Saab Sonett sets Bonneville land speed record

I wrote about Bertil’s experience at Bonneville Speed Week last week. Bertil set a new record in the J-PRO class in his two-stroke Saab 96. Bertil wasn’t the only person running a Saab at Bonneville this year. He wasn’t the only guy to set a new land speed record in a Saab, either.

Tom Donney was there, too, with his two-stroke Saab Sonett II. Tom’s name will be familiar to many. He’s collected classic Saabs for years and runs a specialist transmission workshop and vehicle sales operation from his base in Fort Dodge, Iowa. And if you’re good with names, you might remember that Jay Leno bought the Saab 92 in his famed car collection from a guy named Tom Donney. Yeah, same guy.

Tom caught the Bonneville Bug last year, when he went to speed week as an observer and saw a number of Saabs on the salt. Tired of some frustrating outcomes in dirt racing, Tom and his team figured it was time to get their name in the record books. I can highly recommend you read Tom’s 2010 Bonneville background piece, before proceeding on to this year’s run, below.

Tom’s Sonett was running in the J-GT class. Here’s his story, in his own words and pictures.


Bonneville 2011

Our team – myself, Steve Davis and Verlyn Gregerson – set out to break a old records set by Dick Cartron and his team in 1963 & 1964…..and to establish a new Land Speed Record in a two stroke Saab….. Dick set a personal best time of 103.560mph in 1963, and a Land Speed Record 105.453mph in 1964.

We arrived Friday am and began the long task of getting our car, a part 1967/1968 Saab Sonett II, loaded with a 750cc two stroke motor, (our car must run as a 1968 to met the required 500 car production) through the safety inspections so we could run on the Salt Flats. We worked on the car till Sunday afternoon and finally had all in order and made a required “Rookie” run to be sure me and the car was safe for the Salt.

We made two runs Sunday late afternoon that were about 95+ MPH and from there we started to dial in our Saab two stroke.

The current, 2011 Land Speed Record we were chasing was 96.683mph and was bumped to 96.877 on Sunday by a 1959 Deutsch Bonnet named Bone Evil! with a 2 cylinder 750cc motor

We met the owner, Mark Brinker and his crew and we all decided….NOW WE HAVE A RACE! They were a good team from Houston Texas.

On our first run Monday morning we ran a blistering 100.458mph which surpassed the old record of 96.683mph, which landed us with a date with History the next morning for our second “backup” run. At Bonneville you must run “down and back”, on two separate days, then if your average of the two runs exceeds the existing record, you now own a new record.

On Tuesday AM we ran a conservative run of 97.479 to give us the new land speed record of 98.968MPH.

Right: Tom with the new 98mph record…..

But success never sleeps. We quickly swapped out the cylinder head to an experimental one we made with a much higher compression ratio and pealed off a run of 101.653mph later that morning! Back to impound and a new attempt to “bump” our record on Wednesday am.

Wednesday AM we made so more mods and smoked all the old records by going 109.574,mph for a new land speed record of 105.613mph!

More mods and back on the track… run that afternoon gave us a run of 108.671mph! Another recorded beater was in order for Thursday am for our “backup” run.

Thursday AM we ran 106.215mph and said good enough……we now had set the land speed record THREE times! And our last one was 107.443mph.

Right: 109 mph in a two-stroke Sonett…..

We spent the rest of Thursday swapping out playing with a larger “prototype motor” and got up to 112.538mph for a max speed. With that we packed and headed home with our green little Saab and with all the goals we had set out to accomplish.

On a final note, Lots of people came up to me to say they loved the Saab that we had, and Saab as a company, and that they wished Saab well. People always ask me which is the “Best Saab Ever Made”? My answer is always the same…..”the last one off the assembly line!”

Today, as back in 1963 and 1967, Saab makes a great car…..go out and buy one and do what they are meant to do…..BE DRIVEN!”

Thanks for reading…Safe Saab’in,

Tom Donney

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    1. Interesting question.  I have been here for two months straight and don’t plan on being home before mid-late October.  Nothing’s changed on that.

      Here’s a tip: the newspapers don’t dictate the schedules or actions.  They just report and speculate.  The schedules exist within the law and the various players involved will act as required, if required.

      1. I hope you are keeping notes, because these months have been some very special months and it will be interesting to read about them later on.

        And keep writing these interesting articles. 🙂

        1. OK, but I guess after that SAAB has some days to pay the salaries and stop the bankruptcy proceedings, or not?

          1. There will be developments in the coming days.  The legal process dictates that there has to be.  My advice is to wait and see what those developments are.

          2. Of course I will be around waiting! I love SAAB!! But it feels like I waited to long and the outcome doesn’t look so good! 🙁

  1. Tom is a great guy  , always supports the brand and has made a market for himself in the town of Fort Dodge . He also has a lot of the old cars that the people of SAAB have had before they  “passed” . Good to see some news on his adventures ,  Thanks Swade  =) . As a side note yes tommrow I’ll still be fixing SAAB cars but  I do hope that somehow we’ll find a way to keep the parent company going , I may be whistleing in the wind but I’m a hopefull person.
    Dave , Columbus Ohio , USA