How Saab came to America: The ultimate insider’s story

Ralph Millet and a Saab93B

Ralph Millet and a Saab93B

That Saab—automobiles, no less—would come to America could hardly have been considered by the Swedish Parliament which, viewing the darkening political situation in Europe, passed a resolution to strengthen national defense, including formation of the Royal Swedish Air Force. And too, encouraging the establishment of a modern aircraft industry in Sweden as soon a possible. With that encouragement, a group of investors founded Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget (Swedish Airplane Incorporated). Thus began SAAB, maker of military aircraft.

But in 1945, military and civilian aircraft production did not appear to be sufficient for the young company’s survival. SAAB management, however, saw an opening in the automotive market with a substitute for the DKW. The German two-stroke twin had been popular in Sweden before the war. Production of the Saab 92 began in December 1949.

A year before that, a young American by the name of Ralph Millet went to work for SAAB in its Manhattan purchasing office, hired to buy parts for aircraft production. “But shortly thereafter they asked me to go over to Sweden and help them buy machinery for this new plant they were setting up to build automobiles,” Millet recalled in a 1995 interview.

A stay of about three months in Trollhattan was followed by a trip around the United States buying surplus machine tools. “We also bought a couple of big new Clearing presses, which I thought were tremendously big. I saw about five or six years ago they’re still operating. But, they’re tiny next to the modern presses.”

Anyway, in 1952 Saab closed the office in which Millet had worked, and Millet turned down an offer to represent Saab at $500 per month to join with a friend to form Independent Aeronautical, an exporter of aircraft equipment. He still did some buying for Saab, however, and in 1955 Millet received a letter from Tryggve Holm, president of Saab, who planned to visit the United States to shop for an automatic pilot for Saab aircraft. Would Ralph please make the arrangements with Bendix, Honeywell,  Sperry and so on? Millet agreed.

Millet remembered Holm as “a very tall, domineering, formal person. When he walked into a room he was one of the people that you knew that someone was there that was important. I used to get scared to death every time I saw him,” Millet recalled, smiling.

The pair was in Minneapolis visiting Honeywell when Holm, seeing Volkswagens on the road, said to Millet, “If they get that Volkswagen over here—that car—we ought to be able to sell the Saab 93. We got a new car now, Ralph. It’s a great car. It’s got a three-cylinder engine.” Millets voice added the emphasis, making it clear that Holm was quite proud of this great advance. The 92, after all, had only two cylinders. Holm obviously had overlooked the sixes and V8s in America.

Despite his awe for Holm, Millet deemed it necessary to dash the Swede’s misguided enthusiasm.
“I said, ‘Tryggve, you’re never going to sell a two-cycle car in the United States. That’s ridiculous. (Owners) have to mix their own gas.’” Unlike Sweden, the U.S. didn’t have mixing pumps for oil and gas, something Holm did not know.

“And he said, ‘Oh well,’” Millet’s voice reflecting Holm’s mild disappointment.

Millet didn’t hear anything more about it for the rest of Holm’s trip. “He was going to take a plane back to Sweden. I was going to drive him back to the airport. I went over to the Plaza Hotel where he always stayed and we had lunch together, and at lunch he said, ‘Find out when the next automobile show is in New York. I’m going to send you some cars and we’re going to put them in that show and we’ll see if we can sell those damn cars.’”

1959 Saab 93B

1959 Saab 93B

That, said Millet, would be what would pass for market research at Saab.

Millet arranged for space at the New York auto show in the spring of 1956. Five or six cars were sent over, plus the first Sonett.

At the show, the cars attracted attention, but the surprise for Millet was Louis Strauss, an Erie, Pennsylvania, dealer who “sold MG and Triumph and practically everything in the book back in those days—except Volkswagen. He came up to me and said, ‘I want to buy three of these cars.’”

“I was absolutely flabbergasted,” Millet said, smiling. “I don’t think we even had a price at that time—how much we were going to sell them for. So I stalled him. And he came back the next day and said, ‘I want three of those cars.’”