Curbside Classic: Saab Sonett II V4 – A Noisy Little Footnote To Automotive History

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(First posted 2/11/2014. I later found this Sonett at the curb, and have updated the article with some of those newer photos)

The Saab Sonett’s impact on the automotive world was somewhat similar to my encounter with this one at an intersection. By the time I heard its distinctive arrhythmic exhaust, turned and expressed my surprise, fumbled for and aimed my camera, the Sonett’s V4 was already revving up, ready to pull away to another obscure footnote to automotive history. But if you’ve ever spent time in one, the memory will not so readily disappear.

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Saab’s early history reads more like a fairy tale, with sixteen airplane engineers trying to figure out how to build a car (Saab History here). Well, they did eventually, even if it was a bit unconventional, what with its two stroke engine and front wheel drive. And after they got a taste of its ability to win some rallies, they were quickly hooked on speed. Who wouldn’t be?

1956 Saab Sonett I "Super Sport"

The Sonett I (above) was the next step, Saab’s first tentative foray into the world of genuine sports cars. Developed in a barn by a few enthusiasts, the Sonett had a 57.5 hp version of Saab’s new three-cylinder two-stroke. Weighing some 1300 lbs, this was a brisk little barchetta good for 100 mph, nothing to sneeze at in 1955. Racing would have been its purpose in life, had the rules not suddenly changed. Although only a handful were built, it was not forgotten for long.

Saab MFI 13

The Sonett II has a more complicated history, as it’s not a direct evolution of the Sonett I. The primary influence came from a little fiberglass coupe called the MFI-13, which was an evolution of the work initiated by the independent engineer, Björn Karlsröm. He had been toying with various small car ideas for years, trying to get someone interested. A firm called MFI was the first one, but it eventually ended up with Saab, in about 1960 or so, in part because their American dealers were vocally itching for a sports car to sell, during the great boom era for that category.

The full story of the MFI-13 is here, but by 1965, Saab had developed it to the state shown above, a running prototype in need of more development work.

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Saab designer Sixten Sason’s “Catherina” from 1965 is also credited as an influence on the production Sonett II, but it’s a bit hard to see just how. I suspect the Catherina was essentially a re-bodied 96, a sporty coupe, whereas the MFI-13 was a pure-bred sports car. The Catherina was a bit more polished stylistically than the MFI-13, and featured a removable roof center section. But the little white troll clearly was the direct predecessor, and its eccentric design perhaps suited its character better than Sason’s attempt, which somewhat foreshadows the Datsun 240Z.

The production Sonett II, also called Saab 97, arrived in 1966, and was undoubtedly the cleanest one of the family, thanks to its still unmolested nose. The Sonett’s body was fiberglass, and sat on a rigid steel box-type chassis and integral structural roll bar, a recipe for good handling. Nevertheless, the idea of a true sports car with FWD was highly unorthodox at the time.

Saab Sonnet II engineimage source:

That smooth hood was due to the very compact 841cc two-stroke triple under it, making 60 hp, and mounted ahead of the front wheels like all Saabs at the time. This is a tiny engine, but it makes itself heard.

The little two-stroke, here on a dyno pull, makes a wonderful sound at full chat, sounding like it’s doing a screaming 10,000 rpm. In terms of firing pulses it essentially is, as a two-stroke of course makes twice as many power pulses as a four-stroke. But two-strokes are actually relatively low-revving; the three-carb “Monte Carlo” engine in the Sonett redlined at a rather modest 5,000 rpm.

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Uh oh; the Sonett’s protruding nose is already crossing the starting line; I’d better hurry… Not many two-stroke Sonett IIs were sold in the US, and by the middle of 1967, the Ford Cologne 1500cc V4 had been adapted, as with the 95 and 96.

Rather than redesign the front end, a crude bulge was put in the hood to clear the taller engine. The result was the object of considerable scorn, and even Saab admitted it was a mistake, one they would rectify in the Sonett III (or at least attempt to).

No mistaking what this is; the badge is redundant.

Saab Sonett V4_For_Sale_Engine_resize

The Sonett’s whole front end flips up, making access to the engine and suspension easy. The Ford V4, originally designed in Detroit for the still-born FWD Cardinal (re-born in Germany as the Taunus 12M), has a 60º cylinder angle, one balance shaft, and non-shared crank pins. All these steps were taken in an effort to minimize the inherent unbalanced design of a V4, and although they certainly helped, this engine will never be associated with the word “smooth”.

