Saab Designer Profile – Tony Catignani

Posted on 22. Oct, 2007 by in 2000-2009, 9-5, Designers

Photo Credits: Saab Automobile

Tony Catignani, lead designer for the Saab project 640, commonly known as Saab 9-5 we all know today, has just provided Saab History his autobiography as well as a nice writeup describing his experience while working at Saab Automobile.

The Saab 9-5 that he designed, was first decided on in February of 1993 and took 3 years to complete a working model which shortly thereafter was transformed into a production model and debuted in 1997 as a 1998 model year.

A huge appreciation goes to Tony Catignani for spending the time to contact Saab History to provide this information, we all appreciate it very much.

Here is his autobiography and account of his time while working with Saab Automobile in his own words:

tony_catignani.jpgIt was 1965. I was 17 and entered the Ealing school of Art, London on a one year pre-dip course prior to 3 year graphics.

I knew somehow this was the right direction for me and felt the great excitement of starting a new adventure. There were no digital tools then, everything was analogue.

Still, that never hindered creative minds. Joining the art school coincided with a time of great optimism and social change, when the Psychedelic imagery and free expression started to evolve.

I met many new and interesting characters. Although my focus was on design, music was a great influence.

There was a “melting pot” of developing artists, designers and musicians in the school.

Some of those I knew went on to become well known musical artists like Freddy (Mercury) Bulsara. Others like Alan Lee a well known illustrator.

When I left Ealing, somehow I lost track of many of those inspiring people. It might, have had something to do with a new relationship.

I worked in small design and publicity houses around London from 1970-74 apart from a few months in Italy in 1970. At this time I felt uninspired and looked for change. My father suggested I try and work in the car industry. I took this direction and after a few interviews I was accepted at the Royal College of Art in London, sponsored by the Ford Motor Co. in a two year course in Automotive design.

I was now heading into, what appears to most people as the “glamorous World” of car design. Well, it’s not quite like that.

From 1976-83 I joined the Ford Motor Company in which time I had gained a wife, son and become a family man. I spent 1980-82 in Cologne, Germany. My project work being the Probe One and Sierra Wagon.

In 1984 it seemed that I was on a “Life switch”. Change of company, house and started living alone.

Starting up as a design consultant and mainly working with Saab Automobile of Sweden, but based in UK. As an exterior designer with growing responsibility, I traveled more and more to Sweden.

Tony Catignani M.Des.RCA

This continued up to 1991 when General Motors bought 50% of Saab. This was for me a signal for change again. I took a chance joining Saab in Sweden and by 1995 was the exterior design manager responsible for the Saab 95 and following 93. It was enjoyable working in the design studio with a great team during the 90’s, but by 2000 Saab had become completely assimilated in General Motors. The “fun factor and creativity” was being squeezed out of working in Saab, especially design. Quick Process and profit were the priorities above brand character, identity and uniqueness.

It was getting tougher, but the challenge to create something good was still in my blood.

It was now 2000 and the other Swedish car maker Volvo approached me to work with them.

I accepted, and concluded that Saab “was a cool company” but sadly the parent company was gradually strangling it.

Volvo is bigger than Saab and in turn more complex. Still, there was that relaxed but positive working attitude which is, very Scandinavian. Again there was the parent company owning 100% of Volvo. In this case the Ford Motor Co. I would describe this as “matrix management”. This complex multi-layered system still managed to produce some successful products, but the job could have been done in half the time and money!

I had the title of “Large Car Platform Chief designer” What a mouthful when introducing yourself to someone. I had a strong creative team of designers who did a great job during my time responsible for the S80 and V70.

When my father died in 2002 I made the decision to return to the UK in support of my Mother. During 2004-6 I worked as visiting tutor at the Umeå Design Institute, Sweden.

Totally new ground for me but rewarding.

Nothing ever stands still and circumstances change.

As of September 2007, I became Programme Leader at Umeå Design Institute.

Over all this time I have maintained design integrity and added the years of experience to it.

Saab Experience

The 95 project was my first complete exterior design. It started for real in 1993 and came about after a number of “management strategy changes” and a series of reviews. I was beginning to wonder if it would ever happen. This was a time when digital design and modeling were hardly used so I relied on the skills of some great clay modellers. My goal was to try and regain some of Saab’s heritage which I believed had been lost with the 9000 range. For me, the car that epitomised Saab was the 99 turbo. With three significant features, it’s clam hood, wrap around window and hockey stick side window line. This thinking went into my sketches and scale model.

