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Swedish carmaker Saab at dead end without GM support

The logo of Swedish car manufacturer Saab is pictured in front of a Saab dealer in Zurich
The logo of Swedish car manufacturer Saab is pictured in front of a Saab dealer in Zurich

By Anna Ringstrom and Mia Shanley

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Talk of a future for bankrupt Saab, maker of quirky Swedish sedans that once dazzled car enthusiasts worldwide, is little more than a pipe dream, industry analysts say.

Lawyers charged with winding up the 64-year-old carmaker say there are potential buyers and there is a chance its operations can continue in some form.

But the bankruptcy estate has been stripped of key technology on which the building of existing models depend. Former owner General Motors licensed it once, but is unlikely to do so again, analysts say. The estate does not even automatically include the Saab brand name.

So what assets are left? Possibly very little.

"I am 99 percent certain it won't carry on as Saab," Lars Holmqvist, head of the European Association of Automotive Suppliers, told Reuters.

"Saab won't be like the PhoeniX platform (name suggests). It won't fly again," he said.

The PhoeniX platform, which has very little GM technology, was supposed to be the base for the next generation of Saab cars. But it is at an early stage of development and could take one or two years to finish. Any buyer may have to sink hundreds of millions of dollars into such a project.

Saab was declared bankrupt by a court last month, ending a nine-month battle by its Dutch owner Swedish Automobile NV to stay afloat. It has not made any vehicles since April and several rescues have failed.

A last rescue attempt, by Zhejiang Youngman Lotus Automobile, collapsed because GM refused to license its technology to the Chinese firm.

Anyone else trying to license that technology would face an uphill battle.

"Why would GM want to license its technology to anybody who's going to it as a springboard to enter a market that still suffers from overcapacity?" a source familiar with GM's thinking said.

GM, which let go of Saab in 2010, would have little to gain in a global market where analysts estimate there are some 20 million units of excess capacity.

"GM doesn't want to put another competitor in business," Joe Phillippi, president of AutoTrends Consulting of New Jersey, said. "To me, it sounds like liquidation. Who wants a relatively small car factory in Europe right now? I don't know of anybody."

To complicate matters, any rescuer must also get permission from defense and security company Saab AB and truck maker Scania to use the Saab name, as they still own the rights to the brand.

GM HOLDS THE CARDS

At the end of the day, any buyer is going to have to deal with GM.

"GM really holds all the cards right now," Phillippi said.

Saab's receivers have a deadline to make a full assessment of the assets and debts by early April, even though sales can potentially happen before then.

Potential buyers mentioned in the media so far have included Mahindra & Mahindra , India's largest utility vehicle maker, and Canada's Magna International Inc , the world's third biggest auto parts maker. A Turkish investment firm is also said to have enquired about Saab while Zhejiang Youngman is believed to remain keen.

But analysts question who has the financial muscle to get a broken Saab off the ground, at least not without access to GM's technology. If not a company, maybe a government?

Martin Skold, professor at Stockholm School of Economics, said that without GM on board, a country keen on building a domestic auto industry, but which lacks the know-how, might bid for the leftover assets.

Unlike a company, with the need to focus on quick returns, a government might be prepared to fund years of investments to develop new technology.

"A country, a government ... can stick it out in an entirely different manner, because it's knowledge they want to develop, because they believe it is in the interest of the country long-term," Skold said. "Turkey could be one such scenario."

Skold said there was a chance GM would agree to license its technology in a market where it is not already present.

But without GM on board, Theodor Gilissen Bankiers analyst Tom Muller thinks a deal would be uneconomical for any party.

Saab isn't unique or progressive enough to stand out in today's tough market, where automakers are investing billions to develop next generation models, analysts said.

"Saab, from a technology point of view, is Opel," Holmqvist said. "It's standard, run of the mill, very normal technology."

(Additional reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit)

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