Saab Story: GM Unit Files For Bankruptcy

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The Sabb unit of General Motors filed for bankruptcy protection this week. Dan Stevens, editor of Autocar magazine, talks about Saab's history and relationship with GM.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

The allegations against Robert Allen Stanford were the capper on another rough economic week here in the states. And it was especially rough in Detroit, where General Motors announced a restructuring plan that could mean ditching its Saturn, Hummer and Saab brands.

Friday, Saab filed for bankruptcy protection. That struck a note with me. Before G.M. took over, I drove a Saab. It was sleek and curvy, sophisticated and Swedish. A friend told me that so many women loved the Saab, it should come with high heels, earrings and perfume.

I used to take mine to Stan the Saab dealer whenever it had a problem.

To get an international look at the G.M.-Saab divorce proceedings, we got in touch with Dan Stevens. He is news editor for Autocar, the world's oldest car magazine. I asked him to tell us a little bit about Saab's history, and why G.M. was interested in this Swedish car company to begin with.

Mr. DAN STEVENS (News Editor, Autocar): Well, the first car was kind of thought about just before the Second World War, and they started to build the cars just after. And they were very successful for some time. They built very interesting, different cars that had a lot of technology in them, very clever cars with quite a lot of cache.

I mean, as you said, you had one, and people loved it, didn't they? And I think General Motors thought they could do with a luxury European car market because Cadillac's never been very successful here. And I think they thought they could build themselves an Audi or a Mercedes by buying Saab. So that's why they got involved with it.

LYDEN: In 2000, they tried to control the whole company. So they were clearly still interested then.

Mr. STEVENS: Well, back in 2000, I think they probably thought it had more hope. And, of course, we weren't in the middle of this horrendous economic downturn, which has hit car sales very badly. And I think they just thought it had a brighter future or at least, they could do more with it. But to be honest, General Motors has neglected Saab quite badly.

It hasn't provided the input and the money it's needed to produce new models. And I think there may have been a bit of a culture clash, too, between the management in Detroit and the management in Trollhattan in Sweden.

LYDEN: What's been the reaction in Sweden to the news that Saab wants out by 2010?

Mr. STEVENS: The Swedish public would probably like Saab to be independent and free from General Motors' control. But there is no public backing for the government bailing them out. And the Swedish government have said, no, we won't do it. And various newspapers have carried editorial opinion in the past few days that says they're correct in saying that and the taxpayers' money should not be spent on a car company and on clearing up after General Motors. So I think they'd like to survive, but they don't want their money being put into it.

LYDEN: I would have thought there might have been - and it may be my own attachment - an emotional heritage for the Swedes here. I mean, the design did come from their own jets.

Mr. STEVENS: Absolutely. Yeah. And I mean, the Saab is a very Swedish thing. It's like a Volvo. It's typically Swedish. It was for a very long time. People still think of them as being very Swedish. And, you know, Scandy design's cool.

People like Scandy design. They like Swedish things. They like IKEA. They like high-end stuff. But when it comes to spending a huge amount of money on developing new cars - and we're talking $10 billion, $20 billion to produce a new car, and then there's no guarantee that it's going to sell when you've done it. So it's such a risk that - I hate to say it, but there is a chance that Saab could just disappear.

LYDEN: We'd only see it in car museums and collector shows?

Mr. STEVENS: Yeah, as sad as that is. And it does happen. Car companies do go under. And Saab is in a very difficult position at the moment. And if it doesn't go in the next year, it could go in the next two to three years. It's going to need a lot of money and a very committed backer to make it work.

LYDEN: Dan Stevens is the news editor for Autocar magazine.

Thanks for joining us.

Mr. STEVENS: See you later.

LYDEN: Bye now.

Mr. STEVENS: Bye-bye.

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