Hearing is believing, and this short video of a Sonett III V4 (with warmed-over engine, no doubt) being given a good work-out will help explain the aural appeal of both Sonetts, two-stroke and four-stroke. Maybe they should have called it “Sonata”?

Adding to the Sonett’s idiosyncratic nature, the four speed transmission’s shifter was on the column, also like the other Saabs of the time. It worked surprisingly well, however. The two gauges nearer to the navigator’s seat were for rallying use, which Sonetts were inherently drawn to.

The luggage compartment.  The Sonett’s sturdy structural elements are on display in numerous places.

That luggage compartment is accessible via this low door. A bit odd, but what isn’t about the Sonett?

There’s a decidedly home-brew or kit-built quality to the Sonett.

It’s a certified cult.

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The Sonett’s distinctive brbrbrrrapping exhaust as it crosses the intersection–with the driver’s hand visible on the gearshift as he moves it into second–takes me back to a memorable ride and short drive in one. Behind the tv station where I worked in West LA, there was a small paved lot across the alley, which became the storage lot and outdoor workshop for the numerous gear-heads there, referred to as KSCI Motors. It’s where I swapped my first Peugeot engine, right between a beat-up Aston Martin DB2 and a Fiat X 1/9 being stripped for racing, and in the company of a (mostly) motley assortment of other imports. One day one of the lighting techs showed up with a sun-bleached Sonett V4. It didn’t stay around very long, like many of the cars out there, but one slow day we escaped the studio into the bright sunshine, and headed for his Sonett.

Since the studio was right next to the 405, by Santa Monica Blvd., our standard test drive involved getting on the freeway for the short run up Sepulveda Pass to Mulholland Drive. The Sonett’s throbbing V4 had us there soon enough, slipping and sliding into the tiniest openings in the four lanes of freeway traffic. After a spirited drive east on Mulholland, the Sonetteer made a U turn, pulled over and handed me the reins.

Mulholland drive

The four speed column shifter was completely familiar, from my Peugeot 404. The engine pulled eagerly right from the bottom of its rev range, but petered out at a thrashy 5,000 rpm. The 1498cc V4 was rated at 65 hp (or 73 depending on source or rating), only a few more than the two-stroke, but it had a lusty torque band, and could take the little Troll from rest to sixty in some 12 seconds. Laughable now, but from inside the tiny 1500 lb Sonett’s cabin, everything felt like it was happening in fast-forward. And laugh we did…through the many curves of Mulholland Drive, as we eagerly clawed our way through. Or pulled, in the parlance of how the benefits of FWD were described back then.

Yes, the steering wheel transmitted what was happening up there, what with the front wheels, fighting both centrifugal force and torque, but in a good way, mostly. It was certainly different then the chattering and hopping rear end of a Brit sports car in a power-on curve on rough pavement. The low center of gravity only enhanced the Sonett’s planted feeling, and it became easy to see how Saabs became such giant killers at Monte Carlo and such. Of course, Americans don’t generally spend lots of time on tight winding mountain roads. You’d never pick a Sonett for a cross-country trip. Or a commute.

Saab Sonett III

Some of us also laughed when we first saw the 1970 Sonett III, Saab’s attempt to bring it into the seventies. The hood was somewhat cleaner, but it wasn’t exactly organic. I’ll take the original, with all of its warts and lumps. But it did now sport a floor shifter, along with more limited engine access and manually-controlled retractable headlights. Admittedly, this example is also the victim of US bumper regs; the initial version’s nose lacked that protruding black lip.

Sonett sales were always very modest, and the overwhelming majority were sent to the US. Only 1610 Sonett II V4 were ever built, making the one I saw in the street very unexpected. If I’d been in my car, I undoubtedly would have given it chase. At the time, I was disappointed about the brief street-side encounter; now it seems rather fitting.

The Sonett III didn’t sell much better; despite more aggressive advertising, some 8,368 were made. The Sonett had always been an outsider in the sports car market; the warty little oddball with FWD in a world dominated by MG, Triumph, Porsche and such. And after Datsun’s revolutionary 240Z appeared in 1971, the sports car world was forever “restructured.” The Z car offered three times the horsepower (and styling) for less money; by 1974, it was all over. A sonnet has 14 lines; the Sonett only made it to through (year) nine.

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And there it goes, a mere blip on the screen of automotive history. My Sonett encounter was only a few seconds long, although I could still hear its raspy song as it went out of sight. But not out of mind.