Guest Column - What's Old Could Be New Again
Tuesday, 31 August 2010 22:27

This article from the Webmaster also appears in issue #307 of Nines

It didn’t take long for the automobile press to start hammering Saab Chairman Victor Muller about the viability of his business plan after he bought/saved the company. He responded on a number of occasions that “Saab doesn’t need any new customers; it only needs to get its old customers back.” Of course, he was probably speaking a bit of hyperbole – I mean, I’m sure he’d be happy with a few hundred thousand new customers. What chairman wouldn’t be?

It’s a fact though that there are many present and former Saab owners who started shopping Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Volvo because they saw a little too much “GM DNA” in the modern Saabs, and they had lost faith that Saab was “the most intelligent car ever built.” Perhaps a good first step toward convincing Saab’s old customers (as well as new ones) that the company is now ready once again to “move their minds,” would be to revive a marketing tactic previously used to lure car buyers to the Saab brand in decades past.

In 1981, my brother and I were growing pre-teens, and the back seat of our family’s little red 1973 VW Beetle was getting a bit short on leg space. I’m sure my dad was also getting a little sick of the car belching oil out of the dipstick hole on particularly cold New Hampshire mornings. He had resorted to packing the engine compartment with insulation and a contractor’s work lamp overnight to help stave off the car’s morning sickness. It was time to get a new, bigger, car.

The Beetle had been paid off for a couple years, and my parents had continued to sock away the monthly payment to get a head start on their next automobile. As this was not something they had been able to do in the past, they started thinking perhaps with a bit of up-front cash lowering the monthly payments they might be able to afford something a little more upscale, more luxurious for their next automobile.

900 Engineering Diagram
Down the road from our local VW showroom was Dean Hill Motors, which sold Saabs, Fiats and Lancias. Its Saab business was its specialty, and sales had started to take off in the early ‘80s, based mainly on the dealership’s reputation for stellar customer service and its top-notch service department. The odd-looking three door hatchbacks, though considered expensive, had started popping up all over town. The wealthier families in the area sometimes had two of them, and I vividly remember the big 900 TURBO badges adorning their sparkling metallic hatches, along with the fat rear headrests in bright reds, blues and greens. At some point, my parents informed my brother and me that we might be getting a Saab. When I told a friend at school, I remember him responding, “wow, are you rich?” We weren’t rich. I was as surprised as he was that my parents were thinking of getting a Saab, and I didn’t really expect it to happen.

See, there was this other vehicle that had just launched a year earlier over at AMC. It was an innovative new brand called Eagle, which featured full-time all-wheel-drive versions of AMC’s very popular Concord, Spirit and Gremlin models. In the sometimes brutal environment of rural southern New Hampshire, almost every family was a Jeep family (and through association, an AMC family), and ours was no exception. We lived on a mile-long dirt road that had a few flat spots that turned to mud pits at least once a year, and during the winter, the numerous hills meant any vehicle without chains or 4WD would have a difficult time getting anywhere even after the plow made its first or second pass. When the weather was particularly bad, or during mud season, we’d all carpool in the CJ-5. All-wheel-drive, if not a necessity where we lived, was a welcome optional feature of any car my family looked at, and the new Eagle Wagon had piqued my dad’s interest. I was pretty sure once my parents started getting down to the actual research, the AWD would win the day and we’d end up with the Eagle Wagon. In fact, I was hoping it would. I thought the idea of AWD in a car was pretty cool, and pictured my mom spinning through the mud in the spring, the mucky spray covering the windows and the whole car as we plowed along home. The AMC go-anywhere vehicle would always get us home. It would be so cool.

When it came time for a test drive in the Saab though, I clearly remember my mom being sold on the 900 from the first minute. She loved the car immediately and remarked how solid and sure it felt on the road. My dad, however, wanted to make sure he was buying the right car – a safe car. After all, this was going to be the car that his wife and kids were going to use every day.

