Saab On The Brink: Mr. Smith Sonett Goes To Washington Motown

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Today, Saab's Swedish board voted to liquidate the brand. No telling if Trollhättan will quirk again, but shortly after everything went to pot, we took a 1972 Saab Sonett to GM's headquarters. Perspective? Yup. Also, that freewheeling clutch is weird.


As 2009 wound down, we got antsy. The nation seemed to be climbing out of the world's dumpster, brushing itself off and getting back to the business of not going to hell in a handbasket. Things seemed better. Stuff seemed stable. And then, suddenly, Saab was given the axe.

Figures, doesn't it? The world works in mysterious ways, and as far as we can tell, if life is easy, that just means you're sitting on your ass. By extension, watching Saab die from afar — Jalopnik's West Coast bureau, where Murilee and I are based, is in San Francisco — just seemed too simple. It lacked a human connection. And so I hopped on a plane and headed for Detroit.

A few weeks before Saab History organized its valiant protest, we dug up the '72 Saab Sonett you see here.


It belongs to Derek Berk, a dyed-in-the-wool Saabophile and kick-ass rock drummer. (Incidentally, Derek is the brother of Brett Berk, Vanity Fair's wholly entertaining, freak-and-a-half car columnist.) It is an unrestored survivor, and it shares a driveway with a handful of equally hairy-eared Saab 900s.


As Saabs go, the Sonett is a weird one. Trollhättan's only real sports car — no back seat and a light-makes-might ethos — bears little resemblance to other early Saabs, and it was effectively an orphan on the day it was born. Slow sales did it no favors, and with the exception of a small band of twitterpated crazies, it remains largely unloved. Predictably, Sonetts tend to inspire fanaticism, so much so that even old-school Saab dudes — remember, these are people who believe that adding oil to a gas tank is normal — see Sonett people as odd.

That odd, however, has some cool roots. The first Sonett was a homespun, mid-engine rollerskate built in a barn outside Trollhättan in 1955. It was a 1300-pound parts-bin special assembled by a few crazy Saab engineers in their off-hours, and its basic recipe — a mid-mounted, two-stroke three-cylinder; front-wheel drive; and a fiberglass body — seemed like some strange, gravlax-fueled prank. (The name came from the Swedish phrase "så nätt den är," which translates to "so neat they are." Bork.) Only six were built.


The second Sonett, and the template for Derek Berk's car, was introduced in 1966. It was known internally as the 97, it looked like a real car, and it sported a built-in roll bar. Its two-stroke, 60-hp three was attached to a column-shifted four-speed with a freewheeling clutch. Like all Saabs of the period, it was front-wheel drive. With the exception of a switch to Ford V-4 power in 1967 (emissions regs killed the two-stroke) and a mild redesign in 1970, the Sonett continued largely unchanged until its death in 1974. By modern sales standards, it was a big, stinky ball of Fail.


Regardless, Derek Berk doesn't care. Berk is a laid-back dude of the highest order, and Saabs make him grin. He was driving his band's van when he bought his first Saab, a slightly tatty 900. ("My girlfriend," he says, "needed a car, and I just asked myself, ‘What can we get for less than two grand that's old and weird?'") The Sonett popped up on Craigslist two years ago. "I don't think I've ever washed it," he says. "I kind of like it that way."

Berk is our kind of guy.

Ready for a surprise? The Sonett's V-4 is funky. It doesn't make any torque down low, it isn't really interested in revving, and it sounds like a mildly irritated lawnmower. The floors vibrate, and in spite of the tiny 165-section tires, the steering is shoulder-effort heavy at speed. The shift linkage feels like early Porsche 911 as filtered through a bucket of umbrellas. And when you let off the throttle, the on-off freewheeling clutch disengages, dropping the engine back to idle. It's like some giant, invisible hand is helping you shift.


The whole package seems gloriously foreign; like most early Saabs, the Sonett feels like what you would build if you had never seen a car before. Neat backyard touches are everywhere: Tool-shed door locks with flip-up caps. A coolant tank that doubles as a strut brace. The bumper-sticker-sized "Sonett III" badge on the dash that charmingly insists THIS IS WHAT I AM I AM A REAL CAR SEE I HAVE A BADGE DON'T ARGUE. The whole thing feels accidental, as if a bunch of Swedes randomly assembled some parts and woke up the next morning, hung over, to find that they had produced real transportation.


Half-assed? Not really. In a lot of ways, the Sonett is an argument for and against Saab's modern relevance. It is Swedish quirk at full tilt, rolling proof that sticking to your principles often means sucking a fat one in the showroom. It's a pleasant reminder that once, mass-produced machinery could come out of left field and smack you silly with its weirdness. And while the Sonett is a terrible car by modern measure, it also oozes enough goofy continental charm that you don't really care.

That, then, is what we'll miss if Saab dies. As a business case — different not for the sake of being different but because you believe it to be right — Saab doesn't really make sense. Modern cars follow a pattern for a reason, and stepping outside of that pattern often does little but burn money and time. Still, someone needs to try. The Sonett may feel like an orphan, but we can't help thinking that we'd all be better off if it didn't turn into one.

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