Saab’s Future Can Be Found in Saab’s Past, Says Its New Designer

Jason Castriota Designs has been hired to handle design for Saab Automobile, the Swedish automaker that was bought in February by Spyker NV, a Dutch supercar company.

Saab’s news release referred to Mr. Castriota, 36, as design director, adding that he would take “the lead role in design at Saab,” but he will not work exclusively for Saab, he said in an interview on Monday.

Mr. Castriota is widely regarded as a star in the car design world. He was a designer for Ferrari from 2001-8, where he worked on the Maserati Birdcage concept, and later moved to Pininfarina. More recently, he worked at Stile Bertone, where he designed the Mantide, an exotic car based on the Corvette ZR1.

Mr. Castriota, who was born in the United States, set up his own firm, Jason Castriota Design, in December and has offices in New York and Turin, Italy, where he also keeps a residence.

In the interview, Mr. Castriota said that the Saab relationship began with a meeting he had with Jan Åke Jonsson, Saab Automobile’s chief executive, and Victor Muller, the chief executive of Spyker and chairman of Saab, at the Geneva auto show in March. They discussed Mr. Castriota’s designs for a sportier, upscale version of the company’s bread and butter 9-3 sedan.

At first Mr. Muller and Mr. Jonsson wanted to hire him as Saab’s in-house design director, Mr. Castriota said. Instead, it was agreed that Mr. Castriota’s firm would remain independent, but direct design for Saab.

How does Mr. Castriota see Saab?

“Quirky and distinctive are important words,” he said. “It should be a true premium car alternative to the Germans. With the 900 series, with turbocharging and sporty performance, it was a smart buy. You saw doctors and lawyers everywhere driving Saab.”

These days, he noted, Audi has taken that position in the market that Saab occupied in the 1980s and part of the 1990s.

Mr. Castriota’s 9-3 may be on the road by 2012. He also may work on a small car, the 9-2.

Mr. Castriota pointed to the success of the Mini Cooper as a model for the success that the 9-2 might achieve. “There’s some behind-the-scenes talk going on for platform sharing with other companies,” he said, adding that he will have a voice in Saab’s marketing.

Mr. Castriota said his firm has five employees, and among its other clients are a boutique shoe company and a maker of a water bottle. The only other automotive client he was willing to mention is Shelby Supercars — the name belongs to Jerod Shelby, not Carroll Shelby — which produces the Shelby Ultimate Aero. Castriota Design is shaping the next generation of that car and possibly a smaller model that will bear Mr. Castriota’s name.

As described by Mr. Castriota, the relationship between Saab and his firm sounds like those common in the product design world, but rare in the auto industry. Consultant design firms have long functioned as de facto design departments or directors for corporations. Examples include Walter Dorwin Teague for Kodak or Henry Dreyfuss for Polaroid.

Examples in the car industry include the tie between Pininfarina and Ferrari from the 1950s or between Raymond Loewy Associates and Studebaker, from the late 1940s to the ’60s. That liaison produced such iconic models as the Studebaker Starlight Coupe and the Avanti.

For new designs, Mr. Castriota said, “We want to return to the Saab DNA.” He pointed to the first or “Ur” Saab, the original highly streamlined concept that was created in 1945. It sits in the Saab Museum and preceded the first production model, the 92, which was designed by Sixten Sason in 1947.

“Aero was a key factor in that model,” Mr. Castriota said, “and today of course aero is more important than ever.”

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