Expo 31: Road to salvation - Issue 31 - Magazine | Monocle

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The most famous things in Trollhättan are the locks: the vast, creaking gates that turn the canal alongside the Göta river into a staircase for ships sailing between Gothenburg, Lake Vänern, Trollhättan’s north, and beyond. The most famous things from Trollhättan, for the time being at least, are the cars: the plush-but-practical, sober-but-somewhat-eccentric vehicles that the world knows as Saabs.

By great good fortune, Monocle’s foray to photograph the former turns into a memorable encounter with the latter. In the car park by the administrative offices that oversee the locks, a Swedish motoring magazine is shooting a feature on an indestructible titan of Swedish motorsport: veteran rally driver Per Eklund. Also present is a party of mechanics who have worked with Eklund over his three decades behind the wheel and, borrowed from Trollhättan’s Saab Museum, two examples of the car in which Eklund recorded one of his greatest triumphs: the lime green Saab 96 V4 he thrashed to victory in the Swedish Rally Championship of 1976.

While Eklund churns up the snow in one of the antique bangers for the benefit of the photographers, his compadres are caught between nostalgic delight and rueful reflection: they know they are watching a memorial service, of sorts. Saab’s owner of 20 years, troubled US manufacturer General Motors, announced in January it had agreed to sell the company to Dutch carmaker Spyker in a $400m (€290m) deal that came after a year-long search for someone to rescue the brand. Nobody, however, expects that things will ever be like they were, back when, by the sound of it, these men would have been happy to give their best years to their hometown company for nothing.

“We were first with so many inventions,” says Björn Berglöf, who spent 43 years at Saab before retiring in 2008. He points serially at illustrative components of a black 1987 Saab 900 parked beside us. “First heated seat, first rubber bumpers, first headlight wipers, first turbos fitted as standard.” “The spirit inside Saab was very good,” says Uno Dahl, another silver-haired retiree who spent most of his adult life at Saab. “And that’s why the cars are special. It was always about being clever, and maybe a little bit odd.” “And they were always,” grins the impish Eklund, joining us, “absolutely incredible in the snow.”

Although Spyker came to the rescue at the 11th hour, many fear that in today’s market such a small player will struggle to survive (Saab only sold around 94,000 cars in 2008).

It would seem logical to conclude that if Saab’s future is uncertain, so is Trollhättan’s. Some 3,500 of Trollhättan’s 55,000 people work for Saab, and many thousands more in the town and surrounding districts are indirectly dependent on the company. However, the man charged with steering Trollhättan through the ­upheaval, Gert-Inge Andersson, chairman of the City Executive Board – he’s the equivalent of a mayor – contemplates his town’s future with a noteworthy lack of apocalyptic hysterics.

“We want new factories to start in Trollhättan,” he says. “Thirty per cent of our workers are employed in manufacturing, as opposed to 15 per cent in the rest of Sweden. We will build our future on that.” Andersson, 60, who sports a red-rose lapel pin representing his party, the Social Democrats, has occupied his office since 1996. He sounds actually ­optimistic.

“I am,” he insists. “I still think Saabs are the best cars in the world. But GM did build a new paint factory, and a new metal pressing plant, and they’re all still here.” He observes, as do many other Trollhättanites, that the town has survived similar – if less severe – blows. Trollhättan used to build trains (Nohab, which closed in 1980, once took an order for 1,000 ­locomotives from a then-fledgling USSR) and industrial saws (Stridsberg & Björk dwindled to oblivion in the 1970s). Even Saab isn’t what it was – it employed more than 10,000 people as recently as the mid-1990s. But Saab matters, in a way few other brands would – Saab is, along with Volvo, Ikea and Abba, something everyone knows about Sweden. And it inspires fearsome loyalty: a “Save Saab” rally in Trollhättan before the buyout drew 2,000 Saabs and their owners, and was echoed by similar gatherings all over the world (saabsunited.com has photographic evidence from as far afield as France, Switzerland, the US, Taiwan, Russia and Bulgaria).

“My brain tells me to prepare for life without Saab,” says Joachim Lind. “My heart has a very hard time understanding that.” Lind, 36, is CEO of ANA Trollhättan, the town’s largest Saab dealership. He has worked for Saab since he was 21 – part of the last generation of Trollhättanites who looked at the company as a stable, agreeable job for life. “The guy I took over from here last year had been with Saab for 43 years,” says Lind. “And I wanted to run the dealership in Saab’s hometown. I was brought up here, and I care about the company.”

Bengt Dahl, who manages Saab’s photo studio in nearby Vänersborg, and who is a long-serving member of Saab’s travelling Performance Team of bright red stunt sedans, shows us what might be the Saab that never was – the beautiful new 9-5 saloon, yet to go into production, parked in the vast whited-out studio in which Saab shoots most of its advertising. “It’s the best Saab for 25 years,” he says. “It could be – or could have been – the car that saves the company.”

