1970-1974 Saab Sonett III
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Motor Sport Service
2010 Buffalo Street
Jamestown, New York 14701
By Mark J. McCourt from the December 2007 issue of Hemmings Sport & Exotic
https://www.hemmings.com/blog/article/1 ... onett-iii/
Saabs have developed a reputation for performance, thanks primarily to the automaker’s pioneering adoption of turbocharging in its regular production cars. To this extent, Saab chose the 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show to debut the Turbo X, a new model designed to recall the “Classic” 900 Turbo and celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the original 99 Turbo’s launch. With the turbo so deeply ingrained in Saab’s DNA, it’s easy to overlook the company’s only true sports cars, the two-seat Sonetts built between 1956 and 1974. And with a sturdy front-wheel-drive chassis, tunable V-4 engine and timeless styling executed in rustproof fiberglass, the Sonett III proved that Saab truly saved the best for last.
As the automaker’s current advertising will remind you, Saab cars were “born from jets”; in fact, the company’s name is an acronym for Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, or Swedish Airplane Company. This unusual foundation for a car manufacturer set the stage for outside-the-box thinking and a focus on efficient, performance-minded engineering. With their tough little 93s proving themselves on rally stages around the world, Saab’s engine development engineer Rolf Mellde, himself a racer, convinced company bosses to design a rally-ready sports car using the 93’s lauded 748cc, two-stroke three-cylinder engine. The result was the Sonett Super Sport, a 57.5hp, 1,100-pound two-seater with an aluminum box-section chassis cloaked in a simple, beautiful fiberglass body drafted by Swedish industrial designer Sixten Sason. Within months, the introduction of the Group 3 racing category allowed the standard 93 to compete in modified form, rendering the impractical roadster unnecessary; only six were built.
Delicate body-hugging fiberglass bumpers were replaced with Saab’s innovative but bulky impact-absorbing units in 1973; grille and alloy wheel designs changed in 1972.
Ford of Germany-sourced 1.7-liter V-4 engine is compact and torquey, and its mechanical components are still easily sourced from specialists in America and abroad.
It would be 10 years before another two-seat Saab sports car would enter production, and like its predecessor, the Sonett II shared its mechanical components with the contemporary 96 sedan. Considered “Project 97,” this 149-inch-long car used an 85-inch wheelbase and was powered by the 850 Monte Carlo’s 847cc two-stroke, three-cylinder engine with triple side-draft Solex carburetors making 60hp at 5,200 rpm. Gearing was provided by a four-speed manual with freewheeling capabilities and a column shifter, again a component from the sedan.
The Sonett II exemplified Saab’s aeronautic-honed focus on aerodynamics, and its low-slung fiberglass fastback body was built over a welded steel chassis. It featured a large wrap-over rear window and Kamm-style tail, and in combination with the sloping one-piece front clip, this styling treatment offered an excellent 0.35 drag coefficient. Inside, the coupe featured an exposed internal roll bar, one-piece fiberglass shell seats and sporting instrumentation. The 1,565-pound Sonett got a power boost courtesy of Ford of Germany midway through the 1967 model year, when it adopted that company’s single-barrel Solex-carbureted, 1,498cc, 60-degree V-4 engine.
Windshield shared with Sonett II, but quarter window and hatch glass are III-specific.
Although the V-4 infused Saab’s sports car with newfound torque and freed its owners from having to purchase two-stroke oil, its packaging meant that the Sonett required a new, awkwardly bulged hood, a change that didn’t improve on what some felt was an already awkward design. Saab took this into consideration when planning the II’s replacement, which would arrive for the 1970 model year.
Because Saab was a small, independent company with limited resources, they knew they couldn’t afford to completely redesign the Sonett. They did what many automakers looking for a style infusion did in the 1960s–turn to an Italian carrozzeria. Sergio Coggiola took on the task to update the coupe, but had to do so without changing its complex central body and passenger compartment.
