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  • The man who brought Saab to the New York Auto Show and America 55 years ago

    This weekend, the New York International Auto Show begins. 55 years ago, that show marked by debut of Saab to the United States when then aircraft parts consultant, Ralph Millet, agreed to display two green Saab 93 cars. It was to be a beginning of a new episode for Ralph Millet as well as an expansion to what would become Saabs number one market.

    Ralph Millet grew up in Boston in the 1920s and 1930s. He was finishing up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) just as World War II began. He served in the U.S. Army attaining a rank of Lieutenant Colonel. After the war, he started his own aircraft parts consulting and sourcing firm, Independent Aernautical. One of his major customers was Saab. By 1955, he was approached by Saab, who was just starting to fulfill domestic Swedish car demand after having started producing cars in 1949 and was looking at export markets.

    Tryggve Holm, who was Saab's chairman at the time, insisted on shipping five Saabs and asked Ralph to book space for an auto show. Ralph was initially reluctant not having any experience in the car business. The appearance at the 1956 New York Auto Show, as it was then called, consisted of 2 Saab 93 and a Saab Super Sonett, one of six copies of a prototype that later evolved in to the Sonett.

    public domain, courtesy of Anders Jensen of Sweden
    1959 Saab 93B

    The reaction to Saabs was positive. The Saabs were small and economical. They were aerodynamic. They were designed by engineers. Several dealers expressed interest in selling Saabs. One even bought the display model at the New York Auto Show. The instant success led to plans to import Saabs to the United States. The first regular shipment of cars came later that year in 1956.

    To import Saabs, Ralph started his own importing company, Saab Motors, Inc., which later was acquired by Saab to be the national importer for the United States. Ralph originally used a small office on West 57th Street in New York but moved to 405 Park Avenue soon after the 1957 renovation of 405 Park Avenue was completed.

    The 405 Park Avenue building was originally built as an apartment building in 1915. However, in 1957, five floors were added. A new facade was also added changing the building to the Modernism architectectural style, complete with flush windows that do not open.

    Following much public interest of the Saabs at the New York Auto Show, initial sales of Saab were very successful even though they were sold only in the northeastern United States at first. Seeing this success, Ralph negotiated with Willy Overland, the parent company that built the Jeep, to build Saabs in Toledo, Ohio. This idea did not lead to fruition but, interestingly, decades later, the Saab 9-7X was built in Ohio. Like the 405 Park Avenue building, the Willy Overland factory still exist and can be seen where it is situated close to the street in Toledo.

    Ralph's company, Saab Motors, Inc., eventually became Saab-Scania of America. Needless to say, he had an interesting and long career retiring in 1979 but continuing on the Board of Directors of the company. Ralph passed away in 2002 at the age of 85.

    Though I never met Ralph, I met his son, Ralph, Jr. A tall, thin man and an artist, the day I met Ralph, Jr., he was painting on a canvas by the window. Sadly, he was murdered by a stranger about four years later while painting in the Shenandoah National Park in the American state of Virginia.

    There is a lot more to Ralph Millet, even if one covers just his Saab achievements after the 1956 New York Auto Show. This will be covered in a future article. His effort into bringing Saab to the New York International Auto Show 55 years ago this week lives on as we drive our Saabs daily.
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