Robert Sinclair seems as enthusiastic in retirement as he was during his automotive career.
The retired chairman of Saab Cars USA Inc. now keeps busy as a consultant and member of several boards of directors. He is a former amateur car and powerboat racer, and he has continued his flair for fun. He still plays with his toys, which include 15 motorcycles and a slew of vintage cars.
He started in the industry in 1955 as a salesman at a dealership. After working for two other European import dealerships, he joined what was then Saab Motors Inc. in New York as a field sales representative. Sinclair handled the northeastern United States, except for New England, and as far west as the Mississippi River.
Sinclair, the father of six, moved up the ladder to public relations manager, advertising manager and sales manager before leaving in 1962 to join Volvo as advertising manager. Volvo promoted him to president of its Western distribution arm in 1967 and to vice president of marketing in 1978.
He rejoined Saab in 1979 as president of Saab-Scania of America Inc. The place was a shambles. It was losing money. The brand had no image, and dealer relations were lousy.
With Sinclair at the helm, Saab turned around.
He said one of his biggest accomplishments was persuading Saab management in Sweden in 1982 to produce a turbocharged convertible.
'I told Saab's board of directors we had a clear divergence of goals - that they'd rather sell a Scan-dinavian VW Beetle and I'd rather sell a five-passenger Porsche,' he recalled. 'Their eyes lit up and we started adding turbocharging and performance.'
The car, which debuted at the Frankfurt auto show in 1986, changed Saab's global image from an econobox maker to a performance-vehicle manufacturer.
Sinclair talked with Staff Reporter Jean Halliday about the early days of European imports. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
How did you get started in the industry?
We had two young children at the time, and I was trying to earn a living selling hospital equipment for a local distributor in Philadelphia. I was traveling around the eastern United States in a Volkswagen Beetle, dreaming and planning full-time what I'd do on the weekends because I was competing in road races and going to professional road races and automobile shows.
One day, my wife said to me tearfully, 'I was going over our calendar for the next six months, and we have no open weekends. You're spending all your time and all our money on automobiles. If you love it so much, why don't you get a job in the automobile business?' So, the next day I got on the phone and made a few phone calls, and I got hired as a salesman for a VW dealer in suburban Philadelphia.
What was the most difficult task in your early years at Saab?
Saab was incorporated in the U.S. in December 1956 and I joined the company 15 months later. They were learning how to be a car company, and I was learning how to be a sales rep.
There were dozens of (import) makes then, but Volkswagen, even though it was considered avant garde, was the import industry. I'd pull into a dealership with a front-wheel-drive Saab with suicide doors and a two-cycle engine, and people thought it came from Mars. The dealers had never seen anything like that. It was a real trailblazing activity.
How did you pick dealers and points when you started in field sales at Saab?
Generally, Saab ran ads in the trade books and the auto enthusiast books. Everybody else was out there trying to sign franchised dealers. Dealers were contacting the company for the most part. So I would take off with a big stack of telegrams, letters and notes from phone calls, and I'd lay out a territory on the map and call on those people. It really was reactive more than proactive.
Dealers came and went like fruit flies in those days. It really was whoever was interested in becoming involved in your business - car repair shops and motorcycle dealers. No thought went into it at all. The importers that were really entrenched, like Volkswagen and to a lesser extent Renault, were fairly businesslike. Today, it's very sophisticated. We never heard of terms like market penetration or areas of responsibility.
How did the experiences for Japanese and European importers differ?
The Japanese arrived a lot earlier than people generally think. I knew a Chevy dealer in 1959 with Datsuns on his lot, but I don't think he sold the six of them for a couple years. The cars were pretty miserable.
The Europeans had explosive growth from about 1959 through 1961. And a lot of import companies went out of business at that time, too.
The compacts started getting bigger and lost what they started out being - fuel-efficient, economy cars. The domestics started to build muscle cars because there was more money in them. That left an opening for the imports. By the late 1960s, Toyota and Datsun had gone back to the drawing boards and upgraded their models. So the Japanese really came on strong when the business started to grow again.
What role did advertising play?
There wasn't a whole lot of advertising. At Saab, we advertised entirely in print - black and white ads in national magazines and very infrequently. VW had a superb ad campaign. Advertising was part of (the overall picture), but a much bigger part of it was motorsports (for European cars) and word of mouth and the fact that those cars were different.
What advice would you give to an importer wanting to come to the U.S. today?
Have lots of money in the bank. It's really tough to start from scratch now because all the markets are covered. Everyone has a dealer organization, and there are safety and emissions laws to deal with. It would be a mind-boggling task, just an awesome task.