1967-1974 Saab Sonetts

The 1967-1974 Saab Sonetts came about because Saab wanted to create a sports car. Of course the Saab automobiles produced during the 1950s and early 1960s were "different" -- they were made by a company that built airplanes. They weren't all that sporty, though, until an American enthusiast and U.S. dealers set managers in Sweden to thinking about designing a sports car.

1973 Saab Sonett
A look at what lay ahead for Saab: the 1973 Saab Sonett.
See more pictures of Saab cars.

Long before the term "halo car" was coined to describe cars like the Nissan 350Z and Pontiac Solstice, automakers often built sports cars for the same reasons they do today. Sports cars are youthful, hip, and cool. Having one in the product line enhances the image of the manufacturer's other cars -- creates a "halo" over them, as marketing people like to say -- giving the whole brand some extra luster.

Cars like the 1954 Kaiser-Darrin, 1951-55 Nash-Healey, and 1954 Hudson Italia weren't profitmakers, but they added showroom excitement.

One company that needed help in sales and image during the early 1960s was Saab, Sweden's number-two carmaker since branching out from the manufacture of military and civil aircraft. From 1950, its first year of volume production, when some 1,200 front-wheel-drive cars were made, production had climbed. Still, even by 1958, Saab was producing only about 14,000 cars a year.

Compared with other automakers, Saab was a peanut among the elephants. But with help from American interests, they came up with a plan. Learn about the changes in store for Saab in the early 1960s on the next page.

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In 1960, when Saab was having difficulty selling its prosaic 93 and 95 auto models, someone watching the success of MG, Triumph, and Fiat got the idea that a sportier model would attract people to showrooms. Saab's U.S. dealers began to clamor for a sports car.

Around the same time, Walter Kern, an American sports car enthusiast and engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was building what he felt would be an ideal sports car based on Saab components. He knew race cars often blew engines when the centrifugal force generated by extreme cornering forced the oil over to one side of the pan, starving the engine and causing a failure.

The Saab mill had no sump -- as a two-stroke engine, lubrication was provided by oil added to the fuel -- so it wasn't susceptible to that problem. Kern also admired the two-stroke's inherent simplicity: no valves to adjust, no oil to check, fewer things to go wrong.

Working with a big IBM computer, Kern tested various chassis designs. Using mainly Saab parts, he constructed a concept car he dubbed the Quantum. His little white sportster was surprisingly attractive, borrowing styling elements from Alfa Romeo and Jaguar.

Saab Motors, then the U.S. distributor based in New Haven, Connecticut, arranged for the Quantum to appear on the Saab stand at the 1962 New York Auto Show. Public response was very good. Apparently without realizing the amount of work that still needed to be done, Saab announced the Quantum would go into production by the end of 1963 with a price of $2,995.

But the white Quantum show car wasn't really engineered for production, so Kern built a second car, a running prototype painted bright red, which was sent to Sweden for testing. Once there, however, Quantum hit a familiar roadblock known as the NIH ("not invented here") factor.

Swedish engineers examining the car nitpicked, looking for any possible excuse to give it a bad report. One big shortcoming they cited was that the Quan­tum had a steering column gear­shift lever, when market research showed that a proper sports car must have a shifter on the floor. They showed no incli­n­ation to correct or improve the prototype. The Quan­tum was sent back. There would be no Saab sports car.

But dealers continued to holler for a showroom draw. Finally, in early 1964, Saab was again willing to take up the idea of a sports car. There were some basic parameters: good handling, decent heater, roll-down windows, and ample luggage space.

To reduce costs, the sports car would have to borrow much from the Saab 96 sedan chassis. Two designers offered competing designs, Björn Karl­ström, who was associated with the firm Malmö Flygindustri (MFI) for which he designed powerboats and aircraft; and Saab's in-house designer, Sixten Sason.

Working out of a barn that served as his studio, Sason came up with a sports car con­cept based on ideas he'd been developing. Dubbed the Catherina, it was an attractive sport coupe with a targa-type roof. Frontal appearance was similar to that of the later Datsun 240Z, while the rear showed the influence of the Stude­baker Avanti.

Karlström went for a more elemental look. Dubbed the MFI 13, his concept was engagingly stark; a tight, purposeful design. Like the Catherina, it was to have a fiberglass body. However, MFI's original prototype was built with a metal body -- the idea being it could later be used for casting the mold that would produce the fiberglass bodies. Evidently, the firm felt confident its design would be chosen.

In fact, it was. The MFI 13 was renamed the Saab 97 (Saab development projects were sequentially numbered and the project numbers became the model numbers when they went into production). In fall 1965, Saab told MFI to begin building 24 additional cars right away, with 10 to be ready in time to display at the New York Auto Show in March 1966 -- just six months away! At the same time, work was begun on setting up a factory for volume production.

