We are in the late 1970s. The Swedish manufacturer SAAB is benefiting from a bad image, of a manufacturer that sells solid sedans. SAAB 96, manufactured for 20 years, needs to be replaced. A very serious investment for a small Swedish manufacturer.
6:00 in the afternoon
The Wallenberg family, owners of SAAB, will get close to the Agnelli family, owners of FIAT. Together, they will conclude an agreement to dominate the European market. But nothing will go as planned.
Eighteen years is a long time. Especially when talking about model work. And even at SAAB, the Swedish manufacturer known for building timeless cars, it’s a lot.
At the beginning of 1978, the medium-sized Saab 96 had already been on sale for 18 years. At SAAB, we are well aware of the urgency to change this model, but the funds are lacking.
Developing a completely new model involves a very, very heavy investment for SAAB. The idea is to offer a completely new model, which would fill the gap between the SAAB 99 and 900.
A family story
The lack of funds to develop a new model led the Wallenberg family, owners of the Swedish car manufacturer, to look for a technical and economic partner.
In southern Europe, in Italy, another great family, Agnelli, has been the head of the great FIAT for several generations.
Between the two families, harmony is natural. Being part of the richest family in Europe, you know each other.
For the Agnellis and Wallenbergs, Europe is just a small playground. The parents spend the winter in Gstaad, the summer in Milan, while the children study in London and party in Paris.
In 1978, the two families quickly reached an agreement and signed a protocol. First, SAAB will distribute the Autobianchi A112 in its network.
It is enough to increase the production of the small Italian, while allowing the SAAB network in Northern Europe to have a small city car.
This win-win exchange continues with the second part, “The Fourth Kind”. An agreement between SAAB, FIAT, Lancia and Alfa-Romeo that will give birth to a common platform for the future SAAB 9000, FIAT Croma, Lancia Thema and Alfa Romeo. And for the SAAB 96 replacement? FIAT and SAAB have a solution!
In order to quickly take over the field, without investment in research and development, SAAB will use this beautiful old way of reconditioned car.
We take the Lancia Delta, built in Italy, in the Chivasso factory, we put the SAAB logo on it and we sell it in the Nordic countries, especially Sweden and Norway, to dealers of the Swedish brand.
To confuse potential customers, the car was given the name “SAAB Lancia 600”.
The only cosmetic difference from the SAAB-Lancia 600 is found at the rear of the car. The aluminum strip disappears from the tailgate, replaced by black or body color.
We replace the Lancia logo with the text SAAB-Lancia and you are done. According to local laws, the SAAB-Lancia 600 is equipped with headlight wipers.
For the Agnelli and Wallenberg families, this partnership is just the prelude to a much more ambitious project: the takeover of SAAB by the FIAT group within a few years.
At the same time, we launch the sale of this SAAB-Lancia which is neither SAAB nor Lancia.
From the beginning, SAAB had to be diplomatic with a network of dealers reluctant to sell restored Italian cars.
No one is fooled by agents, dealers and customers who understood that these Deltas were not SAABs. In the first year, demand is much lower than expected.
We reduce the range, remove the high-end version that is highly affected by local taxes, but nothing helps.
After one year of marketing, another evil will come from within. The SAAB 600 will prove to be no match for the Scandinavian road network.
Italy’s anti-rust protection can create illusions in southern Europe. But it is completely different in Northern Europe where the roads are sprinkled with salt in abundance for a good part of the year. As a result, the first SAAB-Lancias sold a few months earlier were already worryingly rusting.
The damage is done, nobody wants this car anymore. Under an agreement between the two manufacturers, SAAB continued to supply the Lancia 600 until 1986. The last of the 6,419 units produced was produced in early 1987.
This defeat will dampen the enthusiasm of the Italians. In 1989, when the Wallemberg family wanted to sell 50% of SAAB’s capital, it turned to its Italian partner.
But in Turin the water has flowed under the bridges. FIAT has only taken over Alfa Romeo and Maserati and can no longer afford another brand.
The cultural differences between Italians and Swedes are equal in conversation. Finally it is General Motors who will acquire the Swedish brand. For the results we know.