The cars we loved.
When thinking of sports cars, Saab is usually not the first company that comes to mind. The company seemed troubled by this impression and made it its mission to produce a sports car to booster its image beyond that of efficient practically. The Sonett had been around in some form since the late 1950’s when a group of Saab designers built a small sports car almost on their free time in an attempt to get the development of one rolling.
By the late 60’s there had been two generation of cars called Sonett. The name derived from a Swedish exclamation and not from a type of poetry (as ads might have suggested). The name might have seemed like an odd choice if it were not for the Sonnet being catered to American tastes.
The Sonnet II was an interesting car, from a technical point of view. With front wheel drive and advance production techniques like a fiberglass body bolted to a sheet metal chassis for light weight and rigidity, it was ahead of its time. It’s biggest problem was it’s odd looks and quirky handling. Saab tried to address these issues by enlisting the help of Italian design house Coggrola with the next update. The wave that was becoming an Italian sourced design renaissance was sweeping Europe, while the Sweeds kept much of their design in house and within national boarders. The new Saab Sonett III released in 1970 would have styling touches that made it more appealing to Europe and more importantly America.
The revamping worked. Still small but no so quirky looking, the new Sonett III was a bit wider but still smaller than most anything on the road in early 1970s America. The biggest styling enhancement was the switch to pop up headlights. The mechanically lever operated lights gave the Sonett a sleek appearance. The low drag coefficient of 0.31 was almost unheard of for the time and rivals many contemporary cars today. Despite the design and engineering improvements, the Sonett was still a compromise. It’s tall windscreen from the 9-9 dictated a tall greenhouse that when combined with the big wheels gave the car a kind of child’s go cart stance. The added headroom was a necessary feature of the small spartan interior which came only in tan nylon corduroy with vinyl trim, regardless of which of the six exterior colors were chosen. Because of the long front overhang, the engine bay was confined to a small area accessible by a cover under the hood. The back had received a significant update with a large flat glass hinged hatch. Previous models had a kind of three sided glass hatch. The new design was reminiscent of Nissan’s popular 240Z.
There was no confusing Z car performance with the Sonett. The Sonett III had a only a 1.7 l Ford four cylinder to propel it. With up to 68 hp, the car could manage to get up to 60 from a stop in 13 seconds and go on to 103 mph. At less than 2,000 lb, the Sonett was very tossible, much like the Opel GT, it’s biggest competitor. Also like the Opel, a floor mounted shifter and solid beam rear axle was more in line with American tastes. Thanks to light weight and a four speed manual transmission, the Sonnet was able to achieve an average fuel consumption of 26 mpg. Unfortunately it’s emissions controls would have been too expensive to update to the new regulations that were coming. In an attempt to prepare for stricter safety rules after 1972, new black rubber bumpers marred the original Italian inspired design. Now a bit less attractive than before and facing new EPA regulations and a oil crisis in 1973, Saab decided to pull the plug on the slow selling Sonett and get back to what it did best: produce family sedans. Less than 10,000 Sonett IIIs were built in total. Few survive today, but like other Saabs, they enjoy a strongly devoted if not small fan base.
In 2004, while under the ownership of GM, Bob Lutz suggested that there could be a new Sonett. It would be based on the Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky platform. It never happened, much of the concept transferred to the Saab AERO-X concept car. Today Saab is completely free of GM’s control, so It might have be interesting to see if another car would ever bears the Sonett. Of course now it may be too late for any renaissance as Saab’s car business is now defunct.