As things turned out, MFI's steel prototype couldn't be used as a model for the body molds; regular molds would have to be developed. Three plastic-bodied prototype cars were quickly constructed so that production engineering work could begin. After that, work could begin on the 24 handbuilt cars.

The tight schedule for building the first three cars meant that certain shortcuts had to be taken, including using a fixed-position Plexiglas rear window instead of the planned hatch-type glass backlight. The prototype made its international debut in March 1966 at the Geneva Motor Show.

The following month, it was shown at the New York Auto Show. During 1966, a total of 28 cars (the original prototype, the three production prototypes, and 24 handbuilt preproduction cars) were built. After that "regular" production got under way.

Most Saab sedans and station wagons were simply named after their model numbers, but the 97 was not the 97; it was named Sonett II. Why Sonett II? In 1955-56, Saab had built a scant half-dozen two-seat sports roadsters with the intention of making a good rallye competitor before a rules change rendered them moot. These were the original Sonetts.

The word itself is a phonetic spelling of the Swedish expression så nätt, meaning "so neat." (When Sason was designing the first Saab automobile in the late 1940s, at least one of his sketches included a Sonett badge on the front of the car.)

The Sonett II production model was a curious thing. A two-seat sport coupe on an 85-inch wheelbase, it was tiny; one reviewer claimed that compared to the Sonett, a Volkswagen Beetle felt like a Chevrolet Impala. Sonett's front-wheel drive was unusual for a sports car, even then.

1967 Saab Sonett dashboard
An inside look at an early Saab Sonett
-- the 1967 model

Styling was an uneasy mix of British and Italian influences. Up front was a low grille and headlights set in pockets scooped out of the sloping nose. Two rubber pull straps held down the front-hinged hood/fender panel, which, when opened, provided easy access to the engine. The wheel openings were filled with 155X15 radial-ply tires -- pretty nice rubber for that era -- mounted on steel wheels with simple hubcaps. The fastback rear was abruptly truncated and included a flat rear panel with large round taillamps.

Styling on the whole was acceptable, although hardly inspiring. But it was in little details where the Sonett lost the most points. It looked amateurish. Car and Driver magazine argued that "You could buy a Saab Sonett, take off the Saab escutcheon, and tell people you built it yourself."

complained that the car's lines "are broken up by the damnedest collection of bolts, washers, grommets, scoops, bumps and piping you ever saw. It says 'homebuilt' better than your name in Cyrillic script on the nose of the car."

The first Sonetts were powered by the high-performance version of Saab's quirky three-cylinder two-stroke engine found in the sporting Monte Carlo 850 version of the Saab 96 sedan. With a roller-bearing crankshaft, the 841cc mill could rev like a dentist's drill; and with three Solex carburetors, it produced 60 horsepower (as rated in the German DIN system) and a top speed around 93 mph, not bad for such a small engine.

Chassis features included rack-and-pinion steering, 10.5-inch front disc brakes, a built-in roll bar, and a four-speed transmission with, of all things, a column shift -- exactly what Saab engineers dismissed as a failing of the Quantum! Car and Driver said Sonett's column shifter was "the worst we ever encountered in any production car -- bar none."

Also featured was free-wheeling, which had enjoyed a brief burst of popularity on American cars in the early 1930s. With this device, the engine and transmission would disengage automatically when the driver let up on the gas. The engine slowed to an idle while the car continued to coast along smoothly and silently.

Free-wheeling was necessary on two-stroke cars because the little three-cylinder got its lubrication from oil mixed in the gasoline, which meant that during lengthy deceleration there was a chance the engine wouldn't get enough lubrication.

However, free-wheeling could scare the wits out of anyone accustomed to downshifting on, say, an exit ramp because there was no compression-induced deceleration; if anything, the car felt like it was speeding up. Thankfully, the free-wheeling could be turned off.

In Sonett's plywood instrument panel, most gauges were centered in front of the driver. Instrumentation included a speed­ometer/odometer, fuel-level and water-temperature gauges, tach­o­meter, and clock. Curiously, there were no oil-pressure or ammeter gauges.

Although there was a decent amount of cargo space behind the black-and-gray-vinyl bucket seats, it was hard to get to because the rear window didn't open. A tiny access door in the tail was too small for most suitcases to fit through.

