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FOREIGN FAVORITES: Saab's sweet Sonett

This sporty 1970s coupe might be one of the hobby's last true sleepers.

The Saab Sonett III was a racing car with concealed headlamps
and a fastback body design. The 1972 example was the last
Sonett before safety bumpers were installed.

It was the fall of 1973. I was sitting in the front row of the annual employee presentation of new Saab products that would be offered in the U.S. market during the coming year. I was a very junior employee, having been employed by Saab-Scania of America, Inc. only since July.

Just about everyone who worked for the company was in attendance. We were there to hear a speech by the president of Saab USA. Back then, I was still a young, dumb wiseguy, so when pictures of the new Saabs flashed onscreen, I began cracking jokes to a buddy sitting next to me. The jokes were pretty lame, and when the Saab Sonett appeared, all I could think to say was how it looked weird, like a little bitty space ship. The dour Swede sitting on the other side of me didn’t look very happy with my comments. I didn’t care; I’d never seen him before and I figured I never would again. A moment later, I heard someone announce that the president of Saab-Scania in America, Jonas Kjellberg, would be the next speaker.

The man next to me got up abruptly and strode towards the stage. Of course, it was Kjellberg. That was the first time I’d ever seen the top guy in our company and, as usual, I had made a lasting impression. He thought I was an idiot. Oh well.

As things turned out, I lasted longer at Saab than that Sonett, because 1974 was destined to be the last time that model was offered. Too bad; it was a really nice car, and one of the few genuine sleepers still out there in “Collector Car Land.”

The first Saab Sonett to go into production was the 1967 Sonett II, a tiny two-seater with styling that only a mother could love. At first, Sonett II models were powered by Saab’s Monte Carlo 850cc three-cylinder, two-stroke engine. Equipped with three-carburetors, it produced 60 hp, good for a top speed around 93 mph. Chassis features included rack-and-pinion steering, 10.5-inch front disc brakes, built-in roll bar and a four-speed transmission with a column shifter. After about 230 Sonett II models were built, the three-cylinder engine was replaced by the German Ford V-4 engine used in Saab sedans and wagons. The 1,498cc V-4 produced 73 hp, raising the top speed to about 100 mph. It attained a 0-60 mph time of 12.3 seconds.

But the Sonett II was a homely animal, so for 1970, Saab ordered up a redesign of the exterior. Dubbed the Sonett III, it was a much more beautiful car. The front end was longer, with a sharper front edge and concealed headlamps. The three-bar grille lent was elegantly simple. Body sides were reshaped for a more defined, knife-edge look. The engine was accessed via a small lift-up hatch that had a matte finish. Gone were the assorted bulges, grommets and pull-straps that previously marred Sonett’s styling. A sharply sloped fastback roof with a large glass hatchback replaced the former wraparound rear window. The rear window opened the way to a larger 7-cubic-foot luggage area. Small quarter windows gave improved visibility. The interior featured color-matched corduroy upholstery. Comfortable bucket seats had large head restraints and ample side bolsters. There was also a more handsome instrument panel that placed the tach in the center. Mechanical enhancements included a floor shifter for the four-speed transmission. Most enthusiasts agreed that the Sonett’s new styling was much more attractive than before.

Introduced in the Spring of 1970, Sonett III was a hit with the automotive press. Road & Track magazine lavished it with praise, saying “.... [It] proved completely at home on the ever-winding, dipping Swedish country roads, that punchy engine and front drive seemingly just right for maximum enjoyment in driving.”

For 1971, Sonett was treated to a larger 1.7-liter V-4, but because the compression ratio was reduced, its 73-hp and 87 lb-ft of torque rating was the same as the 1.5-liter. Top speed was now quoted as 105-mph, with 0-60 possible in 11.5 seconds. The 1973 Sonett received new safety bumpers — large, energy-absorbing units sheathed in a black covering. Inside were large honeycomb plastic blocks that could absorb low-speed impacts without damage to the body.

But 1974 was the final year for the Sonett. Saab management realized that a redesign necessary to meet future emission standards would be too costly to undertake in view of the car’s limited sales volume. There was little different on the 1974 Sonetts. A sporty side stripe, previously optional, became standard equipment.
In all, about 10,235 Sonett II and Sonett III models were produced. If you spot one, take a close look — they’re a really great little car.

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