Saab fans hope for turbocharged saviour
AMSTERDAM/STOCKHOLM, April 29
AMSTERDAM/STOCKHOLM, April 29 (Reuters) - For an enthusiast like Karl Ask, you can never have enough Saabs.
The 23-year-old Swede has 11 already -- including a Saab 93 and Saab 95, featuring the two-stroke engines -- and has his eye on the Saab 92, an earlier and rarer model.
But with Saab's financial woes once again threatening its future, fans of the brand wonder whether even the newer models could become collectors' pieces sooner rather than later.
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Saab's production plant in Trollhattan, southwest Sweden, ground to a standstill earlier this month when suppliers stopped delivering parts because they said they had not been paid.
For years, Saab was one of the crown jewels in the business empire of Sweden's Wallenberg family.
But it has struggled financially, failing to make money for the past two decades, and faltered under General Motors (GM.N) which sold out last year to Dutch firm Spyker Cars SPYKR.AS.
Annual sales peaked at 131,000 in 2006, slumping to a meagre 31,700 cars last year -- less than a tenth of long-time rival Volvo's annual sales of 380,000.
Spyker, with a market cap of $110 million and shareholders including Abu Dhabi's Mubadala Development Co., now wants to bring back a Russian businessman, Vladimir Antonov, as an investor. It is also talking to potential partners and funding sources in China, which rescued long-time rival Volvo.
Saab is still one of Sweden's best-known brands. It has a devoted following among fans who enthuse at length about the cars' eccentricities and early innovations, from pioneering turbocharging to ignition placement and heated seats.
"Some people think they are a bit boring, but I think Saabs are special. When you drive a 95, people stare at you and give you the thumbs up," said Ask, head of Sweden's Saab fan club which has a membership of about 2,500.
"It's a quirky little car, an acquired taste," said Nic Schellekens, of the Netherlands Saab fan club.
"It used to be your local solicitor, doctor, or notary public who drove a Saab, but that has changed and now the people in the club are from all walks of life."
Like the Mini, the Beetle, and the Citroen DS, the early Saab models have a distinctive silhouette, with aerodynamic contours thanks to Saab's origins in the aerospace industry.
Then there's the ignition system. Saab put it near the gearstick, rather than the steering wheel, as a safety feature, so that the key doesn't plunge into the driver's kneecap in a car crash.
Others go for the turbocharger -- a compressor powered by a turbine which is driven by the engine's exhaust gases -- which gives a significant boost to the engine's horsepower.
"It's the performance and its powerful engine," said Mikael Ryking, 40, a manager at a mobile operator in Sweden who has owned four Saabs over the years.
"You don't really see it on the outside. It's easy to tune it up and turn it into a monster. My car that I have now is equal to a BMW M5 so it's like you can take an ordinary Saab, modify it and you get something like a real top of the line BMW at half the price," he added.
Or, as Top Gear presenter and motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson put it when he wrote about the Saab 9-3 estate a few years ago, "It's a special forces sniper. Quiet. Unassuming. And invisible. Until you pull the trigger."
That rectified earlier mistakes in the Saab design, in Clarkson's view.
"In the eighties, for instance, your Saab would get from 40 to 70 faster than a Ferrari Testarossa, but so bad was the torque steer when that mountain of torque hit the front wheels, you had no real say where you'd be when 70 was achieved," he wrote.
"Now you can put your foot down wherever and whenever the mood takes you, and whoomph, everyone within range will be left wondering why the car they never noticed in the first place has just disappeared." (Editing by Erica Billingham)