We hope we're wrong but Saab now seems doomed
After two weeks off on 'staycation', I returned, refreshed, on Monday to see what had happened during an absence in which news had not been a priority beyond my usual Sky News headlines for the UK and NBC's Nightly News to keep up with the US. Opel sale rumours, uh-huh, next Nissan Qashqai for Sunderland, great, Saab stopped, uh-oh, here we go again....
We've been following the sad Swedish saga for months now (all items to date should be in here; j-a business editor Simon Warburton, who has done almost all of our Saab reporting, gives his view here) and I have been thinking this week how, more and more, the unfolding events remind me of the final days of MG Rover, which ended abruptly late one evening in April 2005. Details differ but there are a few parallels. (i) Be owned for a while by a big automaker who unsuccessfully attempts to make a go of you. (ii) After release from Big Corporate ownership, head off on your own, trying to compete with the big-pocketed rivals who make cars in millions compared with your thousands. (iii) Attempt to boost cashflow by flogging off land and buildings and lease back. (iv) Desperately court potential Chinese investors for large cash injection(s) before the men in suits from the big accounting firm are finally sent in by the creditors.
And so it goes. BMW tried but failed to make a go if its English Patient, overseeing the launch of a decent flagship (the Rover 75) but eventually abandoning ship, keeping the Mini for itself. You know the rest of that story. Meanwhile, MGR soldiered on under the Phonenix Four's new stewardship, too poor to spend the billions needed to update its product lines, desperately rebadging a lousy Tata model as an entry level car and trying to get two major Chinese automakers to either invest big or take over. The End gave staff another five years of employment, not to be sneezed at, but, when it came, was inevitable. The Chinese then swooped on the bones and former MGR production lines are now cranking out updated cars and engines in China, the MG brand is making a cautious comeback in the west and most of MGR's once-sprawling Longbridge site is fast becoming technology park offices, a university campus and homes.
Does a similar fate await Saab and Trollhattan? I fear so. Russian and Chinese investment appears to have been only tentative to date and I suspect the Chinese are far more interested in getting their mitts on up to date western auto technology and production know-how than actual bricks and mortar. I reckon they'll wait for suppliers and/or employees to tip the proud old Swedish automaker, born out of an aerospace company, belly-up and then take what they can back to China in tangible or intangible form. Trollhattan lines to a new city in China? Why not? Nanjing did just that with MGR's car and engine/transmission lines (and designs), amazing UK engineers with their ability to 'lift 'n shift' whole lines without any sort of instruction manuals or help from the defunct company.
Alternatively, a new Chinese (or Russian) owner could do a Geely/Volvo type deal and buy the whole Swedish company, keeping what exists in the west, as Volvo is doing, while eyeing the east for future expansion and new plants. But why would you do that with Saab when bankruptcy seems nigh and some useful assets appear ripe for the plucking without accompanying baggage?
In other news, we learned lots more about Mitsubishi and Nissan's new Japan-centric minicar venture, saw Renault partner again with Better Place on EV infrastructure, this time in Australia, Hyundai deny interest in Opel, Ford announced plans for Lincoln, Mini's bustle-back hatchback 'coupe' broke cover, and we discovered why the Geely/Volvo chief is buying up lithium reserves. Oh, and it looks like Nissan Europe is going to outsell Toyota.
We're past the summer equinox and our days are drawing in already with sunrise a whole minute later today (4.46am is ridiculous anyway) and, finally, after a gloomy June, we are promised a properly hot weekend. I've got BBQ in mind. Hope your two days off are good, too.
Graeme Roberts - Deputy Editor - just-auto.com