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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

August 16, 1996

Rune Svensson is the owner of a small auto shop in Berkeley, Cal. and is, of course, a Swede. He has been in business there for many years and as you might expect, he specializes in Volvos and Saabs.

One afternoon in the late '60s, I drove past his shop and parked out front was a small, aerodynamic sports coupe, very advance in design and sporting a bob-tailed design that many years later seemed to be resurrected in the profile of the Honda Civic CRX.

I stopped to investigate and as I might have guessed, the car was a Saab but a very special model, one that I'd never seen. It was a Sonett II, a tiny performance car built to capitalize on the successes that Saab had enjoyed in international rallying.

In the years just after World War II, rallying enjoyed a boom period in Europe. These rallies were (and still are) grueling events that started from several European towns, ran several thousand miles across many international boundaries and finish in a single, central metropolitan city. The Monte Carlo Rally is perhaps the most famous, being held in winter and ending at that famous casino in Monaco. The rallies were restricted to more-or-less standard, production line cars that could be slightly modified for the event. Because of this restriction and the fact that they weren't out-and-out speed runs, small manufacturers like Sunbeam of England and Simca of France could field teams and be on an equal footing with the auto giants of the day.

Saab (an aviation manufacturing company) was one of those auto makers and enjoyed great success in rallying due in part to the fact that its cars had been designed and built for the severe Swedish winter climate and were well balanced for driving in snow, ice and rain. It's other secret to success was its premiere driver, Eric Carlsson. The hulking Carlsson (six foot-four inches and 250 pounds) won dozens of events for Saab during his career.

Nineteen fifty was the first year of auto making for the Swedish aircraft maker and its car was unusual several ways. It sported front-wheel-drive, unit body construction and a two-cylinder, two stroke engine that was commonly referred to by enthusiasts as a "popcorn popper" due to its distinctive exhaust note. This unusual engine/drive train design was the result of the fact that Gunner Ljungstrom, Chief Engineer for Saab in the late '40s, felt that the pre-war German DKW sedan was the most advanced small car design of its day. The DKW used a small two-stroke engine and front-wheel drive and Ljungstrom determined that the first production Saab, the model 92, used the same configuration. Even with a minuscule 25 horsepower, the Saab 92 performed very well.

But not well enough for international rallying and the 92 was soon replaced by the model 93 and then the 96. Both had one more cylinder and the horsepower was more than doubled. It was in these cars that Carlsson gained his international reputation in the late '50s and '60s.

But all of the early Saab sedans had one major drawback from the promotional standpoint: they were homely in the extreme. Th counter this, Saab made six promotional "concept" open two-seater racers in 1956 and dubbed them Sonetts. They were a great success on the European car show circuit but the original Sonett design was never intended to be production models due its unsuitableness. Open cars in Swedish sub-arctic climate would never be a best sell.

And so in 1966, Saab developed the Sonett II, a hardtop fastback coupe that was powered by same engine and powertrain as Carlsson's rally winners. They too were an immediate international hit but Saab elected to go into a low-volume production mode on the car and nearly 2000 of them were made.

And then in 1968 Saab made a production move that would set the tenor of its powertrain selection that would carry on for several decades. It abandoned its proclivity for the two-stroke system and opted for four-stroke V4 engines built by Ford of Germany. Being more conventional, it made the Saab 96 more acceptable outside of the European market. The Sonett II coupe followed it's less glamorous sister and carried the same V4 power plant from then on. It was one of these Swedish/German hybrids that I saw in front of Rune Svensson's shop in Berkeley.

By 1970, the Sonett II design was becoming dated and the company employed Italian designer Sergio Coggiola the redesign the car with a lower, smoother nose and a more contemporary rear design. It was labeled the Sonett III and although it didn't enjoy a massive production run, Saab nonetheless made over 8000 of them before ending its manufacture in 1974.

Any of the Saab Sonetts are collector cars and several of them still make the rounds on the amateur concours circuits. Two V4-powered version appeared in a recent edition of Hemmings Motor News in the $4000 to $5000 range. I thought it to be very reasonable for such rare cars.

I just wonder if either of them are that Sonett I saw in Berkeley 30 years ago.