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Tiny Spyker snaps up GM's Saab for $400 million


The SAAB logo is seen at Patrick Saab in Schaumburg, Illinois, November 24, 2009. REUTERS/John Gress
The SAAB logo is seen at Patrick Saab in Schaumburg, Illinois, November 24, 2009. REUTERS/John Gress

By Johan Ahlander and David Bailey

STOCKHOLM/DETROIT (Reuters) - Tiny Dutch auto group Spyker <SPYKR.AS> clinched a last-minute deal on Tuesday to buy Sweden's Saab from General Motors Co in an audacious attempt to turn around a money-losing brand that only days ago was headed for oblivion.

Spyker, a company that was liquidated in the 1920s only to be reborn as a high-end sports car maker in 2000, said it would pay GM <GM.UL> $74 million in cash and $326 million in deferred shares for Saab.

GM -- which had paid $600 million in 1989 dollars for just the first half of its purchase of Saab -- said it expects the sale to close in mid-February and suspended its actions to wind down Saab pending completion of the sale to Spyker.

The sale of Saab would be a victory for GM after struggles to complete other planned brand sales. GM is shutting Saturn after a deal to sell that brand collapsed and a proposed sale of its Hummer brand remains pending.

In Europe, GM had planned to sell a controlling stake in its Opel brand, but reversed course and opted to retain it.

Saab, which has a devoted following among auto enthusiasts taken with its distinctive, quirky style, has failed to make money for much of the past two decades as GM was unable to find a global audience for the cars.

But GM grew wary of selling Saab and its new designs for fear of giving a potential rival a technological edge.

The David-and-Goliath aspect of the deal was not lost on Victor Muller, a 50-year-old former fashion executive who engineered Spyker's revival as its chief executive.

"Under normal circumstances, probably Saab would have been buying Spyker," an exhausted Muller told a news conference in Stockholm. He said he had had no more than 15 hours sleep over the past 5 days of marathon talks.

In a statement, Muller promised Spyker would respect the "uniqueness, heritage and individuality" of the Saab brand.

The new group will become Saab Spyker Automobiles N.V.

Despite years of hemorrhaging money, the 60-year-old Swedish company has many fans, some of whom believe it could be profitable with the right owner.

"It's a really brilliant brand. It's probably one of the biggest brand mismanagement stories in the history of the automotive industry," said Tim Urquhart, analyst at IHS Global Insight.

"Saab could have been the Swedish Audi if it had been taken on in the right way 20 years ago. It's been completely mismanaged, underinvested in by people who don't understand what the brand means, and what it has the potential to mean."

GM has acknowledged making mistakes with the Saab brand in the past and Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said two weeks ago that the automaker had been wrong to assume that something would come along to change its financial performance.

Whether the right owner is Spyker is open to question, analysts say.

Spyker, which only produces several dozen handmade sports cars a year, hopes to benefit from Saab's technical resources and distribution network. Saab will get funds to survive and an injection of entrepreneurial spirit.

The market sensed a deal was in the offing on Monday, bidding up Spyker shares as much as 80 percent before they eased on Tuesday and then were halted in Amsterdam trading.

ONE THING IN COMMON

Spyker and Saab make for an odd couple. While Spyker employs about 100 people who built 43 cars last year, Saab has 3,400 workers. Even at this week's inflated prices, Spyker's market value is less than $85 million.

One thing the two companies have in common is an inability to make money, which has made analysts skeptical of the plan. Since the Dutch company was resurrected as a brand in 2000, it has not made a profit.

Saab lost 400 million euros last year on sales of 1 billion euros, Spyker said. The company slashed production by 77 percent to fewer than 21,000 cars in 2009 as the global financial crisis put Saab's survival in doubt.

The incentive to ditch Saab has long been clear as GM sought to address its own pressing financial problems. But the U.S. company was concerned about selling technology it has shared with Saab and which powers many of its own models.

GM had already sold old Saab technology and machinery to Chinese group BAIC, but Spyker was eager to get its hands on the know-how behind Saab's recently debuted 9-5 car series.

Spyker made its play after Koenigsegg -- another tiny luxury sports car maker -- dropped its own bid for Saab last November. Several companies competed with Spyker, including an investment company backed by Formula One mogul Bernie Ecclestone.

GM was on the verge of winding Saab down, a move that would not only have killed the brand but also would have devastated the southern Swedish town of Trollhattan, where Saab is based.

Muller traveled to Stockholm to hold exhaustive negotiations on what he called a complicated, "extremely technical" deal. His eventual journey to the Swedish capital started when he revamped Spyker, a company that once built a coach for the Dutch royal family but was liquidated in 1926.

Saab is seeking to borrow 400 million euros ($564 million) from the European Investment Bank, a loan that Sweden announced on Tuesday it would guarantee. Sweden said the EIB and European Commission were still reviewing the loan.

(Writing by Adam Cox; additional reporting by Jui Chakrovorty in New York, Reed Stevenson in Amsterdam, Helen Massy Beresford in Paris, and Oskar von Bahr, Mia Shanley and Niklas Pollard in Stockholm; editing by Will Waterman, Carol Bishopric, Gary Hill)

($1=.7097 Euro)

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