What Happened to Saab?

The rise and fall of the cult-favorite Swedish brand in the U.S.

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It was the United States in the 1980s, and among the BMWs and Porsches crowding roads as a result of a strong economy, a Swedish hatchback was selling tens of thousands of units per year simply by being different. The Saab 900 and 9000 were genuine hits in America, even finding a place in television history: Seinfeld’s fictional Jerry drives a series of 900s (as opposed to real-life Jerry’s proclivity toward Porsches).

Yet by the end of the ‘90s, Saab would be a mere sub-brand of General Motors before being shuttered under bankruptcy at the end of 2011. What happened?

Early, if Quiet, Success (1956-1980)

Saab began in 1937 as an airplane manufacturer in the runup to World War II. After starting road car production with the egg-shaped 92 in 1949, Saab came to the U.S. at the 1956 New York Auto Show. Early success in rally racing sparked American interest, as did “quirky” features like factory-installed seatbelts found in models by 1958.

Soon the U.S. became Saab’s biggest export market, with the 95 wagon, 96 two-seater, and the iconic Sonnet sports car arriving through the ‘60s. The 1967 model 99 found a wider, mainstream American audience and included what would become a Saab signature—the ignition switch located between the front seats.

The Golden Years (1980-1990)

The 900, offered variably in hatchback and sedan forms, brought Saab into the 1980s. Its long, low nose and high, arching back made the 900 a gamble design-wise, but it immediately paid off: the 900 Turbo debuted in 1982 amid Saab’s greatest growth period, and a convertible added at the behest of the company’s U.S. chief pushed the brand upmarket. With the larger 9000 added to the line in 1985, yearly U.S. sales soon peaked at more than 47,000 in 1986.

The good times wouldn’t last forever, though. The stock market crash of 1987 hit Saab hard and by the end of the decade Saab Automobile was spun off as its own company, half of which was sold to General Motors.

Decline and Fall (1990-2011)

The original 900 ended its run in 1993. The second-generation 1994 900 wore its GM influence on its sleeve, alienating ’80s loyalists who fretted over Saab losing its uniqueness even as sales recovered throughout the ‘90s. GM bought out Saab Automobile completely in 2000, rolling out a line of rebadged models that were tepidly received, though a version of Subaru’s WRX called the Saab 9-2X Aero garnered critical praise.

The 2009 economic crash and GM’s bankruptcy spelled doom for Saab. A sale to Koenigsegg fell through at the last minute. Dutch carmaker Spyker acquired Saab in 2010 in a deal that saw GM retain over $300 million in preferred shares. That stake would soon come into play as GM blocked an offer from a Chinese manufacturer to become Saab’s largest investor. With that deal dead, Saab Automobile finally declared bankruptcy in December 2011.

Will Saab Come Back?

In 2012 National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS), a firm with majority Chinese ownership, began the process of acquiring Saab. While NEVS would not be allowed to use the Saab logo, it intended to revive the brand until it ran into its own financial woes in 2014. NEVS has struggled to get its cars to market since; its parent company is looking for a buyer.

The Saab brand remains in defense and aviation solutions, and you’ll find nothing about cars on its site save for a brief note on its timeline regarding the GM sale and a page entitled “Do Saab still make cars?” that, frankly, reads a little defensive. Saab’s cars live on, with enthusiasts keeping them running, with collectors on auction sites, and even in pop culture as with the 900 Turbo featured prominently in the 2021 movie Drive My Car.

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James Tate
James Tate has been writing about cars professionally for 15 years and he remains obsessed with them. He enjoys digging into the incredible technology of new vehicles as much as he likes the tactility and the driving experience of yesterday’s cars. He has written for a variety of legacy automotive magazines and websites.