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Pour some akvavit out for the departed Saab

ONCE upon a time, there was a faraway land called Sweden where a happy people frolicked to some pretty questionable 1970s pop music amongst the lingonberry bushes and akvavit springs and Wasa-bread fields and meatball trees.

ONCE upon a time, there was a faraway land called Sweden where a happy people frolicked to some pretty questionable 1970s pop music amongst the lingonberry bushes and akvavit springs and Wasa-bread fields and meatball trees.

They built bustling cities and sturdy skyscrapers using only curious L-shaped hexagonal tools and horribly complex pictographic instructions. They also built cars.

One factory churned out Volvos, sturdy little bricks as conservative as three-piece, button-down, long woollen underwear. The other factory built Saabs, and they were something . . . a bit special.

But one day, from far across the sea, the evil prince GM came and bought poor little Saab and promptly ran it into the ground faster than you could say "Saturn," or "Oldsmobile," or "Hummer." Or "Pontiac."

Now, were this really a fairy tale, soon some gallant knight would hove into view, his hat at a jaunty angle and his saddlebags fairly bursting with bailout kronor - er - euros. However, it's not, and so it is with doffed caps that we find ourselves at the graveside of yet another fallen automotive brand.

Saab is dead. Kaput. Finito. Run up the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invis-i-bule. And despite the various financiers insisting all through last year that the company was merely pinin' for the fjords, I think we can finally safely say that Saab wouldn't voom if you re-badged a million Chevy Volts through it.

And so, as the last new Saabs sit forlornly on some off-brand dealership lot, their windshields emblazoned with massive discounts, it's perhaps time to look back through Saab's history.

We start in the excellently named burgh of Trollhättan, a place I'd like to think has a bylaw against the keeping of billy goats. Here the first Saabs took to the air: fighter planes and bombers produced to protect Sweden's neutrality during the Second World War. Once the war was over, the question became, "What next?"

As you might expect, that fabled European post-war resourcefulness had the aeronautical engineers of Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget producing a prototype: the Ursaab ("Ur" for original), also known as Project 92. It was a breathtakingly swoopy car, with aerodynamic lines out of a '50s futuristic sketch. It also happened to be very similar to the already successful DKW (which would eventually become Audi) F9. Not surprising, as early Saab engineers bought one to see how to build a car.

So, underneath that gorgeous teardrop shape was a clattery two-stroke engine driving the front wheels and producing a very modest 18 horsepower. Later, when the car entered production as the 92, that power was bumped to 25 h.p. - hang on to your hat, Sven!

The success of the 92 might have you scratching your head a little, but think Vespa. These little cars weren't the everyday mainstream vanilla; they were curvaceous and unique. In 1955 the 93 took a bow with its three-cylinder, 33 h.p. engine, and the timing couldn't have been better. An upswell in importation made the little Saab a little dash of Euro-chic for your driveway.

The 96 was probably the definitive early Saab, built and sold in quantities that a surviving example might sit curbside today without inspiring a lot of double takes. An unlikely rally champ, the 96 was the last of the two-stroke Saabs, and eventually was fitted with a V-4 engine borrowed from Ford's European division. There's a very good reason that you rarely hear of a four-cylinder V-configuration engine: they're terrible.

However, that particular powerplant was a good fit for quirky Saab and crammed right in behind the front axle. The two-stroke genesis of these early Saabs gave rise to one of the company's signature build characteristics, with longitudinally-mounted engines in front-wheel-drive cars. You need only pop the hood on a '70s Saab to see how complicated this arrangement makes things.

For most people, the first recognizably Saab-shaped Saab was the 99, Trollhättan's Great One. Built to take on BMW and AlfaRomeo, the inverted-Nike-Swoosh silhouette of the 99 would be the shape of Saabs for decades to come. It also handled well, with good front-wheel-drive traction.

Due to the recent conversion from two-stroke power, Saab didn't have a four-stroke engine ready for production. They therefore had motors for the 99 shipped over from one of the great bywords for durability and reliable power: Triumph. This must be some sort of hilariously ironic Swedish joke that I don't understand.

Anyway, by the mid-'70s, Saab was firing on - mostly - all cylinders, with their own improved engines and the spacious Combi hatchback models. You would not credit how much junk you can cram in the back of an old Saab hatchback. Then came the era of turbocharging.

Here's where things start to get really exciting for the Saab enthusiast. Despite some motorsports successes, Saabs hadn't really been performance machines per se. Suddenly though, you have two-litre turbocharged Swedish rocketsleds putting out the same power as big-block American muscle cars.

Now before we get too flabbergasted, it's worth noting that we're talking about the emissions-era '70s here. Turbo 99s were only putting out about 145 h.p. But in a time when the V-8 had been nearly completely strangled, forced induction breathed new life into Saab and would be a characteristic of their sporting models all the way through to the last few being sold now.

The 900 replaced the 99, resetting that 92/93/96 clock with a larger, longer-nosed car that is perhaps best exemplified by the hourglass aerodynamic kit on the turbo models. Various versions of the 900 would carry through all the way to the early-'90s; the savvy buyer looking for a future classic would be well advised to start shopping here.

And really, here's where Saab's story ends. The 9000 is yet to be introduced, as is the 9-3, the glorious Viggen models, the firebreathing turbocharged V6 Aero, and my personal favourite, the rebadged-WRX 9-2x Aero. However, the rest of Saab's modern age is a downward curve of platform-sharing and struggling to stay unique, yet competitive.

And what of that famous "born from jets" advertising tagline? Well, like much of the Saab mystique, it's not really true. The engineers that designed that original Saab started from propeller aircraft, and while the Aeronautics branch of Saab would eventually develop jet aircraft, any commonality between the two companies was merely in the imagination of the marketing department.

Saab is gone, and has been going for a while. Still, when we trace the arc of its existence - born from necessity, buoyed by character, finally defeated by the more conventional competition - we see countless points of greatness.

Enthusiast owners will continue to restore and maintain the good Saabs (and some of the horrible ones). They'll gather at meets and put out newsletters and keep websites chronicling the history of the company.

Really, Saab as a brand isn't dead at all, you just can't buy a new one any more.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at mcaleeronwheels@gmail. com. Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.