Although I’m not an architect and, thus far, have never worn a black polo neck top, I like Saabs. I really do. I like their left-field cleverness, their looks and their power. Somehow, I own several.
Despite my Swedish obsession I’ve never ever seen an actual Saab Sonett. Not a real, full size one.
Unless you owned a Matchbox Saab Sonett then you’ve probably never heard of this oddly-styled, American-made sports car. Despite never being sold in Britain Lesney, makers of Matchbox cars, made a diecast version of Saab’s two seater. To my 8 year old eyes it looked great, certainly greater than the similarly wedgy TR7.
Matchbox, usually so accurate, played a little fast and loose with the Saab Sonett III shape, offering car-mad kids a compact, svelte two seater that seemed impossibly exotic. The real Sonett is similarly dramatic but not quite as cohesive, with an over-long bonnet and big Saab safety bumpers.
If you’re not familiar with the Sonett then it began life in the mid-50s as an open-top two seater. The subsequent Sonett II was a fairly bold new closed two seater built for the American market and initially made there too. The Sonett III updated that design. Both cars had fibreglass bodywork and used Ford V4 engines set ahead of the front axle with FWD running directly off the gearbox. Build quality was very good, as you’d expect from a Saab, but performance wasn’t scintillating and the hefty engine hanging out the front meant the handling was no great shakes. But the Saab was distinctive – rather than actually stylish – and comfortable inside, with a decent boot. The Sonett II sold quite well in the USA but the III was less successful and production ended in 1974. The Sonett’s North American focus probably explains why few people this side of the pond have heard of it, unless they were into Matchbox cars. I was a Matchbox obsessive so was excited, bordering on thrilled, to get the chance to drive one recently when one of our clients chose it for some TV work.
The Sonett we sourced was a late model 1974 III in striking light blue with a caramel interior. It was immaculate, as these photos show. My first impression was how Saab-like it is. Clearly a designer started creating something crisp and clean, but then Saab’s engineers started meddling and insisted on big bumpers, big lights and a military grade fibreglass that is possibly three times as thick as steel. The car still looks good but is more quirky than beautiful. It’s a curious mix of 70s automotive sports car design touch points – pop up headlights, wedgy design, Kamm tale. It is also low and small, like a grown up and well built Triumph Spitfire. The engine is accessed by what can only be described as a hatch, covered by an air intake, an odd nod to American mores. Inside the Sonett is practical and stylish, like a Volvo on acid. Everything is well located and well made and there is an overwhelming sense of ‘chunky.’ There is a small exposed boot behind the seats, accessed by a glass panel cut into the rear. Fire up the Ford V4 and the crackling overrun is a joy. This oft-overlooked engine revs easily, has decent power and is very tractable, which is welcome as the gearbox shift is a bit clunky and slow. The car ploughs along nicely, the steering well weighted but lacking in feel, the visibility good down the plummeting nose. Everything feels as you might expect – a solid, planted, slightly sportier version of a saloon car. The Sonet steers, stops and corners well, with little fuss or major excitement but somehow that doesn’t really seem to matter. The car has so much character and verve, thanks largely to that styling, that its slightly stolid roadholding seems trifling. Certainly it is better built, better to drive and more comfortable than a Spitfire or TR7, although that’s hardly saying much. I enjoyed my Saab Sonett experience and handed it back wondering if I could find the necessary £12,000 to buy one. It would make a very good classic – solid, reliable, distinctive and fun to drive, without huge cost. I also wondered why it wasn’t more successful, particularly since the Matchbox version made such an impression on so many people. No doubt the Saab was expensive and the dealer network less effective than homegrown American marques. Perhaps it also fell between two stools: neither inexpensive and disposable like a Triumph or MG or long-legged and powerful like a Chevy or Ford. But I’m surprised that Saab didn’t bother selling it in Europe, where the price and the specification would surely have worked better.
You can’t hire the Saab Sonett but you can rent 40+ cars from our normal fleet. Find out more at www.greatescapecars.co.uk or call 01527 893733
Graham Eason www.greatescapecars.co.uk 01527 893733