Lennart Lonnegren – Former Saab Public Relations Manager

Posted on 29. Oct, 2007 by in 2000-2009, Company, New Haven, Connecticut

Lennart Lonnegren, former Saab USA Public Relations Manager has kindly provided Saab History a nice narrative about his time working with Saab. Lennart Lonnegren worked as a newspaperman in both Sweden and the United States, before joining saab Motors as public relations manager in 1963. He remained in that position until his retirement in 1990, working at both 100 Waterfront Street, New Haven as well as Orange, Connnecticut locations. This biography was first presented as a speech at the New England Saab association Saab Gathering in 2004. The version you see below is an updated version, as of October 26th, 2007.

Enjoy his writeup below in his own words:

Since I left Saab, after almost 30 years, I have often thought of a couple of things that seem kind of particular to Saab people.

Such as the fact that Saab enthusiasts are pretty crazy, maybe even more crazy than other car enthusiasts, although it is really only a matter of degree.

But the thing that has really stuck with me more than anything else is the undying loyalty, in one way or another, that Saab people feel, and certainly express, for Saab. By Saab people I mean not just people like you, ardent enthusiasts and collectors. I am thinking of all people who at one time or another have been in touch with the Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget: car owners, car dealers, employees, just about everyone.

Yes, I am one of them, so let me begin by explaining who I am, and why I came to be here.

My very first exposure to something called Saab occurred as early as in 1947. Those of you have read the Saab books that we used to give out at meetings such as this – we tried very hard to sell them, but didn’t succeed very well – know that June 10, 1947, is a very important date in the history of Saab. On that date the first Saab car was shown publicly – actually at a pretty exclusive press conference and unveiling in Stockholm, Sweden.

I must have just received my Swedish driver’s license at that time, and since my father was a newspaper publisher in Stockholm and had been at the press showing, I took the opportunity to suggest that maybe that was the car that I should some time be given.

When you graduate we may consider it, was the answer. He knew, probably as well as I did, that that wasn’t likely to happen very soon, if ever. I was a pretty indifferent student, even in those days. And in any case, I would have had to wait almost four years, because that’s how long it took for Saab car production to actually begin.

By that time, 1951, I had spent two years in the US, some of the time working as a newspaper correspondent, and had just returned to Sweden….

And by that time I don’t think I was all that sure I wanted a Saab. I remember a tour that a few of us took through Europe back before I returned to America. We were four of us, reasonably well seated in a British Ford Consul, a car that had to really strain to reach 60 miles per hour on the German autobahns. The few Saabs we saw on autobahns and elsewhere, were easily passed, even by our anemic Consul. And four people in a Saab 92 was really a tight fit.

And don’t forget that if you wanted to get at your luggage in the trunk, you first had to get all people out of the car, and then fold down the backseat. There was no trunk lid on the early Saab 92s so the trunk could only be reached from the inside of the car. The solid rear end added a lot to the stability of the car, was how this little quirk was explained. But it didn’t take very long until even the stability argument wore thin, and they added a trunk lid – that you could open from the outside.

Another event that didn’t really enamor me to Saab was when I and my wife returned to Sweden for a visit about 1957, and borrowed a Saab 93 from a friend of mine. The first day we were there the car stalled in the middle of downtown Stockholm during rush hour and then was slightly dinged by another car; all that on the first day. Then a week or so later, it got backed into by a truck, when it was parked. Even if you couldn’t blame the car for those incidents, they really didn’t make you love it. I seriously thought Saabs were jinxed.

You will note that the problem of adding oil to the gas was not one of my problems at that time. Because in Sweden in those days they had special gas pumps with an oil and gas mixture – something we never had over here. As a matter of fact, one of my worst worries when I was hired by Saab, and was about to get my first company car, was how you handled mixing oil with the gas. I had never heard of Saab oil – which you could easily get in cans that fit directly underneath the front seats. The Saab oil business was a pretty profitable affair for Saab Motors in those days.

Another one of my early Saab encounters didn’t really detract from my Saab feelings, but it does illustrate where my automotive loyalties lay at that time.

