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As Saab owners rally, GM's shutdown threat remains

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  January 5, 2010 11:20 PM

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(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Seeing Saab tortured to near-death, revived, and then threatened again in the past five weeks has been a fitting cap to one of the worst years the automotive industry has ever seen. General Motors' latest Jan. 7 deadline to either sell or disband Saab even has Volvo fanatics -- watching a pending sale to Chinese automaker Geely -- chilled quiet.

On Tuesday, about 50 Saab owners and their cars marched to GM's Detroit headquarters at the call of Ryan Emge, a certified Saab historian and founder of Saabhistory.com and the New England Saab Association.

"It is critical that we had this event at the right time," Emge said to the Globe. "To drive long distance like this, at a moment's notice, is outstanding."

Emge, a Massachusetts native living in Portland, Maine with his wife and 240,000-mile Saab 9000, has staked his life in the company, working full-time since 2007 for his Saab fan site, perhaps the most detailed account of the brand there is. But unlike most amateur enthusiast websites, Emge's Saabhistory.com makes money, or at least it did until 75 percent of his advertisers -- primarily Saab dealers and parts suppliers -- pulled out for 2010. That alone, he said, was enough to stir the site's readership to a Detroit rally.

Despite "mixed messages" from GM, Emge said "it's important not to be divisive" when dealing with a business conflict that leaves thousands of jobs on the line.

"Their situation is ridiculously dire," he said.

Whether the crowd waving "Save Saab" signs permeated GM's board rooms remains to be seen, but the event's coverage in newspapers and auto enthusiast blogs certainly made up for the small attendance, despite those who traveled from Massachusetts and Virginia.

GM's on-again, off-again drama has fueled the Saab community's passion to rallies, petitions to state senators, and good ol' anti-GM blogs like iwontbuyfromgm.com. A European convoy of Saab enthusiasts plan to amass at the company's Swedish headquarters later this month, but it could come too late. The underlying threat to shutter Saab remains.

GM-Saab-rally-protest02.jpg

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

On Dec. 1, one week after a failed sale to the exotic Swedish automaker Koenigsegg, GM said it had "expressions of interest" from other unnamed parties, which turned out to be another exotic car company, Dutch-based (and Russian-funded) Spyker Cars. In the middle of negotiations, GM sold ownership of Saab tooling and powertrain technology (on the 9-5 and certain 9-3 models) to Beijing Automotive. Then came Dec. 18, and the deal was off yet again, along with the doomsday message that Saab would face an "orderly wind-down."

For the 218 Saab dealers in the US -- 81 of which had been threatened to close before the proposed Koenigsegg deal went flat -- it was more confusing. Months earlier, Saab had been labeled a "non-core brand" along with Pontiac, Saturn, and Hummer, an intent to clear GM's US inventory. Through December 2009, US dealers had 1,235 vehicles, a 73 percent reduction since May.

Yet even with discounts of up to $8,000 per car, some local dealers have survived the commotion.

Ray Ciccolo, president and owner of the Village Automotive Group, a network of dealers in the Greater Boston area that includes two Saab dealerships, said "we're having phenomenal weeks."

Ciccolo attributes the activity to "two very different kinds of customers: one group has an emotional attachment to the Saab brand, the other is responding to the discounts. A lot of people are discovering that suddenly they can afford a Saab."

GM-Saab-rally-protest03.jpg

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Dan Delaney, of Pinckney, Mich., puts a sign on his 9-3.

On Dec. 30, GM said it would begin producing the 2010 9-5, the first makeover of Saab's flagship in 10 years, in January, but would not say for how long.

On Thursday, we may finally know Saab's fate. Or not.

Globe staff D.C. Denison contributed to this report.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
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AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
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