900 Engineering Diagram
The Saab dealership had given my dad a few booklets on the 900, and one of them was a rather large one printed on heavy paper, called “Saab 900 Engineering Features.” It made a case for why the Saab 900 was such a special and unique automobile. It had a steel safety cage to protect its occupants. Its seats had been designed by doctors or something. The chassis was designed to communicate with the driver through the seat, and all the controls were laid out like a cockpit to be easy for the driver to reach. There was tremendous detail about the crumple zones, new bumpers, turbocharging innovations, and a split braking system that ensured if a brake line somewhere became perforated, or if a line started leaking for some other reason, the other circuit would remain intact and you’d still have ½ the braking power left. You didn’t just lose your brakes entirely. The seats were heated to keep the driver alert. There were so many innovative features and so much thought put into the design of the new 900. Now, perhaps not all these things were entirely unique to Saab, but this booklet was clearly making a case to potential buyers that the Saab 900 was an impeccably engineered Swedish automobile that was safe, sporty, luxurious, and oh yeah, you could fit a large sofa in the back too if you needed. Nothing had been overlooked in the creation of this automobile.

In the end, the Engineering Features Guide was definitely the tipping point that convinced my dad that the Saab would be the better, smarter purchase over the Eagle. The notion that everything in that car had been so carefully researched, designed, and engineered was just too much to ignore. Being an engineer himself, I’m sure when my dad determined that $10K could buy a precision piece of Swedish engineering that would be serviced by the shop with the best service reputation in the area; the decision was a no-brainer. Perhaps he would have purchased the Saab anyway, but I do remember that booklet being discussed in our house, particularly after I asked, in a disappointed tone I’m sure, why my folks had chosen the 900 over the Eagle.

The Saab Engineering Guides continued into the ‘90s, and even after that, books like “9-5: A Personal Story” detailed the R&D that went into the newer models from concept to realization.

These days I’m sure a lot of cars are conceived, developed and built in similar ways, and there are fewer distinguishing features on a Saab today when compared to other brands in the same class. But certainly, advanced engineering features like the Haldex AWD system on today’s Saabs deserves more explanation than a small section on a website.

At this year’s SOC, Saab execs noted that “Audi is in the company’s sights,” and Mr. Muller has noted on a number of occasions that he has tremendous respect for what that manufacturer has accomplished – that if anyone had told him that his “grandmother’s” Audi would someday be one of the top German nameplates, no one would have believed them.

900 Engineering Diagram
One of the individuals that was partially responsible for Audi’s turnaround in America is Cameron McNaughton, who worked on the Audi account under ad agency McKinny & Silver and who now runs the McNaughton Auto Perspectives blog. A recent post pointed out that Acura had dug up some “old news” about crumple zones, and had featured them prominently in a television advertisement. McNaughton proposed that in a recession, people were looking to make informed decisions with their money, and that there was a whole new generation of car buyers out there “who didn’t grow up during the years when car advertising was full of information designed to help you understand the benefits of automotive engineering.” He also mentioned that “contrary to conventional wisdom, exclusivity is not essential to strong communications and just because it has been done before doesn’t mean there isn’t relevant and powerful way to do it today.”

SOC 2010 guest speakers Curvin O’Rielly and Willie Hopkins – two of the ad execs who worked with Bob Sinclair to craft the message that brought Saab a threefold increase in sales during the mid-‘80s – spent what must have been a phenomenal amount of time creating a sample new ad campaign for convention attendees that appealed to the intellectual nature of Saab’s traditional supporters. They mentioned that research showed that car buyers often spent more time researching their car AFTER they made the purchase, than before they bought. The reason for this was most likely because they wanted to be reassured they had made the right (smart?) choice.

Saab has always been the “thinking man’s car,” and it’s time to appeal to that notion once again. The company already has the “Move your Mind” slogan, now it’s time to reinforce it with a new line of engineering manuals. Former Saab customers will view the booklets as Saab returning to its roots, and new customers will be reassured that they’re making the smartest choice with their money. The sexy new designs will get people in the showroom, but it’s the incredible technology and engineering that will move them to buy. Again.

-- Aaron Clow, Webmaster, Saab Club of North America – who did eventually get over the initial disappointment that his parents did not get an AMC Eagle Wagon in 1981.

If you’d like to see a restored copy of the Saab 900 Engineering Guide that my family saw all those years ago, click here to check it out.