When General Motors was declared bankrupt and Saab was put up for sale, many industry observers were scornful of the prospects for a rescue. Which of the world’s carmakers would want to take on a manufacturer with such low sales and such big losses? It would need a company with deep pockets – and a big vision.
When Christian von Koenigsegg’s eponymous company, Koenigsegg Group, finally emerged as the top bidder, many were incredulous. Saab might be a minnow by almost all motor industry standards, but compared to Koenigsegg, it was a giant. Saab was formed in 1947, supercar maker Koenigsegg Automotive sold its first car just seven years ago, and last year produced 18 vehicles at its factory in a hangar at Ängelholm airbase, southern Sweden.
But if Koenigsegg is tiny, its founder has always had big ideas. His record speaks for itself: he founded the carmaker in 1994, at the age of just 22, with some start-up loans and some help from the family. Within two years a prototype was ready and by 2002 the first car was sold, with the family crest on the badge.
A year later it was reported that a Koenigsegg had taken the record for the fastest speeding ticket ever issued in the United States, clocking 242 mph in a 75 mph zone. By 2005 a Koenigsegg had officially become the fastest production car in the world, when a CCR surpassed the MacLaren F1 as the fastest production car in existence, clocking a speed of 240 on the Nardò track in Italy.
All that speed comes at a price: a Koenigsegg CCXR currently costs a cool $1.2 million. Despite the hefty price tag, the company has found people willing to pay, and say they made a small profit on sales of $13.8 million last year.
Everything about Koenigsegg the company, and von Koenigsegg the man, is as far from the dry, accountant-driven world of volume carmakers as it is possible to get. When asked how he decided to make supercars, he always says he was inspired by a Norwegian cartoon. In the film, Flåklypa Grand Prix, a bicycle repairman builds a world-beating Formula One car, assisted by a melancholic hedgehog, a cheerful magpie and money from a passing Arab oil sheikh.
“I remember walking out of the cinema when I was five years old and thinking ‘I’d like to do that,'” he said when interviewed this autumn.
Von Koenigsegg was never short of entrepreneurial role models. He was brought up in a well-connected family from the fancy Stockholm suburb of Djursholm. Father Jesko has started a number of engineering and finance companies; his mother is a haute couture milliner, or hat maker, who supplies the Swedish royal family.
“When I started Koenigsegg my father thought I was crazy, but then he came round to the idea and actually joined the board.”
His father was only the first of many sceptics that von Koenigsegg has had to win over.
“Lots of people were asking who would buy a supercar like that. But Koenigsegg is still there and they make one of the world’s fastest cars. They even appear to be making some kind of profit,” said Mikael Wickelgren, a car industry expert at the University of Gothenburg.
Overcoming the scepticism of others has required a particular brand of self-confidence from the Swede:
“I see myself as having an unrestricted mind. It’s not that I don’t see the obstacles – I do – but I always see a way to pass them.”
With the Saab deal now in tatters, however, it seems not even the maker of sleek sports cars could find a way.