Saab Sonett III

It doesn't matter how much work on your own car you do, or how mechan
-ically perfect you think it is; when it comes to the annual check-up, the testers will always find something that needs replacing. This year for mine, it was the front tie rod ends; the rubber elbow joints that connect the steering rod to the wheel assembly. A few years of Poland's winter salt was all it took to put more cracks than a Plumbers Convention into the rubber. Considering the nuts holding them on were also rusted solid and Polish mechanics are so cheap, I lurched my motor off to the nearby garage to have the tie rod ends swapped and the geometry aligned.

When you've got pneumatic tools (and a big selection of hammers), the job can be pretty quick, so I mooched around the forecourt sipping vending-machine coffee and listening to the Tourettes level of swearing coming from the mechanics whilst waiting for the work to be done. After a few minutes, one of the garage bay doors rattle up, and an orange lozenge comes burbling out.

My coffee went cold as I gawped and stared. It's not often that I see a car that I have absolutely no clue at all as to what it is, and I spent the next ten minutes sniffing as close around it as the mechanics would let me. In between the swearing, I managed to glean that this was a Saab Sonett III, from 1974, one of the last ever made. This particular one had been dropped off by a local driver in the classics rallies, and was his pride and joy. I'm not surprised.

Driving my own rust-bucket home, I couldn't get the Sonett out of my head. That teardrop snout, the Coke-bottle hips, the low slung bucket seats and pop up headlights; none of that was Saab. Saab make cars that look like crocodiles. They don't make pint-size roadsters. How the hell could this rasping little sports coupe have snuck out of Scandinavia without anyone noticing? Why was it slinking around back-street industrial-estate garages? If this was a Sonett III, what the hell happened to the other two?

The Sonett III, it seems, is really the final version of a 10 year evolutionary period. Yes, there were two prede
-cessors, but hardly what you or I would call a production run. The Saab Sonett Super Sport, or Sonett I, was an experiment in advanced design for Saab, and reared its dropped head at the 1956 Stockholm Motor Show. It never entered mass production, and only six are known to have existed worldwide.
For whatever reason, Saab sat on the idea for ten years before constructing the Sonnett II; a glass-fibre rebodied Saab 96 with the same two-stroke three-cylinder motor underneath the tilting bonnet. This was inevitably swapped for a more sensible Ford V4 (again, the same offered on Saabs other cars) but the Sonett II was still not a serious production. With its Opel GT-esque swoopes and gouges, the eclectic mish-mash didn't sit well with prospective clients, and less than 2000 units were assembled before its dramatic redesign as the Saab Sonett III, put into construction in 1970.

Looking at the specs on paper, Saab ticked all the right boxes. This fibreglass fancy weighed only 810kg - the same as a Trabant - yet had 65hp to hurl it up to 103mph. A lightweight pocket rocket with a sharp dynamic design (think Bricklin SV-1 or Fiat X1/9) from a company that started out making jet engines; where could this possibly go wrong? Why didn't the Sonett succeed?

Part of the problem can be attributed to Saab's image. They were then, and still are now, pleasantly practical saloons. "Responsible performance" is the byword of Saab, and you can't help but feel that no matter how much power or how many turbos Saab slap under their alligator bonnets, they'll never have the level of mental illness required to make a really good sports car. Unless drunk, Scandinavians simply aren't psychotic enough for that. The V4 of the Sonett III was no exception - it usurped the old oil-burning two-stroke for no other reason than Saab thought it was more pleasant for drivers not to have to mix fuel additives every fill up. This meant that nearly 50kg was added to the nose of the car for no particular reason, which many Saab purists feel upset the balance of the car from the more lightweight two-stroke.

Despite that, no serious criticism of the Sonett can be leveled; the fibreglass form is lovely to look at, the lumbar seats more than comfortable than the harsh buckets in contemporary sportsters, and you're not buying some odd-shaped plastic kit from a garden shed British supplier but a fully assembled product from a large European manufacturer. But for the early 1970s consumer, the massive hike in oil prices were simply dampening the buzz of owning completely impractical vehicles. When the whole sports car market was suffering a downturn, the Sonett III with its 1500cc (1700cc later on) should have been just what the industry doctor ordered, but for all that it just wasn't want people expected, or even wanted, from a Saab. You can drool about the 0.31 drag coefficient or the 12-second 0-60 time, but if you're a teenage boy with minimum bedroom-poster space available, telling your mates you've got a Saab on your wall just isn't going to impress anyone. So after only 10,000 units, the Sonett III was phased out, and it remains the Swedish manufacturer's only foray into the world of sports cars. More's the pity.