Driving the Saab Sonett III

Wiser people than me have warned that one should never meet one’s heroes. The expectation is often too much and the potential for disappointment severe. Despite this advice, people often seek the presence of heroes, consequences be damned.

I had this warning in my own mind when I got the chance yesterday to drive one of Saab’s biggest curiosities and one of my own personal must-drives ……. the Saab Sonett III.

I think a lot of Saab fans outside of the US are curious about this car as the Sonett was rarely available outside the US as a new vehicle. Personal imports have seen them trickle into other markets over the years. If you non-US Saab fans are like me, then you’ve probably considered buying one there and bringing it home yourself. It’s a fair bit of work, however, so for many, the Sonett is still just a curiosity.

The Saab Sonett III made its international debut in the US in Spring of 1970, replacing the much rarer Saab Sonett II. The Sonett III brought with it a slightly larger body with a whole new look. It had pop-up headlamps at the front, which were operated manually via a pull-lever in the cabin. At the rear, the small trunk access offered by the Sonett II was upgraded by way of a glass rear hatch cover.

The overall look changed remarkably, though debates remain unsettled as to which is the more beautiful car. Personally, I think the debate is pointless. Even if it were resolved, the beauty of one car would not render the other ugly. They are both unique designs, beautiful to the eye of the beholder in their own way.

I had the opportunity to drive a Saab Sonett III thanks to Mike P, a former Chairman of the Saab Owners Club GB and the owner of a number of fine Saabs. His Sonett was manufactured late in 1972 and the VIN# shows it to be just the second Sonett made in the 1973 model year.

Mike’s Sonett has an interesting history. He first saw it when he received a phone call in the early 1980s. The car had just been imported into the UK and was being used by a motoring journalist for a driving tour of the country. Invited to come along and take a look, Mike quickly scooped up his young son, Alaister, and drove down to look the car over. A photo of the two of them looking into the Sonett’s engine bay was used as part of the magazine story (a photo I’d love to see them recreate now, when they have the opportunity).

As it is now, the car was white at the time, but the original build order shows that it was orange when it rolled off the production line. The color was changed somewhere between manufacture in 1973 and the early 1980s when it arrived in England. It was a comprehensive job, too, with no orange paint visible anywhere on the car.

As Sonetts were largely hand-built, they were all individually tested before being shipped. Whilst seeking documentation in order to register the vehicle in Britain, Mike was able to secure not only a copy of the original build order, but also a copy of the original test report for his vehicle. How many vehicle histories can go back that far?

The Saab Sonett III was built with a fibreglass body on top of a semi-monocoque steel chassis. Mike’s car is a little strange in that his has slim bumpers at the rear, but no bumpers at the front. Instead, it wears a pair of small over-riders at the front. These could have been fitted after purchase by the original owners, but there are no holes or repair marks present where a normal bumper would have been attached to the car.

Power was provided by the same Ford-sourced V4 engine as in the Saab 95 and 96 of the time, driving the front wheels through a four-speed gearbox. Power was limited to just 68hp, but as the car weighed just over 750kg, it was still capable of providing some spirited performance.

Mike’s Sonett has a mild cam installed, as well as a straight-through exhaust that’s finished with dual tips, one either side of the car. He estimates power might be closer to 80hp now, but has a dual-throat Weber carburetor and suitable manifold ready for installation, which should improve performance even more.

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The Saab Sonett’s striking wedge design was a sharp contrast to other Saabs of the time. The most famous Saab in the late 1960s was the Saab 96 and with the still-new Saab 99 dating the 96’s flowing lines already, the Sonett made the 96 and 95 look even more like the wise old grandparents they were.

Modern Saab designers regarded the Saab Sonett so high that they based some of Saab’s new design language on the Sonett’s flowing lines, with the Saab Aero-X concept car carrying a lot of Sonett DNA through to a new, modern Saab look.

The Sonett III’s interior would have looked quite contemporary in 1970 and today, it appears as the very essence of retro-cool. Big analog gauges combine with a sports steering wheel, lettering and switchgear to take you back to a time when sportscars were simple, but still very very cool.

The seats are thin covered fibreglass, but are remarkably comfortable. In fact, the whole car is remarkably comfortable to drive, even for an amply proportioned six-footer such a myself. Getting ones legs past the non-adjustable steering wheel can be an issue when you first encounter a Saab Sonett III, but once you’re in, the seats are extraordinarily comfortable and the driving position is almost perfect. In fact, as I’ve now driven a number of left-hand-drive vehicles with manual transmissions (I come from Australia, where cars are RHD), I’d say that the Sonett III has possibly the best driving position and definitely the best gearshift position I’ve encountered in a LHD vehicle, and that list includes both the current Saab 9-3 and the new Saab 9-5.

