(from Saab Press
Release) AFTER 50 YEARS IN THE U.S., SAAB REMAINS A STATEMENT
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
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
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
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
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.