Dahl, 53, has been with Saab since 1984. Such service histories, anachronistic anomalies in a world in which few now expect jobs for life with one ­employer, are a constant refrain in Trollhättan. “I left school one day, started on the line at Saab the next,” says Paul ­Åkerlund, now chairman of the IF Metall trade union, which has 1,500 members at Saab. “That was 32 years ago.” Now 32 years later, Åkerlund reports that his comrades remain determined. “We’re still building cars,” he says. “Still doing our best. It’s pride.”

In Trollhättan, this latter quality seems almost as tangible as the cloudy white drifts piled along the roadsides (unusual, everyone tells us, the most snow for decades). It’s most obviously discernible when you ask people what they drive themselves, though they generally deliver the inevitable answer with a self-deprecating laugh at its predictability. “If you edit the local newspaper in Trollhättan,” laughs Allan Johansson of TTELA, who does exactly that, “you have to drive a Saab.” (A couple of people who furtively confess that they’ve traded in their Saabs for BMWs or Audis extract promises that they will not be associated with this heresy in print, and they’re only half-joking).

The people – which is to say, everyone – who insist that there can be more to Trollhättan than Saab point out that there already is. Beneath the ice on the footpath along Storgatan are stars enshrining the actors and directors who’ve made movies here – including Lena Olin, Lauren Bacall and Nicole Kidman. The epicentre of Trollhättan’s thriving film business is Film i Väst, a film fund owned by the regional government, established in 1997. Lukas Moodysson and Lars von Trier are only the best-known names to have worked with Film i Väst: “Trollywood” produces more than half of Sweden’s films, and many co-productions with other countries.

“If you ask young people in Stockholm about Trollhättan,” says Louise Martin, Film i Väst’s production and training co-ordinator, “they’ll say film, not Saab.” In one of the studio lots on Film i Väst’s ground floor, shooting is proceeding for Lapland Odyssey, a road-movie comedy by Finnish director Dome Karukoski. His extravagantly mustachioed Swedish producer, Martin Persson, lives in Lund but has spent a lot of time in Trollhättan. “Historically, Saab has been important,” he says. “But the worse it goes for old industry, the better for new industry, and this place could still be expanded on quite a bit.”

The area of Trollhättan in which Film i Väst is situated is itself testament to the town’s capacity for regeneration. Many of the older buildings along this stretch of the canal were originally built for Saab, and for Trollhättan’s other major employer, Volvo Aero – they moved to their ­present premises north of town when they outgrew the area. One of the warehouses it left behind is now occupied by Innovatum, a development centre which includes something called the Inkubator – an almost hilariously stereotypically Scandinavian enterprise in which various small creative businesses huddle in glass-fronted pods filled with pine furniture.

In one, Meindbender composes 3D graphics. In another, Dockhus does stop-motion animation. In another, a bunch of affably sarcastic computer games designers called Bearded Ladies show off their forthcoming PlayStation diversion Landit Bandit, in which a red-bearded yahoo, rather evocative of the trolls after which Trollhättan is named, pilots a pedal-powered helicopter.

“We used to work for Saab,” says Bearded Lady David Skarin. “We built their driver simulator.” “But we realised,” says his boss, Haraldur Thormundsson, “that relying on them wasn’t sensible. We met here in the Inkubator while we were working for other companies.”

Forty companies have been accepted into the Inkubator since it was launched in 2003, taking advantage of its access to contacts, funding, advice and cheap office space – Skr600 (€59) per month initially, rising to Skr3,500 (€345) after three years. In a still-to-be-renovated area of the compound, there’s room for about 25 to 30 more businesses. Presiding over this hive is chief inkubator Danne Palm, who has – as many people here seem to – lived in Trollhättan all his life. “The next few years might be tough,” he says. “But the city will change, and we will find other things to do. We already are, as you can see.”

For an overall view of Trollhättan, we visit someone with an overall view of Trollhättan. The windows of the locally famous Albert restaurant, nestled into the hillside overlooking the Göta river, take in the largely utilitarian downtown; the old water tower long since converted into apartments; the railway bridge (which will, in a few years, carry a new high-speed line linking Trollhättan to Gothenburg in 30 minutes or less); the gleaming new campus of University West – another possible engine of future development; and the river bridge featuring the glowering head of a mythical Viking-like river spirit called a strömkarlen.

“You’re right about what Saab meant,” says Rickard Halleröd, one of Albert’s three co-owners. “It’s that old Swedish industrial culture where you leave school, start at a company, and work there until you finish. And of course Saab was important to everyone – we used to do the catering for their exhibitions.” Optimism and denial are often closely related, but the pragmatic resolve that characterises Trollhättan feels far healthier. “No business lasts forever,” he shrugs. “And one day, Trollhättan will be well-known for something else.”

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