The functional benefits of aerodynamics are never in question, but historically, aerodynamic efficiency as a sales tool tends to fall flat as often as it hits. Chrysler learned this the hard way with the Airflow. Introduced for 1934, the Airflow was arguably the first mainstream American car design to take wind resistance into account. This ability to cheat the wind rewarded them with a drastic drop in sales and cars glued to showroom floors.
You might find it hard to believe if you weren’t around in the eighties, but Ford’s forays into aerodynamic car design met with a surprising amount of resistance. A big chunk of the buying public initially thought the 1983 Thunderbird and the 1986 Taurus looked like “giant jellybean cars” until the market slowly caught on and eventually took off in a very big way, leaving GM and Chrysler looking literally like old squares.
Even bicycles manufacturers tried the “aero” marketing angle. The Huffy Aerowind featured a flattened frame plus streamlined brake components and pedals. Streamlining tiny parts of the bike like that has to be good for…well, absolutely nothing, but it looked cool! Isn’t that the guy on Brawny paper towels? That open jacket has to be bad for aerodynamics, by the way. Crank up the yacht rock and enjoy the commercial:
Few of us are aerodynamics experts, and many times we’re dead wrong with our assumptions. As a kid I had no idea that cars like the Countach and Porsche 928 generated drag coefficient numbers that were nowhere near the industry best (and, in the Porsche’s case, was possibly more aerodynamic going backwards). It’s not like these sports cars were billboards or a cabover Isuzu trucks in terms of aerodynamics, but there were many far more upright looking machines (like an Eagle Medallion) which were far better (a claimed 0.38 for the Porsche with lights down versus a claimed 0.31 for the big Renault/Eagle sedan).
The only thing I, a non-expert, can honestly say about cars I’ve seen that I know are truly proven to cheat the wind and boast ultra-low drag coefficient numbers is that they’re typically rather teardrop shaped and kind of odd looking. A company that wants to successfully build and sell such aero cars needs to embrace the weird, and most companies don’t.
Saab was one of them that did.
Saab (an acronym for “Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget” ) actually started in 1937 with the specific intent of building planes for the Swedish Air Force. With a weakening fighter aircraft market after World War II, an automobile design initiative called “Project 92” was launched, ultimately resulting in Saab’s first car, the model 92 (all of which were painted green with surplus wartime production paint).
The slick-shaped 92 had a still-pretty-good-for-today drag coefficient of 0.30 and was obviously a product of aerospace engineers, beginning a tradition of cars that continued through the 93 and 96 models into the more-conventional-but-still-unconventional 99, 900, and 9-3 hatchback models.
Saab was purchased entirely by General Motors in 2000, marking the beginning of the end for the brand as GM tried to transition them it to a profitable, high volume division of their faceless company. A sale of Saab to Spyker in 2010 resulted in bankruptcy not even two years later, and a subsequent relaunch by National Electric Vehicle Sweden didn’t make it past 2014 (with no newly designed cars being introduced by any of these later owners). Today, the name is still revered by fans of the brand and former owners, commonly intellectuals and enthusiasts. In an article from The Guardian, writer John Crace described owners as ‘Snaabs”, often “creative advertising executives with large spectacles” (yes, that is The Bishop’s look and professional title, and I did in fact own a silver 2000 9-3). Even if many Saab owners could afford more expensive cars, they didn’t want something that mainstream and showy; with the death of the brand these buyers were reluctantly assimilated into more ubiquitous choices like BMW 5 series (me again).
You’ll see Saab revival concepts online, and even a decade ago there were attempts at new Saabs, but they all seemed to miss the boat with the real essence of the brand. Many sketches I see look like modern crossovers with a 2010-era grille stuck on front, which couldn’t be further from Saab’s original mission statement. Even associates at the brand itself near the end didn’t seem to recognize what Saab meant. Here is a concept called the PhoeniX from 2011.
The video below is an exchange from 2011 between the lead designer of the then-dying Saab brand and BMW’s design head infamous Chris Bangle; Bangle is looking at this concept and asks the designer “Why is it a Saab?” Chris is not buying the answer; whether you like the concept or not, I don’t see how you can possibly justify it to a core Saab person.
You see, a typical “Snaab” would sooner buy a Trans Am than something with extroverted looking wings and fins like that. I can’t fault the guy for trying to bring in new buyers at the eleventh hour, but that likely wouldn’t have worked and would have certainly alienated any true Saab buyers, who had consistently been some of the most loyal customers of any brand. Talk about losing your way.
I’ve received requests for a Saab redux that I’ve been ignoring since I don’t really “do” present day cars, but I think it’s time to bite the bullet and take a look at such a proposal. Seeing college-age enthusiasts like our own Rob Spiteri show interest in the brand gives me hope that it could have had a future.
When Saabs were still true to their roots (and not rebadged Chevy Trailblazers and Pontiac G6s) they were all about aerodynamics; the “born from jets” tagline was not a joke. Pure, simple forms with the only adornments (like the rubber tail spoiler) were totally functional pieces. Sure, they were fun to drive rally-capable cars, and very safe, but the aero is what made a Saab a Saab, and if it looked a bit strange to you than that was your problem to deal with. The only real reason to bring back the Saab name would be to make the most aerodynamic car on the market, so we might as well do a Google search of “lowest-drag-car” to see what that shape might even look like today.