I was always trying to get product planning and engineering to understand the significance of having bigger wheels and the right stance to make a car have the right attitude. I guess most designers have this battle, even today.

As in any design process, it doesn’t always run smoothly, but we all had the same goal. In 1997 the 95 was launched. I thought that the marketing of the 95 was understated. We could have had a more dynamic approach. Less conservative. By 1997 there had been changes to the Saab board, marketing, engineering and the influences of General Motors. The design studio was seen as just a “cog in the wheel” and not central to the company goal.

By now I had become exterior design chief reporting to Einar Hareide, the design director. The 93 project started around 1997. We, Design wanted to keep the design features and functional value of Saab’s past, but we had opposition. Engineering didn’t want to do the clam hood and marketing thought all customers would want a seden. In the end management and the board sided with them and design had to go along with it. I saw the big picture, but it was hard to convincing others, especially the “bean counters” the way to go.

They only see tomorrow and the future potential.

Einar Hareide left in 1999 and was replaced by Michael Mauer in 2000. At least the 93 wagon/estate came along. On the drawing board was a 4×4 version which was cool! A great pity that it did not go into production. It would have out sold the other models.

During Michael Mauer’s short period with Saab there was some hope of creating new and exciting cars, but sadly even he had limited opportunities under GM’s global processing machine. Sadly in 2000, my time with Saab had come to an end. A great Brand was in danger of becoming just “badge engineering”.

Most of the design team had started to work in GM, Germany.

But, in 2007 they finally got it right and put clam hood on the 93.

– Tony Catignani, 2007

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 Responses to “Saab Designer Profile – Tony Catignani”

  1. Ted Y

    23. Oct, 2007

    Thanks Ryan and Tony! I just read this and posted a comment on trollhattansaab that this is a “must read” for 9-5 people, or Saab people in general. When I think of Saab nowadays, all that comes to mind is Frida Öhrn’s vocal “Release Me”. Sad.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Ted Y

    23. Oct, 2007

    Forgot to ask: That 5th picture of the prototype on the table looks like it could have easily been made into a hatchback. Wonder if that was ever on the table but killed by bean counters?

    Reply to this comment
  3. Danni

    23. Oct, 2007

    Thanks – a good read and now at least I know who designed my MY01 9-5 Aero – just like in the scale model! I am privileged. Tony – the bigger part of your scale model is being driven and cared for in Namibia, Africa. So much is the global presence of something that started in the design studio.

    Reply to this comment
  4. peter

    23. Oct, 2007


    just worth saying that there was a dichotomy of ideas on the hatch v saloon front. In Europe small hatches outsell saloons (sedans) – the opposite is true in other markets.

    Larger cars, say, Volvo/BMW/MB products didn’t offer a hatch and sold well as saloons.

    As Europe favoured the hatch – US favoured the saloon, the Saab position was similar to the VW Jetta v Rabbit story – the Jetta is very rare in Europe and has been variously known as the Jetta, Atlantic, Fox, Vento, Bora, or Sagitar in different markets.

    Many more Saab saloons (sedans) were sold in US than in Europe. Saab became the market leader for premium hatches in Europe. The European market pointed in a different direction because the Volvo/BMW/MB/etc saloons took about 80% of the premium segment. Saab had a succesful niche product with the premium hatch ?

    Saloons were also a big seller in the Far East – opening the boot (trunk) keeps the interior cool, whereas opening a hatch allows the cold air to escape.

    So, Saab tried to sell saloons (sedans in Europe) to penetrate the other 80% of the premium market. When competing with the hatch version the 99, classic 900 and 9000 sedans all failed to sell well. Competing against Volvo/BMW/MB this could have been FWD v RWD. (Volvo was then RWD).

    After the GM merger, there was pressure suggesting that the saloon/sedan market was the place to be. Saab managed to compromise (hoping to keep old customers) with the wagons, which have sold well.

    Funny old world ?


    Reply to this comment
  5. john

    23. Oct, 2007

    That is a thoroughly interesting read from Tony. Thanks to Tony for writing it and to Ryan for publishing it. Some quality Saab history there.

    Reply to this comment

Leave a Reply

Production Concept