Swedish Aircraft Company: From wings to wheels
Press Release USA 2007
Saab was established in 1937 as a manufacturer of military aircraft, a pedigree apparent in all Saab cars produced since the first aerodynamic Saab 92 prototype automobile was unveiled in 1947.
As the product of an aircraft company based in a large country that extends far into the Arctic Circle, Saabs were engineered with an unconventional design philosophy then and today. A distinctively streamlined body, strong performance combined with good fuel efficiency, plus an unusually robust body construction for excellent occupant safety were some of the initial design parameters that have endured to the latest Saab models.
Today, after production of more than 4 million cars and 4,000 aircraft, Saab is one name and two companies. The car business, Saab Automobile AB, is owned by General Motors, the world's largest automaker, and the Saab Group is a global leader in the application of advanced technologies, specializing in aerospace and defense systems with the Saab Gripen jet fighter as the proverbial tip of the corporate spear.
Saab automobiles are linked to a proud heritage of Swedish transportation leadership that reaches back more than a century. Today’s Saab automobiles also owe some of their technological roots to the Scania and Vabis companies, makers of wheeled vehicles ranging from trucks and buses to tanks and trains. Vabis was founded in 1891 and Scania in 1903. The two companies competed until 1911, when they merged. Saab merged with Scania-Vabis in 1969.
In the mid-1930s, Sweden realized that its Royal Swedish Air Force needed to be strengthened to help defend the nation’s neutrality from the imminent World War. In 1937, the Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget (Swedish Aircraft Company) was founded, abbreviated as SAAB and later Saab. Based in Trollhättan, the company manufactured hundreds of “anti-war” aircraft of several different designs.
By 1944, when peace descended on a war-weary Europe, Saab realized that it must diversify its manufacturing capacity. In addition to newly designated civil aviation projects, the company decided to draw upon its abilities in the field of precision design to build automobiles. In 1946, Saab aircraft engineer Gunnar Ljungström, designer Sixten Sason and a staff of 14 craftsmen hand-built prototype 92.001, also known as the UrSaab – a sleekly aerodynamic car that reflected its aircraft heritage; its unusual profile closely resembled the cross-section of an airplane wing.
The first four Saab prototype cars were unveiled to the world in 1947. Decades before the technology would come into vogue, Saab’s first automotive entries featured front-wheel-drive and transverse-mounted engines. Saab was one of the few cars of the 1940s to utilize wind tunnel testing, achieving an air resistance coefficient of only 0.30 Cd, a respectable figure even today.
One of the most influential aircraft on Saab’s automotive design was the unorthodox J21 fighter – surprisingly radical even today. According to legend, in the spring of 1941, a Saab designer did the sketches in a record 10 days. The war had just broken out and the Swedish air force was unable to acquire high-performance aircraft from abroad. The highly unusual J21 design, with its proposed twin-boom push-propellers and tricycle undercarriage, was initially met with skepticism. Because a pilot bailing out might get caught in the rear propellers, Saab invented one of the world’s first pilot ejection seats. Soon, the military gave the go-ahead for the aircraft, and the original propeller design was successfully converted to jet propulsion in 1947. The J21 fighter’s wraparound windshield, practical cockpit and philosophy of innovation and creative solutions influenced Saab automotive design and engineering for decades.
Production of the Saab 92 automobile started in December 1949. Available only in green for the first couple of years, the four-passenger 92 was powered by a two-cylinder, two-stroke engine with an output of 25 hp. In a remarkable victory for a brand-new marque, a Saab 92 driven by Rolf Mellde (Saab’s development manager) took first place in an important 500-mile cross-country Swedish rally in 1950. Greta Molander won the women’s class, also in a Saab 92. Subsequent rally triumphs over the next several decades – including a consistent string of victories by rally legend Erik Carlsson throughout Europe – firmly established Saab as a contender on the international rally circuit.
Saab’s first major evolution was the 1956 Saab 93, equipped with a 33-hp, three-cylinder, two-stroke engine. The new Saab made its U.S. debut at the New York Auto Show in 1956, alongside the Sonett “super sport” concept roadster. Ralph Millet, who was the American buying agent for Saab aircraft parts, was persuaded to expand his business to include importing Saab cars.
“On the first day of the New York Auto Show,” Millet said, “I was an expert on spare parts for aircraft. By the final day, I was in the car business with Saab.”
Millet founded Saab Motors, Inc., in 1956 in New York City. The company exploited the Saab 93’s front-wheel-drive, excellent handling on snow and ice, its powerful heating and robust construction to concentrate on sales in the U.S. Northeast. Great publicity and interest in the new Swedish import was generated when three Saabs entered and finished the three-day, 1,500-mile Great American Mountain Rally over snow-covered roads, with one Saab the overall winner.
Since those early days, well over a million Saabs have been sold in North America, with approximately 500,000 still on the road today. Saab’s 50-year anniversary in the United States was celebrated at the New York auto show in April 2006, coinciding with the American debut of the stunning Saab Aero X concept. Voted “Best in Show” by AutoWeek magazine at its world premiere in Geneva, this bold, expressive high-performance two-seat sports coupe is the most radical concept ever from Saab.
Topped with a glass canopy and powered by a 400-hp turbocharged, ethanol-fueled BioPower V-6, the Saab Aero X concept showcases two core brand elements: Saab's aviation heritage and its Scandinavian roots. Conceived as a study to explore future design directions, its innovative features preview the development of a new design language that will inspire future Saab products.
The year 2007 marks the 60-year anniversary of the unveiling of Saab’s first hand-built prototype to the automotive press in Linköping, Sweden. The unique two-cylinder, two-stroke Saab represented more than the birth of an automaker. Saab’s advanced and innovative engineering skills, enthusiasm and progressive management and manufacturing techniques would henceforth be constantly challenging the automotive mainstream.
Clean, Scandinavian design, fun-to-drive performance, world-class safety and a comfortable and functional cockpit are qualities that Saab drivers expect in their vehicles. Saab has delivered on those expectations now for 60 years, and will continue to provide customers with new products that are certain to keep the passion burning.