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The Saab Sonett – 1955-1974

The Sonett was manufactured by Saab in two stages, first from 1955 to 1957 and again from 1966 to 1974. Initially a race car prototype, the idea was shelved for 9 years before finally becoming Saab‘s production sports car in the ’60s and ’70s.

Sonett I 1955 – 1957

The Sonett I was initially a two-seat open-top racing prototype developed in a barn near the main Saab manufacturing facility in Trollhättan by Saab engineers with a passion for racing. They built the prototype with a small budget of 75,000 Swedish kronor. The name Sonett derives from the Swedish phrase Så nätt den är, translated as “how neat it is” or more literally “it’s so neat” that one of the engineers used to describe the prototype.

The prototype, also known as Saab 94 or Super Sport, debuted at theStockholm Bilsalong, or motor show. The three-cylinder 748cc two-stroke engine (all early Saab engines were two-stroke) produced 57 ½ HP, which was enough to propel the fiberglass-bodied 1,323 lb. car to a projected 120 MPH. The low weight was achieved through the use of an aluminum box-style chassis and the fiberglass body, which was built on aircraft design concepts for low drag. Svenska Aeroplan AktieBolaget (SAAB) had been producing airplanes since the Second World War and the lessons in aerodynamics learned by the aircraft manufacturing division were incorporated into the first Sonett.

With that top speed, prospects for success on the European racing circuit were high, and the Sonett was designed to get around the restrictive European rally and racing rules forbidding significant mods to standard cars for racing. The original prototype fiberglass body served as the reference model for the next five cars, which were all right-hand drive. 2000 units were initially planned, but by the time the first cars were ready the rules had changed, and modified production cars with more power than the little Saab engine could muster were allowed to compete in the racing class they had planned on entering the Sonett into. The economic and marketing viability of the project faded, and the six that were produced between 1955 and 1957 were the only models. Two of these original Sonetts exist today in the United States. In September of 1996, rally driver Erik Carlsson broke the Swedish record in the under 750cc class at 99 MPH in the restored original prototype.

Sonett II/V4 1966- 1969

In the early 1960s an aircraft illustrator named Bjorn Karlstrom and MIT engineer Walter Kern each independently suggested a 2-seat roadster with Saab components and a 2-stroke engine to power it. Two prototypes were built; the MF113 and Catherina. The Catherina was deemed not fit for production, but the MFI13 was put into a 28-unit limited production in 1966 as Sonett II. This was designated Saab 97, and was oddly a front-wheel drive car when the rest of the sports car world used rear-wheel drive. All Sonett IIs were left-hand drive as opposed to the right-hand drive racing Sonett I. The Sonett II was designed as a race car as was the Sonett I and had some mild success on the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) circuit against small, lower-displacement European cars such as the Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite and Triumph Spitfire. The car was not permitted in certain competitions due to the low production numbers. Being designed as a race car, the handling was better than most small sports coupes. All Sonett II transmissions had a freewheel that could be engaged and disengaged while in motion via a pull handle near the throttle pedal. The freewheel was required in the 2-stroke engine since the production car did not have an oil pump, but not required in the oil pump equipped race cars.

230 more cars were assembled in 1967, but the 3-cylinder, 841cc, 59 HP 2-stroke engine with its three Solex carbs was increasingly uncompetitive in the US market, the Sonett II‘s primary target, despite its light 1565 lb. weight, 12 second 0-60 time and 106 MPH top speed. It could also no longer meet stricter new US emissions control standards, and a replacement was sought.

The 1500 cc, 65 HP V4 engine from the European Ford Taunus was selected to replace the 2-stroke, and the model became known as the Sonett V4. This engine was already used by Saab for their 9596 and Monte Carlo models, which made the transition easier. The throaty growl of the four-stroke V4 also produced a much better engine sound and exhaust note than the rather rackety two-stroke. The two cars share much of their componentry besides the engine and drivetrain, although some strengthening of the chassis and suspension was required to accommodate the heavier V4 engine, and the wheels were half an inch wider than the Sonett II‘s. This also increased the Sonett‘s weight to 1700 lbs, but the car would still reach 60 MPH in 11.8 seconds and top out at 100 MPH.

Like the Sonett I, the Sonett II‘s fiberglass body was bolted to a box-type chassis, steel rather than aluminum as on the Sonett I, with a roll bar added to support the hard top of the coupe-style body. The hood received a noticeable bulge to clear the larger V4, slightly offset to the right so as not to obstruct the driver’s view directly ahead. This asymmetrical hood shape was criticized both by the automotive press and within Saab itself, and contributed to the motivation to re-design the car later as the Sonett III. To access the engine, the entire front section hinged forward like the Jaguar E-Type, but access to the rear compartment was limited to a small hatch in the rear panel.

The body’s front end with its pocketed, set-back headlights and drooping nose was reminiscent of the Jaguar E-TypeFiat 850 Spyder and the Datsun 240Z that would arrive later in the decade. The swooping rear fenders and hatch glass terminating in a back-angled cut-off rear end was a portent of things to come, including the upcoming C3 Corvette, the future Bricklin SV-1 and 240Z, and of course Saab‘s own Sonett III.

