timer, plus twelve more horsepower.
A station wagon, the Saab 95, was introduced in 1959, followed by the 1960 Saab 96 two-door. A new four-stroke V-4 engine replaced the three-cylinder in 1967, boosting sales significantly. Saab’s famous two-seater sports car, the Sonett II, debuted in 1966. Updated as the Sonett III in 1970, most of these fiberglass-bodied sports cars were exported to the U.S.
The first Saab with an inline four-cylinder was the 99, introduced in 1968. The larger Saab 99 pioneered several Saab world innovations, such as headlight washers/wipers (1970), electrically heated seats (1971), 5-mph self-repairing bumpers (1971) and side-impact door beams (1972). Saab research into active and passive safety systems began with the first Saab prototype, and has intensified ever since.
The 1974 Saab 99’s radical new “Wagonback” styling – known as “Combi Coupe” in Europe – combined the comfort and sportiness of a sedan with the load capacity of a station wagon. With a large hatchback door, bumper-height liftover and fold-down rear seat, Saab’s utility set a standard that helped maintain an almost cult-like following of loyal owners in the U.S.
"Kimi, can you improve on your [race] finish?"
"No. My Finnish is fine, I am from Finland. Do you have any water?"
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