Originally known as Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget (Svenska Aircraft Company), Saab is a Swedish company that began manufacturing automobiles in 1949. The company's early designs placed an emphasis on aerodynamics that is reflective of its history as an aircraft manufacturer.
The first production Saab, the 92, boasted a lower coefficient of drag than many modern cars. The 93, unveiled in 1955, was powered by a three-cylinder, 33-horsepower engine, and featured the distinctive fastback profile that made early Saabs among the most recognizable cars on the road. By the time the '50s drew to a close, Saab's lineup had grown to include the 95 wagon (capable of seating up to seven) and the 93 750 Gran Turismo, the automaker's first series-built sports car.
The marque started the '60s with the introduction of its successful Saab 96. With a production run of 20 years, this was the car that made Saab a recognized presence in the international market. The decade also saw the launch of the Saab Sport coupe. Scoring numerous wins on the rally circuit, the coupe marked Saab as a force to be reckoned with. The Sport's success on the track inspired a name change; it later came to be known as the Saab Monte Carlo 850. The Saab Sonett II sports car, with its body of fiberglass-reinforced plastic, also made its debut during the '60s, as did the Saab 99, which was the first Saab to feature the manufacturer's trademark wraparound windshield.
In 1973, Saab gave birth to the 99 Combi Coupe. The car came to define the Saab brand; with its hatchback and fold-down rear seat it offered remarkable utility. By the end of the decade, Saab had rolled out the 99 Turbo, which was a forerunner in harnessing turbo technology for use in production cars. The company also introduced the Saab 900, which held the distinction of being the first car to offer a cabin air filter.
During the 1980s, Saab cars (especially the Turbo models) gained American popularity as young urban professionals (yuppies) sought them out. The decade saw the launch of the 900 Turbo, the 900 Turbo Aero (the world's first car to offer a 16-valve turbo engine), the 900 convertible and the Saab 9000, a larger four-door car available in hatchback, and later on, sedan body styles.
In 1990, General Motors bought half of Saab's automotive division. The decade saw the launch of a revamped 900; the car offered a bevy of cutting-edge safety features, including three rear three-point seatbelts and rear side-impact protection. By the time the '90s drew to a close, Saab had also unveiled the 9-5, a larger, premium four-door sedan that essentially replaced the 9000. The 9-5 offered a host of new technologies such as ventilated seats. It was also the first to offer Saab's active head restraints, a system designed to prevent whiplash injuries.
By the 2000s, General Motors had bought the other half of Saab Automobile. Despite the brand's position on the leading edge of safety technology, Saab's popularity in the U.S. and around the world waned as its product portfolio grew increasingly stale and reliant on GM for parts, platforms and design. New models like the 9-2X and the 9-7X were based on platforms borrowed from other brands -- Subaru and Chevrolet, respectively. Meanwhile, the 9-5 soldiered on and the second-generation 9-3 ditched its quirky hatchback body style in favor of a mainstream sedan design. The hope was to make the 9-3 more appealing to American car buyers, but ultimately it only served to remove the car's unique personality.
In the midst of General Motors' financial difficulties and eventual bankruptcy, Saab was viewed as a disposable, troubled asset and essentially cast away. With the financial assistance of a European bank and the Swedish government, Swedish supercar maker Koenigsegg intended to purchase Saab with the promise of restructuring the brand and keeping production within Sweden. That deal fell through when Koenigsegg changed its mind about becoming involved with such a troubled company. Another niche-market supercar company, Spyker Cars, pursued the purchase of Saab. But that venture eventually failed as well and ultimately, at the end of 2011, Saab went into "wind-down" mode, filing for bankruptcy. In other words, Saab's future is still very much in limbo.