Surprisingly, the current title holder of “most aero” is also from a northern European company, and one that appears to be as dead as Saab, at least for now. The Lightyear 0 was designed to be a “solar electric” car, but as you might expect the solar panels just add a little more range to this EV in ideal summer conditions and hardly replace the need for charging stations. The shape, however, reportedly boasts a GM EV1-record-breaking 0.175 drag coefficient.
It’s pretty obvious that the Lightyear was shaped in the wind tunnel, and then black solar panels were added to any horizontal surface. Graphically the car is rather uninteresting, and somehow just doesn’t look like the over-$200,000 machine that it was; combined with the rather weak “solar” proposition it sort of explain why they found so few takers and the company is no longer producing cars. Lightyear claims it’s developing a sub-40,000 euro (~$42,000) car now. Additionally, it would still be a car with no name recognition or prestige factor.
What if it were a Saab? Could Lightyear (or another one of the startups that appear seemingly every other Tuesday) get the rights to the great Swedish nameplate and revive the brand? Look, I cringe at the whole “revival” thing as much as anyone, but if it really stayed true to the core seventy-year-old values of Saab and not the mess that they were by the end of aughts I’d by down with the idea. Honestly, the core values that Saab brought to the table are sorely needed right now: cutting edge ergonomics and solid performance encased in rational, functional styling. If the Lightyear really was unmatched in terms of aerodynamics, it would be an ideal starting point for our new Saab.
The transition from Lightyear 0 to a now-EV 900-style four door hatchback Saab doesn’t take much. Besides signature three spoke wheels, the greenhouse shape will be tweaked and a simpler tail with 900 style taillamps installed.
A pop-up whale tail and fender skirts could be offered as options for maximum efficiency. Door cuts go all the way to the bottom of the car, just as on the original 900 to keep the rocker panels and your pant legs clean in winter. It’s extremely unstylish, completely rational and sort of the polar opposite of the things many carmakers are doing today that will appear laughably dated in five years. Saabs always looked somewhat out of place no matter where they were and what year it was, which had the positive effect of allowing them to transcend time and status. The fact that the shape of the most aerodynamic car in the world can quickly be made instantly recognizable as a Saab from two hundred feet away on a raining night is a sign that we might be on the right path with this ultimate-aero direction.
Up front, there’s a stylized Saab nose with fake grilles added (probably smoother than I’ve shown for maximum aero), plus you’re notice the cut line for the “frunk” lid is similar to the old 900 and allows for a large opening (BUT I don’t know if I’d have it tip forward like on the original 99/900).
Now, for the sedan I was using the original 900 as an inspiration, but what about a non-hatchback coupe that uses the look of the 93/96 for the tail shape? Again, detailing off of the 1949 car fits an ultra-aerodynamic modern shape almost eerily well. Part of me really likes it while another part finds it disturbing; does that mean it’s a proper Saab?
Interiors of Saabs always had some quirkiness, and ohhh boy will this new one be quirky. The Lightyear has a Tesla-like slab-o-dash with a screen stuck in the middle of it, and our Saab will have none of that. No, the original Saab company still makes airplanes, so you can be damn sure we’re going to have fighter craft-style wraparound driving “center” with a driver-centered screen not unlike on a Viggen jet.
We’ll copy the multi-level presentation of controls from the jet. Old Saabs famously had the ignition key mounted on the center console, and ours will have a captive key there as well, surrounded by a circle that you turn for “gear selection”. Saabs had a “night panel” function that killed all displays in the car at night except for the speedometer, and ours will have the same feature which lowers the center screen for few distractions after dark. Surfaces adjacent to the touch screen that act as “track pads”, a bridge between touch screens and “iDrive” type controllers.
Note the three-dimensional seat “voodoo” doll for intuitive control; memory and heat/cooling controls for the seat sit on the adjacent surface. The armrest slides forward to prevent inadvertent activation when it isn’t being used.
Our Saab will feature the LCD sun visors built right into the glass that I mentioned in an earlier post, which means that there is plenty of room for more overhead switches in the place where old mechanical sun visors used to reside. Like many traditional Saab features, at first they’ll be as foreign to you as the symbols on The Predator’s watch, but after a few hours you’ll wonder why all cars don’t do this.
I don’t see a manufacturer ever getting this thing to that 40,000 Euro price Lightyear was talking about, but that’s beside the point. Saabs were never cheap cars, and the buyers typically had means. If we use the profile of a Saab buyer from forty years ago, that same person today would be cross shopping the Tesla Model S and other cars well above the six-figure mark. Just ditching the Lightyear’s solar panels would likely knock a bunch off of the price.
A big silver teardrop is too weird for you? That’s the point. Saab was never meant to be a high-volume, appeal-to-everyone type of brand, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have existed or couldn’t have succeeded. Back in the day, guys in turtlenecks that played Steely Dan “The Royal Scam” on their Bang & Olufsen stereos as they sat in an Eames chair reading Noam Chomsky knew that intelligent people needed intelligent cars, and that mean they’d need to make an unconventional choice. Can’t we offer the modern equivalent of that buyer today a similar option? There’s still a Volvo dealership down the street for “normal” people.