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How To Buy a Sonett
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How-To:  How to Buy a Sonett
Jim Williams

"I've never even seen a Sonett, except in pictures. I like what I see, but I know there is much more to an older car than looks.  What can I expect?  What should I look for when I go see the car, if I do?"

I thought I'd reply to this, since a couple of years ago I too went through the exercise of buying a 1974 Sonett as my sorta-first "vintage" Saab.   I say "sorta" because years before I had owned a string of 96s (very similar to the Sonett underneath) but that was long enough ago that they were considered just weird cars... not old, weird cars.

Here are some tentative thoughts, based on what I found out and what I wish I'd known:

HOW WILL IT DRIVE?

One thing you've gotta keep in mind from the start:  Saab already had a competition-proven sports sedan in the 96.  It designed the Sonett not so much for better performance, as for people who wanted their driving experience to be packed full of the the unfiltered, fully-caffeinated "flavor of car."  This is a polite way of saying that compared to a modern car -- or even the commodious 96 -- a Sonett is loud, rough, crude and Spartan.  Luxury, sophistication and elegance are all qualities that are conspicuously absent from the interior. The seats are hard and don't have a tilt adjustment; the dash is bare, black, unpadded fiberglass; the interior is cramped (although thanks to the front drive there's lots of legroom by sports-car standards) and with NO power assist on ANYTHING, the brakes take a strong leg and the steering is heavy when parking.

What does that all mean to the Sonett driver? 

Well, when I first drove one, I was struck immediately by how physically painful it was to drive this car:  my butt hurt and my arms stung and my ears rang.  But worst of all was the ache in my cheek muscles -- caused by the big, stupid grin that I couldn't get off my face. I wouldn't want to drive such a "full-flavored" car ALL the time... but in small doses it sure is fun!

WILL IT BE RELIABLE?

On the one hand, a 1974 Sonett (last year of Sonett) it's new enough that it more or less qualifies as a "modern" car -- it has (if still in original condition) such modern-car features as emission controls, sealed ball joints, shoulder belts, radial tires, etc. And because it was based on a high-volume conventional sedan (the Saab 96) the underlying engineering and design are basically sound -- you're with something that was designed to be practical and reliable, not a squirrelly Italian exotic or homebrew British "Etceterini."

You can enhance its maintainability even further by some simple additions (e.g. replacing the ignition points with a Pertronix Ignitor) and subtractions (e.g. converting the water-heated automatic choke to a manual choke); the previous owner may have done some or most of these already.  Thanks to experience (and the Internet) we've also learned a lot more about keeping them going than was available back in my 96-driving days: for example, we now know that it is NOT a good idea to "quiet down" a noisy transaxle by filling it with heavier gear oil (the bearings inside depend on lubricant being flung off the gears -- anything much thicker than the recommended SAE80 EP won't get flung far enough, ruining the bearings.)  All this means that keeping a 1974 Sonett isn't nearly as effort-intensive an experience as resurrecting and keeping, say, a 1964 two-stroke 96.   Car design and materials really made a lot of progress in those 10 years.   IF the Sonett is in good shape now and has been well-maintained, it should be almost as reliable as a "regular" car: typically it'll start whenever you want to go for a drive, won't leave you stranded, and won't require any driving skills outside of what you need to handle a regular car.

On the other hand, these cars are now old enough that even with a good one, you WILL have to spend more time on maintenance than you would with a current car: you've gotta change the engine oil and transaxle oil religiously, keep the valve clearances and rear brakes adjusted, etc.  And even if the car is basically sound, you'll always spend a certain amount of time chasing minor problems that crop up: electrical stuff not working (common on the Sonett because the fiberglass body can't be used as a ground, so everything needs TWO wires instead of the usual one); small bits breaking, etc.

And because the Sonett is now more than 25 years old, was uncommon to begin with (production never exceeded 2,500 per year) and doesn't have a big collector following, you'll find it a challenge to run down some parts that would be routine on most other cars. It's not like owning a Model A or an old muscle car, where legions of devoted enthusiasts have inspired aftermarket suppliers to remanufacture just about every part you could possibly need.  Even though most of the chassis stuff was shared with the more-common 96 and the engine is a German Ford unit (also widely used in the US as an industrial engine) you can't expect to just walk into an auto-parts store on Saturday afternoon and pick up such seemingly-mundane items as gaskets and filters... at least not without a certain amount of effort and knowledge about what can be substituted for what.  

