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Here’s What It Was Like to Sell Saabs During the Final Days

Once upon a time, there was a manufacturer known as Saab. A few of you may have heard the lore: a quirky, front-wheel drive, often turbocharged mode of transportation, made in a place called Sweden with its ignition in the center console. Well, I’m here to tell you that they were real! If you look carefully, you may even still see them roaming the streets. And behind the wheel will be someone who defines “brand loyalty.” It’s true — when you look up “loyal to a fault” in the dictionary, it just shows the picture of a Saab owner.

While I may not own one at the moment, I am one of many Saab fans that still smile every time we see them. Fortunately, I get to see them very regularly. That is partially because I live in Vermont, which is like a breeding ground for Saab and Subaru models. The other part of it is that I work at a dealership that was once a Saab dealer. I started there as a salesperson six and a half years ago, which means that I was there for the end of Saab as we know it.

First, though, how about a little background. Saab was established in 1945 when SAAB, the aerospace company, decided to build cars. Over the next 40 years, Saab would make FWD popular, and would be a key player in mass-market turbocharging. They would also give Volvo a run for their money in the pursuit of the world’s safest cars. In 1990, General Motors acquired 50 percent of the company and purchased the remainder in 2000 to gain full ownership of the company.

As with many brands with fierce followings, the older generation and purists of the brand put blinders on for anything made after about 1992, when the supposed “GM-ification” of Saab began. To be fair, it is true that this partnership did garner a couple of shamelessly badge-engineered cars like the Saab 9-7X that was based on the Chevrolet Trailblazer and the Saab 9-2X, which was based on the Subaru Impreza. However, their main cars, the 9-3 and the 9-5, did a better job of hiding their General Motors underpinnings with much more Saab like design and safety. While this was a distinctly Saab thing to do (take a humble starting point and engineer it into something almost unrecognizable), it may also have been their undoing. It cost a lot of money to make cars the Saab way — and the company was rarely profitable.

As a result, in 2008 when General Motors received an enormous bailout and was forced to restructure, some things had to change to make way for trucks and full-size SUVs that, with the drop in fuel prices, would print money for them. GM eventually finished development of two important Saab models, the replacement for the 9-5 and what was to be the all-new 9-4X crossover, releasing them for the 2010 and the 2011 model year. It wasn’t long, though, before they realized that it wasn’t going to be able to keep Saab afloat — and GM started looking for a buyer. First with Dutch automaker Spyker, and then with a Chinese investment group. Sadly, since the Saab products included many technologies owned and licensed by GM, and they didn’t want those technologies going to China, the sale was blocked.

Unable to keep it going, this forced Saab into bankruptcy and all assets from the factory to the cars produced and already shipped (but not yet delivered to dealers) were frozen pending the proceedings.

Now, let’s head back to Vermont and fast forward to July 2012, when I started my new job. We had several still-new 2011 Saab cars in stock — a couple of 9-5 models and a few 9-3s. At this point, they were available at a pretty steep discount (around $10,000 off). Interest in the cars had waned and they weren’t easy to sell, except to fellow Saab enthusiasts. By September, we had only sold a couple of them, but that was about it and we assumed that we would need to lose even more money on the remaining cars and that would be the end of new Saabs — since no more cars were being produced.

Then, the announcement was made that the cars that had been built and shipped to the U.S. would be made available to Saab dealers across the country! There were several hundred cars left, so, our owner made a few phone calls to secure some extra capital and bought three truckloads of them. A couple weeks later, 27 still-brand-new 2011 Saab cars arrived for us to sell! We got to work quickly, but, since the cars had been sitting for more than a year, some things had to be taken care of first. Most of them needed new batteries, and a few needed new tires as the flat spots that had been created were too deep to recover from. Amazingly, that was about it!

Obviously, buying a car from a brand that doesn’t exist anymore presents a bit of a risk. Thankfully, Ally created a warranty program that could be purchased for all of the cars that mimicked the original 4-year/50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty. This, coupled with the fact that parts production and distribution had been sold off separately as part of the bankruptcy, eased the fear of some.

You would assume that it would take a long time to sell that many cars from a dead brand — but, amazingly, you’d be wrong. Every one of them was gone by Christmas. There are a few reasons for this. One, like I said at the beginning, Vermonters like their Saabs. Two, the warranty helped a lot. And three, the cars were sold at huge discounts — many of them to the tune of 40-50 percent of the original MSRP. The 2011 9-3 models were selling in the low-$20,000 range, and the 9-5s were priced from $30,000 to $32,000, including the Ally warranty.

Generally, the cars went to people that, sad for the death of Saab, felt a certain desire to hang onto the last threads and own one of the last pieces of the brand’s history. There were also some that just liked where Saab was heading and would’ve bought a new 9-5 anyway. Also, because they were nearly the same price point, we even converted a few people who were “meh” on the Mazda3 of the time and came back from their 9-3 test drives with big grins.

In the end, they were all sold pretty quickly — and thankfully, since we are still a Saab service center, the cars still come by once in a while. The new 9-5s weren’t without their quirks, but they did hold up reasonably well — and in the year or two after this period, we had many great Saab trades: desirable late model, low-mileage cars, and because of the history and the pricing on those last cars, they were a lot of car for the money.

Sadly though, today, the market is all but gone. We have no pre-owned Saabs in stock and haven’t in over a year. The desirable cars are still with their owners, and will likely stay there until the car or the owner passes. The rest are at the end of their lives and reaching the point where getting them back on the road is cost prohibitive. But, for a brief time, the glory of Saab returned — and it will remain a highlight of my sales career forever. I enjoy the fact that I’m a member of the elite group of people that sold some of the rarest mainstream cars of the modern era.

RIP Saab.

By day, Bill Leedy spends his time selling Mazda’s folks throughout Vermont and the Adirondacks. By night, he attempts to fight crime and write things about cars (he does one of those things better than the other). He can also be found on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram under the name Green Mountain Car Guy.

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