Saab takes one step forward, two steps back

Douglas A. Bolduc is managing editor at Automotive News Europe.Douglas A. Bolduc is managing editor at Automotive News Europe.
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Just after the last Geneva auto show I was talking with a Saab executive who was nothing short of bubbly. He was so excited because he said the majority of the talk about the Swedish automaker at the show centered on future products, future partners and future profits.

This was a big change from Geneva 2010, when the chatter centered on whether new owner Spyker and the Dutch supercar maker’s dynamic boss, Victor Muller, could make Saab a winner after many rough years as a misunderstood foster child in General Motors’ large house of brands.

The good times at Saab did not last long – and it could be a while before they return.

Less than a month after the feel-good conversation, Saab stopped production at its Trollhatten plant as suppliers refused to deliver parts because of mounting unpaid bills. The assembly line remains dormant.

Having survived near-death experiences in 2009 and 2010, Saab has an uncanny ability to bounce back. Since its money woes became public, Saab has been promised financial help from China’s Hawtai Motor Group Co., a little-known automaker that specializes in SUVs, and Russian investor Vladimir Antonov – who was kicked out of Spyker’s deal to purchase Saab from GM in early 2010 after reports of him having involvement with organized crime and money laundering. Antonov has denied the allegations and has said he has cleared his name.

Hawtai and Antonov are ready to hand over millions to get a piece of Saab.

Saab needs approval from the Swedish debt office and the European Investment Bank for any change in ownership due to an outstanding loan.

Even if Saab cuts through the bureaucratic red tape, one has to wonder if all these powerful shareholders will be able to get along. Saab also will have to invest a lot of time to rebuild trust with suppliers and dealers.

The bottom line is that without a substantial and speedy cash injection, a humming plant, and lots of happy retailers and partsmakers, we may be talking about Saab in the past tense at Geneva 2012.

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