The trunk is surprisingly useful, which probably comes down to Saab building a true two-seater rather than trying to build a 2+2 that wouldn’t work. Storage space is more than enough for an over-nighter and there’s a full size spare wheel, as well as space for the battery and a tool kit under the trunk’s wooden floor. Smart owners will clean this space regularly as the battery is not vented in this position and gases could corrode the floor.

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Getting into the Sonett can be a tricky affair, especially if you’ve been grazing from a good paddock like I have. Getting out of the Sonett can be downright hilarious! In between ingress and egress, however, is the driving experience and this is what I was looking forward to the most with Mike’s 1973 model.

We had some early problems with the carby (“bloody Ford crap!”) but once it was up and running, the engine note from the non-standard dual exhaust was pure bliss, and more than just a little chunky.

The car accelerates well. It’s rarely going to win a red-light Grand Prix, but the little V4 will surprise more than a few due to its low weight. This is especially so in the corners, where the car’s direct (non-power) steering and agility will reward those familiar enough – and brave enough – to keep the power down whilst moving from one apex to the next.

This little V4 is a torquey engine and building power down low is no problem at all. The car is quite willing to rev, but the power band thins out a little above 4,500rpm. That’s something Mike’s looking forward to fixing with the new intake manifold and dual-throat Weber carby.

This is a 1970s Saab, so you’re probably expecting some peculiarities. How about a sporting car with freewheel? Or no power assistance on the brakes?

The Saab freewheel is something I hadn’t had a lot of experience with prior to this drive. It’s a strange sensation that I’ll try to describe in layman’s terms. As you drive, you build up your speed through the gears and then as you coast, the engine disengages and you’re effectively coasting as if you’re in neutral. This saves you some fuel but it also means there’s zero engine braking. When you hit the gas again (and providing your gear selection is appropriate) the car will re-engage and you’ll have power again.

Think of it as Saab’s early attempt at applying some ‘green’ principals to motoring.

As mentioned, there’s no brake servo to provide power assistance, so you have to get on the brakes early to ensure best use of your stopping distance. Good rotors and pads lead to good brake feel, however, and the Sonett never left me wondering or feeling nervous about when to brake.

The Sonett isn’t about stopping, however. It’s about going. It’s about motoring with a big smile on your face as you sit low in the retro-funky cockpit, pulling the car through the bends as quickly as you dare. Like all small cars, the sensation of speed and fun is multiplied by how low you are to the ground. The Sonett doesn’t disappoint in any way as it growls its way up to speed and then clips its way along some of England’s typical winding B-roads.

We took it past the Mercedes Formula 1 team headquarters and posed for a photo. We then took it to Silverstone where an incredible array of automotive exotica paraded past, drivers heading home for the day after watching an event at the track.

With the permission of a very agreeable security assistant, we parked the car in the center lane of the 5-lane driveway and photographed it with the Silverstone sign in the background and some seriously beautiful metal rolling past us.

It was amazing to see how many of the drivers slowed to check out this strange little Saab sitting in the middle of the road. I can imagine Sonetts draw this reaction wherever they go.

Mike told me that the front suspension needs a little work and the 30-year-old tyres will get replaced with new ones he’s already purchased – some day. The car felt fine to me, however and I was smiling about it well into the next day. I’m still smiling as I write about it now.

What Saab did with the Sonett did not represent the pinnacle of their ingenuity or expertise. It only seats two people, isn’t particularly powerful and doesn’t come equipped with some of the technologies that Saab themselves had created at the time it was produced.

What Saab did do with the Sonett, however, was create a vehicle that encapsulated a lot of what driving should be – spirited, emotional and most of all, fun.

My lasting thanks go out to Mike P for allowing me the opportunity to fulfill one of my Saab dreams – to experience the Saab Sonett III for myself. His is a great example of a most atypical Saab, but one that I hope they’ll revive some time in the future.

In this case, my hero didn’t disappoint. In fact, all it did was make me want more.

Michael
Member
2 years 8 months ago
Hi Swade! Thanks a lot for your fine Sonett drving report/review. It can lead me to buy a Sonett sooner or later. I always was suspicious it I will fit in that car. I will at least give it a try. The “SAAB freewheel” could be seen as an environmental improvement but indeed it has its roots in Saabs two stroke heritage. Two stroke engines dont like operation without fuel, because the oil that keeps the engine going is contained in the fuel. In other words, they dont like “fuel cuts” and have at least to run in idle mode.… Read more »
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