Above 3,000 rpm driving a Sonett II is like hanging onto an out-of-control chainsaw
The words "Swedish" and "sports car" seem entirely uncomfortable bedfellows. But back in the 1950s, before Saab and Volvo had acquired the safe-and-sane reputations that still accompany their current American parents, both companies set off to create their version of a driver's car. They took different directions, with similarly disastrous results, at least at first.Volvo's P1900 of 1956-1957 was a stodgy roadster that was scrapped after only 68 were built, while Saab's 1956 Sonett fared even worse, with total production amounting to just six cars.
Despite the initial failures, neither marque gave up on its sports-car aspirations. Volvo introduced its successful P1800 coupe in 1961, while U.S. Saab dealers had to wait five years for their invitation to the party. Yes, America had started to embrace foreign cars, but that didn't include tin turtles like the Saab 95 and 96. Saab's answer was to introduce the front-wheel-drive Sonett II in 1966, an entirely unconventional sports car.
Homely and duck-tailed, perhaps the coolest feature of the Sonett II was its flip-up nose that gave great accessibility to its 841-cc, three-cylinder two-stroke. Much less cool was the motor itself, as mixing a cocktail of oil and gas before hitting the road then laying down a smokescreen like a mosquito fogger wasn't any more fashionable then than it is now. But the three-cylinder pushed the 1,500-pound fiberglass car to a top speed of 90 mph, with a respectable-for-the-era 12.5-second 0-60 mph time. Nothing much happened below 3,000 rpm, but above that point, driving the car was like hanging onto an out-of-control chainsaw.
The Sonett II featured a column-mounted shifter and suspension parts from Saab's Monte Carlo sedan. Its large wrap-around rear window did not open, meaning that luggage had to be loaded through a mail slot-sized opening in the rear.
A total of 258 two-stroke Sonetts were sold in the U.S. before Saab rectified its looming emissions situation by fitting a 1,500-cc V4, courtesy of Ford's German Taunus. The new engine required a bulge in the hood to fit and necessitated a strangled air intake system, but still upped the top speed to 100 mph. The problem with the V4 came in that it was mounted in front of the transaxle, putting an additional 80 pounds right where you don't need it. Suffice it to say, a V4 Sonett II is as hard to turn as an evangelical Republican.
Most Sonett IIs out there are fitted with the V4, as Saab sold 70 in 1967, 900 in 1968 and 640 in 1969-more than six times the number of two-strokes. Even with the improvement in sales, reality lagged far behind initial hopes of moving 3,000 per year.
For 1968, Sonetts got beefier suspensions, wider wheels and a revised interior with a black wrinkle-finish dash. They also received a glove-box, though without a door, which means things have a tendency to fly out under acceleration. Model-year 1969 Sonetts sported high back seats and a better heater, as well that door for the glove box.
Big news in 1970 was Italian designer Sergio Coggiola's reworking of the Sonett to produce the "Sonett III," the most popular Sonett iteration, but also the most garish. Saab would sell 8,351 Sonett IIIs before discontinuing the name in 1974, in such silly colors as Tree Frog Green, purple, Grabber Blue, and Tangerine. 1971 saw the engine get a bump in displacement, to 1.7 liters, with no increase in output due to emissions regulations. Hefty safety bumpers debuted in 1973.
The III did receive some improvements-a floor-mounted shifter, soccer ball- styled mag wheels, and a real hatchback-but it also lost the tilting nose, leaving a tiny trapdoor in the hood. ("Hold my ankles, I'm going in.") This made maintenance a pain, as it forced removal of the entire front clip to fix things like a wiper motor, for example.
If you're looking to buy a Sonett, the II is the more desirable model, both because of its lower production numbers and the quirkier, more "Swedish" character of the car. The name, by the way, has nothing to do with Shakespeare. Lore has it that when designer Sixten Sason saw the original Sonett, he said "Sa natt," or "so nice". Of course, truth often has a way of dispelling myth, and it seems that Sason had proposed the Sonett name for the 1950 Saab 92.
There are typical caveats to Sonetts. Rust is the biggest enemy, in the side rocker panels, under the battery and in the pivot box for the brake and clutch pedals. There was no rust prevention in the chassis, so the floor deteriorates badly and so do the side rails.
Another problem stems from the freewheel gear in the transmission. While this was needed in the two-stroke engine (because if you shut the throttle on a two-stroke, you cut off the oil as well as the gas, which can result in seizing the motor) the little sprag gear can be overwhelmed by the V4's torque. If it strips, you wind up with a box full of neutrals-if the car jerks under hard acceleration, failure is imminent.
The other issue with the V4 is that it had originated as a generator powerplant, a significant point because in that application, running at a steady 3,400 rpm, it could use resin timing gears. But if you're going to drive one like a sports car, with rapid acceleration and deceleration.
"Saab failed to make any improvements on that, but most gears got well out of warranty before they failed," chuckles Russ Huntoon, who has maintained a number of racing Sonetts for automotive journalist Satch Carlson.
And therein lies one of the biggest appeals of the Sonett II, as dedicated owners frequently employ their cars in rallies and ice races, fighting all comers to prove that "Swedish sports car" is not an oxymoron. With values for these most "quirky" of Saabs well under $10,000, this is a case where one of the ultimate representative models of a marque can be had on the cheap.