Swedish Crime: The genesis of the Saab Sonnet II

A Swedish star designer who could and should not deliver. An inexperienced designer who had never brought a car to production. A management that disregards the recommendation of the technicians. This is the story of Sonnet II. A Saab tragedy in several acts. Curtain on!

Saab Sonnet II, Saab Sonnet III and Catharina in the Saab Museum
Saab Sonnet II, Saab Sonnet III and Catharina in the Saab Museum

We are in the 60s of the last century: At the urging of the US market, Saab management is looking for a small, lightweight sports car. Saab in-house designer Sixten Sason was commissioned in 1963 to develop a prototype that was to be built in series at ASJ in Katrineholm. Strict cost management was part of the specifications. As many parts as possible from series production should be taken over from the Saab 96.

Sason, who worked in parallel on the Saab 99, wanted to use a large, curved windshield for the sports car project. Just as we know them from the Saab 99 and Saab 900 and how it has become a piece of Saab DNA. Instead, he had to use the straight and small windscreen of the Saab 96 and also the underbody of this model.

The solid, provided in the specifications overroll, led Sason logically to construct the sports car with a Targa roof. Saab would have anticipated the Targa idea presented by Porsche in September 1965.

Designer legend Sixten Sason, who had designed all Saab models so far, was a professional, and he knew that financial issues sometimes have to submit to creative desires. At the time, he was not aware that compliance with regulations did not always pay off. The work went well, in the fall 1964 a 1: 1 model was created. In January 1965 approached the prototype, called Catherina, of perfection.

The alternative design ...

Then the shock. Shortly before the board presentation at 09. February appeared on Swedish television, a second sports car design. Drawn by designer Björn Karlström, who had only once worked on automotive design during his career. In the 50 years, a small car had been signed as part of the Norrlands Fund, a labor market project for the promotion of structurally weak regions. Which was not built. The lack of experience of Karlström should later be the subject.

Catherina of Sason and the Saab Sonett family in the Saab Museum
Catherina of Sason and the Saab Sonett family in the Saab Museum

The design was built by MFI, Malmö Flygindustri, who hoped for the production order. For mass production should not take place in Trollhättan for capacity reasons and be awarded to an external company.

A comparison of both designs ...

In the first days of 1965, Saab technicians tested both designs. The MFI design by Karlström was smaller, lighter, but also more spartan than the more comfortable and better equipped Catherina model by Sixten Sason. The test drivers unanimously agreed that the Catherina had better handling and market opportunities and made a recommendation for Sason's design.

The board decides ...

Despite this vote, the board decided against the design of the house designer and with a strange reason. The weight of the Catherina is too high, 40 kilograms more compared to Karlströms design, and the windows are too small. It was overlooked that Sason had only kept to the specifications and had used the window elements from the Saab 96. Although ASJ, Sixten Sason and Björn Envall retaliated and presented a new design, Saab remained at the conclusion. On the one hand, on the one hand, and on the other hand, because a compromise had been found with both companies interested in production.

The MFI design went into series production, but was built by ASJ in the Arlöv factory and MFI was only a supplier. At the same time, the project was renamed Saab 97 Sonett. Another hit for Sixten Sason, because he had invented the name "Sonett" 20 years earlier. Now a project that wasn't his own got his name.

Hard criticism of the sonnet ...

For the Saab management, it should take revenge on having relied on a newcomer. The auto press didn’t leave the sonnet good. In the autumn of 1968 the American magazine "Road & Track" wrote:

"The design evokes tears of despair and resignation from every expert. The gruesome lines are a real tragedy, mainly because Saab had the opportunity to produce something completely different. The basic concept - somewhat bold and provocative - is correct, while the processing and finishing of the plastic body are even excellent. But every single detail - and a single inspection of the car brings at least 80 to the surface - indicates that the designer is naive, insensitive, unimaginative and unable to deliver a consistently persistent design. Every single component of the car appears glued, screwed on or riveted, as if it were growing out of the basic shape or carved. There is not a single conscious attempt to insert a single part into the whole."

Saab felt the risk that one takes if one does not rely on an experienced designer with a feeling for form, material and function. In honor of Karlström's rescue, it must be said that he was not responsible for the subsequent bulge on the V4 bonnet, nor for the air outlet openings. He protested against both changes - unsuccessfully.

The American buyers, the main target group for the Saab 97, stayed away from the Sonett. They interpreted the little athlete as a cheap kit car from the British Isles. The sonnet never reached the intended number of pieces. Originally, they wanted to produce 1.500 sonnets a year, but they couldn't get anywhere near this number. That despite the recognized good driving characteristics. Because if you looked over the design and drove the sonnet, it became a sonata.

Catherina missed the opportunity
Catherina missed the opportunity

A lost chance for Saab? Probably. Sixten Sason, the great designer, left 1967 and thus far too early this world. He had shaped Saab Design from the beginning, right up to the present day. Even now after 45 years, we find its design language on almost every Saab. The shell-shaped bonnet, introduced on the Saab 99, can also be found on the Saab 900, Saab 9-5 and the Saab 9-3 II facelift model. The hockey stick, a Saab design feature and the large, rounded windshield live in many cars from Trollhättan. More recognition for a life's work is not possible.

Björn Carlström continued to design aircraft and also worked for Scania in truck design. He made a name for himself in his long career as a comic artist for the Svenska Dagbladet. 2006 he put the pen out of the hand forever.

In the museum, the unfortunate Catherina, Sason's design, and the sonnets stand peacefully together. Much time has passed, and hardly anyone knows the drama about the creation of the sonnet today. The Catherina greets the visitor when he steps through the glass door and - yes - the Catherina is the missed opportunity.

Porsche caused a sensation with the Targa that Saab could have occupied the segment in front of Porsche. The Targa is part of the Swabian brand's success story ... what opportunities would Saab have had? The Catherina is the forgotten beauty. It could have matured into a classic over a long period of time. The sports car history of the brand from Trollhättan would have developed differently. Catherina would have become a cult. And yes - I am a Catherina fan.

Text: tom@saabblog.net

Pictures: tom@saabblog.net



2 thoughts on "Swedish Crime: The genesis of the Saab Sonnet II"

  • blank

    It is now as it was then. Nothing has changed for the gentlemen on the executive board of a car manufacturer. They decide what a design should be. Whether it turns out good or bad for the manufacturer. You saw it at Saab in the 60s. Yesterday, today and tomorrow at Opel, if the gentlemen in Detroit continue to determine it. Just like they had done at Saab since 1993 ...
    By the way, the Japanese are no better, with a few exceptions (Mazda MX 5) if we want to stick to sports cars ...

  • blank

    Hi Tom,

    we are looking forward to your announced news.

    Here is the opinion of my wife and me to the small SAAB sports car from the 60er years:

    "Catherina" has by far the best design - very strange that you couldn't bring yourself to this variant!

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