In the spring of 1974 Jerry Kessler began shopping for a new car. The young man looked over all the sports cars offered by the various automobile manufacturers. “Some fancy sports cars were selling for $27,000,” he remembers.
Then Kessler saw a Saab advertisement that stated, “The world’s most expensive sports cars probably don’t give you things like front wheel drive, a built-in roll bar, and an aerodynamically designed fiberglass body with one of the lowest drag factors of any production car in the world.”
Kessler was sold. He drove to the nearest Saab dealership, which was located in Watertown, Mass., where a new Baja Red Saab Sonett was on the showroom floor with a base price of $4,900.
Italian stylist Sergio Coggiola had created a car Kessler could not ignore. In May 1974 he took possession of one of the 1,596 Sonett models manufactured that model year. He recalls the total he paid for the Saab was $5,200.
Before driving his new sports car home to North Andover, Mass., he had the optional dealer-installed sunroof cut into the roof of his new Saab Sonett.
Beneath the bonnet of the Sonett is a 1.7-liter four-cylinder 65-horsepower engine that was designed by Ford. Kessler says the top speed is claimed to be 100 mph, despite a 120-mph speedometer. Adjacent to the speedometer is a 7,000 rpm tachometer with a redline of 5,500 rpm.
Kessler reports that the engine in the 1,830-pound, 13-foot, 4-inch-long fiberglass-bodied car drinks from a 15.6-gallon fuel tank and delivers a respectable 32 miles per gallon. His Saab rolls on 15-inch tires. He says the 1974 Sonett is the only sports car with freewheeling.
Freewheeling provides better gas mileage at the expense of increased brake wear. “There is a lever under the accelerator that allows the operator the option to use or not use freewheeling. I have always kept the car in freewheeling because I feel that there is less wear on the engine,” Kessler says.
The Saab has been described as “primitive.” Each beige seat is equipped with a manual lumbar slide bar. The seats have three-point safety belts and a warning light on the dashboard that illuminates to alert occupants who have neglected to buckle their seat belts.
Also on the dashboard is a — new at the time — switch to activate the hazard lights. A rheostat controls lights behind the dashboard instruments.
From the floor sprouts a gearshift lever that operates the four-speed manual transmission. The reverse gear is engaged by pulling the lever all the way to the left and then back toward the rear of the car.
The principal change Kessler has made to his car is when he replaced the dual exhaust system with a single exhaust pipe. Kessler has replaced the radiator but other than that he reports that his Saab has been relatively maintenance-fee. Kessler says he does wax the Saab Sonett twice a year.
When Kessler purchased the Saab it was his daily driver, until recent years but he says, “I try to drive it at least twice a week. I don’t baby it.”
The longest trip to date that Kessler has made in his Saab was from North Andover to Baltimore, Md. He proudly proclaims the lengthy trip was made on one tank of gasoline to Baltimore and another tank of gasoline on the return trip.
The only disadvantage to owning the Saab, Kessler says, is that it takes a lot of time to refuel. That’s because passersby always want to ask lots of questions about the unique little car whenever he stops at a service station to refuel. Regardless, he admits, the 37-year ownership experience has been fun. — Vern Parker
Copyright, Motor Matters, 2010