The result of Coggiola’s work, which was refined and made production-ready by Saab designer Gunnar Sjögren, was a stylish aerodynamic masterpiece, with an almost unheard-of 0.31 drag coefficient. The longer nose lost its tilt capacity, in favor of a small hood topped by a subtle flat black blister, and the hood and fenders were now on the same level, with manually raised headlamps hiding in the fenders. A horizontal grille design spanned the width of the front and covered optional driving lamps. The Sonett II’s tiny drop-down trunk opening was replaced by an opening, frameless rear window, and demure blade bumpers complemented the styling front and rear. The Turin-based designer had called for quarter windows flanking the rear window, but cost concerns caused them to be replaced by small vent windows directly behind the side windows.
Inside the $3,995 Sonett III, a properly sporting floor-mounted shifter was standard, as were corduroy/vinyl high-back bucket seats with integral headrests and clever adjustable lumbar support pads. Leather upholstery was included in the “luxury” model, and all got a standard leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel on a collapsible column. Three large dials faced the driver and offered gauges for speed, rpm, temperature and fuel.
The 1,498cc V-4 engine was carried over, and with a 32mm, single-barrel Autolite carburetor and 58.9 x 90mm bore and stroke, it made an SAE-rated 73hp at 5,000 rpm and 87-lbs.ft. of torque at 2,700 rpm. Sharp handling, long a Saab trait, was accomplished with the III’s manual rack and pinion steering, a transverse wishbone independent front and tube axle rear suspension, both coil-sprung with telescopic shock absorbers. Dual-circuit braking was handled by 10.5-inch Lockheed front discs and 8-inch rear drums, and 155SR15 tires rode on 15×4-inch steel or optional Tuneverken alloy wheels. The car’s curb weight climbed to 1,785 pounds, offsetting the body’s wind tunnel advantage.
Chassis metal is reproduced, but body lamps and lenses must be refurbished
While the price remained the same, the Sonnet III’s V-4 received a different crankshaft for 1971; the 90mm stroke was complemented by a new 66.8mm bore, and with 8.0-compression, the engine made 65 DIN-rated hp at 4,700 rpm and 85-lbs.ft. of torque at 2,500 rpm. With a 4.67:1 final drive ratio, the little sportster could hit 60 mph in 11.5 seconds and top 105 mph. Other changes for 1971 included a standard steering hub-actuated horn (moved from a stalk) and side-impact door beams, while “CoolAir” air conditioning became optional.
A redesigned hexagonal grille appeared in 1972, better utilizing the opening’s shape, and no matter the body color, the Kamm-style rear panel was now painted in trendy black, à la the Triumph TR6. A new all-silver “soccer ball” design for the 4.5-inch alloy wheels also set the low-production, $3,975 Sonett III apart.
Original vinyl and upholstery isn’t available, but modern kits use upgraded materials.
Saab’s clever adjustable lumbar pad is durable, but cord it slides on often breaks.
Larger changes were on the horizon in 1973, when the $4,175 two-seater gained a pair of Saab’s famous heavy, impact-absorbing bumpers. Other safety-minded additions were flat black windshield wiper arms, a new support design for the rear hatch and a rain trough to divert water from the open window. The radial tires wrapping the alloy wheels were resized to 165SR15, and inside, the dashboard controls were redesigned to complement the new upholstery and door handle design. Curb weight rose to 1,875 pounds.
Owner Jack Ashcraft
The Sonett III was in its last year of production in 1974. The two-seater’s suggested retail price jumped substantially to $4,898, but black trim on the standard alloy wheels and shuffled body color choices were the only real changes on American models. A total of 8,351 Sonett IIIs were built during the production run, and much like its sporting counterpart at Volvo, the P1800, Saab’s sports car wouldn’t return for the second half of the 1970s, a victim of slow sales and ever-increasing safety and emissions regulations.
Despite its perennial low production, the Sonett III has become a beckoning siren for a small number of vintage Saab enthusiasts. And although it uses an engine whose parts are long since gone from most dealers’ shelves, as well as a body whose trim is rarely–if ever–reproduced, the car has some dedicated supporters who keep the Sonett community mobile by sourcing OEM parts and remanufacturing those that are no longer available. Do-it-yourselfers can find great technical assistance online, with clubs and a virtual community of knowledgeable, helpful Saabers, and Sonett specialists can help with the rest. Despite their diminutive size and lack of “modern” creature comforts, the joy of driving these unorthodox two-seaters is pure, undiluted Saab.
