OBITUARY: Ralph Millet, who brought Saab to U.S., dies
"He was always very gentlemanly, which was why everyone supported him for the Automobile Importers of America presidency," said Graham Whitehead,a longtime friend.
"He appeared non-controversial, but believe me, he had rather a firm hand," he said. Whitehead is the retired president of Jaguar Cars Inc.
Millet, 85, died Dec. 20. He ran the company that is now Saab Cars USA Inc., from its inception in 1959 to 1971. He continued as a consultant for another three decades.
Millet also was president of the Automobile Importers of America and its successor, the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, from 1965 to 1977. He remained the group's chairman until 1987, said Washington attorney David Busby.
Busby said that in 1975, Millet's lobbying organization beat back what Busby called an attempt to limit automobile imports in a case before the U.S. International Trade Commission. It was sponsored by Ford Motor Co. and the UAW. Millet also testified several times before Congress on federal legislation affecting the auto industry.
Started as aircraft expert
Millet started his career as an aircraft expert, not a "car guy" - but then, Saab is actually an acronym for Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, or Swedish Aircraft Co. Saab turned to building cars, only after the bottom fell out of the military aircraft business, after World War II.
Bob Sinclair, who led Saab-Scania of America from 1979 to 1991, said that Millet and Saab got to know each other through the company Millet started after World War II: Independent Aeronautical Inc. of New York. The firm procured aircraft parts for airplane manufacturers. Sinclair said that in the mid-1950s, Saab's president in Sweden, Tryggve Holm, approached Millet with the idea of offering Saab cars in the United States and told Millet to reserve space at the 1956 New York auto show.
Odd and noisy
The public reaction to the cars was positive, and Millet switched industries to head America's newest imported car company.
The first Saabs were powered by a two-cycle engine, which required the addition of oil to the gasoline every time the fuel tank was filled, recalled Len Lonnegren, a retired Saab spokesman who is now a free-lance journalist. The two-stroke also meant that Saabs could be heard from a mile away. Saabs were also unorthodox at the time because they were front-wheel drive.
Millet was born in Boston on Aug. 21, 1917. He was educated at the Boston Latin School and received a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1940. It was just in time to join the U.S. Army Air Corps, where Millet reached the rank of lieutenant colonel, Lonnegren said.
Millet lived in Old Saybrook, Conn. Lonnegren said that in addition to Millet's wife, Gunlog, Millet is survived by four children: Francis Millet, Charles Millet, Stella Bearse, and Kristine Millet.
You can reach Jim Henry at email@example.com.