When I think of Saab I’m reminded, as I’m sure many others are, of those cool television ads from the eighties where, in homage to their aerospace background, the latest flagship model from the quirky Swedish car manufacturer took centre stage, speeding alongside fighter jets and generally being awesome. One such ad was so awesome in fact that it led to the director subsequently being handed the reigns to the 1986 Tom Cruise blockbuster Top Gun. That director was none other than the late, great Tony Scott and after his work on the ‘Nothing On Earth Comes Close’ commercial in question, featuring a Saab 900 and Viggen combat aircraft, he became a household name in the movie industry. But all of this is a far cry from the earlier days of Saab however, and a lesser-known car released to no such fanfare.
Wind the clocks back twenty years, from the decadent eighties to the simpler, more elegant early-sixties (a time before General Motors got involved with a not insignificant cash injection) and Saab was essentially still finding its feet as an automotive manufacturer having transitioned from building planes. At the time, the Saab 96 was enjoying success both in its native Sweden as well as internationally, being the first car Saab would widely export, but a fledgling idea was brewing for a new two-seater roadster. Two prototypes were cobbled together and designated the MFI 13 and Catherina respectively with the MFI 13 ultimately being chosen as the basis for the production car utilising existing Saab parts. Initially and logically labelled as the 97 it would later be re-named as the Sonett II in 1966, of which less than 300 units were produced. The car had an entirely fibreglass body fitted to a steel box chassis and was equipped with a three-cylinder, two-stroke motor providing around 60bhp to the front wheels via a four-speed manual transmission but mid-1967 saw the switch to the more modern and efficient Ford Taunus V-4 engine and another name change to the Sonett V4 as a result. Despite its somewhat underwhelming engine the Sonett II did manage to hold its own among other period racers when competing in Sports Car Club of America competitions at the time thanks to its lightweight body and this motorsport success helped to cement at least some kind of positive reputation for the later models across the pond.
But wait a minute, I hear you cry. We’ve skipped a generation. What happened to the Sonett I? Well, back in the mid-fifties a small group of Saab engineers led by Rolf Mellde designed and produced an aircraft-inspired prototype two-seater, open top roadster which was introduced at the Stockholm motor show in 1956. Saab’s plan for the Sonett I was to take it racing but regulation changes meant that the idea became financially unviable before the project ever got off the ground and as a result the car did not go into production with only six being produced in total. The Sonett I was a bit of a false start due to its tentative existence but it’s still worth mentioning as technically it is the genesis of the Sonett line even though the entire idea was quashed until its more commercially viable successor almost ten years later.
So back to the V4 and the now 1.5-litre, four-cylinder equipped car was not a huge departure from its predecessor. Aesthetically the V4 had a different bonnet due to the fact that a bulge was incorporated to accommodate the new, larger motor (a bone of contention for a lot of people, Saab included due to it not being central) but the two cars were essentially the same just with different engines although some chassis strengthening was required to accommodate the extra weight of the V4. Other features included a column shifter, high seat backs and roll bar for safety, wider wheels and a clutch that disengaged itself whenever the throttle was not being used. Just over 1600 V4s were manufactured with most of them being exported to the US where they stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the native, rear-wheel-drive V8s of the period.
The V4 was produced until 1970 when it was redesigned as the Sonett III, prompted in part by emissions regulations that required modifications to the engine as was habitually the case with cars in the early seventies. The initial draft was penned by renowned Italian vehicle designer Sergio Coggiola, of Carrozzeria Ghia fame and then fettled somewhat by Saab’s own Gunnar A. Sjögren so that the body would still fit the existing chassis in a bid to keep costs down. This did not detract from the grace and charm of Coggiola’s original design however and the Sonett III is a truly handsome car. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the US mandated bumpers that were required to be fitted to post 1972 cars. The scourge of many a flowing line, the list of cars ruined by safety bumpers is a long and sad one but that’s for another article (note to Ed). The column shifter of the V4 was discarded in favour of a floor shifter in the Sonett III and in more of a sideways step than a forward one that scorned, offset bulging hood was replaced by a tiny hatch that provided distinctly less access to the engine than the original set up, requiring the entire bonnet to be removed for anything other than mild servicing. The boot was replaced with hinged glass and air conditioning was now a factory option. Lever operated pop-up headlights were also now standard across the board.
Although the III received the increased capacity 1700cc version of the Taunus V4 engine in 1971, performance figures remained almost identical to the earlier 1500cc variant thanks again to those pesky emissions regulations, although a higher gear ratio and lower drag coefficient did give the later cars a slight edge with a 0-60mph time of around 12 seconds and a top speed of nearly 105mph. Sales were slow however, exacerbated by the 1973 oil crisis, and the introduction of the similarly styled but much more powerful Datsun 240Z in 1970 didn’t help matters either. Production ceased in 1974 after only 8,368 Sonett IIIs had left the factory making it a rare beast indeed.
A victim of circumstance perhaps and a bit of an oddball, the Sonett, especially the later incarnations, remains an elegant and alluring piece of automotive history from an unorthodox manufacturer that is sadly no longer making cars. We love the long, sweeping bonnet and pop-up headlights. We love the unconventional engine setup (who makes a strut brace that’s also part of the cooling system?!). We love its unique sound. We love the low-slung bucket seats. We love a lot of things about the Sonett and it would seem that the public does too as restored versions are fetching good money nowadays but you can still bag a down-at-heel, late model car for well under ten grand – the body may not rot but the chassis certainly does.
Amongst the Triumphs, MGs and Austin Healeys of the time Saab really did find its own road with the Sonett. Perhaps it’s time for you to do the same?