Initial Sonett production was prac­tically a cottage industry, carried out at a snail's pace of just three cars per day. Assembly was handled by ASJ (AB Svenska Järnvägsverkstäderna, or "The Swedish Rolling Stock Workshops Limited") in a former railroad-car plant that still had rails on the floor. There was a sort of conveyor system in which cars were pushed by hand to each of the seven stations along the line, with stops of about an hour at each.

Improvisation was often called for. If the factory ran out of a particular part, it would send a man out on a bicycle to the nearest auto-parts store to purchase whatever was needed, which explains some of the odd variations found from car to car.

Production of the Saab Sonett became a bit more standardized during 1967. Learn about the 1967 model on the next page.

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After just 230 three-cylinder Sonett IIs were produced for model year 1967, the factory began turning out an improved 1967 Saab Sonett model powered by the German Ford V-4 engine used in Saab sedans and wagons -- although valve springs were stiffened for use in the sports car.

This 1.5-liter ohv engine made 73 bhp at 5,000 rpm and 87 pound-feet of torque at 2,700 rpm -- as measured by the Amer­ican SAE standard -- raising the top speed to approximately 100 mph with greater smoothness and less need for shifting.

Because the V-4 increased curb weight of the Sonett by roughly 80 pounds, other performance times -- 0-60 mph in 12.3 seconds, quarter-mile runs in 18.6 seconds at 71 mph -- weren't much different from those of the two-stroke car. As this weight increase was all over the front driving wheels, however, handling suffered somewhat despite several chassis enhancements.

A 1967 Saab Sonett
A 1967 Saab Sonett

The Sonett body had been designed around the two-stroke engine, so the switch to the V-4 created packaging problems under the hood. To fit the larger engine, a hood bulge had to be added, spoiling the sleekness of the front end and making the Sonett look even odder than before.

America was where most Sonetts were going to be sent. While he may have admired the Sonett, the average Swede didn't see much sense in driving a car that only held two people, and considered it an unnecessary extravagance. In fact, a U.S.-market sales brochure called it "Sweden's idea of an expensive toy."

It was pricey. The V-4's list price was $3,695, while the early two-strokes were around $3,500. For that kind of money, one could buy a six-cylinder Austin-Healey 3000; a Triumph GT6 coupe cost about $1,200 less! Perhaps it's no wonder, then, that when the Sonett II was introduced, Ralph Millet, head of Saab's U.S. operations, sent Sweden a telegram that read: "Shocked to learn price."

Apparently, the public also was shocked because sales weren't good. Saab had hopes of building 3,000 Sonetts during 1967, but only 300 were actually produced for the model year.

In the coming years, Saab would play with the Sonett's interior features in the hopes of enhancing sales. See how they fared with the 1968 and 1969 models on the next page.

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After its 1967 introduction, sales of the Saab Sonett failed to take off immediately, and, in fact, the new vehicle was criticized quite a bit. The 1968 and 1969 Saab Sonetts attempted to do better.

For 1968, the Sonett dashboard was switched to crinkle-finish plastic with an open glove compartment. The 1969 models were essentially identical, apart from an improved heater, new high-back bucket seats, and a lid for the glovebox. In a little more than two years, 1,610 four-cylinder Sonett IIs were made. (Now­adays, the early two-strokes are often referred to as the Sonett II, while the later cars are usually called the Sonett V-4.)

1968 Saab Sonett
1968 Saab Sonett

By this point, it was painfully obvious that Sonett needed a redesign if it was ever going to earn its keep as a showroom draw. Funds were limited, so changes were restricted mainly to a restyling of the exterior. This time, however, the styling job was given to Italian designer Sergio Coggiola.

What Coggiola came up with was a leaner, tighter, more integrated look. The essential shape was retained, along with most under-the-skin pieces (Saab in­sisted that the central portion of the body be retained), but the new Sonett III, as it was called, was an altogether nicer machine and a beautiful one, too.

The front end was longer and sharper, almost a knife-edge, with concealed pop-up headlamps and a small hood bulge with a matte finish for a sportier appearance. Grillwork consisting of three bright horizontal bars lent an air of elegant simplicity.

The tilt-nose front was dropped, so engine access was now via a small hatch-style lid. Bodysides were reshaped for a more defined, razor-sharp look. Gone were the assorted bulges, grommets, and straps that previously marred Sonett styling. Neat quarter windows offered improved visibility.

The former wraparound rear window was dumped. Out back there now was a sharply sloping fastback roof. The rear window was a large top-hinged glass hatch that gave easy access to the bigger seven-cubic-foot luggage area. A flatter rear panel now sported rectangular taillights.

The new interior offered color-matched corduroy upholstery and a cleaner instrument panel that placed the tach in the center. Comfortable bucket seats included large head restraints and ample side bolsters. A "luxury" version packaged leather with good-looking alloy wheels that added a great deal to the Sonett III's pleasing style.