After missing out on racing events due to low production of the Sonett II, Saab ramped up production of the V4 to meet minimum SCCA requirements. 70 were produced in the 1967 transition year, growing to 900 in 1968 and 640 in the final year of production in 1969, for a total of 1,610. The 1969 models are characterized by taller seat backs and more efficient heaters. Produced in Sweden, nearly the entire production run was shipped to the US with only a few slated for the home and European markets.

The Sonett V4 had advanced safety features for the day including a roll bar, 3-point seatbelts (before they were mandated by US regulations) and high-back bucket seats to reduce whiplash injury in a crash. There were also a few eccentricities not found in other period cars like the freewheeling clutch when the throttle was not pressed and a column-mounted shifter in early models, long after other manufacturers had switched to floor-mounted manual shifters. Saab had long been an odd duck in the automotive world and would continue to be so until the end. Despite rather lackluster marketing by Saab and the quirky design and unusual features, the car found a niche market in the US in people who wanted something different than the typical British or Italian sports coupes of the day. The successful performance on the racetrack against British cars like the MG Midget and MGB, Triumph TR5 and Austin-Healey Mark IV helped give the little Swedish oddity some cachet amongst enthusiasts.

The US Clean Air Act of 1970 and its accompanying new regulations for automobiles prompted engineering modifications to the Ford V4 emission control system that were largely incompatible with the Sonett II/V4‘s body style, which led to the re-design that became the Sonett III.

Sonett III 1970- 1974

The revised Sonett III body did away with the open headlights of its predecessor in favor of a more ’70s Italian design from coach builder Sergio Coggiola, who had honed his skills at Ghia. It featured a sloping nose and pop-up headlights, manually operated via a lever in the cabin ala the Opel GT rather than hydraulically or pneumatically like on American cars. These front-end changes were somewhat echoed 14 years later as the Datsun 280ZX became the 300ZX. Driving lamps resided in the front of the nose on either side of the grill, as did the turn signals. Sadly, beginning in 1972 the ugly Federally-mandated 5 MPH bumpers would significantly detract from the flowing Italian design. The rear fenders were less rounded than on its predecessor and hinged rear window glass replaced the Sonnet II/V4‘s rear compartment hatch door.

In somewhat of a reversal of the Sonett II, access to the engine was restricted to a small swing-up hatch in the middle of the non-opening “hood.” Anything other than minor repairs in the engine bay required unbolting and removing the entire front clip, fenders and all. The independent coil-sprung suspension, unequal-length A-arms in front and a live rear axle provided relatively neutral handling characteristics except at the limit, when typical front-wheel-drive understeer would occur. The front disc and rear drum brakes brought the car to a halt rather quickly for the time.

In the interior, a pod in front of the driver held the instruments more or less in line-of-sight and the orthepedically designed seats boasted movable lumbar-support pillows, somewhat rare for a car in 1970. The interior also featured a wrinkle-finish black dashboard instead of the Sonett II‘s more classic wooden dash panel.

In 1970 and 1971 the same 1500cc Taunus V4 was used, but as more and more emissions regulations came into effect the engine’s already limited horsepower was beginning to be strangled by pollution-control equipment. The decision was made to use Ford of Europe’s 1700cc V4 late in 1971, but due to emissions controls it put out the same 65 HP as the initial Sonett V4 powerplant. Performance was reduced as well, with the 1700cc mill only managing a 13 second 0-60, but top speed increased to 103 MPH, aided by the new bodystyle’s lower drag coefficient of 0.31. The 1700cc engine remained under the Sonett III‘s hood until the end of its run.

Disappointing sales numbers, especially during the 1973 oil crisis, led to Saab ending production of the Sonett III in 1974 after a run of 8,368 over its 5-year lifespan.

The Sonett name was planned to be revised by Saab in the production version of the PhoeniX concept as an affordable halo car. It again would have been a 2-seat sports car, but with a 400 HP engine at the top level. The Phoenix platform was also slated to be the underpinnings for the new Saab 9-3 and 9-1 compact cars, but these projects were canceled in 2012. GM, who bought 50% of Saab in 1989 and took total control in 2000, sold the company to Spyker NV in 2010. A proposed takeover by Chinese carmaker Youngman and Chinese automotive retailer Pang Da in 2011 due to Spyker NV‘s financial troubles fell through over GM‘s refusal to continue to license their patents and technology used in the production of Saab automobiles if Chinese interests took over SaabSpyker NV/Saab filed for bankruptcy late in 2011 and was liquidated a few months later. This carmaker with a history dating back to the end of WWII was ultimately a victim of the financial crisis, changing tastes of car buyers and its own fiscal mismanagement.

My late brother owned a green Sonett III during his stint in the Air Force. I did drive it once during a visit and was surprised by the quirkiness of the controls, and concluded that it had a reasonable amount of power for the time but not nearly as much as my own Plymouth Duster 340. He loved the car but sold it because he was to be stationed overseas in West Germany and did not want to pay to have it shipped. It worked out well in the end as he bought not one, but two Porsche 911s while there and fell in love with those cars despite their quirks. Somewhere in a box I’m sure I have the photo of him next to his Sonett, parked under the nose of an F-4E Phantom II at MacDill AFB. ✪

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