Engine: V-4, cast-iron block and heads, 1,498/1,698cc (91.4/103.6 cubic inches)
Horsepower: 65 @ 4,700 rpm
Torque: 85-lbs.ft. @ 2,500 rpm
Induction system: Autolite 1-bbl. carburetor
Gearbox: Four-speed manual with synchromesh on all forward gears, freewheeling
0-60 mph: 11.5 seconds
Top speed: 105 mph
Length: 159.8 inches
Width: 59.1 inches
Height: 46.9 inches
Curb weight: 1,785-1,875 pounds (1,945 with air conditioning)
Coefficient of drag: 0.31
The Sonett III’s appealing fiberglass body is generally maintenance-free, although Bruce Turk cautions prospective buyers to watch for common stress cracks. Deep cracks can be difficult to repair, as you’ve got to grind through both sides of the material and layer on eight-ounce cloth. The fiberglass also requires extra (sometimes troublesome) wiring, as the body can’t act as a ground. The steel Sonett chassis is prone to rusting, so a check of the rocker panels, floor pans and braces, shock towers and under the trunk-mounted battery is necessary. Bruce also notes that the seam-sealer used on the floor pan can trap water and cause rust, so if you’re inspecting an example with copious amounts of undercoat, put it on a lift and scrape away the goo to see what you’ve got underneath. Although he sells replacement metal, Jack cautions that it can cost up to $10,000 to repair a badly rusted chassis if you can’t do the repairs yourself.
Unfortunately, the standard corduroy seat upholstery was unique to the Sonett III, and nobody has exactly reproduced it,” Bruce cautions. For those who like the convenience of purchasing ready-made kits, Jack has created interior upholstery, panel and carpet kits that replace the original with modern, higher-quality materials. “We tell people going in that ours isn’t the exact original, but we’ve upgraded things like the headliner, which was vinyl in IIIs–we sell ‘mouse belly fuzz’ like in the IIs, which absorbs sound and is easier to install. We also put padding behind panels and under the carpet, and it’s amazing how much quieter the car becomes.” Those who like to do it themselves can flip through the swatches at their local upholstery shop. “The interior vinyl used on the door panels and around the trunk was heat-set; some people have their vinyl stitched in the same pattern to recreate the original,” Bruce adds.
The Ford of Germany-sourced V-4 engine was basically unaltered during the Sonett III’s production run, and because it is virtually identical to the Ford 91H industrial engine, stock replacement parts are readily available. “The engine is the best part of the car,” Bruce smiles. “It’s so reliable–it just asks that you change the oil every 3,000 miles, set the timing and adjust the valves every 6,000, and it’s good to go.” Jack has rebuilt many V-4s, both in stock tune and for substantially increased performance, and he adds that the balance shaft’s fiber timing gear and mechanical fan are its weak links, especially when the car has the optional air conditioning. “I have a supplier that makes steel gears, but they’re pricey at $500. I also suggest replacing the mechanical fan with electric fans, which improve the cooling and reduce the load on that gear.”
While the V-4 may be one of the most trouble-free aspects of Sonett III ownership, the transaxle is considered by those in the know to be a trouble-prone spot. Gear whine from the transaxle is common, and maintenance is its major issue. Bruce notes, “That transmission has no dipstick to check the oil level, and many people just continued to drive the cars until the gearboxes lunched themselves. The design required you to add fluid to the top opening until it flowed out the side outlet, but it’s difficult to access, and many gearboxes went bad because they had no fluid in them.” Jack installs a petcock in the side outlet to ease maintenance, and recommends neutering the freewheel capabilities for increased gearbox life. He also notes that clutch components are still available, and that the stock pressure plate is bulletproof in engines up to 150hp.
Brakes and Suspension
“The Sonett III’s brakes and suspension are the same as those used in the sedan and wagon [96/95], in a car that is 300-400 pounds lighter. They were overdesigned for the sedan, so they’re very reliable in the Sonett–if they aren’t subjected to rust, they’ll last 200,000 miles easily. The shocks are available, as are brake components,” Jack explains. “The caliper pistons are hard to get, but are available in Europe if you know where to look–you can also modify Japanese pistons to work. The biggest single improvement to the handling is to use wider, offset rims to widen the track, and to run five pounds more air in the front tires (30/25 p.s.i.) than the rear, neutralizing the handling.” Bruce adds that while the Sonett III doesn’t have a brake booster, its dual-diagonal braking circuits are safe and easily modulated.
