Saab was the smallest of GM's troubled brands, but the only one to survive, due largely to the incredible support coordinated by one enthusiast on a tiny Australian island 10,000 miles from the carmaker's Swedish headquarters. Here's his story.
Saab was pretty dead last December, when we wrote its obviously premature obituary. Its keystone models were ancient, and new additions had been ill-conceived, leading to flaccid sales even compared to GM's other life-support brands - Saturn, Pontiac and Hummer. Two decades of GM ownership had left the 62-year-old carmaker thoroughly börked.
And then something strange happened.
Dutch businessman Victor Muller, founder of exotic carmaker Spyker, decided to make a real go at trying to buy the company despite the bleak prospects for the brand, financing issues, the need for European Union approval and other challenges. His belief was there were enough Saab enthusiasts left to support the company during a turnaround effort and enough prestige left in the once proud name to turn a profit.
Where did he get such an outlandish idea? The surprisingly potent online Saab enthusiast community, which was already organizing to display their love for Saab and their faith in the company. While the business leaders tried to make a financial case for the company, the faithful took to every outlet possible to spread the word that Saab was worth saving.
At the forefront of this effort was Steven Wade, an Australian Saab enthusiast and father of three living in Tasmania. Like most Aussies, Wade grew up worshiping Holdens and Fords until the mid 1980s when a friend bought a Saab 9000 Turbo. It was fortuitous for Saab and Wade, who founded the popular Saabs United website.
When Saab was on its death bed, Wade penned articles on his site and for publications like CNN, arguing for his beloved company. He helped publicize the successful Save Our Saab rallies, like the one in Detroit, which generated media support for the brand.
"It was organized in two days and we were worried that the press was going to have a field day with this, a Save Saab convoy in front of GM HQ with only 28 cars, they could have really torn us apart from that, but it generated a lot of positive press."
Wade is quick to give credit to other Saab fans who took up the fight.
"The [Detroit Convoy] was an important one... It was organized in two or three days by Ryan Emge from SaabHistory.com, he mentioned it on his website — almost as a throwaway line — and then Jalopnik.com, which is one of the bigger motoring websites, got hold of the idea and said "'Yeah that'd be a great idea.'"
Having covered the deaths of numerous brands during the Carpocalypse, it seemed like there were 100 enthusiasts for every car Saab actual sold. No other expiring make had the support the carmaker did and Stephen was a large part of it.
"[The support] was incredible," said Saab Global Product Manager Christopher McKinnon at this year's Saab Festival. "Especially when you were working throughout this period that was very intense, with the negations ongoing, to feel the support out there, it really helped us working inside Saab to pull through this period."
Muller, now Saab Chairman after the successful purchase, says without Wade "[W]e would have probably not seen a Saab so vibrant and alive today."
Wade was recognized at this year's Saab Festival with the Saab's United award, named for his website and to be given every year in honor of those who work to carry the torch for the Swedish automaker.
"There is this unbelievable man, who managed to rule the Saab world from Tasmania, and he deserves to be the winner of the first Saab's United Award for Excellence," said Muller in presenting the award.
The trophy itself has an original Saab 92 model on it below a boomerang, meant to symbolize both the Aussie Saabophile, the cyclical nature of the award and, one has to imagine, the company itself. It just keeps coming back.
Wade getting the award.
The award came as a surprise to Wade, who was traveling to Trollhätten to cover the event for his website.
"Any time at Saab Festival is a good time. You're in Sweden (bork!) and you're surrounded by Swedes, and Saabs. It's good for the soul," Wade said via email. He really wrote "bork."
"To have this happen as well was very nice indeed and given that so many people associated with Saabs United did so much to express their concern over the possible closure of Saab earlier this year, it was nice to represent them, too, and see that our community efforts were recognized."
The online community wasn't the only key to Saab's revival and Wade frequently points out he's not the only member of the vibrant online Saab world, but his recognition was much deserved. And there's no guarantee Saab will be a success anytime soon, but they've got something a lot of companies don't have: an eloquent Tasmanian guy with a passion and a web editor.