In Connecticut at that time there used to be a long distance race, at Lime Rock, called Little LeMans. Since I was reporter at the Hartford Times, and also wrote for the Swedish Motor magazine I of course could also write about this race..The first time I couldn’t make the race in person but had to get my information second hand. Later I was there in person, but I have to admit that my interest then, both journalistically and personally, was only for the Volvos, which did win the race outright a couple of times, if I am not mistaken.

Saab always succeeded in winning something called the Index of Performance Trophy, but I stuck to covering the Volvos, and pretty much ignored that other Swedish entry. At the time I was also driving a Volvo 544. A few years, after I had started at Saab, I found some photos from Lime Rock, and there I was – blithely walking right past the Saab pits, on my way to the Volvo pits, no doubt.

All of this still doesn’t really explain why a very fine gentleman named Ralph Millet did something as dumb as hire me as Public relations manager for Saab Motors back in 1963. The fact that I spoke and wrote Swedish may have influenced his decision…and probably also helped me stay there as long as I did,. For about 27 years, until 1990 to be exact, when I got an offer I couldn’t afford to pass up – and accepted an early retirement package. But I still drive a Saab, and haven’t even done what I threatened some of you back then – buy a Lincoln Town Car. The only problem is that nowadays I have to buy my Saab, and the gas to run it too.

Ralph Millet and I remained good friends and met quite frequently, until his unfortunate death a few years ago. But he still sometimes had a hard time justifying ever hiring me.

But I sure appreciated it. It wasn’t only that I needed a better job when he hired me. I don’t think anyone can claim to have had more fun at his job for almost 30 years as I can. I have met a fantastic array of people, made a lot of friends, and have been able to travel to many strange parts of the world. I have even visited almost all of the major racing circuits in America. And meeting Saab owners have been one of the most interesting and gratifying experiences.

One interesting part of Saab’s many interesting and exciting promotion activities was motor sports. Of course, Saab had always done well in international rallies and was world renowned because of that. And you’ve probably heard many times before, that the great American Mountain Rally back in 1956 was an important factor in getting Saab started in this country. And then there was Little LeMans, and many other endurance races where Saab two strokes invariably took home the Index of Performance awards. And there was winter ice racing both in New England and in Pennsylvania . All that really happened before I came to the company.

My first competition experiences coincided with my first more or less official visit to Sweden , when I followed the Monte Carlo rally in 1965 from start to finish. No, Saab didn’t win that time, but hearing the loud two stroke sound between the alp walls was quite an experience. And then we got into Baja. That came into being because Erik Carlsson and I were touring the West Coast to introduce the Saab 99 and heard about it from a lot of sources. So we convinced managers that it would be something for Saab.

Rallying has never been all that big in this country, but I attended at least one Sports Car Club of America convention to pick up a national championship award, and we had Stig Blomqvist here at least once to run a few rallies. That was in connection with the annual Car and Driver challenge at Lime Rock, where he ran away from the field and also got Saab into something called Showroom stock.

A couple of showroom stock racers talked to me at Lime Rock and suggested that they would love to race a Saab. I convinced my bosses that although Saabs hadn’t been all that successful in racing, I knew that there was a lot of interest among Saab owners in racing….Just take a walk around the parking lot at Lime Rock or other tracks and count the Saabs. After a first year that wasn’t all that good, we did better two years in a row, with no less than three national championships in Showroom Stock. And then, as often happens with SCCA, they changed the rules, and we couldn’t do so well anymore.

A few years later, another racing opportunity came along. Skip Barber was organizing the dealer test drives of the Saab 9000, and in passing mentioned to me that he was planning an open-wheeled racing series with identical cars, to be rented by the drivers. Saab turbo power could be just the ticket for that. I convinced Bob Sinclair that here was a good idea and he went for it, and the rest is history. Until Saab quit providing engines and Skip turned to Dodge there were at least 12 races every year, all over the country, that Saab couldn’t avoid winning.

If I were to start talking more about all of my different experiences with Saab, you would probably be here until tomorrow, and you would realize that even if I spoke the truth I would be boasting a lot. So instead, let me just briefly mention two incidents, which both sort of illustrate my contention that Saab owners are a bit crazy:

One happened soon after I began at Saab. I had visited a dealer in Philadelphia , and was on my way home, when a Saab 93, on a major road, almost forced me to the side of the road. The driver had seen my manufacturers license plate and just had to show me his car… and didn’t care at all how much he blocked traffic to do it.