Brake rotor, front: $129
Camshaft bearing set: $69
Carpet set, 11-piece: $449
Clutch master or slave cylinder rebuild kit: $49
CV joint boot: $35
Distributor cap: $22
Door/vent window weatherstrip kit: $155
Exhaust system, sport with single muffler: $294
Exhaust valve, standard replacement: $23
Front frame stiffener kit: $149
Hatch glass strut set, pair: $89
Headlamp bucket: $110
Headliner kit: $349
Hood mount piece, right or left: $159
Input shaft seal: $24
Fuel pump and gaskets, OEM: $68
Piston, stock replacement: $85
Radiator hose: $26
Rocker panel kit, outer both sides: $359
Tie rod end: $89
Trunk floor replacement kit: $299
Vacuum control, remanufactured: $109
Valve cover gasket: $4.50
Voltage regulator: $69
Weber 34 Series carburetor kit: $469
(Courtesy of www.saabnet.com)
1973 Saab Sonett III: Red, manual, unknown mileage. The hard work is done on this car. Body and engine are in good condition and it runs well. No rust or body damage and looks good; $3,400.
1974 Saab Sonnet III: Orange, manual, 40,000 miles. Car is in good shape inside and out, runs, lots of spare parts including transmission, eight extra wheels, brake parts, carburetor, alternators, starters and much more; $2,900 OBO.
“I got involved with Saabs in about 1963 when I bought a 93F, the last of the first body-style cars,” explains Oregon resident and president of “Orphan Saab V-4 Parts,” Jack Ashcraft. “I owned a number of Saabs after that one, and in 1967, after getting out of the Air Force, I opened a Saab dealership in San Luis Obispo. I also acted as the service and parts manager at the dealership, so I attended all of the service schools on these cars, and got to know them very well. We raced, rallied and autocrossed them. I sold the dealership in 1974, and about 30 years ago, I started restoring Saabs for individuals. The Sonett III’s appeal is both nostalgic, in which people owned one in the past and want to relive it, and dynamic… a lot of folks who get in are as gobsmacked as they were with the original Lotus Elan or Miata. It has what the Miata chief engineer called ‘oneness between horse and rider.’ It really impresses you on a winding road.”
Bruce Turk, of Walden, New York, is the president of the Vintage Saab Club of North America (see “Profile in Excellence,” HS&EC March 2007), and has loved the Sonett III since he was 16. “I liked the way they looked, but had never driven one. When I road-tested my 1970 Sonett, it was even better than I’d thought–it sat lower, handled better, the steering was extremely tight, and it had a very sporty sound. I immediately fell for it!” Bruce replaced his first Sonett III with a 1974 model in 1978, and has owned it ever since. “I have seven vintage Saabs, and whenever we travel, Lori and I take the Sonett III. It’s the reliability factor–the V-4 engine is bulletproof, and it easily keeps up with modern traffic at 75-80 mph. There’s also a lot of room under that back window hatch. The ride actually improves with 200 pounds of shopping in the back–all of a sudden, it feels like a regular sedan, not a sports car.”
Jack Ashcraft’s Orphan Saab V-4 Parts
2030 Grey Eagle Drive
Medford, Oregon 97501
Motor Sport Service
2010 Buffalo Street
Jamestown, New York 14701
West of Sweden Saab (Chip Lamb)
1159 Joliette Road
Richmond, Virginia 23235
Tom Donney Saab
3553 5th Ave. S., Business Hwy. 20 E.
Fort Dodge, Iowa 50501
SSK (Rolf Jenson)
Fax: +46 33 295369.
State of Nine, Ltd.
3901 North Market Street
Wilmington, Delaware 19802
Vintage Saab Club of North America
P.O. Box 4362
Manchester, New Hampshire 03108
Dues: $25/year with newsletter; Membership: 299
Saab Club of North America, Inc.
30 Puritan Drive
Port Chester, New York 10573
Dues: $40/year with newsletter; Membership: 1,300
Sonett Club Sweden
SE 590 73 Ljungsbro, Sweden
Dues: $35/year; Membership: 385
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