To many, the term “Saab sports car” sounds like an oxymoron. But the family tree of the Swedish company made famous by small, efficient, front-wheel drive sedans included a sporting offshoot that didn’t hesitate to take on the big guys in rallying and racing, and wasn’t afraid to offer the public a two-seat sports car, the Sonett. The final version of the Sonett, the Sonett III made from 1970 to 1974, offered peppy performance, agile handling, plenty of storage space, and a comfortable cockpit, all at a reasonable price.
Swedish sports car – Saab Sonett III
The Saab Sonett III introduced for the 1970 model year was a redesign of the aging Sonett II unveiled in 1966. The Sonett II design was often described as “quirky” or “awkward” by both customers and within the company, so Saab turned to Italian designer Sergio Coggiola to spice up the Sonett’s appearance. However, being a small manufacturer, Saab was ever-conscious of keeping the redesign costs within manageable boundaries.
For that reason, Signore Coggiola was forbidden to redesign the Sonett II’s central body section including the passenger compartment, and Saab required that the new fiberglass body fit on the existing chassis to avoid expensive manufacturing changes. Saab designer Gunnar Sjögren had the authority to change Coggiola’s design to insure that it could be mounted on the existing chassis without problems. Despite the limitations, Coggiola’s design was considered a success since it eliminated the much-unloved hood bulge of the Sonett II and expanded access to the area behind the two seats via a hinged, all-glass hatch.
Sonett III power and performance
The Sonett III was powered by the carry-over V4 engine of the Sonett II. The V4 engine, sourced from Ford, had a 1500 cc displacement producing 65 horsepower for 1970. In later Sonett IIIs, the displacement was upped to 1700 cc, but the power output remained the same due to increasingly stringent U.S. anti-pollution requirements. An uncommon engine design, the V4 had two banks displaced by 60 degrees, each bank having two cylinders. By arranging the cylinders in a V-shape, the overall length of the engine was less than that of an inline four-cylinder engine, which made it perfect for placement ahead of the front wheels in the Sonett III.
Thanks to its light weight of about 1,800 pounds and a remarkably low drag coefficient of 0.31, the Sonett III had a top speed of 105 mph with a 0 to 60 mph time of about 11.5 seconds. Certainly not earth-shaking performance, but for a price of under $4,000 with full instrumentation, a four-speed transmission with a floor-mounted shifter, high-backed bucket seats with integral headrests, a leather-wrapped, three-spoke steering wheel, front disc brakes, and rack and pinion steering, the Sonett III provided a lot of driving fun for the money.
Driving the Saab Sonett III
All Sonett IIIs were largely hand-built and were individually tested before being shipped. Despite a few quirks, according to the website Saabs United, the Sonett III is “…remarkably comfortable to drive” and the “…fun is multiplied by how low you are to the ground.” One of the quirks cited by Saabs United – “freewheeling” – disengages the engine from the drivetrain as the driver takes his/her foot off the accelerator, as when coasting. Freewheeling takes a bit of getting used to – with the engine disconnected from the drivetrain the Sonett III has no engine braking, making it a bit disconcerting when the car does not slow down as much as expected when the accelerator is released.
Although the Sonett III seats only two people, isn’t particularly powerful, and doesn’t have all of Saab’s technologies, Saabs United loved it, saying, “What Saab did with the Sonett, however, was create a vehicle that encapsulated a lot of what driving should be – spirited , emotional, and most of all, fun.”
The Sonett name in Saab history dates back to 1956, only seven years after Svenska Aeroplan AB (the acronym of which is SAAB) expanded from just making airplanes into automobile production. The building of prototypes for an open, two-seat racing sports car, the Sonett, signaled Saab’s interest in competition. When the racing rules were changed to permit modified production cars to participate, Saab had no need for a special racing car and the Sonett, later referred to as the Sonett I, program was terminated after six prototypes were built. Only two Sonetts exist in the U.S., one of which now resides in the GM Heritage Collection.
The Sonett I prototype had to hibernate for about forty years for a chance at racing glory. In 1996, Sonett I prototype number one was restored and driven by then 67-year old former Saab rally driver Eric Carlsson to capture the Swedish speed record for the under 750 cc class with a speed of 159.4 mph – a pretty good run for a couple of veteran competitors!
Sonett III values
According to Hagerty, the average value of ’70 to ’73 Sonett IIIs is $5,700, ranging from $12,200 for one in number one concours condition to $2,500 for one in number four fair condition. A 1974 Sonett III has an average value of $5,100, with a high value of $11,000 for one in number one condition and a low value of $2,000 for a Sonett III in number four fair condition. Values of all Sonett IIIs have remained flat since January of 2014.
Establishing an accurate value for a Sonett III is complicated by the relatively small number of sales transactions. Yearly production of Sonett IIIs ranged from a low of 303 cars in 1970 to 2,500 cars in 1974, and only a total of 8,368 cars were made in the five years of production.
Should you be interested in a reasonably priced, vintage fun car, a Sonett III might be just what the doctor ordered. But beware of false savings – always buy the best condition you can find even though it may not be the most economical for your budget. With moderate-value cars like the Sonett III, there is not much financial room for expensive repairs before your investment exceeds the potential value of the car. Shop wisely and you may wind up with a car that provides many hours of driving enjoyment.
Saab Museum – http://saabmuseum.com/en/saab-model/saab-97-sonett-3/
How Stuff Works – http://auto.howstuffworks.com/1967-1974-saab-sonetts6.htm
SwedeCar – http://www.swedecar.com/saab_history.htm
Hagerty Values – https://www.hagerty.com/apps/valuationtools/1970-Saab-Sonett-III
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saab_Sonett