The point was that he was a salesman of house siding, and in his job he had to carry a ladder with him wherever he went. And he carried it inside his Saab 93. That’s what he wanted to show me…the ladder inside the car, filling the entire length of the car. There is no other car in the world that can accomplish this, he said – while I tried to quickly continue on my way before we were both arrested for blocking traffic.

Another event involved someone I met right in our office in Orange , Connecticut , where he had come to visit our product expert Bill Walters to talk about Sonett. This Sonett nut – yes, they are often the worst – was an academician. He called himself, I believe, a sexologist, and sexual behavior was what he studied. Whatever we told him about how the styling of the Sonett had been conceived or almost anything else about the car and its creation, he found something sexological in it. He just would not believe that car had been designed so that it would run – and maybe even so that it could be sold – without anyone thinking of sex.

He thought we were the crazy ones, and if I’m not mistaken he wrote something about sex and the Sonett that was at one time printed in a Sonett Club newsletter, where I think he even mentioned that the people who worked at Saab weren’t all that swift.

There have been many other instances, but frankly, I don’t think Saab enthusiasts and collectors are much wilder or crazier than others. As Bruce Turk may have found out in Greenwich , Connecticut – at a fancy concours d’elegance, where he showed his beautiful Sonett and I had the honor of being a judge – other car collectors just seem to be a lot richer.

What has really fascinated me, though for a long time has been the undying enthusiasm of all Saab people for the product, for the company that made them, for the dealers that sold them and for the technicians that fixed them – and it’s enthusiasm that won’t go away, however far removed from Saab you might become.

I don’t know how many times I have met people who told me that they remember that crazy little putt putt Saab they had when they went to college or just got married, and how they wish they had one again – and then drive away in their giant SUV. I bet if you were to ask them to list other cars they have owned, they will have forgotten most of them. But somehow they’ll never forget that little putt putt Saab.

I have a feeling that this affection for Saab comes about because of its very quirkiness, and the fact that in at least the early days the car was almost exclusively what most of us would probably call quirky dealers.

Many of them were simply back street garages, with technically interested owners – and often with dirt floors in both showroom and service area – and an apartment on the second floor for the owner.

Clyde Billing in Maine was at one time one of the top selling Saab dealers in the entire country. When you looked him up in the national dealer listing you could discover that in order to reach the dealership you had to ring a number in the little town where they were located, and then, it said in the listing, let it ring three times. That’s right, the biggest dealer for Saab in the entire United States , or at least in New England , was on a party line. And believe me Clyde and Harriet Billing did a lot for Saab from that little shop on the farm.

The car field is full of people who have moved their affiliations from one make of car to another, salesman go from dealer to dealer, factory employees find other, better paying jobs, owners upgrade to larger, different, or more expensive cars, and Saab itself even gets taken over by General Motors.

But once you have had something to do with Saab, in any form, it seems that that is something you just never forget. At one time I used to think that this continued love for Saab was something only kooks like I and others working for Saab Motors and its successors experienced, and that maybe it had to do with the people you worked with.

I do believe that more than any other factor it is the product – the Saab car – that creates this unbridled enthusiasm. A Saab is not a car like other cars, and it never has been – and I hope it never will be.

I know there are very active Volvo clubs, but I cannot imagine that they are the same. I have written some articles about Volvo, and even worked briefly with the Volvo PR people – but frankly, even now with the front-wheel-drive, I just don’t think that either Volvo people or Volvo cars have the kind of spirit that Saab cars and Saab people have – even when you had to replace your two stroke engine four times in the same car.

In Sweden at one time, quite a few years ago, they had an advertising campaign with the slogan:

The Saab Spirit – Some Have it.

You people here have it – and almost all of who have ever owned a Saab have it.
It is really great to meet so many kindred spirits

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2 Responses to “Lennart Lonnegren – Former Saab Public Relations Manager”

  1. saabyurk (Ted Y)

    30. Oct, 2007

    I love this kind of stuff from insiders that have been there from near the beginning. Great read.

    Reply to this comment
  2. FAW

    30. Oct, 2007

    Thanks for sharing this with us! Great read.

    Reply to this comment

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