Trips & Tales

Robert Sinclair, Who Found a Niche for Saab, Dies at 77

From the NY Times - by Bruce Weber

May 17, 2009

Robert J. Sinclair, an automobile executive whose brainchild, the Saab 900 convertible, turned Saab into a prestigious brand in the American market, died May 10 in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he had lived since shortly after his retirement in 1991. He was 77.

The cause was cancer, his son Gregory said.

Mr. Sinclair, who had been a salesman and midlevel executive at Saab, the Swedish automaker, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, rejoined the company in 1979 as president of its American division, then known as Saab-Scania. Recognizing a niche in the American market, he pushed for his division to have its own identity, separate from Saab's workaday image in Europe.

"My decision, fairly early on, was that the future for Saab in the United States was in moving upmarket," he recalled in an interview for a Saab Web site in 2007. While the company was positioning itself in the no-frills market, he said, "My view was we should add content, add performance, add sparkle and luster to the brand."

Saab's American sales increased from 13,513 in 1980 to 39,264 in 1985. But Mr. Sinclair's greatest triumph was ahead. Having been pressed by corporate headquarters in the early 1980s to accept an annual shipment from Sweden of 1,000 two-door economy-model sedans for sale in the United States, Mr. Sinclair balked and cut another deal. He would accept the cars only with higher-end specifications: fuel injected turbocharged engines, a 5-speed gearbox, cast-aluminum wheels, leather upholstery, metallic paint and, most important, convertible tops.

At the time, American car companies had largely stopped building convertibles, fearful of rumors that the government would outlaw them as unsafe. That left the market for convertibles open to Saab. The regulations never came, and the Saab 900 convertible, which made its debut at a Frankfurt motor show in 1983 and reached the market in 1986, became a sensation. Nearly a quarter of a million were sold over the next 20 years, AutoWeek magazine reported in 2006.

Robert John Sinclair was born in Philadelphia on March 17, 1932. His father ran a grocery in Upper Darby, a suburb. He attended Haverford High School, where he was an accomplished singer and pianist, and where he met his future wife, Anne, in a student production of Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta 'The Yeomen of the Guard.' His plan to be a concert pianist ended when he seriously injured a hand on a meat slicer in his father's store.

Mr. Sinclair attended Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., but, a married man at 20, he took a job selling medical equipment.

'My mother finally said to him, "If you're going to be spending all your time in the car, why don't you sell them?"' Gregory Sinclair said. So he did. His first job in the automobile industry was at a Volkswagen dealership. He joined the Saab sales force in 1958, but he left the company four years later when its American headquarters moved to New Haven from New York City; he did not wish to move with it. Instead he went to work for Volvo, where, by 1978, he had ascended to vice president for marketing.

In addition to Anne, his wife of 56 years, and his son Gregory, also of Santa Barbara, Mr. Sinclair is survived by two brothers, Roy Sinclair, who is known as Bud, of Rancho Mirage, Calif., and Richard Sinclair of Broomall, Pa.; two other sons, Robert John Sinclair 3rd of Plainfield, N.H., and Stephen Sinclair of Pasadena, Calif.; three daughters, Rebecca Sinclair of Los Angeles, Elisabeth Loree of Portland, Ore., and Jennifer Gregor, also of Portland; and eight grandchildren.

Mr. Sinclair was a popular figure at auto shows and industry conventions; among members of the Saab Club of North America he was known as Uncle Bob. An adventurer with a fondness for motorcycles and power boats, he and his wife often traveled by motorcycle.

I always rode on the back, Mrs. Sinclair said. It was a great way to see the world.

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