Again, the Internet in general and this list in particular are real life-savers when it comes to tracking down hard-to-find items, and it's surprising how much you can still order from the parts department of a cooperative Saab dealer (if you can find one that IS cooperative.) But if you're looking for a sports car with a readily available supply of parts and service, do yourself a big favor and buy a Miata instead.

AM I JUST DREAMING?

It's certainly a lifestyle adjustment compared to owning just a regular current-model car.  On the other hand, I've been pleasantly surprised with how practical my Sonett has been as a "hobby car": there's always something that could use doing when I get the urge for some garage therapy, and on the other hand it doesn't require constant fussing when I'd rather just get in and go for a drive.

That's assuming you get a car that's already running well and basically sound. If it's not, you're in for major work, made more annoying by the difficulty of finding parts. What I think is the one crucial piece of advice is to know what you want: Do you want your car to be a "driver" that just requires some tinkering occasionally, or do you want a challenging "project" that you can take apart, refresh, and put back together?  A Sonett can fill either of these needs, but make sure you don't buy a "project" car when what you really wanted was a "driver" car!

WHAT SHOULD I LOOK FOR?

First, the basic stuff you'd check on any older car:

Remember that body parts, trim bits and glass are hard to get.  A missing front bumper is often a tip-off that the car's been hit on the front corner -- the bumper mounts get bent and the bumper won't sit straight, so the owner just takes it off.  This isn't necessarily bad in itself -- the '74 bumpers are the original Ugly Stick -- but should be a cue to look underneath for unrepaired structural damage.

  • Does it start, run and drive OK?  
  • Are there any strange noises?  

It's not uncommon for a high-mileage transaxle to whine a bit, but it shouldn't be loud enough to drown out conversation.  

If the car has been driven regularly these things should all be fairly acceptable; a car that's sat for a long time might be squirrellier and it'll be hard to tell whether it's just because it hasn't been driven lately or because there's a more serious problem.  Personally, I feel that "sitters" are good for project cars, but if you want a "driver" car you're better off with one that's been driven regularly.

Once you've been through the regular-car stuff, start checking for that four-letter word that's the bane of every vintage Saab : RUST.  This can be especially deceptive on a Sonett, since the fiberglass body can look great even though the Rust Trolls have practically devoured the chassis.  And since this is a stressed-platform car rather than one with separate frame rails and sheet metal, serious rust anywhere weakens the whole structure.  

Rather than trying to tell you where rust is bad, it's easier to tell you where it's NOT so bad: small rust holes in the flat floor sections of the passenger compartment don't seem to be too serious.  This often happens when snowy shoes track in water, which soaks into the carpets, which eventually rust the floor.  Naturally it's better if you DON'T have this kind of rust, but at least if you do it's not too hard to weld in patches.  

Any other rust is bad: along the rocker panels (which provide much of the stiffness of the chassis), the joints in the passenger-compartment floor and the transverse stiffener that runs across it, the area in front of the center mount of the rear-axle tube, the tops of the spring towers and shock mounts, etc. Surface rust -- the kind you can clean off with a wire brush -- isn't a problem; but structural rust is bad news because these are the areas that bear the load of the car.

Of course you can fix these areas too -- it could be a lot of fun if you really enjoy welding -- but unless you really want a restoration project, you probably DON'T want a car that would require thousands of dollars worth of metal fabrication before you can even drive it safely.  Spend a lot of time crawling around under the car with a flashlight, checking under the carpet (you can remove the seats by sliding them forward off their tracks, then lift the carpet out), poking with a screwdriver, etc., to make sure you're not getting one that will need more metalwork than you want to tackle.

My last piece of advice would be to remember that even though Sonetts are fairly scarce, this will NOT be your only chance of a lifetime to buy one; they come on the market regularly (watch the classifieds on the various Saab websites) and even pretty nice ones are surprisingly inexpensive compared to old Porsches, Austin-Healy's, Alfas, and other more "pedigreed" sports cars. In other words, you can afford to be a bit choosy: if you're not quite comfortable with the condition, history or price of one particular example, you might want to pass and keep looking for a better one.

A lot to think about, I know, but I hope it helps...

Jim Williams, 12/00


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Last modified: February 29, 2016