Saab in the Early Sixties
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.
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."
C/D 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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