On the technical side, at long last a floorshifter was included, and auto testers of the era praised its smooth operation and light feel. Power continued to be provided by the 1.5-liter V-4. A switch to dual exhausts actually raised horsepower slightly, but Saab -- hoping to avoid having to retest the engine for U.S. emissions regulators -- continued to adver­tise its previous power rating.

Further changes were in store for the 1970 and 1971 Saab Sonett model years. Continue to the next page to learn more.

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After a series of superficial changes to the Saab Sonett in 1968 and 1969, the greatly improved Sonett III was introduced in spring 1970 and was a hit with the automotive press.

1970 Saab Sonett
The greatly appreciated 1970 Saab Sonett

Road & Track lavished praise upon it, saying, "[T]he Saab 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. ... [I]t is a joy in the swerves, its big Pirelli Cinuratos doing their stuff without squawks of protest."

Despite its low appearance, the Sonett III offered a full six inches of ground clearance, so aggressive driving even on bad roads could be handled without fear of losing an exhaust system.

For 1971, a new rhomboid-style grille texture appeared, the work of Gunnar Sjögren, who had already participated in the Sonett III design by modifying some of Coggiola's more outlandish ideas into details that could be more practically produced. In addition, the back panel was newly painted flat black.

The engine bay now held a V-4 stroked to 1.7 liters, but because the compression ratio was reduced by a full point to 8.0:1, horsepower and torque ratings were the same as on the 1.5-liter engine. Top speed was now quoted as 105 mph; 0-60 in 11.5 seconds was now possible, at least according to Saab.

A new optional wheel design also made its debut: a handsome cast-alloy wheel similar in appearance to that later used on the Saab 99 EMS sport sedan.

Despite its critical acclaim, the Saab Sonett was destined for a short life. Learn about the Sonett's waning model years on the next page.

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The 1972-1974 Saab Sonett capitalized on the acclaim the previous years' models had finally earned. From just 303 of the first Saab Sonett IIIs produced, model-year output reached 2,000 in 1972, when the cars were virtually unchanged.

The 1973 Sonett was treated to new safety bumpers like those found on other Saabs: large energy-absorbing units sheathed in a black covering. Inside were large plastic honeycombs that could absorb a decent hit without deflecting into the bodywork. Doors were also given added strength this year, interior trim was upgraded, and an attractive new instrument panel with all controls lighted also arrived. Alloy wheels now had blacked-out sections like the EMS.

1974 Saab Sonett
The end of an era: the 1974 Saab Sonett

There were few alterations to the final Sonetts for 1974. Lower-bodyside stripes, pre­viously optional, became standard equipment. Headlights gained wipers with washers. Still, a series-record 2,500 were manufactured.

The end came when it did because Saab management realized that a redesign necessary to meet future emissions and safety standards in its prime market was altogether too costly in view of the car's limited sales potential. Nonetheless, there were plans being bandied about for future Saab sports cars, including a 2.0-liter Sonett IV. From beginning to end, a total of 10,236 Sonett II and Sonett III models were produced.

1974 Saab Sonett engine
1974 Saab Sonett engine

Although the early Sonetts never quite captured the public imagination, the Sonett III did fulfill its role as a showroom draw, and its presence in the Saab lineup served to greatly elevate the manufacturer in the eyes of the public. It also found long-lived favor with a number of amateur sports car racers. That it was a pretty car in addition to being a pretty good one was just icing on the cake.

Review the stats of this short-lived beauty's production by model year on the next page.

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Despite the many years it took for Swedish designers at Saab to warm to the idea of a sports car -- and then the additional years it took for the kinks to work themselves out of the Saab Sonett -- it was ultimately a success, and a vehicle that fulfilled U.S. Saab dealers' goal of driving more traffic to their showrooms.

1973 Saab Sonett
1973 Saab Sonett

Trace the Saab Sonett's trajectory of popularity with the model year production charts for Sonett II and III below.

Saab Sonett II/III Production by Model Year*

Model year
Number built
1966 28**
1967 300***
1968 899
1969 641
1970 303
1971 1,265
1972 2,000
1973 2,300
1974 2,500
Total: 1966-1974

Total Saab Sonett Production

Number built
Sonett II/V-4
Sonett III
All Sonett models

*Derived from chassis number ranges. **Includes the original prototype, three hand-built production prototypes, and 24 preproduction cars. ***Includes 230 with two-stroke three-cylinder engine and 70 four-stroke V-4 engine. Source: The Sonett, and all other Saab Sports Cars, by Bjorn Svallner, Alltom Hobby AB, 1983.

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