The Saab convertible story – A Swedish love affair with the sun

Santa Barbara, California – Since its early days as an auto manufacturer, Saab has been intrigued with the concept of a high-performance, all-weather convertible – despite the fact that Sweden extends well into the Arctic Circle, and its climate of cold, snow and ice make it seem an unlikely place for an open-topped car.

Saab’s first designer, Sixten Sason, penned a sketch of a convertible Saab 92 in 1950, although the concept never developed beyond the drawing board. However, Sason, his colleagues and successors always strived to combine dynamic, sporty styling with driving fun, and that original sketch was clearly a precursor to Saab’s future.

Only six years later, Saab built its first open-top car, the Sonett Super Sport, unveiled at the 1956 Stockholm Motor Show. Originally intended for track racing, the sleek, fiberglass-bodied, two-seat roadster was displayed at the 1956 New York Auto Show where Saab made its public debut as a new car brand in the United States. However, changes to competition rules put a sudden stop to production plans, and a total of only six Sonett Super Sports were ever built.

For the next 30 years, Saabs were almost all hardtop models, other than two prototype cars. The first was the Quantum, an American-built concept constructed from Saab components. Shown in the Saab stand at the 1962 New York Auto Show, the Quantum was a true open-top roadster, but testing revealed far too many shortcomings for production. The second was a targa-topped design study called the Catherina, designed by Sason and unveiled in 1965. Built in, and named for, the Swedish town of Katrineholm, the Catherina’s removable roof panel was innovative, developed years before Porsche introduced its own Targa models. Again, production was not approved, but the car’s design eventually led to the hardtop Saab Sonett II and III, two-seater sports cars sold from 1966 until 1974.

Fast forward to the mid 1980’s and Saab’s early engineers would certainly have been pleased to see their company’s achievement – not just as a pioneer in bringing open cars back to the market, but as a leader in the premium four-season, four-seat convertible segment. It just took the right timing and a bit of a push from the American market – specifically from Saab-Scania of America’s president, Robert Sinclair.

Birth of the Saab Convertible

After convertibles had disappeared from the American marketplace in the early ’80s, Sinclair realized there was a tremendous market niche waiting to be refilled. While the popular hatchback Saab 900 was not quite suitable for conversion, a limited run of two-door Saab 900 coupes with conventional trunks and steel roofs sparked Sinclair’s interest, but not initially.

“The two-door notchback was developed to help meet the needs of lower-discretionary income markets that needed a lower-priced basic model,” Sinclair said. “I told Saab Sweden that this does not fit in with our marketing direction in the U.S. We simply have no need for this car. We pass; we don’t want any.”

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Sinclair’s strategy was to move Saab upmarket in North America, adding luxury features and increased performance. By 1982, Sinclair’s tactics had helped yield incredible sales growth. For 60 straight months, a re-energized Saab set new sales records, reaching its highest point in 1986 with 47,414 cars sold in the U.S.

The proposed Saab 900 notchbacks were intended to be basic models, but product engineers tried to be flexible so the U.S. market would accept the new car. They told Sinclair that he could take the notchbacks with any specifications he wanted, and pressured him to take 1,000 cars each year.

Sinclair studied an image of the 900 notchback and, with some photographic touch-up paint, removed the roof.  “I said I would accept the cars if they were equipped with cast aluminum wheels, leather upholstery, central locking, fuel injection, five-speed gearbox – and convertible tops,” Sinclair told the Swedish engineers in a phone call.

“After stunned silence on the other end and a flurry of questions such as ‘are you mad?’ I continued: ‘You know, hydro-electric cabrio tops. This is an opening big enough to drive a Scania truck through. Everybody has stopped building convertibles because they assumed that the federal government will outlaw them through safety regulations. But the law had never passed, and conversion experts are converting all kinds of cars one at a time.’ ”

The following day, Saab president Sten Wennlo called back and said he had discussed the idea with his engineers who said they have no experience building convertibles; it’s impossible. Having anticipated this response, Sinclair offered to do the engineering and pre-production work in the U.S., funded through his company’s marketing budget. Providing a ridiculously low estimate of costs just to get immediate approval, Sinclair’s plan was rolling. American Sunroof Corp. was commissioned to create a prototype soft-top Saab 900 based on the coupe. The pearl-white convertible was shown at the 1983 Frankfurt Auto Show as a design study. Overwhelming media response and consumer interest left Saab with no choice but to gear up for production.

Initial production numbers for the new Swedish soft-tops were very conservative, still based on Sinclair’s original promise to buy 1,000 a year for three years. Other markets would take approximately 500 each year. Instead, incredible demand kept the Valmet assembly plant in Finland working at full capacity. The first Saab 900 Convertibles were a limited run of 400 16-valve Turbos, produced in the spring of 1986 exclusively for the U.S. market. The cars sold so quickly that most prospective buyers did not even realize that sales of the car had begun. The 1987 model was sold out long before its production had even started, and 1989 models were already being ordered in the autumn of 1986. Almost 49,000 first-generation Saab 900 Convertibles were sold between 1987 and 1993 – an average of 7,000 units a year, or 14 percent of all Saab 900 production.

Second-generation convertible

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A new generation of Saab 900 Convertible was introduced at the Detroit Auto Show in 1994, featuring a modern new design and turbocharged and naturally aspirated engines, including a new 2.5-liter V-6 rated at 170 hp. The first complete sales year for the second-generation Saab 900 Convertible resulted in a 95 percent sales increase, from 7,100 cars in 1994 to 13,800 in 1995. An upgrade of this model became the 9-3 Convertible in 1998, featuring hundreds of improvements, including a stiffer body and improved hydro-electric top. The second-generation 900/9-3 Convertible achieved total global sales of 140,500 units between 1994-2002, averaging more than 15,500 units a year and accounting for 24 percent of all 900/9-3 production.

Today’s third-generation convertible

The current third-generation Saab Convertible, launched in the fall of 2003, continues to combine driving enjoyment and sportiness with surprising practicality for year-round motoring pleasure. The back seat can accommodate two adults, the trunk features CargoSET to automatically provide additional storage space when the top is raised, and the hydraulically operated three-layer fabric top provides the weatherproofing needed for all-season comfort. Now fully automatic, the “one-touch” top raises or lowers in just 20 seconds.

Significant safety features abound on the new model, including front seat belts integrated into the seat frames, adaptive dual front airbags, two-stage side-impact airbags and Saab Active Head Restraints. An active protection system that combines pop-up rear roll bars, front seat belt pre-tensioning and substantial reinforcement of the A-pillars help provide integrated protection in the event of a rollover.

Built in a dedicated production facility at Magna Steyr, near Graz, Austria, the third-generation Saab drop-top has taken annual global sales to a record volume of almost 19,000 units, building on the success of its predecessors. In some European markets, the iconic Saab Convertible has achieved an annual share of the premium convertible segment as high as 30 percent, a remarkable penetration when compared to Saab’s overall six percent share of the premium car segment.

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Source: Saab press release with the introduction of the 2006 Saab 9-3 Aero Convertible “20 Years Edition”

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