“Paranoid” is one of the kinder descriptions applied to General Motors by readers of one of Sweden’s daily newspapers reacting to the news that GM had blocked the proposed sale of the Swedish car maker Saab to two Chinese companies.
“Dictator” is another.
“Let’s hope the Chinese put a stop to everything GM is doing in China,” storms one correspondent.
“One thing is certain. No-one in my family will ever buy a GM car,” promises a third.
The people who actually work at Saab, the ones most directly affected by GM’s decision, are more measured in the response.
“We were surprised and disappointed of course,” says company spokeswoman, Gunilla Gustavs.
“It was not a very happy moment,” says union chief Håkan Skött, who represents 1400 blue collar workers on the site.
In limbo between Detroit and China
Saab is based in Trollhättan (pop: 55,000)in the west of Sweden, referred to by some as “Sweden’s Detroit.” The scale may be different but this is a town that’s been dominated by the auto industry for half a century.
“You learn to live with the uncertainty,” sighs Fredrik Willman.
Fredrik refuses the offer of a cup of coffee – “I’m about to have dinner”, says the 34-year-old welder. It’s three in the afternoon and the light is already beginning to fail. But he’s happy to sit and talk for a few minutes about what it’s like to be unemployed.
Willman works at Saab as a welder, although “works” doesn’t accurately describe his current activity. There’s been virtually no production at Saab since April, after suppliers, tired of not being paid, stopped supplying. Willman goes in one day a week. The rest of the time he’s at home.
“I do a little exercise, running in the forest” he says. “I do some cooking, and a little cleaning. It’s really boring not working.” Willman has been at Saab for 14 years.
Saab, which was cast off by GM in 2010, has spent much of this year looking for yet more new owners. They appeared to have found them last month, in the form of two Chinese companies, Youngman and Pang Da, who offered 100 million Euros ($137 million) and promises of further investment.
But GM’s objection, because it still owns intellectual property in Saab, has once again cast uncertainty over the future.
“GM would not be able to support a change in the ownership of Saab which could negatively impact GM’s existing relationships in China or otherwise adversely affect GM’s interests worldwide,” said Jim Cain, GM spokesman in Detroit earlier this week. China recently overtook the United States as GM’s largest market.
For people of a certain generation in Trollhättan it was almost self-evident that they would work for Saab. “At the beginning of the eighties, boys would leave school, go and do their military service, and then turn up at the front gate at Saab and say, ok, I’m ready to work now,” explains Maria Carlsson, the priest at the 1960s-built church in the centre of town.
But the workforce is now only about 30 per cent of what it was then, and there are those who believe that the Chinese deal can offer a temporary stay of execution at best. 500 jobs will go in any case. For economic historian Jan Jörnmark it makes no sense for the Chinese to continue to build cars in Trollhättan.
“If this deal goes through, will it change anything?” he asks. “Why should it? Why wouldn’t these Chinese companies produce in China? Why would they continue to have this plant in Trollhättan.”
A Swedish pin-up
For the pre-IKEA generation Saab was the epitome of Swedish style. Where that other Swedish car maker Volvo offered reliability, Saab offered the possibility of adventure, the freedom that comes with being young and beautiful, a sense of romance. No coincidence that they chose the young and glamorous tennis star Björn Borg and alpine skier Ingemar Stenmark as their public face. Swedes were proud that Borg and Stenmark were Swedes and they were proud that Saab was Swedish.
The first Saab rolled off the production line in 1947. The prototype, in black, with its trademark rounded roof and hood, a little like a seashell, is Exhibit Number One at the Saab car museum a little to the south of the town centre. It was here, back in the day, that Trollhättan turned out water turbines, diesel engines and locomotives from plants powered by Sweden’s first ever hydroelectric power station.
But that’s all history. Heavy industry died in the late 1980s and today the site is occupied by among other things an increasingly successful and Oscar-winning film industry, known, of course, as “Trollywood”.
This year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film went to the Danish-Swedish thriller, In A Better World, produced here.
Life beyond the automobile
The very fact that Trollhättan has been through the deindustrialisation process before gives people in the town hope today.
“This is not a crisis, it’s a change,” insists the municipality’s chief executive Annika Wennerblom.
She believes that whether Saab is saved or not, Trollhättan will survive. She points to the current upgrading of the main highway, and to the new highspeed railway line.
In 2009 when GM first said it was closing Saab, the municipality realised it needed to be doing more to attract new businesses and set up an organisation for that purpose.
Only this month the initiative paid off. A new company is due to come to town that will convert Subaru cars to run on biogas, along with 50 new jobs.
“Trollhättan is a pioneer when it comes to biogas,” smiles Wennerblom. “We started producing it from garbage in the 1990s. In fact we were the first town in Sweden to run all our buses on biogas.”